PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections NL 2017 AAR

PAXsims’s very own Tom Moaut recently attended the Connections Netherlands 2017 professional wargaming conference, and has written up the following report. You’ll also find some slides from the event here, courtesy of Hans Steensma.


 

This year I had the privilege of being invited to the Connections Netherlands conference, which took place on 13 and 14 Nov 17 at Fort 1881 in the Hook of Holland on Day 1 and in the TNO Defence and Security facility in Soesterberg on Day 2. The whole conference was in English for the benefit of international visitors (!).

The custom for Connections NL is to hold their conferences at one of the historic forts that dot the country. Fort 1881 is housed in the former armoured fortress in Hoek van Holland. Originally built in the New Waterway to defend the Rotterdam region, the building dates from 1881. The fortress is of brick construction, featuring over 3km of galleries, passages and stairs, with a complex and sophisticated system for managing the sea water, tides, drinking water and effluent in the depths of the fortification. The fresh water facilities are still operating so well that there are plans to use the 22,000 litres in the reservoir to make their own beer. The fortress is well maintained and the tour we had was fascinating, especially the two dovecotes dedicated to communication with Rotterdam and The Hague.

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The Conference had about 50 international delegates and was sponsored by SAGANET, the Dutch association for simulation and gaming professionals (not to be confused with SAGANet, a science based outreach programme based on the works and ideals of the astronomer Carl Sagan).

The conference was a mix of presentations and live gaming, with the presentations given in one of the larger chambers situated under the position of one of the main batteries, and with the gaming sessions in one of the barrack rooms.

The conference opened with a keynote presentation from Major Tom Mouat, the Directing Staff Officer for Simulation and Modelling from the Defence Academy of the UK. Since that is me, I find it a little awkward to report on my own presentation – but I’ll try! I covered the characteristics of successful wargames while deciding to avoid the trap of trying to define “wargaming”. Most of this was taken from the recently published UK Defence Wargaming Handbook (I must admit to feeling a little strange to actually be quoting “doctrine”, but it is actually useful). I covered a few of the recent initiatives that are a result of efforts to address the UK government decision making shortcomings identified in the Iraq Enquiry, but devoted most of my time to talking about Matrix Games and the evidence for the superiority of group estimation and role-play in predicting the outcome of conflict situations. Since at least some of the organisers were from a scientific research establishment, I felt that it was appropriate…

This was followed by a presentation by Bas Kreuger on the history of wargaming, which included a moment on Rodney, Douglas, Clark and the “breaking of the line” at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782 and some interesting detail on the Dutch Warterlinie defensive works.

Jim Wallman then followed this up with possibly the fastest example of a megagame, by taking all the participants into another room, splitting them up into teams representing the state actors in the contemporary Baltic region and playing a representative turn. This was followed by an explanation of the Dire Straits Megagame played at Connections UK 2017 (and to be played again in late February 2018 at McGill University). This certainly got everyone on their feet, moving around and talking to each other and was a great icebreaker.

Then we had an excellent presentation by Ivo de Nooijer (RU Leiden) on “Lijnenspel”; experiential learning using seminar wargaming, for children of about 11 years old. The game was set in Flatland (an excellent way of avoiding emotional entanglements) and dealt with issues of non-linear communication, refugees, negotiation and small-town politics. I found the insight from the game, that children were concerned that many promises were made in the simulation but few were honoured, and they wanted to know “how adults solved the problem” (!), to be absolutely fascinating. The goals of the game were to demonstrate that team effectiveness is determined by individuals; to focus attention on the “us vs them” debate, to provide an understanding of the role of elections, and of the role of a national government. This looked to be a really interesting game and I look forward to seeing a report about it later.

We then had, what was for me, the most fascinating presentation of the conference: Erik Elgersma (Friesland Campina) giving a presentation about business wargaming. This was a complete revelation as to the level and commitment that the organisation put into the use of wargaming to generate a business advantage. They even include a programme to train successors in order to ensure business continuity and preserve experience and expertise (something sadly lacking in most military communities). The presentation was candid and comprehensive, including detail on strategies tried in the past that didn’t work and what was learned from them. I was quite embarrassed to have to reveal that an organisation making cheese was better organised in wargaming than the British Army.

Diederik Stolk (Goldsworthy Stolk & associates) followed this up with a presentation on rapid wargame development and covering two case studies: The recruiting of students into the Reserve Forces and a training game for senior civil servants and members of the Dutch Parliament. The process, while not necessarily what I would call especially rapid, was refreshing and the products sufficiently different from what I expected, that I was intrigued. The game design looked and felt bespoke to the problem and the audience. The presentation of components, and the delivery of briefing materials and rules as a newspaper, was inspired (and one that I shall exploit!).

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I particularly liked his rule of thumb that a game needs a minimum of 3 playtests to ensure a properly playable game, but a repeatable game to be played with the same audience needs a minimum of 10 playtests. Sadly, the time and resources permitted to the last few wargaming I have been involved with recently did not permit this.

This was followed by an excellent dinner in the Officer Mess building, located outside the fortress.

Following dinner, we played some demonstration games:

  • Baltic Challenge Matrix Game – Tom Mouat/Anja v.d. Hulst
  • Wargaming in the British Army – Jim Wallman
  • MBT (Main Battle Tank), Open Source Intelligence with Wargaming – Swen Stoop
  • Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal – introductory board wargame: Bas Kreuger

On Day 2 we reconvened at the TNO facilities in Soesterberg. This was slightly unfortunate as the mix of participants was mostly different from Day 1 and I think that it might make for a better experience overall to have the conference as a 2-Day event at a single location. Whether this is financially viable or practical, of course, is another question.

The day started off with a presentation specifically on matrix gaming by me, followed up with an introductory Matrix game about a Drug Baron in a fictitious (and deliberate caricature) of a South American state. The game is used for language training in the Defence Language School in the UK and is a useful introduction. I was helped in the session by Jim Wallman offering a slightly different perspective, as someone required to deliver such games as part of his business. This reminded me that I need to watch other people deliver matrix games, in order to gain insights as to how they facilitate the games. For too long I have been the lone de-facto “expert” on matrix games in the UK, and I am only too aware that this limits my professional development. Now that these games are being exploited more widely, I need to take the opportunities to benefit from how others solve issues that arise…

Other players, more experienced in matrix Games, ran through with Anja van der Hulst, the Baltic Challenge game.

This was followed after lunch by a design session.

Jim Wallman ran a session in which resilience was examined through the lens of the different political, police, emergency and social actors in a major container port, when faced with a major problem.

I ran a session in which the participants elected to look at the emerging situation in Catalonia: CatalExit! In the few hours we had, we managed to examine the topic, take an initial look at the actors involved, and then run through a few game turns in order to see if there were any structural flaws. The actors we came up with were essentially the Government of Catalonia, the pro-independence “Catalan Republic”, and the pro-Spanish population in the Catalan Region; mirrored by the Spanish Government, the right-wing Spanish Nationalists and the left wing Spanish Socialists. We also added an additional actor representing Russia, promoting destabilisation and extremism.

The game worked pretty well, highlighting the dangers of extremism and the fragile nature of the political crisis. There appeared to us to be a large number of opportunities for dangerous mistakes that could easily lead to extremist violence. Messaging, timing and communication were all very difficult and open to manipulation by all concerned, especially foreign actors like Russia.

Some statistics: Total attendees: 55: (of which 6 were Female (11%):

  •   Government 15
  •   Business 14
  •   Education/Students 4
  •   Organisation 4
  •   Photographer 1
  •   Others 11

Overall the conference was a great success. The location for Day 1 and the quality of the other speakers was simply excellent. I am very grateful for the invitation to attend and I hope to be able to come back next year!

Tom Moaut

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