The view from outside the Education Building today, where POLI 450 meets.
This time of the year is always a busy one for gaming activities at McGill University—so busy, in fact, that I’ve been a little remiss in updating PAXsims with all of our goings-on.
I teach two courses with a significant gaming components during the Winter term. POLI 450 is a course on peacebuilding, exploring topics ranging from forced displacement and humanitarian assistance through to negotiation, peacekeeping and stabilization operations, DDR (demobilization/disarmament/reintegration of ex-combatants), reconstruction, coordination, transitional justice, and a host of other issues. There are 87 students in the class, plus another six in the POLI 650 graduate seminar. Over the term they will experience a few short, in-class simulations, an optional tournament of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game, and the massive, week-long “Brynania” peace operations simulation in late March/early April.
POLI 422 is a “selected topics” course on conflict simulation design with 31 students. This is the first time I’ve taught a full lecture course on the topic, although last year I did teach a very successful seminar on conflict simulation and a shorter professional course on serious games (at Carleton University), and a few students have previously undertaken independent studies courses with me that involved game designs on topics such as the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war. Moving forward this will be a regular course, taught annually at McGill from now as POLI 452.
Lectures so far have focused on the history of wargaming, the principles of serious game design, and modelling conflict through game systems. The course text is Phil Sabin’s book Simulating War, developed from his experience teaching a graduate wargaming course at King’s College London.
Students were also asked to come up with game proposals. Ten students chose to make a pitch, on topics ranging from Chinese-Vietnamese naval conflict to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Dr. Ben Taylor from Defence Research and Development Canada joined the class on presentation day to help assess them all, and in the end six were chosen as our projects for the year:
- Fallen Republic (stabilization operations in a future collapsed North Korea)
- Cartel (Mexican drug cartels)
- Conquering the North Pole (Arctic cooperation and conflict)
- Little Green Men (Russian interference in Ukraine)
- Operation Breakpoint (impact of new and emerging technologies on asymmetric warfare)
- Collateral (intelligence collection and high value targeting)
The various team leaders then formed groups of five students to work on each project. I’m quite pleased with the way we did this. First, students were each asked to fill out a “game design CV” detailing their areas of expertise and interest (gaming experience, graphic arts skills, research and documentation, rules-editing). Team leaders were then given a copy of these CVs, plus $1 million in fictional “game designer dollars.” Each team leader made secret bids for those they wished to recruit to her or his team. Unclaimed students were assigned by me based on skills and interests. No one was informed how much they had attracted in bids, of course—I didn’t want anyone to feel bad if they hadn’t been bid on. The result is that the teams each seem to include an appropriate mix of skills, and most people ended up in a project they wanted to work on.
Ben will be coming back to the class on February, to offer advice on game design, and then will help pick the winner of an informal DRDC design award for the best design at the end of the term.
In addition to class lectures, POLI 422 also features a series of optional games and other course activities through the term that contribute to course participation grades.
1812: Invasion of Canada is a very good introduction to wargaming for neophytes: it is easy to play, does a nice job of illustrating the general contours of the conflict, and is an effective introduction to both area movement and card-driven mechanics. We Are Coming, Nineveh is a block game first developed by my students last year, examining the 2017 liberation of West Mosul by Iraqi security forces. Not only is it a terrific game (and one that will be commercially published), but because it was a student design it is a real inspiration to other students. The STRIKE! Battlegroup Tactical Wargame is in the mix because it is both a very straightforward hex-and-chit tactical game, and also because it was developed by serious folks at Dstl for serious training applications in the British Army. Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? is used to demonstrate card-driven political-military games, and Urban Operations is another tactical game that features mixed hex/area movement as well as some modelling of 3 dimensional urban terrain. Black Orchestraa is included because I think it is a really beautifully-designed cooperative design, while ISIS Crisis and A Reckoning of Vultures help to demonstrate matrix games. Students can also gain activity credits for playing certain digital games, attending certain events, or organizing their own gaming sessions.
1812: Invasion of Canada
Speaking of We Are Coming, Nineveh, it is 99% done, including the solitaire system. The latter allows a single player to play against Daesh, with the actions of the latter determined by a card draw. We continue to do more playtesting, but this really only results in slight tweaks of cards and rules for clarity. We were especially pleased to learn last month that, along with a number of previously published commercial games, Nineveh will be examined as part of a Dstl-supported project on modelling urban warfare.
We Are Coming, Nineveh!
Part of the reason things are so busy at the moment is because we have the Connections North (serious) wargaming conference coming up on Saturday, February 16. It looks like we’ll have about sixty people attending Connections North, about one-third professionals and two-thirds university students (including a group coming up to Montreal from Tufts University).
The following day, on February 17, about a hundred of us will be engaged in some rather less serious wargaming: the APOCALYPSE NORTH megagame. While the zombie Armageddon isn’t a terribly plausible national security threat, the actual game is a pretty solid emergency management simulation, which models pretty much every Canadian Forces regular and reserve component in southern Ontario and Quebec, as well as emergency services and other relevant assets. The federal-provincial politics of it all should also be fun, and rather distinctly Canadian. If all goes according to plan—and it might not, since it depends on IT and AV things working as they should on the day—we should even have a (simulated) CBC television studio live-streaming reports to the players and beyond.
In early March, I’ll be joining fellow PAXsims editor Major Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK) in Norfolk, Virginia for a week, as we will co-teach a wargaming course at NATO Allied Command Transformation. You will get a PAXsims report on that after the week is done, of course.
Late March will see me tied up in the recurrent civil war in Brynania, reading 10,000+ emails, and monitoring dozens of simultaneous chatrooms and Twitter. After that comes the end of term in mid-April, along with final exams—and game projects—to grade.