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Daily Archives: 18/12/2019

RAND: Gaming the gray zone

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RAND has released a new report by Stacie L. Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser on Competing in the Gray Zone: Russian Tactics and Western Responses. This addresses two major sets of research questions: first, “How are gray zone activities defined? What are different types of gray zone tactics?” and second “Where are vulnerabilities to gray zone tactics in Europe? What are those vulnerabilities?”

Recent events in Crimea and the Donbass in eastern Ukraine have upended relations between Russia and the West, specifically the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Although Russia’s actions in Ukraine were, for the most part, acts of outright aggression, Russia has been aiming to destabilize both its “near abroad” — the former Soviet states except for the Baltics — and wider Europe through the use of ambiguous “gray zone” tactics. These tactics include everything from propaganda and disinformation to election interference and the incitement of violence.

To better understand where there are vulnerabilities to Russian gray zone tactics in Europe and how to effectively counter them, the RAND Corporation ran a series of war games. These games comprised a Russian (Red) team, which was tasked with expanding its influence and undermining NATO unity, competing against a European (Green) team and a U.S. (Blue) team, which were aiming to defend their allies from Red’s gray zone activities without provoking an outright war. In these games, the authors of this report observed patterns of behavior from the three teams that are broadly consistent with what has been observed in the real world. This report presents key insights from these games and from the research effort that informed them.

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While the study is interesting enough as it is, RAND has also released a second 45 page monograph by Becca Wasser, Jenny Oberholtzer, Stacie L. Pettyjohn, and William Mackenzie that outlines the gaming methodology adopted: Gaming Gray Zone Tactics: Design Considerations for a Structured Strategic Game.

Research Questions

  1. Can a game model gray zone competition in a empirically ground sound yet playable way?
  2. What is the game design process for developing a structured strategic game for a complex political-military issue that simultaneously operates in two different time horizons?
  3. How can structured strategic gaming help researchers gain an understanding of adversary gray zone tactics and tools?

To explore how Russia could use gray zone tactics and to what effect, the authors of this report developed a strategic-level structured card game examining a gray zone competition between Russia and the West in the Balkans. In these games, the Russian player seeks to expand its influence and undermine NATO unity while competing against a European team and a U.S. team seeking to defend their allies from Russia’s gray zone activities without provoking an outright war. This report details the authors’ development of this game, including key design decisions, elements of the game, how the game is played, and the undergirding research approach. The authors conclude with recommendations for future applications of the game design.

Key Findings

The Balkans gray zone game demonstrated that structured strategy games are useful exploratory tools and this model could be adapted for other contexts and adversaries.

  • While the gray zone remains a murky topic, this game demonstrated that it was feasible to break the gray zone down into concrete parts, to conduct research on each of these parts, and to link these components to create a playable strategic game that yielded useful insights.
  • The scoped and structured approach to this game allowed for enough structure to keep discussions on track and provided links between inputs and outputs while still allowing for creativity, flexibility, and transparency.
  • This gray zone game can be adapted to focus on different regions or adversaries, could include additional allies, or could be made into a three-way competition.

The RAND team started with a series of matrix games to scope out the problem, and then progressed to semi-structured game. Finally, they moved on to creating a structured, three-sided (US, Europe, Russia) gray zone board game focused on the Balkans.

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Countries were tracked for governance quality and diplomatic-political orientation, as well as economic dependence (on Russia) and media freedom.

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Players acted through a deck of action cards, each specific to the actor(s) they represented. Potential Russian (RED) actions are shown above, and sample cards below)

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The report discusses the game design approaches taken, assesses their utility, and concludes with some suggestions as to future modifications.

All-in-all, it is a rare and outstanding example of serious game designers fully documenting their game design approach and research methods so as to inform future work on the issue. Kudos to all!


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Review: Longley-Brown, Successful Professional Wargames (2019)

The following review was contributed to PAXsims by Ben Taylor.


Graham Longley-Brown, Successful Professional Wargames; A Practitioner’s Handbook (History of Wargaming Project, 2019). £21.95 paperback. Kindle version also available.

This book is a valuable addition to the professional wargamer’s library. If this was just a compendium of the best practices from the viewpoint of Graham Longley-Brown, master wargamer, driving force behind the Connections UK conference and all-round good egg, then it would be a worthwhile investment. This book is actually far more than that.

SPWcoverThe book was written in parallel to the UK MOD’s Defence Wargaming Handbook (reviewed on PAXsims here) with the intention of providing an expanded practitioner’ guide to those tasked with actually designing and delivering games. Wargaming stakeholders who need to know what a wargame is and why they should want one only need the shorter volume. For those tasked with putting the message into practice this new volume rehearses similar ideas and arguments but with more detailed thoughts and copious practical guidance. This common alignment is important because if your boss has a copy of the Wargaming Handbook and is looking motivated to get some wargaming done, then there is nothing in the Practitioner’s Handbook will contradict anything that the boss is expecting!

While Graham Longley-Brown has many years of experience in wargaming with the British military he took the decision to not limit his new book to his own perspectives and ideas. A supporting cast of experts have been included, each making niche contributions. The guest list reads like a who’s who of the core community that the Connections UK meetings are built around. Indeed PAXsims had to really scrape the bottom of the barrel to find a reviewer who was not a contributing author to this volume.

The book is divided into four parts. These address in turn wargaming fundamentals, the conditions for successful wargames, the wargame development lifecycle and practicing successful wargames.  In short these combine to illustrate the why, what and how of modern professional wargames. This is very much a resource to dip into, rather than to read cover-to-cover. At over 450 pages there is an awful lot of detail but it is very well structured and set out so that the reader can dive into any section and glean useful advice in support of their own efforts. That said, I did find the layout a little confusing in paces. In some areas there are lots of subheadings, quotes and inset verbatim text from the Wargaming Handbook which make the document feel a little fractured. In addition the guest contributors have contributed a mix of stand-alone paragraphs or chapters-within-chapters which contribute to the sense of fragmentation. Taken as a whole the book is an excellent resource, even if opening to a page at random can sometimes be a bit confusing. Starting at the beginning of a section and reading through the advice that Graham and his guest contributors have assembled on a topic in sequence is definitely the way to go.

In conclusion, this book captures very well the state of the art in professional military wargaming in the UK. If you are interested in designing or running smaller-scale games and/or games outside of the military environment then some elements of the book may be of less immediate value. This is after all the handbook for professionals running professional games.  That said, whatever kind of game you design or play you can’t fail to find something insightful and inspiring in this book.

Ben Taylor

 


 

UPDATE. Graham Longley-Brown sent on some comments, which I’ve appended to the review so everyone is sure to see them.

Hi Ben, and thank you for your kind words. I’d like to add a comment and make an offer to anyone wondering whether to buy the book.

First, although the book is inevitably written from my UK perspective, I’ve done all I can to include contributions from around the world, so I’d push back slightly at the implication that the book offers a UK-centric view. Indeed, all contributed chapters were from US folk and a Canadian (Rex 😊). Many of the points I make are indeed sourced from Connections UK, but that conference encompasses a truly international family. I attribute comments where I can, but much else of what I consider to be best practice I have picked up from fantastic international speakers at Connections UK and elsewhere.

Second, I agree wholeheartedly that the book should be dipped in to, but chapters read from their beginning. Respecting all the different perspectives offered by contributors and advice from reviewers and commentators led to a large amount of sometimes overlapping information that could be difficult to prise apart. If anyone asks, I will gladly send them the mind maps I used to structure the overall book and each chapter (or post them here if Rex thinks that appropriate). These show the contents and structure of each chapter at a glance, as you can see below.Contents v7.7.jpg

Chapter 2. What is a wargame.jpg

Finally, thanks to Ben and Rex for making the – considerable! – time to review the book. Successful Professional Wargames is an attempt to spread best practice and stimulate debate, so it’s great to see it on PAXsims, which is so effective in doing the same thing.


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