I got to participate in Connections UK last week and wanted to share some impressions of the event as a newcomer to professional wargaming.
First, the facts: the event ran for two days online using a mix of Discord as a foyer and Zoom meetings for specific sessions, of which there were many to pick from. I was able to participate in all of the plenary sessions, covering topics from bringing in the next generation of wargamers to diverse thinking and problem solving. I also got to participate in the sessions on whole of society wargaming with Anja van der Hulst, model-based pandemic response games with Ben Taylor, an academic panel on wargaming for education in academia, an improvised adjudication master class, and finally a run of Combined Arms with Philip Sabin.
My first impression was of how welcoming and accessible everyone was during the event. Getting to meet big names is usually a fleeting experience in any industry but here I got to chat and participate in small party wargames with the authors of my wargaming bibles. I have only ever run a wargame for my university students but never gotten to participate in one, let alone on ran by an experienced game master. After the game with Philip Sabin I now feel a lot more confident now in my future endeavors: I have a yardstick, a point of reference of what a good, well run and facilitated wargame looks like. On a sidenote I also got to practice some combined arms tactics I thought I knew from hobby gaming and reading, only to fail miserably in practice: I advanced multiple infantry units without suppressing the enemy… At the time I blamed my mistake on my limited understanding of the rules, but later realized I would have likely made that same mistake in reality because I hadn’t stopped to consider the situation, focusing instead only on the objective. I was ultimately saved by some lucky dice rolling, but I learnt my lesson, and am even more convinced of the great potential of wargaming as an educational tool for it.
The second impression I got from the conference was one of feeling much more tapped into the pulse of wargaming as an industry and as an ever-developing discipline, how it is being used and what its limitations are. I originally wanted to participate because I am hoping to use wargames and simulations as part of my PhD research, but though few of the sessions were directly relevant to my topic, I did pick up a lot of learning points and tangential information ranging from adjudication tips to strategies for better inclusivity. Several sessions touched on points I wholeheartedly agreed with, such as the importance of bringing in the next generation or making wargaming inclusive, and yet I hadn’t actively considered how to practice them in my own work. I feel better equipped to do so now.
My third and final impression is also my only gripe with the conference: networking. I really appreciated the effort the organizing team put into creating spaces for meeting and connecting with others, which I tried my best to take advantage of, but I feel they didn’t consider the time required to do so. The two days of the conference were chock full of sessions, with 15-minute breaks between them which more often than not ended up being 3 minutes due to inevitable overruns. As someone who wanted to participate in as many sessions as possible, the only times I really could chat with others were after the sessions, at which point 9 hours in front of a screen took its toll and what I really wanted to do was to go and have a drink outside. Here lies the main downside to online conferences for me: in person I would have hoped to grab that drink with other participants, share lunch and chat between sessions, but as much as I tried the energy isn’t the same online. I did meet some great people I hope to continue connecting with, but I also hope we will be able to have these conferences in person again sooner rather than later. My only suggestion to improve the conference then, which will be online again next year, would be to have it over more days with more time between sessions to debrief, chat and connect.
Overall, I had a blast participating in this year’s Connections UK. I got invaluable experience learning from the masters, learned a lot about wargaming as an industry and an art, connected with some brilliant people and overall feel much more engaged with wargaming overall. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to other professional newbies like me as well as anyone else with an interest in professional wargaming.