Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Distributed gaming in the pandemic era

With the COVID-19 pandemic making face-to-face gaming sessions more difficult, many of us are addressing how best to adapt our games for distributed play. Back in April, for example, PAXsims featured a piece by Tim Price in which he discussed how he had run the Flattening The Curve matrix game online using Zoom and Google Slides

A few others have let us know what they are doing. Ben Taylor (Defence Research and Development Canada) notes:

A matrix game can be played over a video chat system with something like a shared Google Slide being used to provide common visibility of some form of map or other game board (which could be a dashboard of indicators in something like an economics based game). Many other types of game can be played in this manner, including board games and miniatures games.

The difficulty comes with the lack of mechanisms for negotiation between players in multi-sided/multi-player games. Some apps provide text chat channels, but often they allow chat with either a single recipient or all. This is limiting if, say, three players want to develop a common strategy. The workaround for this is to use some form of collaborative working tool that allows for multiple chatrooms with defined memberships. 

The challenges become harder with games using teams. These will require team breakout rooms to allow for team private discussions. Some video apps allow for breakout rooms and allow moderators to move people between rooms. Such a solution is much smoother running than having players leave one room and then reconnect to another. It is important that players always have access to a member of the control team to ask questions about rules, timing and the use of the provided tool(s). This means having one members of the control team per room as a minimum (which would be one per team plus one in plenary). A technical support expert who can ensure that everything is set up in advance and to deal with player technical issues may also be useful, adding another member to the control team. Teams may need to discuss issues with other teams and that will lead to the need for a tool to support all possible team-to-team communicaton channels. 

Online games are very likely to move more slowly than face-to-face games because of the artificiality of text chat and video conversations, as well as the time taken up working with the technology to leave or enter rooms, connect audio and video etc. That speaks to keeping games as simple as possible in their design.

We also recognize the challenges of trying to deal with specific player hardware/software configurations. An exercise designed to work on a reasonably large monitor with multiple open windows may be fine on a big desktop but unplayable on a smartphone. You exclude people if you specify a “proper” computer display, but you will have a real lowest common denominator problem if you allow any cell phone user to take part and have to design around their capabilities.  Similarly some applications have downloadable app and browser versions which might look the same but which also might not work in exactly the same way, and you won’t know until its too late if your players are using the version that you haven’t tested…

As game organizers it is important for us to respect our players and to make their workload as low as possible. This will make them better, more engaged, players in our game and more likely to participate again. This means that we should select tools with the easiest interfaces to use and ones where we can do as much of the work as possible for the players. This also means that we should set up our technical configurations in advance and test them thoroughly before engaging with the real players. In this sense our players are unlike hobby gamers who are prepared to make the investment in time to learn how to use online playing tools and so while these may look promising other solutions may prove more suitable in practice.   

Anja van der Hulst (TNO) commented: 

Although I love the dynamics of on-site games, I think there is quite a bit of opportunity for us to be able to test and run our games on-online with an international knowledgeable community. Our main challenges are global, so, if we also get our games running properly on-line we might be moving our field a fair bit forward.

From the discussions, this is what we need to get our games to work-digitally.


•Communication platforms that can be shared amongst all parties to be involved; 
•When needed, communication-platforms that allow secure communication;
•Accessible/Low threshold platform that do not require hours to get to know;
•Different digital rooms for syndicate processes/break out (which also requires more technical support);
•Ample possibilities for the game facilitator to control the discussion process;
•Good quality screensharing for the ‘game board’
•Shared workspaces to be able to move things (indicators/capabilities etc).

Game design-for on-line:

Novel game-design concepts for on-line crisis/wargaming. Maybe we need to limit the number of players, and we might need to create smaller subgames that can be run within 2 hours to explore isolated issues within a limited time frame.  

Fitting designs for playboards, e.g.:

•smaller and more condensed to allow for screensharing,
•allowing for logging that is visible to participants during the game,
•for crisis gaming, probably a game board should be based on indicators rather than maps.


•Trained on-line gaming facilitator- knows to optimize on-line discussions and good use of all those controls.
•Good tech support.

I have run a COVID-19 matrix game online too, and found that that was satisfactory, but less dynamic and engaging. Part of the reason for this was the probably the scenario (the resilience of fresh fruit and vegetable supply chains), which was perhaps not as exciting as others I have facilitated. However, it was also the case that players found it a little more difficult to discuss and negotiate. As Ben notes, direct chat and digital breakout rooms can address this, but they’re simply not as fluid and efficient as multitasking game play and conversations in real time. It’s also harder for a game controller and facilitator “read the room” in a digital environment and adjust gameplay accordingly. This isn’t a problem in more informal setting or with colleagues one knows well, but could be a problem in other cases.

The Brynania civil war simulation at McGill University was cancelled this year, but usually that is about two-thirds online (email, chat groups, Skype, etc). I usually let students use any digital media they wish, although this can pose a challenge to my ability to fully monitor and capture all game actions. I have also taken part in online gaming using the ICONS Project’s browser-based simulation support software, plus Skype for audio communication.

Having switched to online teaching last term, I’m fairly confident of using similar techniques to host seminar games. Play needn’t be synchronous, either–this might be an ideal time to use traditional play-by-email techniques.

I also had the opportunity to watch a digital, distributed play of AFTERSHOCK, using a Vassal module developed by Curt Pangracs and facilitated by James Sterrett at the US Army Command and General Staff College. This went well, although I find Vassal to have a steep learning curve for those who haven’t used it before. Fortunately, AFTERSHOCK is a game which runs well when players simply tells the (experienced) facilitator what to do, and the latter takes responsibility for making things happen on the digital board. We’re hoping too to see a port of AFTERSHOCK to Tabletop Simulator too.

I had already done a lot of hobby (war)gaming online, and now do even more now with the lockdown, providing an additional point of comparison. I quite enjoy role-playing games via Roll20—what one loses in the immediacy and intimacy of player interaction one gains in the ability of the platform to provide real line-of-sight map displays and hence a degree of “fog of war” that is absent from a traditional in-person game. I have also been running six hours of zombie apocalypse skirmish games with my gaming group each week, using Zoom and (figure) eye-level web cameras (see below). This set-up works even better than the regular tabletop games by providing a really effective visual portrayal and, once again, fog-of-war, more akin to a digital first person shooter than an analogue game. It is hardly a serious application, but has offered some insight into the trade-offs involved in in-person versus online play of the same game.

Finally, I’ve done some traditional miniature (ancient) wargaming, with the host simply projecting a conventional tabletop via a webcam and Zoom. This was not as satisfying as playing in person, but very enjoyable nonetheless—and was quicker and easier to arrange than a visit to his house would have been in the pre-pandemic days.

Do you have experiences of online serious gaming to share? Post them below in the comments section!

2 responses to “Distributed gaming in the pandemic era

  1. John DeRosa 30/05/2020 at 3:03 am

    We recently blended RAND’s Gaming Gray Zone Tactics and Thorston Kodalle’s Slack Matrix Gaming solution for a COVID-19 Gray Zone Wargame to consider the implications of special operations in a COVID-19 strategic environment. Five teams (3 x BLUE, 1 x RED, 1 PURPLE) used Slack, WebEx/Zoom, and OneDrive to collaborate over the course of a 2 day, 3 turn matrix wargame. BLUE were U.S. special operations planners acting as three regional task groups. RED and PURPLE were UK and US special operations and conventional force planners representing Russian and China respectively.

  2. John Mergulus 28/05/2020 at 4:40 pm

    I teach (among other things) ninth-grade geography, which doubles as a current events class, and I’ve recently used matrix games to simulate major geopolitical situations, such as the Syrian Civil War. This term we ended up stuck in virtual learning, and I planned a matrix game inspired by the South China Sea games described here on PAXsims. Essentially it was play-by-email for two weeks, giving students days at a time to text one another and develop arguments and diplomacy, and using Google Slides for the map. They would email me arguments and I would email them back summaries of each turn. We met regularly for “forums” in Google Meet, where each team could make a statement to the whole group. Not as exciting and spontaneous as in-person, but it was still fun and engaging and a good learning experience.

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