PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: October 2017

Australian Army Wargaming Conference

On October 17, Headquarters Forces Command (HQ FORCOMD) held the Australian Army Wargaming Conference at Victoria Barracks, Sydney. Presentations from that conference can now be seen online via The Cove (the Australian Army’s open-access professional development website) and YouTube.

Opening address by MAJGEN Mick Krause.

MAJGEN Krause (himself a hobby wargamer) stresses the importance of genuine competition—something that wargaming can offer. The “essence of tactics,” he suggested, is creativity—but assessment for promotion tends to emphasize binary yes/no, pass/fail measurements. He expressed concern that most wargames currently in use in the Australian Army tend to emphasize attrition, and underrepresent the human factors that shape military outcomes. Consequence, they fail to teach the “very essence of our profession.” Wargaming helps players to visualize tactics and experience some of the cognitive stress of warfare. Wargames need to be realistic, easy to use (if they are to be used, and used repeatedly), and teach good tactics (demonstrating combined arms effects in the battle space).

It’s an excellent and inspiring presentation, and there is useful discussion in the Q&A period too.

LTCOL Nick Bosio on “Johnny, Timmy and Spike” Enhancing Decision Making Through Gaming.”

LTCOL Bosio discussed how wargaming can contribute to decision-making. He focuses on three issues: the breadth of available games, why people game, and how humans make decisions. Drawing upon one typology of player types—”Spike” (who loves to win), “Timmy” (who enjoys the game narrative), and “Johnny” (the contrarian)—he goes on to discuss how gaming can contribute to the development of underlying cognitive skills and heuristics. Gaming against a live opponent may contribute to better cost/benefit analysis. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of why “Timmy” skills are important—namely that campaigns are a “story” of lethal and non-lethal effects that must be combined to alter an opponent’s perceptions and will. Timmy-types may be able to rise above functional specializations to better understand this broader picture.

PAXsim’s very own ISIS CRISIS, now available as part of the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK), gets a mention too.

SGT Tyron Casey introduces the Australian Defence Force Wargaming Association (ADFWGA).

SGT Casey offered an overview of the Australian Defence Force Wargaming Association, which was first established in 2009/10 by military personnel who enjoy (hobby) wargaming. Today it has some 270 members. The ADFWA promotes hobby wargaming as way of developing tactically-relevant skills, organizes events, and raises funds for charity. ADFWA also encourages the chain-of-command to support wargaming activities by their personnel.


I’m not sure if it was mentioned at the conference, but this is probably a good time to also remind any Australian readers that the Connections Oz 2017 wargaming conference will be held on 11-13 December at the University of Melbourne. I was fortunate to attend a couple of years ago, and had a great time.

AFTERSHOCK en français

Although AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis is only available in English, Gilles Deleuze has just posted a very good French translation of the rules to Board Game Geek. Many thanks, Gilles!

This is probably also a good time to thank Bartosz Bolechów for his Polish translation of the rules, first posted to BGG in 2015.

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AFTERSHOCK being played at Peace Direct in London in September 2017 (with a great shot of my back).

Rubel: Wargame rules as intellectual catalysts

Phalanx 50-3The most recent (September 2017) issue of the Military Operations Research Society’s Phalanx contains a thoughtful piece by CAPT Robert (Barney) Rubel on the role that wargame rules and adjudication can play in encouraging—or stifling—creative thought:

One of the more trite phrases one hears today is the injunction to “think out of the box.” The intent of the phrase is to stimulate creative thinking; to come up with ideas that perhaps do not conform to existing frameworks. This, of course, is easier said than done, the attempt to do so being akin to trying to make a list of things you would never think of. There are any number of individual and group techniques that have been developed to facilitate the process of brainstorming, but perhaps overlooked in the literature is the potential for wargame rules to act as catalysts for out-of-the-box thinking.

The subtle, nonintuitive, and perhaps threatening information and ideas that can emanate from a game can be termed “whispers.” Games often produce more information than their designers intended or expected, often equivocal and open to interpretation. When that threatens organizational equities, ears are deadened to the whispers. Game sponsors, players, umpires, and even analysts are almost never objective about their games, so it requires an appreciation of how novel thinking can emerge from a game in order to take the steps necessary to achieve sufficient objectivity to detect the whispers (Rubel 2006).

You’ll find the full piece here.

 

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 12 October 2017

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PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers.

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At War on the Rocks, PAXsims associate editor Ellie Bartels discusses how to incorporate wargaming into a cycle of research to explore future challenges:

What will the future wars look like? Fiction offers a range of answers — some contradictory. Is the priority urban security as depicted in the dystopian sci-fi world of Judge Dredd, or warfare in space shown in the sci-fi series The Expanse? Will advances in autonomy bring robot overlords like the Terminator or help-mates like Tony Stark’s Jarvis? Figuring out what the future may look like — and what concepts and technology we should invest in now to be prepared — is hard. To do it well we need to consider how America might take advantage of different futures. To this end former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff challenged the wargaming community to build a cycle of research to help understand what these paths might be.

But what is the cycle of research? Put simply it’s a process for using multiple tools with different strengths and weaknesses to examine the same problem from many angles, which a range of gamedesigners recommend. Like any other method, games have limitations: They produce a specific type of knowledge that is helpful in answering some questions, but not others. Games cannot be expected to provide a credible prediction of the performance of a new weapon or detailed understanding of the cost of acquiring a platform. However, by using gaming in conjunction with modeling and exercises different types of evidence can be gathered that should yield stronger results.

But what should the cycle look like if it is going to help us understand the future of conflict? Based on my practice as a national security game designer, I’ve found the following five steps can help guide effective follow-on analysis….

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On October 9-10, Foreign Policy magazine, in partnership with the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Harvard University’s Belfer Center, held their latest PeaceGame in Brussels. The topic this time was the conflict in Libya:

[The PeaceGame] brings together leading minds in national security policy, international affairs, academia, business, and media to “game out” how we can achieve peace, using as much creativity and seriousness as is devoted to war games.  In so doing, the PeaceGame seeks to redefine how we think about conflict resolution and the possibility of peace. Bringing the series to Europe for the first time, the 8th edition of the PeaceGame focused on identifying practical solutions to the crisis in Libya – a matter that is of great mutual interest to both Europe and the MENA region. Participants in this PeaceGame explored two scenarios. The first scenario took on implementation of the new Libya Action Plan and the associated internal political and security challenges. The second turned to the broader regional security and humanitarian risks. Within the bounds of their roles, participants sought opportunities for positive change, as well as strategies for mitigating risk and de-escalation. The event was conducted under Chatham House Rule to allow participants to speak with maximum candor and creativity.

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According to the Marine Corps Times, the Marine Corps Commandant wants a sophisticated,  virtual reality “holodeck” to enable fast, sophisticated digital wargaming.

In the future, Marine commanders will be able to conduct large-scale exercises in a holodeck straight out of “Star Trek, The Next Generation,” the Corps’ top general said on Wednesday.

Right now, the Marine Corps uses simulations to train individuals, such as pilots or vehicle drivers, said Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller.

“What I’m looking for is a simulation where a battalion or squadron commander or a regimental or a group commander or a division, wing or MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force] or a corps commander can go in and not have to put thousands of people on the battlespace and in the air and actually get them to do a repetition,” Neller said. “That is going to take some time.”

Simulation capabilities would allow commanders to run scenarios against future threats to gauge what equipment and tactics are most needed to succeed.

Corps officials are looking at what resources would be necessary to have a virtual wargaming facility at Quantico for Marine Corps University students to hold such exercises, Neller said.Neller spoke at the Marine Corps League’s annual Modern Day Marine expo in Quantico, Virginia, where officials said on Tuesday that the Corps plans to increase the number of virtual wargames it holds annually from 11 to 20 over the next three to five years. Those plans could involve building a new center to house the simulation technology.

<p>“In a perfect world, it would be like Jean-Luc Picard in ‘Star Trek,’” Neller said. “I’d walk into the holodeck and I’d go, ’Computer, Battle of Waterloo, 1812, Prussian army, I am in command, simulation — go.’ That’ll be here one day. You and I probably won’t see it. That’s what we need. We need the reps because we can’t afford to make a mistake in the fight.”

Of course, the technology would be remarkable (and probably expensive, slow to adapt, and rapidly dated). An important first step, however, would to promote among junior and senior officers a better understanding of what wargaming can and cannot do, and to emphasize genuinely adaptive and agile human-in-the-loop adversaries with a mandate to challenge and win.

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The Wall Street Journal warned last month that “After Multiple Invasions, the U.S. Army Is Getting Tired of Liberating Atropia.”

“Candidly,” says Lt. Col. Joe Buccino of the 82nd Airborne Division, a veteran of multiple Atropia actions, “having liberated that place four times in 15 months, it is about time we let the Atropians provide security for themselves.”

Atropia’s problem, it seems, is reality. It keeps interfering with an elaborately constructed military-training scenario.

The U.S. Army’s training command in 2012 developed a rich back story for various ersatz countries in its war games. The fictional country of Atropia, according to the playbook, is a pro-western dictatorship. The Army ordered its training centers adopt the scenario.

Soldiers, like Col. Buccino, soon tired of rerunning the same old script. Bigger problems with Atropia arose when some European U.S. allies balked at the idea of propping up faux dictators—even if the blood on their hands was only stage paint.

The U.S., its NATO allies, Russia and other militaries around the world use fictional scenarios to make their military drills more sophisticated. They require soldiers to understand the political environment and motivations of the people they are trying to protect, and defeat.

In Atropia, the problem was maps. The fictional country exists so that Western allies can learn to cooperate. But imaginary national boundaries superimposed onto actual geography stirred friction.

Atropia’s borders roughly coincide with Azerbaijan. Neighboring Limaria, a made-up country, coincides with Armenia. The fake country of Kemalia is roughly equivalent to Turkey. In 2014, Turkey’s top general wrote to the head of U.S. European Command complaining that a historically Turkish town was inside the boundary of Limaria, not Kemalia.

Maps used in war games use the fictional names. PHOTO: U.S. ARMY

“They weren’t fooled by the fake names,” says a U.S. official. “It caused a diplomatic kerfuffle.”

Turkish officials did not comment on the episode.

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Late last month, The Strategy Bridge featured an excellent piece entitled “Wei Qi or Won’t Xi: The Siren Call of Chinese Strategic Culture,” by Lauren Dickey. In it she warns about the dagers of treating Chinese thought as more exotic than it actually is.

To believe, however, that there is a uniqueness to how Chinese strategy knits together ways and means in the pursuit of political ends risks over-complicating the study of Chinese strategic behavior. Indeed, to endeavor to interpret not only how Chinese traditions—such as Sun Tzu’s fortune cookie stratagems—guide decision-making but to further ascertain how individuals at the apex of the Chinese central government are applying such guidance is a formidable, subjective task for which even the most adept Sinologist or strategist is likely under-qualified. Rather than assuming culture alone drives strategic behavior, such studies should be conducted alongside rigorous examinations of the other elements of statecraft.

I was particularly pleased to see her criticize simplistic efforts to link culture and strategic thought through the supposed exemplars of popular national games—something I warned about in PAXsims a few months ago.

Finally, as masters at the game of Go (weiqi), Chinese strategists are purportedly engaged in a protracted war, maximizing their own advantages while considering the long-term outcomes of strategic decisions. This chess-like game traces back to the literati, generals, and statesman from the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD); its objective is, simply, to control territory on the game board through the strategic placement of black or white stones.[15] The successful Go player will engage in moves, posturing, and tests of the opponent’s resolve. As the game continues and the board becomes more layered with pieces, players must simultaneously defend against the adversary on multiple fronts. In other words, the game of Go transforms into a “competition between two nations over multiple interest areas.”[16] To assume that Chinese defense planners were raised playing this strategic board game, and that such formative experiences continue to shape their thinking today, is a precarious assumption at best. Even if true, does an avid Go player—or in a Western context, a diehard Risk or Settlers of Catan gamer—have the operational knowledge or qualifications to translate strategy at the conceptual level of board games into national or military strategy? The impact of such strategic games upon the individual strategist is undoubtedly highly subjective. Thus, if anything is to be garnered from the Chinese tradition of Go and similar games in the West, it should be that the formulation and implementation of strategy and gains of each player are dependent upon the choices of the opponent. Whether one is playing Go, Risk, or Catan, strategic success is created through tactics of deception, coercion, and compellence—concepts which transcend cultural traditions.[17]

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Corbyn Run.

In New Statesman, Julia Rampen examines “How an obscure board game led to Labour’s gamification of power.”

[Shadow chancellor John] McDonnell told the Labour party conference on Tuesday that his economic team would be playing war games to prepare for government, with the help of an academic called Richard Barbrook. Internet sleuths soon tracked down the site Barbrook helped set up, Class Wargames. The site’s main attraction is the video’s subject, Game of War, which was reconstructed ten years ago by group of artists, software developers and political activists from an original developed by a left-wing Marxist theorist, Guy Debord.

Barbrook himself also hints that the Game of War shouldn’t be taken entirely seriously. “That’s an art project we did,” he tells me of the whole Class Wargames site. A political scientist, Barbrook has introduced gamification into the courses he has taught, and it seems like a natural extension to apply similar theories to his work with the Labour party. As well as co-ordinating Labour’s digital manifesto, he was involved in the creation of Corbyn Run, an online game launched during the 2017 general election. In it, the player, using an avatar of Jeremy Corbyn, shakes down bankers in order to collect money for the budget.

Barbrook was at the Labour party conference in part to launch Games for the Many, a pro-Corbyn games website. Launches include an improved version of Corbyn Run – “even Jeremy’s playing it, he thought it was hilarious” – and new works in the pipeline, including the working title of “Tinder for Canvassers”, which Barbrook says was coined by McDonnell himself.

The war games planned for the shadow economics team will not be quite as edgy, with participants seated round a table and asked to make decisions in a variety of situations, which have consequences. Experts will be invited to attend, such as former Bank of England officials. “We’d ideally have the whole shadow cabinet playing,” says Barbrook.

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In a forthcoming article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Miron Lakomy examines “Jihadi Propaganda in the World of Electronic Entertainment.”

This paper argues that video games have become a valid and increasingly significant means of jihadist digital propaganda. “Gaming jihad” has recently shown interesting alterations, mostly due to actions undertaken by the so called Islamic State and its cyber-partisans, which have discovered new ways of using this flexible and immersive medium. Similar to more conventional forms of its online propaganda, which have been imitated by other Islamist terrorist groups for years, the “Caliphate’s” exploitation of electronic entertainment software may be a forerunner for the increased interest of other VEOs in this medium.

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At The Forward, Michael Peck looks at the history of Israel through wargames. UPDATE: Ooops, I hadn’t noticed the date on this (2013). We’ll leave it here anyway.

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Amid the heighten profile of white supremicists, neoNazis, and the “alt-Right” in the United Stated, killing simulating Nazis in videogames has apparently become controversial in some quarters. However, Bethesda—publishers of the forthcoming first person shooter game Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus—have made it clear where they stand.

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PC Gamer takes up the story:

To its credit, Bethesda isn’t trying to soften or backpedal on the message. In fact, Pete Hines, the studio’s vice president of marketing and PR, is doubling down on it. “Wolfenstein has been a decidedly anti-Nazi series since the first release more than 20 years ago. We aren’t going to shy away from what the game is about,” he told GamesIndustry. “We don’t feel it’s a reach for us to say Nazis are bad and un-American, and we’re not worried about being on the right side of history here.”

“[In the game] freeing America is the first step to freeing the world. So the idea of #NoMoreNazis in America is, in fact, what the entire game (and franchise) is about. Our campaign leans into that sentiment, and it unfortunately happens to highlight current events in the real world.”

He clarified that Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus wasn’t developed as a commentary on the current political climate in the US, echoing comments made in August by developer Machinegames. He called it a “pure coincidence” that it’s coming out at a time when Nazis are marching in American streets, but added that it’s “disturbing” that some people find its out-loud anti-Nazi stance to be controversial.

“This is what our game is about. It’s what this franchise has always been about. We aren’t afraid to embrace what BJ stands for and what Wolfenstein represents,” Hines said. “When it comes to Nazis, you can put us down in the ‘against’ column.”

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In August, Jeremy Antley wrote at Real Life about the challenge of modelling global war terrorism and counterterrorism in a boardgame, through the lens of Labyrinth (GMT Games 2010) and its post-Arab Spring update, Labyrinth: The Awakening.

Perhaps most telling is the new card for Jihadi John. It resembles the Jihadist Videos card from the original card set, in that each depicts jihadists staring into the camera, suggesting an intention of using the internet to spread propaganda. But while the Jihadist Videos card is a jihadist event and has imagery, text, and game effect that suggests the videos in question are meant for a predominantly non-Western, Muslim audience, the Jihadi John card — a neutral card — suggests something different. No longer an anonymous/ubiquitous extremist, Jihadi John is depicted as a celebrity, in every grotesque meaning of the word, whose decapitations are tailor-made spectacles for Western audiences.

It is as if the West cannot help but be captivated by the appearance of Jihadi John, even as it finds his actions abhorrent. He cannot be othered, even if his purpose is to clearly demarcate one culture from another, because his YouTube presence calls into question what it means to be other in the first place. His perfect English, his background and upbringing in the birthplace of the modern liberal order, appears to contrast with his avowed beliefs and demonstrates the relative failure of Western modernity to shape and produce its ideal citizens.

Here the streamlined history and simplified ideological reading of the conflict serves only to highlight the murkiness of self-reflection prompted by the desire for verisimilitude. Seeking understanding of Jihadi John in the form of a Labyrinth event card reveals not only the limits of the game’s design but also the limits of board games as a whole as technologies of representation. Successfully addressing the joint issues of playability and verisimilitude makes ideological indoctrination seamlessly pleasurable, but not all subjects — such as the use of technology as depicted in Labyrinth: The Awakening — can transition into simplified ideological forms. When this tension between playability and understanding becomes apparent, as it does with the Jihadi John event card, it upsets the pleasure of play and muddies the otherwise clear view of history the game tries to let players experience.

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Back in July, Russia Today did a review of Putin Strikes (One Small Step, 2016). The review was up to their usual incisive journalistic standards.

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Want to understand how game theory can help explain the emergence of social trust? The Evolution of Trust is a very cool video/game/multimedia presentation by Nicky Case that should help.

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The Irish comedy group Foil Arms and Hog consider what happens when an Englishman plays RISK.

The Orchard: A conflict resolution simulation

Lorenzo Nannetti is a senior analyst at the Italian think tank Il Caffè Geopolitico, a researcher for the Italian branch of the Atlantic Treaty Association, and an analyst for the US thinktank Wikistrat. He is also a PAXsims reader, and sent on this account of his conflict resolution simulation, “The Orchard.”


For fifty years, the countries of Cortia and Appal have been at peace. Between them lies a territory called “the Orchard”, a fertile area rich in water and resources that is vital for both countries’ populations. Neither Cortia nor Appal controls the Orchard. A treaty between them keeps the area neutral and governed through a joint system, so that both countries can enjoy its richness. Everything looked fine, until eight days ago…

This is the beginning briefing of “The Orchard” an international crisis simulation I ran at the Festival Francescano 2017, a Christian-inspirated forum for public debate in Bologna, Italy. This year’s theme being “the future”, I proposed a workshop about “building a peaceful future”, which aimed to explain common errors and pitfalls in preventing international crises and give participants some glimpses about crisis resolution and international negotiations.

The scenario, inspired by negotiation simulations at the Program on Negotiation by Harvard Law School, was created by me and adapted for participants who mostly had no professional background in international relations or related disciplines. I run it two times during the Festival, one on Saturday 23rd September, one on Sunday 24th, with different groups.

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Appalian diplomats strongly stating their refusal to accept a proposed offer. I’m the one standing up. Photo credit: Festival Francescano

Participants were divided into 3 teams: Cortian diplomats, Appalian diplomats and UN mediators. The dispute was fairly standard and straightforward: a precious contested area that one state had occupied and the other tried to reclaim, with widespread destruction threatening to harm both.

As set of instructions different for all factions stated aims, negotiating points, red lines and prejudices. That was the key.

With Cortia and Appal being fictional and players being non-professionals, the crisis was simplified and would have been easy to resolve. But players had to deal with restriction on what they could tell the other side, representing  prejudices and lack of trust, so common in real world. Mediators had more leeway, but they too had indications about what they thought was the best solution, representing their preconception about the conflict. Unfortunately, this solution wasn’t really the best one, as it missed the contenders’ interests. In order to solve the crisis, mediators would have to question their own beliefs and bring the contenders to at least understand the need to consider (even if not necessarily approve) the other point of view as well.

During the game players failed both times and both times the war went on as no satisfactory agreement was reached. But this failure brought the best insight as they had experienced first hand how easy it was to ignore opposing points of view and that even simple questions about the other side intent weren’t considered.

A good debriefing (originally thought to last 30-40 minutes, but which instead lasted almost 1 hour more due to interest) brought out some of the main basic points from crisis resolution: the concept of BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) and the “three tensions” (creating value vs distributing value, empathy vs assertiveness, principals vs agents), with real life examples (North Korea-USA now, Egypt-Israeli negotiation over the Sinai in the late 1970s) being used to show how what they played would transfer to the real world.

During the first game, near the end, two players from Cortia (after asking me for permission) decided negotiations were going nowhere, faked throwing a grenade at the table and said “we attack while negotiations go on to get what we want”! To the astonishment of all other players, both friends and foe. This, too, provided good insight during the debriefing.

I feel crisis simulations like this one are good for training and educational purposes because they put participants (even non-professional ones) into roles they normally don’t fill and let them experience some of the issues and questions they face. This gives a deeper insight on real world dynamics and a better understanding of the decision-making process of “the opposing side” as well as their own. Sceanrios can be made simple or complex depending on which aspects should be taught and the experience of participants. For inexperienced ones, fictional countries are easier to use as they don’t require prior knowledge of real situation. For professional participants, real crises (or fictional ones that mirror real ones more closely) can be used.

Participant numbers are something to keep in mind. Originally thought for max 15 people, I had 21 the first day due to a large group asking to participate at last minute. On the other hand I had 6 participants the second day.  A large group can bring more richness, but without proper space can be hard to manage and some players may feel not involved. The smaller group was easier to handle and if enough referees are available, larger groups could be divided into more parallel games running at once – and then use the opportunity to compare results, strategies, etc. Still, both groups brought interesting discussion during debriefing.

The game was played in the open central square, and people stopped to look at the simulation curious about what we were doing. Some of them stayed for the whole game, including an Italian former Defence Minister (can’t disclose the name) who after the game asked for more info about the methodology used.

Was the workshop a success? I received good feedback, even some days later. One email I received probably summed it up: “I really wanted to thank you again because the workshop spurred a good and rich debate among our group even after the end”.

I feel that when players continue to talk positively about it even later, or continue to discuss the issue because they felt engaged and challenged, probably it’s a good sign.

Lorenzo Nannetti  

Diplomatic challenges in the South China Sea

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On September 20, some of the PAXsims crew (Tom Fisher and I) ran a full-day foreign policy game at the Canadian Foreign Service Institute, exploring economic opportunities and diplomatic challenges in the South China Sea. In many ways, however, the topic and region was a secondary consideration: the primary purpose of the event was to examine how serious games could contribute to both diplomatic training and to foreign policy analysis within Global Affairs Canada and beyond. More than two dozen officials from GAC, the Department of National Defence, and Defence Research and Development Canada took part.

None of this report, nor the game play itself, should be seen in any way as representing the official position of the government of Canada—it was left entirely to us to design and run the game. Instead, the key issue here is one of evaluating gaming methodology.

Game Design

We decided at the outset that we wanted a game that would focus on the regular business of diplomacy, rather than being dominated by major crises or military confrontations. Crisis and warfare is actually easier to model in a game, and it is also much easier to maintain player engagement when participants are focused on blowing each other up. Here, however, we would have long (six month) turns, and many foreign policy initiatives would be mundane things like trade talks, ministerial visits, coast guard patrols, and development initiatives. At the recent Connections UK professional wargaming conference, one panelist had commented that the problem with gaming foreign policy is that “foreign ministries don’t actually do anything.” He was being a little too cynical I think, but was also highlighting that diplomacy is as much or more about cultivating and maintaining long-term relationships as it is about achieving immediate, focused objectives. How could we reflect that in a workable game, one that challenged players to explore ways of gaining a diplomatic edge, advancing national interests, and (to quote the phrase much beloved of middle powers such as Canada) “punch above their weight” in international relations?

As a further complication, I very much wanted trade and investment to be an important part of game play, but in a way that highlighted Western businesses as largely autonomous, profit-seeking entities—actors that are certainly happy to win the support of governments, but are ultimately trying to maximize the return on their investments. As one of my wargaming colleagues noted, we were trying to put an thinking, self-interested E (economic) back into DIME (diplomatic/information/military/economic).

In the end, we decided to use a modified matrix game. Most game components were produced using the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK). A large map in the centre of the room depicted the South China Sea and surrounding area, including various disputed maritime boundaries, key outposts in the Spratly Islands and elsewhere, and major offshore oil resources.

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Seven countries were represented in the game, each played by a three-person team: China, the United States, Japan, Canada, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Each could take one action per turn. However, teams also started with several diplomatic, economic, and military bonuses, represented in this case by cards. A single card could be spent to secure a +1 modifier to a matrix argument (or impose a -1 modifier on someone else’s argument), or multiple cards could be spent to secure an extra action that turn. This is essentially the same system outlined in the MaGCK User Guide (although we used cards rather than tokens), and it has the advantage that it enables flexible and creative gameplay without bogging the game down in complex mechanisms. Players could receive new bonus cards at various points for foreign policy achievements.

In addition to the state actors, we also had one player representing “global (Western) trade and investment,” and another representing “Chinese trade and investment.” Both had a hand of trade and investment cards, each outlining a sector and potential project, the company concerned, and the sorts of factors that would determine its success. The global player’s cards also noted the nationality of the company. These cards were played as matrix actions, and the profitability of the investment was a function of the success of the associated matrix argument. This created an incentive to place investments carefully, and to seek supportive conditions—perhaps local tax breaks, or business reforms, or synergies with other projects, or diplomatic support. We kept a “market share” score to encourage a competitive spirit.

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There was one key difference between the global and Chinese investors, however: the latter were also part of the Chinese team. Certainly, they wanted to make the best business moves possible—but they also were expected to advance foreign policy objectives to a certain degree, including China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy to secure trade routes, markets, and natural resources. This provided an extra instrument to Chinese foreign policy, although at times it also seemed a constraint on effective Chinese overseas investment.

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A final element of the game were the news reports at the start of each turn. This consisted on a major news item (such as commodity price changes, an oil spill in disputed waters, or a destructive typhoon), plus several minor stories. Included with this inject was a reward for effective diplomacy: for example, a bonus to the team that had most strengthened its maritime claims, or which had achieved the greatest diplomatic success last turn.  Where necessary, the group of senior game observers acted as the jury in deciding who should be rewarded and why. The game covered two and a half years, from late 2017 into early 2020—not entirely coincidentally, the years immediately prior to the recent DIRE STRAITS megagame at Connections UK.

One of our biggest worries in all this was the timing. We had seven teams, plus two other players. Nine actors are certainly more than I would usually recommend in a matrix game. To keep everything on time, and to get in a reasonable number of turns (five), we had to keep everyone on a tight schedule: 10 minute turns for China and the US, and 5 minutes for everyone else. Still, that also meant it would take an hour before a team would take its next turn. Would everyone get bored and tune out?

Game Play

As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. The players were superbly engaged—they quickly picked up on the matrix game method, were very active throughout each turn consulting with other teams, and very much embraced their roles.  It was all a lot of fun too.

As noted at the outset of this report, the actual gameplay cannot in any way be seen as representing any sort of official Canadian view of Southeast Asia—the players were all playing as individuals, not officials, and Tom and I were the ones who designed the game. However, it does give a good sense of how varied and interesting the unfolding narrative was. I was particularly impressed with the way all the teams employed the various tools of modern diplomacy to advance their interest.

China slowly extended its influence, largely through economic means. They also significantly enhanced their ability to offer humanitarian assistance in the region, setting up a regional crisis centre—a move intended to also project greater Chinese influence. Although the United States viewed Beijing as an emerging regional competitor, the subtlety of Chinese diplomacy meant that there was little they could do to counter its influence. They fostered good relations with all local countries (especially Malaysia), and at the end of the game (with the Trump Administration facing growing political problems at home) they launched a series of countermeasures against alleged unfair Chinese trading practices. Japan exerted considerable economic influence by virtue of its aid, trade, and investment in the region, as well as its not-inconsiderable military resources. However, they were well aware of the dangers of being too assertive, and generally focused on reassuring others while subtly promoting their own economic interests. Canada had much fewer diplomatic resources to bring to bear, but did well in promoting commercial opportunities and fostering innovative partnerships.

The various ASEAN countries represented the game all pursued rather different strategies, but all were successful in their way. Vietnam engaged in major reform efforts: first a major anti-corruption drive, and later a move to reduce government red tape. This made it an even more attractive destination for foreign investment. While much of that investment was Western, it was open to Chinese investment too, despite its trepidation over Chinese claims in the South China Sea. By contrast, the Philippines undertook few reforms—on the contrary, a tough anti-drug campaign raised growing human rights concerns. However, they were prepared to wheel and deal with anyone, and cultivated the growing power of China as well as traditional ally the United States. Manila and the Hanoi also agreed on a joint fisheries protection regime that was aimed at countering overfishing but which also subtly pressed back against some Chinese maritime claims. Malaysia suffered an ISIS terror attack early in the game, and thereafter took several measures to enhance its security, including deeper intelligence cooperation with the US and further naval modernization (which the US supported too).

Finally, our global and Chinese investors were very active. In the end, the former came out slightly ahead—in part due to a major sale of US armoured vehicles to the Philippines, which turned down an offer of comparable (or even slightly better) Chinese equipment.

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The real proof of concept from this pilot project will be if the participants and observers found it of value. I think it was pretty easy to demonstrate the value of this type of game as an educational and training tool. As a mechanism for policy analysis and development, however, the test is a little harder. The very general topic and long time frame probably didn’t help in that regard—it is easier to show analytical payoffs with a more focused topic, such as with the ISIS CRISIS series of matrix games. Nonetheless, I do think the event clearly demonstrated that games can be used to encourage innovative thinking, challenge conventional wisdoms, crowd-source ideas, anticipate possible responses, explore second and third order effects, and generally approach policy questions from a new and interesting perspective. Certainly, the feedback to date has been very positive.

Australian Army wargaming at The Cove

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In December 2016 the Australian Army launched The Cove, an unclassified professional development network intended to encourage learning, reflection, and discussion:

The Cove is an online professional development network for the Australian Army. It is based on the theory of ‘Connectivism’. Often referred to as a ‘learning theory for the digital age’, connectivism recognises the importance of developing communities of practise to share expertise and enhance continuous learning.

The Cove is designed to connect Defence members together into a professional network, based on their professional interests and/or level of experience. We act as a medium for the sharing of experience and expertise. The Cove includes a variety of videos, podcasts, blogs and academic papers to engage all sorts of learning styles. Some of our content is guided, but most of it is designed to be self-accessed and shared.

When you first visit, you might think the Cove is an Army resource. It isn’t! We like to think of it as a ‘land resource’ focused on fighting in the land domain. As such, it should be as relevant to the RAAF and the RAN if they want to learn about operating on land.

While there is a breadth of information available on the World Wide Web, we have found that our most valuable resource is our own people. The Defence community contains a wealth of knowledge, experience and wisdom that, if shared, can help pave the way for future generations. As with any profession, the ‘Profession of Arms’ is best learnt from those who have gone before. For this reason we encourage all members to contribute their ideas and add their own voice. Active participation is rewarding and can bring about significant change.

The Cove is all about a mature and professional conversation. By using our resources, you agree to adhere to the Cove Charter. It’s simple: adhere to Army’s values. If you can’t do that, you won’t be allowed to take part. To view the Cove Charter and rules for participation, click here.

It is a terrific initiative, and very well done—especially if they can maintain a good pace of posting new content and attracting contributions and content. I’ll be following it regularly in the future.

Review: The Confrontation Analysis Handbook

Review of: John Curry and Mike Young, The Confrontation Analysis Handbook: How to Resolve Confrontations by Eliminating Dilemmas, Innovations in Wargaming series (History of Wargaming Project, 2017). 92pp. £14.95 pb.

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Confrontation analysis an approach to the study of conflict, and the conduct of (largely non-kinetic) operations, first developed by Nigel Howard. It treats such issues as a series of linked confrontations, and offers a structured methodology for understanding and resolving these. In this handy volume, Mike Young and John Curry offer an overview of the technique, and show its application to a range of issues: the Bosnian conflict (1995), the Iranian nuclear program (2000-15), the Eurozone crisis (2011), the Libyan Civil War (2011) and Arab Spring, and future tensions in the South China Sea.

Confrontation analysis appears to be a useful technique for enabling participants to identify differences and disputes between conflicting parties, map out their preference structures and key obstacles, and identify ways of resolving these dilemmas. In this sense it overlaps the categories of both “(war)game” and scenario analysis. A skilled facilitator would appear to be essential, one that not only understands confrontation analysis well, but who can also help participants frame their insights and perspectives in a way in way that fits with the requirements of the technique. Even if one does not fully adapt the approach, it is also easy to see how aspects of it might be used to clarify differences in BOGSAT discussions or as a sort of auxilliary non-kinetic dispute resolution/adjudication method in more kinetic games.

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The approach also be used in conjunction with a deck of MaGCK estimative probability cards when one wishes to quickly canvass a group for their assessment of how likely an action is to succeed.

Experimenting with DIRE STRAITS

As PAXsims readers will know, the recent Connections UK professional wargaming conference featured a large political/military crisis game exploring crisis stability in East and Southeast China: DIRE STRAITS. This is the second time we have held a megagame at Connections UK, and—judging from last year’s survey—they are popular with participants. This year we organized something that addressed a series of near future  (2020) challenges, said against the backdrop of uncertainties in Trump Administration foreign policy and the growing strategic power of China.

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We also conducted an experiment.

Specifically, we decided to use the game to explore the extent to which different analytical teams would reach similar, or different, conclusions about the methodology and substantive findings of the game. If their findings converged, that would provide some evidence that wargaming can generate solid analytical insights. If their findings diverged a great deal, however, that would suggest that wargaming suffers from a possible “eye of the beholder” problem, whereby the interpretation of game findings might be heavily influenced by the subjective views and idiosyncratic characteristics of the analytical team—whether that be training/background/expertise, preexisting views,  or the particular mix of people and personalities involved. The latter finding could have quite important implications, in that game results might have as much to do with who was assessing them and how, as with the actual outcome of the game.

To do this, we formed three analytical teams: TEAM UK (composed of one British defence analyst and one serving RAF officer), TEAM EURO (composed of analysts from the UK, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands), and TEAM USA (composed of three very experienced American wargamers/analysts). Each team were free to move around and act as observers during the games, and had full access to game materials, briefings, player actions and assessments, and could review the record of game events produced during DIRE STRAITS by our media team.

We were well aware at the outset that DIRE STRAITS would be an imperfect analytical game. It was, after all, required to address multiple objectives: to accommodate one hundred or so people, most of whom would not be subject matter experts on the region; to be relatively simple; to be enjoyable; and to make do with the time and physical space assigned to us by the conference organizers. It was also designed on a budget of, well, nothing—the time and materials were all contributed by Jim Wallman and myself. From an experimental perspective, however, the potential shortcomings in the game were actually assets for the experiment, since they represented a number of potential methodological and substantive issues which the analytical teams might focus on. To make it clearer what their major take aways were, we asked each team to provide a list of their top five observations in each or two categories (game methodology, and substantive game findings).

And the results are now in:

All three teams did a very good job, and there is a great deal of insight and useful game design feedback contained within the reports. But what do they suggest about our experimental question? I have a lot more analysis of the findings to undertake, but here is a very quick, initial snapshot.

First, below is a summary of each team’s five main conclusions regarding game methodology. I have coded the results in dark green if there is full agreement across all three teams, light green for substantial agreement, yellow for some agreement, and red for little/no agreement. The latter does not mean that the teams necessarily would disagree on a point, only that it did not appear in the key take-aways of each. I have also summarized each conclusion into a single sentence—in the report, each is a full paragraph or more.

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A Venn diagram gives a graphic sense of the degree of overlap in the team methodological assessments.

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One interesting point of divergence was the teams’ assessment of the White House subgame. TEAM USA had a number of very serious concerns about it. TEAM EURO, on the other hand—while noting the risks of embedding untested subgames in a larger game dynamic—nevertheless concluded that they “found this modelling fairly accurate.” TEAM UK had a somewhat intermediate position: while arguing that the White House subgame should have have been more careful in its depiction of current US political dynamics to avoid the impression of bias, this “obscured the fact that there were actually quite subtle mechanisms in the White House game, and that the results were the effects of political in-fighting and indeed, it could even show the need to “drain the swamp” to get a functional White House.” The various points made by the teams on this issue, and the subtle but important differences between them, will be the subject of a future PAXsims post.

Next, let us compare the three teams’ assessment of the substantive findings of the game. TEAM USA argued that the methodological problems with the game were such that no conclusions could be drawn. TEAM EURO felt that the actions of some teams were unrealistic (largely due to a lack of subject matter expertise and cultural/historical familiarity), but that overall “the overall course of action seemed to stay within reasonable bounds of what can be expected in the multitude of conflicts in the area.” TEAM UK was careful to distinguish between game outcomes that appeared to be intrinsic to the game design, and those that emerged from player interaction and emergent gameplay, and were able to identify several key outcomes among the latter.

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As both the table above and the diagram below indicate, there was much greater divergence here (much of it hinging on assessments of game methodology, player behaviour, or plausibility).

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Again, I want to caution that this is a very quick take on some very rich data and analysis, and I might modify some of my initial impressions upon a deeper dive. However, I do think there is enough here to both underscore the potential value of crisis gaming as an analytical tool, and to sound some fairly loud warning bells about potential interpretive divergence in post-game analysis. At the very least, it suggests the value of using mixed methods to analyze game outcomes, and/or—better yet—a sort of analytical red teaming. If different groups of analysts are asked to draw separate conclusions, and those findings are then compared, convergence can be used as a rough proxy for higher confidence interpretations, while areas of divergence can then be examined in great detail. I am inclined to think, moreover, that producing separate analyses then bringing those together is likely to be more useful than simply combining the groups into a larger analytical team at the outset, since it somewhat reduces the risk that findings are driven by a dominant personality or senior official.

One final point: DIRE STRAITS assigned no fewer than nine analysts to pick apart its methodology, assess the findings in light of those strengths and weaknesses, and we have now published that feedback. Such explicit self-criticism is almost unheard of in think-tank POL/MIL gaming, and far too rare in most professional military wargaming too. Hopefully the willingness of Connections UK to do this will encourage others to as well!

Review: Urban Operations

Urban Operations. Nuts! Publishing, 2017. Designer: Sébastien de Peyret. €75.00.

urban-operations-nuts-publishing.jpgUrban Operations, as its name suggests, is a wargame that explores modern company-sized infantry and combined operations in urban terrain. While published by a commercial wargame publisher for the wargame hobby market, it is also rather more than this. The designer, Lieutenant-Colonel Sébastien de Peyret, has served at the French military academy at St. Cyr (École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr), at the French Army’s urban warfare training centre (Centre d’entrainement aux actions en zone urbaine) and the Centre for Force Employment Doctrine (Centre de doctrine d’emploi des forces). He designed Urban Operations to have a potential educational and training function too.

There is much to like in this game. The components are of extremely high quality. The two two-sided maps can be used to depict a variety of urban terrains, and the system of sight-lines and elevations used in the game system recreate those issues of cover, visibility, dead ground, and kill zones that are all so critical to urban combat. The game contains a large number of scenarios, which can be linked as campaigns: Fulda 1985 (a fictional Warsaw Pact invasion of Germany), Mogadishu 1993 (Operation Restore Hope, including the crash and rescue of Super 61/”Blackhawk Down”), and Four Aces (a collection of conflicts: Kolwezi 1978, Grozny 1999, Basrah 2003, and Fallujah 2004).

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Game components. Picture credit: Nuts! Publishing.

The game system uses blocks to provide for fog of war, whereby the opposing sides units cannot be identified until they fire or are spotted. Dummy blocks add to the uncertainty. Each block depicts a fire team, similar-sized support element, commander, or single vehicle. Information cards indicate the capabilities of various national units, including any special rules. Movement is determined by movement points and terrain values on a hybrid map, with hexes for most areas and zones/rooms for interior movement within buildings. Additional rules provide for higher elevations on roof tops, as well as subterranean movement and fighting in tunnels and sewers. Combat is conducted by comparing firepower factors, so that all firefights become duels of a sort, unless a unit chooses to withdraw. Dice provide some variability, as well as the possibility of critical hits.

The game system combines casualties, morale, and supply into a single system of operational effectiveness. Support units can recover lost operational strength levels (by providing ammunition, first aid, and so forth). Leaders matter, and the clever system of “effect points” used to measure ranges means that command distances are adversely affected by barriers such as walls.

Having played through Kolwezi 1978 scenario (with French paratroops of the 2e REP intervening to rescue European hostages and support Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko against Katangan rebels), I found game play to be smooth and fairly intuitive. The rules could perhaps be a little better written or organized in places. While this is only a medium complexity wargame, wargaming neophytes would find it a bit of a challenge to just pick up and play.

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Members of 3rd Company, 2e REP advance into contact with members of the Front National de Libération du Congo as a sniper provides overwatch from the rooftop. A possible hostage location (marked with a “?”) can be seen in the building across the street.

In terms of the design, it is clear a lot of effort has gone into representing the particular characteristics of modern warfare. Many anti-tank weapons, for example, have back-blast effects that make it impractical to use them within buildings. Mines and IEDs can be employed. Units can create breaches to enter buildings or to provide firing points, although only in certain pre-designated locations. There is even a rule for using the shelter of moving tanks or other armoured vehicles for temporary cover, or climbing onto the roof of a building via the top of a nearby vehicle.

Perhaps most significant at all, the rules address issues of friendly fire and collateral damage in detail. Friendlies in the line of fire stand a good chance of being hit, and you had best remember why short-ranged ambushes are usually L-shaped or linear if you don’t want to kill your own side. Civilians are present on the battlefield, and will respond to events—and die if caught up in the fighting.

The game includes rules for air and artillery support, as well as for anti-aircraft defences. You can even use your ZSU-23-4s in an anti-infantry role in the streets of Grozny, if you wish.

For me the jury is still out on the wisdom of combining so many components of combat performance (casualties, morale, supply) into a single operational effectiveness measure. This is especially true with regard to casualties, given the emphasis placed by many modern combatants on stabilizing the wounded and evacuating them to safety. The rules also create a gain in operational effectiveness each time a unit eliminates another—while this is intended to represent positive morale effects, it sometimes seems as if troops are essentially regenerating previous “damage” by killing stuff. On the plus side, combining these things into a single measure does speed game play, and also underscores that there is a great deal more to unit effectiveness than physical losses alone.

There are a few other tweaks I would have made to the system. For a start, units fight back with their full firepower factors no matter how many times they are attacked, and no matter from how many angles they are fired upon. It might be reasonable to apply a penalty to defensive/return fire when the same unit is attacked from a second or subsequent direction in the same turn—after all, not everyone can be facing everywhere at the same time.  Troop quality affects how easily you lose of operational effectiveness (reflecting the impact of quality on both morale and the use of cover), but has only modest effects on hitting them to begin with. The opportunity fire rules treat any exposed movement as similar, creating little incentive to dash across the street where it is narrow rather than stroll down the middle. I would have liked to have seen far more dummy counters used to simulate the fog of urban war.

There are no rules for multi-story buildings in the rules, nor for building quality (although buildings can be upgraded to fortified). Perhaps my biggest concern was the very limited fire arcs from most buildings. I suspect only a few “apertures” were provided per building to force players to think about line-of-sight and firing arcs, and to encourage them to choose their urban terrain and approaches carefully. On the other hand, in many places buildings typically have multiple windows on all sides. Perhaps this aspect of the design might have been intended to represent the vision-limiting effects of ground-level clutter: vehicles, signs, rubble, and so forth.

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Kolwezi today—and look at all those windows.  (Photo credit here.)

Overall, Urban Operations is a very solid effort at modelling a complex, three-dimensional form of combat in a playable way. The relative simplicity of the game system makes it relatively easy to modify, too—and the special rules for the various scenarios and campaigns demonstrate how this can be done.

Indeed, I’m considering using a modified version of the game to highlight the challenges of protecting urban religious and cultural properties during wartime at a workshop next year. If so, I’ll let you know how it goes!

[Revisions: earlier comment on ZSU-23-4s corrected.]

 

 

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