PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Matrix games for student learning at the US Army War College

The following article was contributed to PAXsims by Lieutenant Colonel Joe Chretien and Major Abe Goepfert of the Strategic Simulations Division (SSD), Center for Strategic Leadership, US Army War College. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.


 

Matrix Games at the US Army War College

At the US Army War College (USAWC), the use of matrix games falls into three categories. The first category is lesson reinforcement.  In this category, the goal is to reinforce the key concepts of historical, current, or future potential conflicts.  As an example, the USAWC resident course ran four simultaneous games for the European Region Study Program (RSP) to explore a future Baltic scenario based on a NATO isolation of Kaliningrad.

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Figure 1: DDE SCS poster.

The second category is games for familiarization.  Familiarization can include a region, actor, situation, or problem.  A great example of a familiarization game was conducted at the University of Richmond in April 2017.  The USAWC Strategic Simulations Division (SSD) ran a Syrian-based matrix game where five teams split into multiple factions. In the University of Richmond game, there were only four teams.  However, each team consisted of multiple nations, organizations, or factions (15 individual team entities).  Each student (15) received a role on a team and had to create their own narratives for their individual piece of the team.  The narrative had to include a summary of who they were, who they aligned with, who they could not align with, and their goals and objectives. Interestingly, one of the teams disassociated itself from one of its own factions (represented by a student) as a show of faith to one of the major powers in the area.

The last category of a USAWC matrix game is a capstone, or course-culminating, event.  The culminating matrix game takes the USAWC year-long program of study and uses a matrix-type game to evaluate the progress of each individual student.  This article will focus on the culminating game conducted for the Department of Distant Education (DDE), second-year resident course (SRC) Course in July 2017 (Figure 1, DDE SCS poster).

The Start of Something Big

A matrix game is a low-overhead (low cost/easy setup), facilitated, multi-player, role-playing game. Games are argument-based. Players weigh arguments and counter-arguments then propose an action. Success or failure of that action depends, primarily, on the strength of a player’s argument. The use of dice in the game introduces the elements of risk.

The material, time, and personnel required to run a matrix game is relatively low compared to a large, constructive simulation exercise. Matrix Games only require a written scenario with analog map and counters for execution. Play requires a facilitator, a subject matter expert, and 4-6 players or 4-6 teamsof players.  A play session typically lasts 2-3 hours, but playing time can be tailored to meet learning outcomes (LO).

Matrix-type games are easy to learn and quick to play. Of particular value to faculty, matrix-type games can be played without constraints and with an open-ended format.  Some constraints could include a scripted non-thinking opposition, limited actions for teams, or even preordained results.  An open-ended format allows players to explore any action if it can be tied to team objectives or goals.  It also allows the gameplay to dictate the scenario as it moves forward. Through two years of using the matrix model for experiential learning, SSD staff have observed that participants are always fully engaged and retain more information than through regular seminar-based instruction. The matrix game format forces participants to articulate actions or arguments orally while also having to make decisions more quickly than normal.

It was because of their proven value as an experiential learning tool that, in October of 2016, faculty from the (DDE), U.S. Army War College approached members of the college’s Strategic Simulation Division (SSD), with the idea of using a matrix game as a culminating exercise for the DDE second-year resident course (SRC), Class of 2017. The SRC consisted of 23 seminars comprised of over 250 senior US military officers, Department of Defense Civilians, and international military officers that spent two weeks of residency at Carlisle, PA prior to graduation.  The DDE faculty were looking for a capstone exercise that tied in all the lessons learned and had the students demonstrate knowledge of the elements of national power, synthesize information, and develop and deliver compelling oral arguments.  A matrix game is the perfect tool, and SSD took on the task of developing and delivering that learning event.

The Greatest Number of Matrix Games Played, at One Location, in a Single Day

The initial discussion, more of a “back of a napkin” analysis of requirements, included three initial courses of action (COA) for the exercise.  The three COAs were:

  1. Mega Game – One large matrix game that includes all 23 seminars in the same game.
  2. Discreet Game (A) – 23 seminars playing their own individual games on the same day.
  3. Discreet Game (B) – 12 seminars playing on day 1; the remaining 11 seminars playing on day 2.

A brief description and analysis of the COAs follow:

  • COA 1: The least resource intensive and the COA that provides the least amount of individual student interaction. Each student would be assigned a role within a select team (i.e. a student on the Chinese team could be assigned as the economic advisor) and would only provide arguments if the action required an argument from that specific role.  The danger in games this large is that some of the participants provide no input to the game.  As a result, those students would not have had the same learning experience as others and could receive a poor evaluation.
  • COA 2: The most resource intensive; would require twenty-three (23) facilitators in separate rooms, as well as twenty-three (23) copies of the game. During concept development and initial planning, SSD had two trained Matrix Game facilitators and DDE had none.  In retrospect, DDE would not be able to provide any facilitators for the game anyway because the faculty would be observing the student interactions. However, this COA had the potential to provide each seminar a discreet game that would keep the teams to 2-3 players each.  Therefore, each student could participate actively in the game while being monitored by their faculty instructor (FI).
  • COA 3: Moderately resource intensive and would require only twelve (12) facilitators and rooms, as well as twelve (12) copies of the game.For CSL, this was more advantageous because of limited resources available for the game.

DDE faculty selected COA 2 because they did not have the scheduling flexibility to break the exercise into two days.  To alleviate some resource concerns, Root Hall, the main academic building at Carlisle Barracks, opened 11 seminar rooms for the execution portion of the exercise.

Wargame Development

SSD’s formal role was to develop and execute a South China Sea (SCS) Wargame during the Second Resident Course (SRC) 21 July 2017 as a capstone event for the two-year Distance Education Program (DEP). The wargame’s purpose was to exercise and assess the students’ ability to take a strategic approach to solving complex problems in a South China Sea setting.  The standards were that the students use the South China Sea Matrix Game to articulate oral arguments for furthering the goals and objectives of their assigned country team. The students would also have to demonstrate knowledge and synthesize elements of national power and operational design learned during their 2-years of instruction. Finally, during this game, students would practice creative and critical thinking while demonstrating negotiation skills at the strategic level in accordance with national interests and goals.

Army simulations officers are trained to tease out requirements before concluding how a “game” should look and feel. Form will follow function – meaning that game design is based on desired learning outcomes.   The game, theoretically, will provide the tool for the faculty to evaluate the learning based on the LOs.

For the purposes of the SRC culminating exercise, three primary and one secondary LO were identified.  The first primary LO was to apply strategic and operational art to develop strategies and plans that employ the military instrument of power in pursuit of national policy aims.  The second primary LO was to think critically and creatively in addressing national security issues at the strategic level.  The last primary LO was to communicate clearly, persuasively, and candidly.  The secondary LO was to demonstrate as a proof of concept the viability for future DDE use of this wargame method. With the COA chosen and LOs well defined, SSD officially accepted the request and began formal planning.

Planning the Event

In the US Army, during a normal planning process, lead agencies/ organizations follow a standardized Joint Exercise Life Cycle (JELC) per TRADOC Regulation 71-20, Concept Development, Capabilities Determination, and Capabilities Integration that outlines an in-depth timeline that begins 180 days prior to the execution of a required event (Figure 2, DDE SCS JELC). For this event, SSD had the entire 180 days to conduct planning and coordination that included hosting multiple conferences, meeting critical milestones, conducting planning-team deep-dives with the DDE operations team, setting up the venue, conducting rehearsals, and executing the event. In this particular planning cycle, SSD conducted three planning conferences with their DDE counterparts and CSL support personnel, Additionally, multiple progress meetings were conducted with the U.S. Army War College Commandant, Deputy Commandant, and the director of CSL.

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Figure 2: DDE SCS JELC.

As with every planned event, there were critical milestones that enabled the planning to move forward.  The first milestone was to produce a South China Sea Matrix game that was capable of meeting each of the three primary learning outcomes.  The six main parts of a Matrix game are the scenario, teams, team narratives, map, special rules, and game pieces.   Slightly ahead of schedule, all elements of the matrix game were agreed upon and a copy of the game was created and used for playtesting.  The initial playtest, internal to SSD and DDE, met all three LOs and validated the matrix game as the proper tool.  The playtest also led to some minor changes to the scenario, map, gameplay, and counters. More playtesting was conducted, particularly with Harrisburg University and the National Defense University (NDU).

The second milestone was to train, at a minimum, twenty-three facilitators.  The facilitator training took place over two months at various locations.  The first training session was conducted at Harrisburg University (HU).  SSD trained three facilitators at the Harrisburg University main campus. Two of those three served as official facilitators during the wargame.  This training also served as a playtest event. All the game’s final changes resulted from finally playing the game with a mix of faculty (HU), students (HU), and trained facilitators (SSD).

The training at NDU provided the opportunity for wargame experts to play and to train on the game. Of the more than ten NDU players in the game, six trained as facilitators and subsequently supported the DDE event.

The final training session took place at the Army War College three days before the event. SSD set up a round robin training program and successfully trained sixteen more facilitators.  In total, SSD trained over 25 facilitators for the event to allow for the eventuality of someone not being able to participate on game day (which happened).

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Figure 3: DDE SCS map.

The third milestone was to create “How to Play Matrix Games” videos.  This task included writing scripts, getting actors (SSD interns), coordinating with the AWC audiovisual team, reserving a room, filming the videos, and providing assistance for the editing of the videos.  This task had to be completed in time for the DDE Class of 2017 to watch the videos before execution of the wargame.  The videos were completed ahead of schedule and were used for two other SSD supported events.

The fourth, and last, milestone was to build twenty-three South China Sea Matrix games.  This was very labor-intensive and took a full week to complete.  Without the help of four interns, this milestone could have required much more time from the SSD team and could have thrown the timeline off.  Each South China Sea matrix game consisted of the following:

  1. Large 35’x45’ map of the South China Sea (Figure 3, DDE SCS Map).
  2. Team folders (five player teams and a control team) that included scenario, individualized team narratives, matrix “how to” sheets, and mini-maps.
  3. Counters: Each packet included “chits” or “counters” that represented a national element of power (Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic).  The players used the counters to mark spots on the map where an action took place.
  4. Supplies:  Each team received a pen, note pad, and post it notes pads to capture notes, to plan actions, and to communicate with other teams.
  5. Other items:Each player received a country-team name tag to provide visual delineation of team composition.  Each facilitator and SME had nametags to differentiate themselves from the students.  Additionally, SSD created seminar tags that hung on individual game doors, Collins Hall and Root Hall room diagram posters, and agenda posters.

 

Rehearsal, Training, and Cross-coordinated Wargame Events 

The key to successful execution is nearly always dependent on the work put in prior to execution.  The week prior to execution was packed with walkthroughs, rehearsals, facilitation training, and wargame support for DDE SRC electives. Two SRC electives used board games/ Matrix games as the main tool to execute their lesson plans.  One of the electives used a South China Sea board game where students role-played one of six teams to meet goals or objectives based on a set scenario.  While this game did not have the same mechanics of a matrix game, it did introduce the students to the South China Sea region and forced them into negotiations. The second senior seminar used a matrix game and an SSD developed Kaliningrad scenario.

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Figure 4: Panel Discussion>

In addition to the above events, CSL sponsored a wargame panel featuring four highly experienced wargame professionals who discussed “innovative ways to include wargames in the classroom.”  At the end of the wargame panel, the experts led participants through some wargames currently used at their institutions. (Figure 4, Panel Discussion).

Conclusion

A matrix-type game is not a suitable tool to meet all learning outcomes.  Matrix game observations and outputs are qualitative versus quantitative, and that makes it hard to gauge results.  Matrix games are also highly dependent on the skill of the facilitator for success. It is not the tool, rather matrix-type games are tool for faculty to use to meet learning outcomes.

From a planning and execution standpoint, this event was very successful. At the end of the wargame, over 300 students had received more than six-hours of hands-on experiential training and evaluation.  The planning conducted between SSD and DDE was very detailed, but leadership was not swamped with minutia.  Wargame sponsors do not always provide enough time to plan for the event. DDE, however, came to SSD with enough lead time so that the full JELC timeline was available to plan, to prepare, and to execute the event. Additionally, AWC, CSL, and DDE fully supported the event and provided resources to ensure its success.  This included the funding of facilitators and subject matter experts from outside organization.  Of course, every wargame or large event has areas that are very successful and areas that need refinement.  As successful as this game was, lessons were learned and have been applied to games used in resident courses at the Army War College.

Lieutenant Colonel Joe Chretien
Major Abe Goepfert

 

4 responses to “Matrix games for student learning at the US Army War College

  1. Peter Perla 01/06/2018 at 9:27 am

    I participated as a facilitator in this event. I was impressed with the professionalism and efficiency with which the entire event was run. Congratulations are in order for LCol. Chretien and the entire Carlisle team.

    One funny error in the report at the end. The sentence “Matrix game observations and outputs are quantitative versus qualitative, and that makes it hard to gauge results,” clearly reversed the words quantitative and qualitative! I suspect we all knew that. Indeed, when I first read it I subconsiously read it correctly. Just thought it might be worth stating explicitly.

    Take care

    Peter

  2. Rex Brynen 01/06/2018 at 10:04 am

    Error now fixed–thanks for pointing that out, Peter.

  3. Darren Huxley 06/06/2018 at 2:48 am

    Was the panel discussion recorded? I would love to have the insights as we look to involve gaming in some way at our war college equivalent in Australia.

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