PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Hedgemony

Hedgemony: A Game of Strategic Choices (RAND, 2020). USD$250.

First of all, let us be clear that there is no typo here: RAND’s recently-published game of strategic resource management really is called “hedgemony” and not “hegemony.” There’s a good reason for that, too. In Hedgemony, the Blue side is preoccupied with allocating scarce resources, investments, and actions to counter challenges from Red. Much of this involves what international relations scholars call hedging: that is, using a mix of military and economic resources to both balance and engage, while trying to avoid costly large-scale conflict.

Hedgemony is a designed to be played with up to six players (or teams of players) divided into two sides. Blue consists of the United States and its EU/NATO allies. The Red side consists of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. The game also requires a White cell (game control, adjudication, and facilitation) of 2-4 persons. A game would typically take a half or full day. You can see RAND’s nice promotional video below

The game sequence functions like this:

  1. Red signalling. Each Red player chooses up to three investment or action cards that they might play this turn. They then brief these possible actions to the Blue side.
  2. Blue investment and actions. Have been briefed on possible threats, the Blue players decide what actions and investments they will make. Although they too have cards, they are not limited to these and may propose other actions and investments (to be adjudicated by the controller). The US will also have to spend resources to sustain its desired level of readiness.
  3. Red investment and actions. Red may now to choose to play any or all of the cards that they signalled at the start of the turn, provided they have adequate resources for this.
  4. Annual resource allocation. Players gain new resources based on the scenario and developments within the game.
Some possible Russian investments: new military forces, investment in national research and development, and arms sales to third countries.

In any phase, the White cell may inject international and domestic events, selected from an event deck or crafted for the scenario and current situation. Finally, they summarize the state of the world based on the most recent gameplay, thus setting the stage for the next turn.

Some EU/NATO events: interoperability problems, terrorism, refugees.

Key to the game is the struggle for “influence points,” which largely define success or failure. Various actions (or responses to events and actions) tend to increase or decrease each players influence.

Some international events: an earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia, Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, and growing tensions between India and Pakistan.
Some possible North Korean actions: a submarine-launched ballistic missile test, nuclear assistance to Iran, and an incursion in the DMZ. The Blue player must decide how to respond to these, and the outcome usually results in a gain or loss of influence points.

The board is divided into theatre zones, conforming to the US system of combatant commands. Because this is a strategic game focused on national resource allocations and theatre-level capabilities, military assets are abstracted to “force factors.” There is no differentiation of land, air, maritime, cyber, or space assets. However, forces do have a modernization level, which shapes their effectiveness for military operations. The game also tracks national technology levels, as well as certain critical capabilities (such as C4ISR, special operations forces, long-range fires, nuclear capabilities, integrated air and missile defence). There are also special rules for proxy forces.

The China display board, with two actions (Belt and Road initiative, economic cooperation in Africa) and one investment (building a permanent overseas base in another region) signalled.

Hedgemony comes with an extensive rulebook, player’s guide, and glossary, all of which are available as free downloads from the RAND website. There is also a game board/map (27’x36″), markers for forces, indicators for national displays, information displays and place tags for each actor, quick reference charts, and dice. The game materials are generally of very high quality. The force markers are rather small (and with very small printing on them), however. They are also laser-cut and rather sooty—I had to frequently wipe my hands when using them to avoid transferring black carbon smudges to other game materials. If I was using Hedgemony regularly I would probably invest in some plastic chips and laser-printed round labels to make them all a bit more substantial.

The game board and some of the (itsy-bitsy) force factors and dice for scale.

At the time of writing, the pandemic precludes a proper playtest: to do the game full justice you really need a dozen people in a room for a few hours discussing resource allocation and strategic options. However, I had the good fortune to take part in a few moves of the game via a Zoom call with the RAND designers and others. I liked what I saw.

Hedgemony is very much a serious game intended to spark thoughtful discussion on strategic issues, rather than a game designed for hobby play. The game strikes a good balance between the structure of a rigid, written ruleset and opportunities for more freeform adjudicated improvisation. If I were running a session I could even see switching to a quick round of matrix game-style argumentation to resolve actions outside the written rules and cards.

You do, however, need controllers and facilitators who know what they are doing. While the action and investment cards are clear enough, some of the resource bookkeeping could get a bit confusing for players, and they probably need to be talked through how the combat adjudication charts works if they have never seen a CRT (combat results table) before, especially given the need to take force modernization levels into consideration. It might be useful if RAND were to post a a “how to” video showing a full turn of game play to help those who are thinking of using it.

For my part, I will certainly be using it in my conflict simulation course at McGill University when we return to regular teaching next academic year.

One response to “Review: Hedgemony

  1. Vanguars 02/11/2020 at 7:47 pm

    I’m in the middle of doing a few games to test its use for lessons and a few issues keep cropping up as I facilitate and prepare:

    1: Grey Zone activities seem to end conclusively instead of festering or escalating. Besides leaving behind proxy forces, which is frequently inappropriate, there are limited in-built methods to create a sufficient recording of Grey Zone activities and responses. Salami tactics don’t work if you don’t keep slicing.

    2: Tiered readiness feels…wrong? The savings are minimal, and I got a comment on how just eliminating a Force Factor would also represent tiered readiness.

    3: Resolving competition is fiddly. From an academic view, I love the 5 layered charts the US team has to go through to arrive at a conclusion to combat, but considering how the real game is in the decision space of deciding how to respond to Red and not going through charts, I felt myself wanting to skip through the conflicts and get to the next decision.

    4: How IS the US-DoD team supposed to respond? If the Red elaboration during signaling is done effectively, DoD intervention/opposition frequently sounds like the wrong solution or overblown escalation. Rand’s “Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Grey Zone” and the 2018 NSS make me want a State/Treasury/Commerce/Justice team to give a wider, multilateral, non-kinetic perspective, but I also want to keep to the spirit of the design and stay focused on the military levers.

    5: Non-US Players have a lot of downtime unless you draw them into US actions. The EU/NATO team seems to have a LOT of downtime, as their victory condition is focused on Russia and they are not well-positioned to respond to any of the other Red teams outside of interfering in former colonies or economic pressure. What are other people doing with their EU/NATO team?

    6: Africa, South America, and Space matter less? It felt odd that despite evidence of Diplomatic, Economic, Military, and Intelligence interests in these AoRs, the Red Action cards hardly touch them, and the International Events dealing with the regions were the usual Narcos, Disease, Migrants, and Instability stories. Plus Kony. Maybe I should keep my hope for more representative narratives out of strategic thinking, but it seems like a mistake.

    With more playthroughs and a LOT more background reading, I hope to address these and bring my conclusions back to PAXsims. Until then, constructive thoughts on these issues would be appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: