PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: March 2018

Matrix gaming chaos: the Syria conflict

The following report was contributed by Anja van der Hulst (TNO) and Shai Ginsberg (Duke), with photos by Leo Ching (Duke). None of the opinions expressed here necessarily reflect those of TNO or Duke University.


 

ISIS was expelled from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa and for now has failed to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, but has it been defeated? Will the struggle for the Afrin region open up opportunities for ISIS to re-emerge?

For the second time in five months, we have designed and played a matrix game, exploring the conflict in Syria, at the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University.

Time and again, we are amazed by how powerful the matrix game format is.  The game format is surprisingly easy to explain, which allows us to get right into strategizing and debating outcomes. Also, the Syria conflict is fought with hybrid means: it is as much a war of narratives as of military combats; there is deception, diplomacy, political and economic means, and more.  Besides matrix games, there are very few formats that are both so easy to play and that enable the use of so diverse means, taking advantage of the full spectrum of DIMEFIL (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic, Financial, Intelligence and Law Enforcement).

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This is where the easy part ends. In preparation for the version of last week, we realized how much has changed. In October 2017, we named the game the “ISIS aftermath,” as ISIS was just expelled from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa and we wanted to explore the consequences of its recent defeats. The main question to be answered from this game was how would the parties engaged in the civil war in Syria respond to this development: Would ISIS rise again? Would it attempt to organize a terrorist campaign in Europe? Would there be a major power struggle with Al Qaida? And what about the Kurds, who had played such a major role in the defeat of ISIS? At the time, they just held their referendum for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, and we wondered whether a century-long quest for an independent Kurdistan might finally succeed. We also felt the civil war was winding down somewhat, and thus, our final question was whether there could be a stabilisation of the situation in Syria.

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So much has changed in just five months, and the set of questions we posed last week was entirely different; we even had to rename of the game: we chose the unimaginative name, “the Syria conflict.” In the past 5 months, we have seen twists that have produced more complexity and even more chaos in the region. The Syria conflict was already a proxy war between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia but it is turning more and more into a major power struggle. The U.S.- and Russia backed forces had a common enemy is ISIS, but with ISIS losing ground those actors appear to turn ever more against each other. Interestingly, the US-led coalition started training of a 30,000-strong, Kurdish-led border force in Syria, a move which Turkey said “it could never accept.” Conveniently, Russia removed its forces from the west Syrian Province of Afrin and thus allowed Turkey to attack the Kurds in Afrin. With Turkish forces gaining ground, the Kurds in East Syria and Iraq that were holding positions previously captured from ISIS are now moving to Afrin to support their fellow Kurds. As a result, the US-backed coalition will now be fighting fellow NATO member Turkey and now, as I write this, news comes in that ISIS gangs have began to reappear around many villages in east Syria.

But that wasn’t all, between Oct 2017 and March 2018, Iran became more assertive. Israel, which until now has before a rather low profile in this war (in the October version it was not even a playable actor), now had carried out a ‘major aerial attack’ in Syria, targeting 12 military sites, four of which were said to be Iranian. And just this past week, it finally took responsibility for the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, sending a clear message to Iran, Syria (and possibly Saudi Arabia) about its red lines. Neither side can be expected to back down.

Gaming Syria Oct 2017

Our starting point in the October version was that Assad was winning over rebel forces and ISIS had been marginalised. Back then, there seemed to be open roads that might lead to stabilisation of the current situation. However, our brilliant ISIS-playing syndicate managed to enhance chaos both in the Damascus region and along the Israeli-Syrian border: they kidnapped and murdered an Assad family member and attacked Israeli targets; an Israeli harsh response forced Assad’s counter-measures. In the game, Assad actually attacked Israel and became entangled in a new front, which gave ISIS some opportunities to rise again.

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Our ISIS player on Skype on her way to New York to cheerlead the Duke Blue Devils.

 

Gaming Syria March 2018

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Turkey trying to convince the US, all in vain.

In the March version, as said, we had a totally different starting point. In game, our Russia players worked hard to marginalize the US and EU presence and influence in the region and, ultimately had great success in asserting Russia’s position in its place as the key superpower and powerbroker between the warring parties. The US and the EU’s hesitant manoeuvring and reluctance to use military force—for instance, they backed down on the US support of Kurdish forces in Syria—played into Russia’s hand and made its task easier. In response Turkey, who initially tried to work with the US and the EU, switched its alliance and established much tighter relationship with Russia. Assad, Iran and Hizbollah likewise benefitted from the growing Russian presence in the region (though not to the extent one would imagine), while ISIS attempts to reassert itself all felt flat: its attempts to initiate a terrorist campaign, targeting both Assad and Iranian forces fell short. Ultimately, Russia and Turkey engineered a cease fire to be enforced by, among others, Russian forces on the ground and would formal and internationally legitimate continued Russian presence in Syria. Interestingly, the game made it patently clear to our students how complicated the position of the US-led coalition in Syria is. The Russian success in striking a ceasefire agreement, made US military intervention in Afrin unnecessary (and unwelcomed), solving the dicey issue of pitting US forces against their NATO ally Turkey. It also relieved Kurdish forces in Afrin; Kurdish forces in the East of Syria might now stay put, buttressing their positions against a re-emergent ISIS. Still, condoning an enlarged Russian presence in Syria might create a severe strategic disadvantage to the US in the Middle East.

Insights on learning

How well does gaming contribute to learning? If we wish to make students truly understand the dynamics in the Middle East, a number of insights on learning from such gaming sessions emerge. Students were engaged: it was obvious that they studied hard to master their own role as well as the interests of other players in a regional conflict so complex.  Given its complexity, we’re still amazed how well students manage to strategically act in the shoes of regional actors after just a couple of hours of going through background materials. The resulting debates were fierce and lively, and misconceptions were usually corrected by the group. There were also a lot of laughter, serving as yet another proof that they were both engaged and thoroughly enjoyed participating in such games.  As one of them remarked, “This is so cool, we get to play the real version of dungeons and dragons in class.”

 

Two aspects of the game demand additional consideration. First is that the more introvert students have a hard time participating fully. Roleplay and arguing relies partly on debating skills and here we see large differences in participation. One should remember, however, that matrix games is not only about debates: it also involves havey strategizing, which relies in turn on a deep understanding of the domain and the conflict. Besides improving debating skills, we might work on a division of labour where some students mostly strategize while others debate more. In the comprehensive approach game we played at McGill, syndicates had 4-5 people, and there such division of labour usually emerged.

Second is that the students who played the US and EU found it impossible to pursue tactics and strategies they deemed immoral. Whereas they were well aware of the history of the US military, political and economic engagement with the rest of the world (and in the case of these particular students, in Asia in particular), they still could not bring themselves to take actions that would cast a negative light on the US and its allies. Players who played other parties found it much easier to identify interest and pursue them with all means at their possession, questions of morality and ethics notwithstanding. It seems, then, that matrix games pose a particular problem if the players truly identify with the party they are playing.

Some final words: our own experience shows that games form one of the best tools we have in developing an understanding of the current regional dynamic. To do so requires good materials that expounds the interests of actors in the region, their historical ties and traumas. Still, the more one delves into the issue and the more one learns about the participant actors, the more difficult it is to actually comprehend the situation in general. The history of the region is made up of so many traumas, conflicting interests, shifting alliances, and radical changes in leadership. In particular, we (and players) are overwhelmed by the intensity of emotions and entrenchment in beliefs and ideologies. Next time, we’ll just game the tensions in the Korean region…

Insights on analytical value

Then, are such matrix games useful for analytical purposes? Does the game play have any predictive value?  First of all, we noticed many time that the argumentation within matrix games for analytical purposes improves substantially with true regional experts playing the roles.

In these sessions, I assume that the future courses of action we created at Duke were of little value for forecasting. Evidently, in the October version we hadn’t foreseen many of the events that happened in the past five months. Likewise, we do not hold our breath for the events played in the March version to ultimately unfold.

Two observations here:

  1. Lack of malice: We noticed a bias towards mostly “nice” actions on the part of students, such as negotiating ceasefires and alliances. They made this explicit: our students basically did not wish to risk killing people, which cannot be said for most of the current actors in the Middle East.  Although our students seemed to understand the actors and their interests, they refrained from turning truly Machiavellian. This made the courses of action insufficiently realistic for analytical purposes.  For conflict games to have realistic outcomes, we need the will to act against morality and received norms. We have there considered brainwashing our players…
  2. Lack of true future forward thinking: It is a feeling that in roleplaying into the future, we tend to stay very close to the present situation and the dynamics as we understand them, probably far too close. We are sort of linearly thinking into the future. For example, our experiences being that when e.g. gaming, 15 years into the future, one notices that our players tend to look e.g. at Russia as governed by a centralised autocratic regime. As illustrated by all those twists in Syria, in 15 years, a lot can (and will) happen. In 15 years, Russia may fall into utter chaos, disintegrate locally, or be divided between neighbouring countries, but no-one really envisions that in long term strategy-wargames.  We tend to work too much on the basis of our assumptions from today- and assume they will still hold true in the future. It requires a more advanced systems thinking approach to step back from the current situation and to identify and understand the sources of tensions, the polarities existent, and to work from there.  How to get there? We don’t know, but are convinced that we will have to work on improving the predictive value of the less kinetic conflict-games to support meaningful strategizing.

Still, the matrix games we played helped tremendously in educating students about the conflict, and in relatively short time.

To end this report, let us hope that in the next 6 months things take some turns for the better, and that we will not have to rename the next version of our Syria matrix game into “The Middle East War”.

Anja van der Hulst and Shai Ginsberg

 

Gaming at the CIA

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Ars Technica has an update on the use of boardgames for analyst training at the Central Intelligence Agency:

Last year, the CIA used a South By Southwest festival event to reveal one of its weirdest training exercises: a series of globe-trotting, espionage-filled board games. If you’re wondering why we’re circling back to this news almost exactly one year later, we have four letters for you: FOIA.

A series of Freedom of Information Act requests, filed last June by Southern California tech entrepreneur Doug Palmer, finally bore fruit last week. The CIA has now released rules, art, and design documents for the two board games we played at last year’s SXSW.

If you’re wondering: yes, these documents include enough rules and materials to help budding CIA officers print and play their own versions of the game’s Collection Deckand Kingpin: The Hunt for El Chapo. Unfortunately, the released files don’t come close to printing-grade quality, owing both to low resolution and fax-grade 1-bit color. Ambitious board gaming fans will have to pick up the aesthetic slack themselves. (Here’s to hoping someone creates entries at BoardGameGeek to inspire such an effort. As of press time, no BGG entries for either game exist.)

You’ll find the full report, and some low-res images, here.

It is a subject which CIA educator and renowned commercial wargame designer Volko Ruhnke has talked about in other settings too. Here at PAXsims we have also covered the role that crisis simulations play in CIA outreach and recruitment effort.

h/t Aaron Brennan

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 24 March 2018

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PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) games that might be of interest to our readers. This issue contains a few items from earlier in the year that we forgot to include in previous editions.

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The US Naval War College reports that its students have been participating in beta-testing of an educational wargame of the WWII Battle of Leyte Gulf, developed by NWC staff.

“This game provided students with a chance to play as two teams in each of the two seminars, facing off as U.S. and Japanese commanders in the culminating naval battle of Leyte Gulf which took place during World War II,” said Johnson. “The goal of the game was to provide an opportunity for experiential learning regarding the fundamental concepts of operational art supporting operational warfare.”

The game was setup to be a two-sided, closed-intelligence or “two-room” game, where neither side could see the other’s battle force line up and must determine through the course of play where and what the opposing side was executing with its forces.

During the game, the students maneuvered air, sea and land forces against each other in accordance with an operational idea that they generated based on their studies of the historical battle. The other reason behind the learning game beta test is to see if JMO will include this in the curriculum for all NWC intermediate course students next year.

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In another example of in-house educational wargame design, staff at the US Army Command and General Staff College are testing out their own manual wargame:

The hex-style, map-based simulation, titled “Landpower: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey (GAAT)” was developed last year by Lt. Col. Patrick Schoof, an Army Simulations officer, and Shane Perkins, team leader of four classes, both instructing at the staff college. “Landpower” builds upon a scenario the students have worked through continually during the course, putting their strategies against one another to expose potential gaps and shortfalls they had previously not accounted for.

“We put this through multiple tests, labs, and changes before bringing it to the classroom, as well as spending months collaborating with the Director of Simulation Education to ensure we were bringing a quality product that had the potential to meet our learning objectives,” said Perkins.

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They certainly seem to be honing their essential pointing skills.

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According to Lt. Gen. Michael Lundy,  director of the Army Combined Arms Center, US Army wargaming remains significantly under-resourced with regard to conceptual experimentation:

Lundy stressed it is important to wear concepts out to better define requirements so that program managers can build better solutions. “I need battle labs to get good requirements,” he said.

Without the experimentation process, requirements can spiral out of control or be unrealistic.

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Back in January, President Donald Trump lauded the sale of “F-52s” to Norway. However, as the Washington Post reported, there’s no such plane—except in the video game Call of Duty.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not return a request to comment on the issue and did not respond to a question asking whether Trump was a Call of Duty fan.

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Underscoring the growing success of tabletop gaming as a hobby, the Atlantic published a piece in January that described the rise of Eurogames and their impact on the hobby.

In a development that would have been hard to imagine a generation ago, when video games were poised to take over living rooms, board games are thriving. Overall, the latest available data shows that U.S. sales grew by 28 percent between the spring of 2016 and the spring of 2017. Revenues are expected to rise at a similar rate into the early 2020s—largely, says one analyst, because the target audience “has changed from children to adults,” particularly younger ones.

Growth has also been particularly swift in the category of “hobby” board games, which comprises more sophisticated titles that are oriented toward older players—think Settlers of Catan. These games, compared to ones like Monopoly and Cards Against Humanity, represent a niche segment, but that segment is becoming something more than a niche: According to ICv2, a trade publication that covers board games, comic books, and other hobbyist products, sales of hobby board games in the U.S. and Canada increased from an estimated $75 million to $305 million between 2013 and 2016, the latest year for which data is available.

Hobby-game fanaticism is still very much a subculture, to be sure, but it is a growing one. At the 2017 iteration of Gen Con—North America’s largest hobby-gaming convention, in Indianapolis—turnstile attendance topped 200,000. For the first time in the event’s history, all the attendee badges were purchased before the event began. Whether they knew it or not, the many thousands of people carpeting the field level of Lucas Oil Stadium wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for a small group of obsessives on the other side of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, at the Wall Street Journal they suggest some political and military-themed board games worth trying out (paywall).

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Saudi Arabia will be holding first ever card playing competition last month. As al-Jazeera reported, the prohibition on gambling in Islamic law, and the strict Sunni fundamentalism of many Saudis, made the decision controversial. You’ll find additional reporting at Arab News.

This sensitivity is one that serious game designers need to take into account too: one NGO recently told me that they had been unable to use card-based training materials with Saudi participants, because some objected on religious grounds.

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Can gaming help to improve forecasting ability? A recent study suggests that (video) gamers are better able to assess the probability of future events:

The debate over video gaming’s potential benefits is a divisive one. Yet despite the concerns of many, a significant body of research proves a correlation between playing video games and improved attention resources, problem solving, and response speed. Additionally, a recent study determined that playing action-based video games can positively affect a player’s probability categorizing skills.

In order to assess and understand gamers’ probabilistic skills, a group of researchers studied 15 participants who played action-based video games 15 or more hours a week and 15 participants who played less than 15 hours a week. The subjects participated in a Weather Prediction Task (WPT), where they were asked to identify a series of weather cue card combinations and make predictions based on probabilities they detected. The WPT contained a variety of prediction tasks, which required subjects to make educated guesses on outcomes where probability ranged anywhere from 80/20% to 60/40%. While the WPT was being performed, subjects were scanned in an MRI scanner to determine which parts of their brain were activated and in order to understand the types of memory processes at work.

The researchers found that gamers were notably better at making predictions, especially under conditions characterized by stronger uncertainty. For example while the gap between correct predictions in gamers and non-gamers was smaller in 80/20% conditions, the gap was much larger in 60/40% conditions. Additionally, brain imaging data showed there was a higher level of activity in the regions of gamers’ brains that relate to and strengthen memory, attentional processes, and cognitive control. A post-experiment questionnaire also showed that the video gamers had an increased ability to draw conclusions, despite existing uncertainties, because during the WPT they had retained more declarative knowledge about the card combinations and related weather outcomes.

You’ll find an overview of the research at New Learning Times, and the full study by Sabrina Schenk, Robert K. Lech, and Boris Suchan in Behavioural Brain Research 335 (September 2017).

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dwtcoincover.gifThe remarkably prolific History of Wargaming Project has released another publication, this time a volume on Small Wars: New Perspectives on Wargaming Counter-Insurgency on the Tabletop by David Wayne Thomas. It features an introduction by renowned counterinsurgency wargame designer Brian Train, followed by six short sets of rules. These address tactical, but more so operational/campaign-level games, in contexts ranging from the colonial French Sahara, Ireland, and Vietnam to contemporary company-level counter-insurgency operations.

The volume is likely to be of more interest to hobby gamers looking for relatively simple rules with some innovative approaches and game mechanisms, rather than those using such games for professional (educational or analytical) purposes.

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The latest issue of the Journal of Defense Modelling and Simulation is devoted to the topic of “Model-Driven Paradigms for Integrated Approaches to Cyber Defense.”

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The International Organization for Migration recently conducted a crisis simulation in Niger, involving more than eight hundred members of local communities, authorities, civil society and security forces, as part of a broader capacity-building project.

Using a real-life scenario, the simulation exercise tested local and regional authorities’ abilities to respond to a mass migration movement into Niger precipitated by a crisis at the border. Based on the results of the exercise, a regional crisis contingency plan will be drafted in conjunction with authorities in Agadez.

Agadez is located in northern Niger, a region regularly affected by migration flows both in and out of the country. Over the last few decades, the movement of goods and persons has increased considerably in Niger, requiring improved structures for immigration and border management (IBM) to more effectively manage cross-border movements. As a result, the state has been confronted with the challenge of better facilitating these legitimate movements while maintaining secure borders.

IOM’s IBM unit has been active in Niger since 2015 and is implementing projects aiming to reinforce border management in the country and the Sahel region. Since then, more than 15,000 people have been reached through awareness-raising activities aimed at improving the dialogue between communities and authorities.

Through the creation of prevention committees along Niger’s borders, and the inclusion of local populations in simulation exercises and awareness campaigns, IOM includes border communities as full actors in border management.

Within this context, the simulation exercise sought to enhance community involvement in crisis management. Communities from the surrounding area played the roles of both displaced populations and welcoming community. The exercise incorporated a strong community engagement component to foster communication between local communities and authorities. As communities are the first to directly encounter signs of a crisis, communication with local authorities is crucial both in ensuring a quick and effective crisis response, as well as in preventing future crises.

At the end of the exercise, IOM distributed over 400 hygiene kits to participating community members, and will deliver six tents to be used in crisis management to the Agadez Governorate.

The simulation was part of the project Engaging Communities in Border Management in Niger – Phase II, funded by the US Department of State. This was the third exercise of its kind organized by IOM in Niger, which had held two exercises in the Zinder region in 2017. The simulation was planned in close partnership with the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Humanitarian Action and Natural Disaster Management and the Ministry of Health of Niger.

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Students at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and at fifteen other universities, recently addressed the challenges of epidemic response in a simulation. the simulation was organized by the Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming.

Students on each three- to five-member team were assigned roles: prime minister, minister of public health, minister of finance, World Health Organization representative and a head of communications.

As a game clock ticked down on a computer screen in front of them, students were required to quickly process information.

Where was the virus spreading? How many fatalities were occurring?

If it was within their country’s budget, the students could purchase vaccinations. If it wasn’t, they could raise taxes in order to do so – though that would have an effect on their approval rating.

Everything was a giant balancing act.

And, with six months of global activity being compressed into four, one-hour rounds, everything was moving at warp speed.

“It was a good reminder that, in the heat of the moment, policy is complicated,” said Babbin, a first-year student in the Master of Public Policy program. “When we’re sitting in the classroom, it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, this is obviously the right choice.’ But when you’re sitting there and you have all of these things coming at you and you’re watching the number of infections rise, you really have to make snap decisions when you don’t always have all of the information that you wish you did.

“Sometimes you just have to make an educated decision.”

You’ll find more here.

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Kennesaw State University conducted a simulation on the European mass migration crisis entitled “Refugees, Religions, and Resistance.”

The simulation placed graduate students, Ph.D. students, an undergraduate student and alumni in the shoes of real-world people that have a direct role in handling the refugee crisis.

“The intention in all of this is to help students both, one, learn information and, two, practice skills they will need in their professional lives,” said Dr. Sherrill Hayes, a professor of conflict management. “In the case of the Refugee Crisis in Europe simulation, it was important for students to understand the content of what is happening in Europe with migration and refugees since migration is one of the front and center issues in international conflict and peacebuilding.”

It was placed in the context of the fictional town of Waldbach, Germany, in the state of Saxony. Participants were given roles as a principal at the town’s school, mayoral candidates for competing parties, the local factory owner and refugees, among other roles — in total, 14 people participated.

The purpose of the simulation is “to develop an understanding of the complexities of global migration and, more specifically, the current refugee crisis in Europe.”

A series of sub-scenarios challenged the participants to strategically work together to achieve goals that were outlined in the descriptions of each “character.” Some scenarios included: finding a resolution to educating Syrian refugee children, a proposal to build a mosque, violence against the refugees and a food shortage in the refugee camp.

The “townspeople” and “refugees” were physically separated in different buildings at the Cherokee Outdoor YMCA, where the simulation was held, to add to the realistic element of separation.

You’ll find further information at The Sentinel.

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The Reacting to the Past Consortium will be holding their Eighteenth Annual Faculty Institute on June 14-17 at Barnard College.

This year the Institute offers intensive workshops on twelve different games, as well as plenary and concurrent sessions that explore issues related to teaching and learning, faculty development, and the future of higher education more generally.

You’ll find more information at their website. The Consortium also has its usual series of regional conferences planned.

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GridlockED is a boardgame of hospital emergency room management developed by Dr. Teresa Chan and a team at McMaster University.

Co-designed learning platform.

This game was co-designed with emergency medicine faculty and medical students. The goal was to create a game that could allow future doctors to learn systems approaches to patient management in a safe, low stakes environment.

Play together to save patients.

In GridlockED, players work together to treat and prioritize patients. This fosters collaboration and communication skills.

Make low stakes mistakes

This game allows players to grasp what a real emergency department (ED) is like, without the life-or-death stakes.

We were fortunate to work with Teresa early on in the development process during the Simnovate 2016 conference at McGill university, where Vince Carpini and myself ran a workshop on serious game design.

The Hamilton Spectator has further details, and their Facebook page is here. The game goes on sale on March 27.

McGill gaming update

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Looking forward to the eventual arrival of Spring at McGill.

At McGill University, the annual, week-long Brynania peacebuilding simulation is fast approaching. Most of the role assignments have been made, and materials will be distributed to members of my POLI 450 peacebuilding class on Monday. The actual simulation will run from April 4-11, and during that period I’ll pretty much vanish—I will be deep in the Brynania CONTROL bunker in suburban Montreal, fuelled by endless coffee as I monitor the activities of almost one hundred participants.

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Yes, Galasi (the capital of Carana) looks suspiciously like a remodeled Copenhagen.

Two weeks ago, I ran the “Crisis in Galasi” simulation at a conference on the urban dimensions of religious conflict organized by Prof. Mick Dumper (University of Exeter). This seemed to go well, with participants welcoming a break from the usual academic workshop process to periodically assume the roles of actors in a fictional scenario of rising religious and political tensions. The simulation saw sectarian rumours circulate on social media; a protest march that turned violent, with barricades, arrests, and mysterious gunfire; and splits between soft-liners and hard-liners in the cabinet, resulting in a political crisis and the formation of a new coalition government. At the end, there was some effort by local Catholic and Muslim officials to find a way forward that might be acceptable to all sides, but the situation remained fraught and fragile. The Matrix Game Construction Kit was used to support the simulation.

This Tuesday, I took part in a simulation run by the folks at the ICONS Project, examining corporate response to potential armed conflict in their area of operation. I can’t share the details, but the event seemed to go well.

Finally, my POLI 490 seminar on conflict simulation design continues to be a pleasure to teach. This month we’ve looked at the design of negotiation simulations (drawing upon Natasha Gill’s excellent book on the topic), as well as best and worst practices in professional wargaming (using the UK Ministry of Defence/DCDC Defence Wargaming Handbook for the former, and CNA’s 2004 study of wargaming pathologies for the latter). Students have played Islamic State: The Syria War, and Brian Train’s recently published game Chile ’73.  Next week we will look at matrix game design, and we’ll play through the Reckoning of Vultures scenario from the Matrix Game Construction Kit. Since this (like Chile ’73) is also a game about coup plotting with pre-coup and coup phases, it will provide an interesting opportunity to contrast the relative strengths and weaknesses of more rigid, rules-based approaches and more free-form techniques.

 

Review: Hostage Negotiator

The following review was contributed by the ever-mysterious Tim Price.


Hostage Negotiator. Game designer: A. J. Porfirio. Don’t Panic Games/Last Level/Van Ryder Games, 2015. USD $24.99

Hostage Negotiator is a single-player game involving cards and dice. The player plays the role of the Hostage Negotiator in a scenario where someone has taken hostages and is threatening to kill them unless their demands are met.

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The basic game mechanic is that you have a “Hostage Negotiator Tableau” on which there is a track representing the mental state of the Hostage Taker. This represents the threat level and, if the threat level is low, you get more opportunities to influence the Hostage Taker and perhaps get hostages released; or if the threat level is high, your chances of influencing the Hostage Taker reduce and the chances that he will kill a hostage increases. There are random “Terror” cards and “Pivotal Events” to add flavour and increase uncertainty.

The principal tactics are to select “Conversation Cards”, each of which has a cost in “Conversation Points” and a risk/reward payoff with regard to the threat level. The aim is to get at least half of the hostages out alive and capture/kill the Hostage Taker, or to rescue all the hostages, in order to win.

The game is well made with very high-quality components, the rules booklet is clear and well-illustrated and the scenarios are well balanced. The box is small with no wasted space and the time to play is 15 to 30 minutes.

I’m really not a fan of solo games, but the idea of someone making a game about hostage negotiation really intrigued me. There are some minor niggles with the rules (exceptions to existing rules at different times in the game), but they are generally clear and easy to follow.

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The game was tense and developed a credible narrative following the cards played. I became engrossed and, after messing things up horribly (with most of the hostages getting killed), I immediately played again – which is always a good sign. I then introduce the game to someone who really isn’t a game player but was also intrigued by the subject and it was just as much fun, if not more so, working together to decide on the best negotiating strategy.

The reason that I’m writing a review here for PAXsims is that the game struck me as a possible model for social media influence, or other “hearts and minds” effects base influence operations. The threat track could easily be modified to represent “Social Media Sentiment” or “Support for the NATO Peacekeepers” with measurable effects occurring at the points where a hostage would have been released or killed. Modifying the conversation cards into a range of different “effects” gambits would be a very useful exercise, along with working out appropriate alternatives to the random “Terror” cards.

There is a lot of interest in “social media” simulation and emulation at the moment in Defence. A number of large simulation companies are offering to replicate various social media demographic groups by the use of “AI and machine learning”. The aim is to generate a social media feed that is supposed to replicate the target demographic to such an extent that the users can try out influence strategies for the purposes of training.

My personal view is that you might be able to use “AI and machine learning” to some extent to identify useful information from a mass of background noise, but this is several orders of magnitude away from being able to replicate those feeds to a level of fidelity for training purposes. These approaches are also likely to be hugely expensive and take some years before they could possibly be effective. In the meantime, we need to train people in “hearts and minds” and “effects” on people’s beliefs and attitudes, right now. Current training consists of scripted injects into exercises that are either trivial “box-ticking” exercises or at best short-term interventions that are deliberately limited in their effects so as to avoid upsetting the normal flow of training.

I think that the process of looking at a simple and inexpensive, off-the-shelf, little game like this; with a view to modifying it to produce a manual game system for effects and influence, may have a much greater payoff than putting one’s hope in a large multi-national company’s promise of “AI and machine learning”…

I intend to try this idea out and hope to be able to report back shortly.

Tim Price

Review of Islamic State: The Syria War

Islamic State: The Syria War. Game designer: Javier Romero. Game developer: Ty Bomba. One Small Step/CounterFact magazine, 2017. USD$32.00 (including magazine).

Islamic State is a two-player game included as part of CounterFact magazine #7. It examines the struggle against Daesh (also known as ISIS or the Islamic State) in Syria. Game play is semi-cooperative, in that the Syrian/Russian/Iranian side and the US/Coalition/SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, including the Syrian Kurds/YPG) side are both fighting against non-player Daesh, and neither can win unless the Islamic State is defeated. However, if Daesh is sufficiently weakened, the game reverts to being full competitive, in that only one of the two players can ultimately triumph. The game is similar in general design to Islamic State: Libya War, published in 2016. The rules can be downloaded for free here.

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Image credit: Javier Romero (via BGG).

Islamic State: Syria War uses point-to-point movement, which is appropriate given the geography, population distribution, and transportation network found in Syria. Indeed, a very similar system was used in the Countering ISIL game designed by the rapid prototyping working group at the 2015 MORS special meeting on wargaming. That game was later developed by RAND for use in professional settings.

Players have a number of combat options to choose from each turn, ranging from movement/ground combat to reconnaissance, air/artillery strikes, snatch-and-grab operations, and targeted killings, The actions of Daesh are largely determined by chit draw, and might include military offensives, infiltration, subversion, kidnappings, and smuggling. From time to time, other Syrian rebel factions or Turkey might also take action through a similar mechanism. When combat occurs, Daesh forces are randomly drawn, with some units having particular characteristics such as limited anti-tank or anti-air capability, or use of IEDs and human shields.

Islamic State: The Syria War has some rough edges. Some game mechanisms could be a little more elegant, and the rules have some gaps or areas where they could be clearer. It also very much focuses on Syria through the prism of Daesh, and rather than the struggle between the Syrian opposition and the Asad regime. Nevertheless, for a small magazine game it features some interesting elements, and it nicely captures many key aspects of the conflict. I particularly liked the portrayal of special operations forces, the role that intelligence collection plays in the game, and the way in which Daesh activity can be slowed by eliminating leaders or sealing the northern (Turkish) border.

GCAM2.0 “Comprehensive Approach” simulation

Last week, Dr. Anja van der Hulst (TNO and University of Amsterdam) was kind enough to run a game of the (somewhat-awkwardly-named) “Go4it Comprehensive Approach simulation Model” (or GCAM2.0) for 18 student volunteers from my POLI 450 course on peacebuilding. It went very well indeed.

GCAM2.0 was developed in cooperation with the NATO Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) Centre of Excellence, and is now regularly used in both Dutch and NATO military training. The “comprehensive approach” itself is NATO jargon intended to underscore the need to engage a variety of means and tools and a multiplicity of actors in stabilization operations:

NATO’s new Strategic Concept, adopted at the Lisbon Summit in November 2010, underlines that lessons learned from NATO operations show that effective crisis management calls for a comprehensive approach involving political, civilian and military instruments. Military means, although essential, are not enough on their own to meet the many complex challenges to Euro-Atlantic and international security. Allied leaders agreed at Lisbon to enhance NATO’s contribution to a comprehensive approach to crisis management as part of the international community’s effort and to improve NATO’s ability to contribute to stabilzation and reconstruction.

GCAM2.0 is a card-driven game with computer-assisted adjudication, in which four sets of players—the local government in a fragile and conflict-affected country, a (UN or NATO) foreign task force, NGOs, and opposition forces (OPFOR)—allocate limited resources each turn to a range of possible assessments and interventions.

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When the interventions are entered into the computer, it immediately updates a range of political, security, and socio-economic indicators, which are displayed to players as a series of bar graphs. The effectiveness of interventions may be affected by contextual conditions, such as security; by what other cards have or have not yet been played; and by how many teams have allocated resources to support any given initiative.

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Teams discuss what actions to take, while the projector indicates the current situation.

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Players look at their cards and hence various options.

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More discussions and planning.

In our game, OPFOR decided early on to not pick a fight with the Task Force, but rather try to appear cooperative—while at the same time laying the groundwork for its own de facto administration in the conflict area. They did this by supporting their own clinics, schools, and other projects (often securing NGO or Task Force support), while always finding some excuse not to support government initiatives. The Local Government grew ever more frustrated that no one was listening to their legitimate authority.

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Players wait to see the results of their latest actions as Anja enters the details into her computer.

As their local popularity grew, so too did OPFOR resources. In the end they even branched out into drug production —and, what’s more, somehow managed to convince the NGO team to fund it under the guise of being “an alternative agricultural project”.

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An investment in illegal drug production.

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Anja and OPFOR (locally known as “Team Evil”) thank an NGO representative for her unwitting contribution to the local drug trade.

The game lasted about 2 and a half hours, and everyone seemed to both enjoy themselves and learn from the experience —including the importance of not blindly supporting projects suggested by nefarious local rebel factions!

You’ll find a fuller academic paper on GCAM2.0 here.

Crisis in Galasi

Next week I’m off to France to take part in a conference on the urban dimensions of religious conflict, organized by Prof. Mick Dumper (University of Exeter). In addition to the usual academic papers and discussions, this conference will also include a simulation set in Galasi, the fictional capital of the fictional country of Carana. This envisages the rise of a Christian populist political party, a nervous Muslim minority, and a possible clash over a disputed religious site, the Sultan Hamad bin Said Mosque (or Church of St. Mychil).

I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

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