The annual Connections UK professional wargaming conference was held at King’s College London on 5-7 September. Three member of the PAXsims team (Tom Mouat, Devin Ellis, and myself) were there.
The first day of the conference included a “Wargaming 101” session for newcomers, but was mainly taken up with the Dire Straits megagame. This involved around 100 participants, and explored near future (2020) crisis stability in Asia in the context of uncertain and unpredictable US policy, and a rising China.
I’ll say much more about that in a future post, but I certainly think it went very well—everyone seem engaged, the game systems held up, and I think the outcomes were, in a broad sense, quite realistic.
You’ll find a BBC news report on the game here, and Bob Cordery’s account of the game (as Central Sector Map Control) here.
The second day of Connections UK began with Graham Longley-Brown outlining the growing popularity of wargaming as a method for education, training, and policy analysis. Evidence of growing attention in the UK includes the recent publication by the Ministry of Defence Development, Concepts, and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) of the Defence Wargaming Handbook. He warned, however, that this trend is fragile. Wargaming is far from institutionalized. Current momentum is maintained by a perilously small group of people. The various Connections conferences provide an opportunity to share ideas and build the community.
The first panel examined UK military tri-service wargaming. Lt Col Nigel Jordan-Barber (British Army) discussed Standing Joint Force Headquarters Group Wargaming. Nigel discussed his own background as a hobby wargamer, and his efforts to use these techniques to train soldiers. He encountered uneven interest and support among more senior officers. At SJFHQ he worked with Dstl on developing wargames. PAXsims, AFTERSHOCK, and matrix wargaming were all mentioned too. Regarding the latter, he discussed the BALTIC CHALLENGE matrix game, NASHE MORE, and a joint theatre entry A2/AD wargame. He also noted a number of issues he had encountered: “last turn madness” (whereby players act unrealistically toward the end of a game in an effort to win, or just make things more exciting); the influence of the map on players; the challenge of articulating risk and effect; the importance of addressing second/third order effects and consequence management; and when to use (or not use) wargaming. He found that real scenarios were much more useful in generating interest across the military and other government departments.
Cdr Matt Payne (Royal Navy Maritime Warfare Centre) talked about “The Green Shoots of Royal Navy Wargaming.” As a non-hobby wargamer, he offered his thoughts on the development of RN wargaming in recent years, noting that much is having to be rebuilt from scratch. Most RN officers have little familiarity with the broad spectrum of (potential) wargaming, and even the term “wargaming” can sometimes attract derisive comments about “playing games.” Heavily-scripted TACEX (tactical exercise) seminar gaming has been used for teaching purposes, but they tend to lack much of a creative, adaptive adversarial challenge. As the profile of wargaming increases, it is important that games be of sufficient quality to impress, and thereby strengthen rather than undermine the approach. He also noted that:
- There is a big jump between being a “gamer” and wargame design.
- Rolling dice to reflect risk and probabilities often raises naval eyebrows, unless to explain the purpose.
- The enemy is too often underestimated or portrayed in a cartoonish way that fails to respect their agility and resourcefulness.
- A culture of wargaming needs to be developed across the Navy, ideally starting with junior officer training.
The MWC has launched two initiatives. Project PROTEUS is aimed at invigorating naval wargaming through a serious of increasingly complex wargames. The games will also contribute to force development analysis. The biggest lesson was the importance of data capture. The Wargame in a Box initiative is a simple and adaptable manual naval wargame. However, when the initial prototype (focusing on the Bab al-Mandab) was sent to ships and other assets across the Navy, there was no response whatsoever—highlighting the problem of receptivity. The game is being further developed to be a more user-friendly flexible rules-based game.
Ed Oates (Royal Navy) discussed “Wargaming in Training: The Road to Recovery,” drawing upon the DSAT (Defence Systems Approach to Training) and training needs assessment. He stressed the importance of clearly identifying the value-added and cost/time-effectiveness of wargaming. The training objectives and learning specifications need to be clear. Trainers need to be effective umpires, facilitators, and adjudicators. Wargamers need to join, and work with, trainers—and make sure that wargaming be seen as a “normal” activity. Umpires and adjudicators need to be trained. There also needs to be military/academic analysis of the learning effects of wargaming.
The final presentation of this session Flt Lt Colin Bell (RAF Air Warfare School) looked at basic air wargaming. Wargaming is underutilized in RAF training. Winged Exile is a basic board wargame to be sent to Air Cadet units that explores air operations and air defence planning, designed to support recruitment, but has broader applicability in revised version to the Basic Air Warfare course. Feedback has been very positive. Colin also discussed a card game he has developed to teach key air warfare concepts, as well as an air mobility game. One key challenge is having the right people in the right places. There also needs to be a spiraled implementation process, with clear training goals.
The entire session was an impressive display of energy, enthusiasm, and innovation, with a great deal of attention to the important issue of understanding both educational objectives and practical challenges. Howard underscored this, as well as the importance of advocacy and developing wargaming competencies.
A short but lively question and answer period followed. From this, and the previous presentations, two thoughts occurred to me.
- The first concerned the inevitable shortcomings and flaws in any wargame, and especially simple and accessible ones. I think it is important to see these as a potential feature rather than a bug: critical reflection on what a game misses or get wrong can be very useful in encouraging participants to think beyond the game.
- A second thought concerned the “safe to fail” environment of wargaming. The point is often made that it is better to lose simulated casualties, or otherwise make mistakes, in a gaming environment where no actual lives are at stake, and from which lessons can be learned. That is undoubtedly true. It is also the case that participants will be reluctant to experiment or be truly innovative if they think that poor wargame performance will affect their course or career progression. For that reason, the usual advice is not assess performance to avoid such a chilling effect on participants. But what happens if game performance generates serious red flags about suitability for deployment or command? I’ve certainly seen performances that have led me to have serious concerns as to whether a player should ever be placed in a conflict environment.
The second plenary session of the day looked at US and UK military and diplomatic wargaming initiatives. Colin Marston (Dstl), who chaired the session, offered some initial comments on the growing official/senior attention to wargaming in the UK. He pointed to a series of forthcoming e-surveys intended to assess UK (and allied) capability and interest in wargaming methods.
The first speaker was Phil Pournelle (Long Term Strategy Group), on “US Ongoing Wargaming Initiatives.” Appropriately enough, he started with a shameless plug for the forthcoming MORS wargaming special meeting (17-19 October). He then went on to discuss recent developments in the US. The March 2016 “practitioners summit” highlighted the lack of master game designers, the need to identify best practices, and the need to integrate wargaming into larger DoD analytic processes. This led to the establishment of the Defense Wargaming Alignment Group, as well as sponsorship of the MORS workshops. The latest (2017) JP 5-0 on Joint Planning contains an updated and expanded definition of wargaming and identification of best practices. He stressed the importance of introductory games to produce novice wargamers, as well as classes and certificate programmes to bring wargamers up to the apprentice level. He also discussed various categories and characteristics of wargames.
Matt Caffrey (US Air Force) took a longer-term view of improving wargaming. Often efforts to assess the utility of a wargame are too narrow: impacts have many causes, and impacts may take decades to become clear. However, wargaming may offer insight into how to gain or expand an edge.
The next presentation looked at gaming in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The speaker suggested that traditional hobby wargames aren’t necessarily the best model for games that explore diplomatic and political issues. There has been interest and even enthusiasm at FCO for gaming, there is also some suspicion. Moreover, staff don’t always have enough time to plan or participate in a game, given other demands. One recent game on presidential succession in an African state was successful, but despite enthusiastic endorsement by the sponsoring Ambassador, there was no take-up from other posts or units in the FCO for similar gaming.
He noted that matrix games are easy to set up, and generate a chain of plausible actions and events. Matrix games do have limits too. There is reluctance to accept an element of stochastically-influenced adjudication (dice!), or even apply notions of probability and uncertainty to diplomatic outcomes. More broadly, FCO lacked resources. Foreign ministries are about relationships and less so about doing things. FCO is not adept at planning. There is also a great deal of displacement activity—action for its own sake. What is needed is a relatively simple game that can address process and intra/inter-governmental dynamics.
Finally, Col George Wilson (DCDC) talked about the new UK Defence Wargaming Handbook. The Handbook outlines fundamentals, types, variants, contexts, and processes of wargaming. It is aimed to educate and improve standards across the British military.
The subsequent discussion addressed cooperation between the public and private sector, and the need to tailor game methodologies to audiences and context. I raised a growing pet peeve, namely the extent to which contracting processes and increasing restrictions on visits to military sites inhibit non-nationals and non-officials from contributing to military wargaming.
The keynote address was provided by Howard Body (MoD), which explored the potential contribution of wargaming to defence strategy. It was an insightful and pithy talk, with a frank assessment of opportunities, constraints, process, and pitfalls.
After lunch the first games fair session was held. During the conference, demonstrations of the following games were available:
- Agricola: The Roman Campaign in Britain, AD 82-84
- Brief Border Wars
- Camberley Kriegsspiel
- Colonial Twilight: the French-Algerian War, 1954-62
- Cyber Strategy Wargame
- Future of Global Salafi Jihad
- HOSPEX Tabletop: A Field Hospital Simulation
- Maillot Jaune
- MaGCK: matrix Game Construction Kit
- RCAT: A Year in Iraq, 2004-05
- Strategic level Decision-Making in Disaster Management
- Winged Exile
I looked on and assisted as Tom Mouat ran a game of A Reckoning of Vultures, from the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK). The game resulted with the revolutionary workers of the National Union of Toilers emerged triumphant—aided, in part, by their seizure of the headquarters of the Ruling Party. The wily head of the Central Security and Intelligence Directory ended up as Vice President, while two generations of Matrixian oligarchs were executed. The scenario is a fictional and rather tongue-in-cheek one, but is intended to demonstrate an array of matrix game techniques.
Tom Mouat facilitates A Reckoning of Vultures from the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK).
Unfortunately, because I was involved in running a game I didn’t have a chance to look around. Fortunately Ivan Seifert did, so here are a few of the other games on display:
After the games fair session was over, Charles Vasey offered a lively presentation on “Unprofessional Wargaming,” exploring what recent developments in hobby wargame design might contribute to serious wargame design. Traditional hex-and-counter wargaming is increasingly being supplanted by the “new New.” This is much more visual. Cards play a larger role in games, which provide a great deal of game information. Much of the “new New” is inspired by Eurogaming. More games are cooperative, where the game system provides the adversary. Quite appropriately, the singled out Brian Train’s innovative approach to gaming, as well as Volko Ruhnke and the GMT COIN series. He also noted the increasing interest in asymmetric conflicts, and issues of both war and peacebuilding/stabilization.
This was followed by Paul Strong talking about what has become a favourite topic of mine—“Wargaming the Atlantic Wart,” and in particular the contribution of the women and men of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit. It was a terrific presentation about a set of heretofore unsung wargaming heroes of WWII.
After dinner a second games fair session was held. This time I ran a near-future Israel-Hizbullah matrix game, which we had designed in July during a game design workshop at Dstl and which had been put together using the Matrix Game Construction Kit. The game saw a lot of tit-for-tat actions (Israeli bombing of major Hizbullah weapons shipments, periodic efforts to assassinate key figures), but not a great deal of investment in innovative capabilities. When a larger war started, Israel launched a quick and limited punitive incursion in the Bint Jbail sector without even waiting for reserve units to fully mobilize, inflicted some casualties, then declared victory and left—just as their US allies endorsed a UN Security Council ceasefire resolution. Hizbullah did unleash heavy rocket attacks on Israel, and followed these up with an effective publicity campaign to shore up domestic support, but otherwise found the Israelis retiring before they could do much else.
Israel-Hizbullah War, a game developed using the Matrix Game Construction Kit. Photo credit: Connections UK.
It was not my best-run game. I had started set-up a little late, and the room was rather crowded. Two of the game roles—that of the Lebanese government and (Lebanese/Israeli) civilians—have much less to do than the primary combatants, and while that might be realistic it is undoubtedly less fun for the players concerned.
There was also an extended discussion with one player as to why the game design allowed Israel to do more than Hizbullah. I argued that this was realistic: the IDF had more capability, had (in our game) chosen to initiate major combat operations and therefore started with the initiative, and could coordinate with the US on ceasefire timing. If Hizbullah launched a surprise war much of this would have been negated, but they had chosen not to do so. My interlocutor seemed to think this was all a little unfair—a general gaming principle which may not apply well to asymmetric conflicts. Nevertheless, having long argued that fun contributes to engagement which contributes to serious game quality, I’m forced by the experience to reflect on situations where accurate modelling of a real world situation may require game dynamics that some find frustrating or less than fully enjoyable.
Day 3 started off with a panel on wargaming in education. Mauro Faina discussed his use of wargaming in Italian high school education. He noted some sensitivity about both games in education, and “war.” He was also frank about less than ideal learning outcomes.
Paul Howarth offered a terrific presentation on “education and wargaming: mutually assured development,” highlighting how his interest in hobby wargaming (especially megagaming) and work as a teacher came together in Story Living Games. Schools are looking for games that promote empathy, resilience, a growth/”I can” mindset, and support for British values (democracy, rule of law, and so forth). Targeting students young creates memorable experiences for a broad cross-section of society, before gender roles are too firmly established. His key recommendations: consider the education context; provide accessible, engaging, relevant link to curriculum; and it is important to engage, train, and empower teachers. Echoing Mauro, he also warned that the “wargame” label can be probably be problematic in an educational context.
Nick Bradbeer (UCL/MoD) discussed the use of wargaming to teach naval architecture, in a presentation cowritten with and David Manley (MoD) . A simple naval ship-building and combat game provided an effective method to teach students about issues of detection, vulnerability, and survivability. Student feedback has been positive.
Richard Barbrook (University of Westminster) offered an overview of his work with the Class Wargames group, examining Guy Debord’s The Game of War. This led to development of a course on political simulations and gaming at the University of Westminster.
The next panel examined “simulating the intangible,” chaired by Aggie Hurst (KCL). Jeff Appleget (NPS)and Rob Burks (NPS) explored modelling human terrain. Interest in this arose from looking at irregular warfare, in which relevant populations, not the enemy’s military capability, may be the primary focus of operations. Their efforts to do so rested heavily on the analysis, approaches and doctrine presented in FM 3-24 (now JP 3-24) on Counterinsurgency.
In her presentation, Anja van der Hulst (TNO) stressed the need to be more systematic about the role of emotion in conflict situations. Matrix gaming and megagaming, she suggested, provide one method for doing so. After discussing the range of relevant emotions, she recounted a somewhat disappointing experience with a Baltic Challenge matrix game, which player behaviour was too reactive. After a more substantive briefing in a subsequent game, and more time to consider strategy, game moves and outcomes were much richer. An analysis of vulnerability showed much more activation of grievances. Participants found that while matrix games were not useful for decision-making, they did significantly improve awareness and understanding. In a second experiment they used gaming to examine political and social polarization.
There was a subsequent question about how to avoid introducing or creating biases among participants. Anja and Jeff noted the different ways in which different groups may approach a problem. Tom Mouat (Defense Academy of the UK) pointed to the value of replication with different sets of participants, noting that when something keeps happening (as in our multiple replays of ISIS Crisis) with different groups of players, one can have greater confidence in the validity and significance of the outcome.
After coffee, Brian Train chaired a session on wargame design and analysis. Jim Wallman and I spoke about megagaming, both in general and regarding Tuesday’s Dire Straits megagame. I presented a comprehensive analysis of the methodological strengths and weraknesses of megagaming:
…while Jim spoke about the design decisions we had made with Dire Straits. Our point was that megagames were well-suited for games in which imperfect information, fog and friction, coalition politics, and background noise were important aspects of the conflict environment, but less well suited for simulating other sorts of situations.
The panel on wargame design and analysis. Picture by Ivan Seifert/KCL.
Erik Nordstrand (Swedish Defence Research Agency/FOI) talked about wargaming in Sweden. Wargaming is well-established in professional military education at the Swedish Defence University. There remains a shortage of experienced wargamers/trainers/facilitators. Most of the gaming at FOI is done in the defence analysis division. FOI operations research analysts embed and rotate within Armed Forces headquarters. The practical consequences of this is that FOI is problem rather than game-oriented, taskings can change quickly, and resources are limited. Most FOI games are seminar games.
Ivanka Barzashka (KCL) talked about ballistic missile defence, with a focus on a game she had run in May. The games objectives included looking at how aerospace defence affected potential nuclear use, and how two variations of US/NATO BMD might affect Russian behavior and outcomes. She described the game in more detail than I can recount here, but one interesting point was the need to balance player engagement and game purpose. Participants (especially senior ones) can become bored with periods of inaction, or with mundane tasks (like form-filling). As noted earlier, this was an issue reflected earlier when running the Israel-Hizbullah game, in which the Israel and Hizbullah teams have much more engaging (and “fun”) roles than do the Lebanon and civilian teams.
After lunch we held breakout sessions, in which subgroups each separately examined a topic chosen from among future scenarios outlined as part of DCDC’s strategic trends programme. This topic was “The High North.” Aspects of this to be considered included:
- Climate change, great accessibility.
- Competing territorial claims.
- Growing economic importance. Natural resource exploitation.
- Environmental concerns.
- NATO cohesion, Denmark-Greenland relations, policy in Iceland.
- Thinning Russian population in Sibera.
- Chinese interest.
- Dispute over Svalbard.
Each group was asked to outline a possible (war)game on the topic. (Groups were also given the choice of considering other topics from the DCDC report Future Operating Environment 2035, but none chose to do so.)
I was in Jim Wallman’s group. We started by discussing the task, and generating ideas. These included, among others:
- portfolio investment and defence procurement
- tactical implications of arctic operations
- resource exploitation
- increased human settlement
- effects of technology assessment
After discussion, these were grouped into three clusters:
- Technology development and portfolio investment.
- Longer-term strategy/resource development/settlement.
- Sub-arctic migration.
We broke into subgroups and developed game ideas around these. We then briefed these back to our subgroup, and selected one to be presented to the plenary session. In our group “Settlers of the Arctic” (idea #2 above) won over “De-terraforming Earth” (idea #3, with a strong environmental component on a generational scale), and our own proposal, “Lockmart” (idea #1, which was a two-part game whereby players/teams first managed portfolio investments, and then were required to deal with crises or challenges based on the portfolio they had developed).
Back in plenary session, the winning game ideas from each group were presented:
- Arctic Goldrush, a game of scrambling for resources (potentially hidden, and possibly in disputed resources).
- High North Survival, a “ladder” game of trying to survive an incident (air crash, etc) given certain resources that you have or find.
- Aurora Borealis, a game pitting an unstable confederacy of indigenous nations against various external actors.
- Settlers of the Arctic, a longer-term area control and access game of resource discovery and exploitation over 50-100 years. The resource endowment of areas would gradually become revealed as the game progresses, and players would be able to make technology investments.
- 2035 megagame, in which multiple stakeholders compete in a future, more conflictual environment.
- Something or other (I missed the title), a game of using money and influence to access arctic resources
- Something else (I’m not sure it had a title), a card-driven game of resource development.
Jim Wallman also gave us an opportunity to briefly present our own game idea.
There were certainly many interesting and innovative game ideas. I was a little concerned, however, that cool game mechanisms sometimes seemed to triumph over purpose or realism/accuracy. Next year it might be a good idea to more fully articulate for the design groups who their intended client is, what the purpose or objectives of the game are, and what constraints there might be (for example, number of participants, available game play time, or physical space).
With that the, the conference came to an end.
It had been a terrific event, and—as with every Connections event I’ve ever attended—I found it both enjoyable and very useful. Quite apart from the panels and gaming, the many tea-breaks provided amble opportunity for casual discussion and networking. I look forward to next year’s conference, which is scheduled for 4-6 September 2018 at KCL.