Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

A seat at the gaming table: MORS Wargaming Certificate

The following article was written for PAXsims by Nathalie Marver-Kwon, a sophomore at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service studying geography and Russian. She is a teaching assistant for geography and engages in research on Russian geopolitics. She is the Secretary / Treasurer for Georgetown University Wargaming Society (GUWS) and an aspiring wargame designer. She is originally from Seattle, WA. 

From October 24th through October 28th, 2022, I attended MORS and Virginia Tech’s Certificate in Wargaming course. I was able to attend through a scholarship granted to me directly by the program, the first of an annual prize for undergraduate and graduate students with demonstrated interest in professional wargaming. I felt incredibly lucky to be sitting in the same Zoom call as professional wargamers and analysts from all over the world. Through the course, I wanted to learn how to design and develop games in a structured way. More importantly, the MORS certificate represented a significant first step into the world of professional wargaming, an historically exclusive field.

On the first day Peter Perla walked us through his Artist, Analyst, Architect model on game design. He emphasized there is no one-size-fits-all for the design process. Similarly, the players who make up the game are just as important to the gameplay as the design. If a group of experts is playing a game on their expertise, their decision-making in the gamespace will be influenced by their knowledge. A game of non-experts in the same game will engage with the game content more intuitively and less knowledgeably – focusing more on the inherent incentives of the game design. As game designers and facilitators, it is important we keep the audience in mind as we consider the best way to adjudicate and hot-wash. How can we as facilitators maintain positive neutrality in gameplay and still engage the players? “Reading the room” is a necessary soft skill for wargame facilitators, a skill developed through practice and experience. This idea is especially important if we want to diversify the wargaming community by encouraging game participation from newcomers.

James “Pigeon” Fielder explored the idea of the “magic circle” with us– the mental space where the game actually takes place. As Perla explained, the real game is inside the player’s heads, where they make decisions, and assess their role in the whole. This environment of decision-making is what distinguishes a wargame from other forms of analysis or M&S. The physical game is the symbolic representation and medium of that mental space. When players are in the magic circle, they identify with their role in the game and engage with it as if it is real. Understanding player psychology is a key part of the design process as we pick what physical pieces of the game can best hold dynamic play meaning. For example, character cards give players a basis for their role while leaving room for personal injects; movement-constrained player pieces inherently nudge players towards spatial thinking. Anticipating which mode of thinking a player will utilize in the game will inform what pieces to provide them to that end.

Mike Markowitz’s presentation on graphic design answered more of my questions about practical game design. What do colors convey? What implicit meaning does map orientation hold? As a designer, it is easy to burrow into a checklist of necessary game parts– die, board, cards. But if I learned anything, it’s that answering the human-centered questions about a game concept is primary, and the mechanics will follow from there. Asking “what happens in the real world with this concept?” answers the question of “how should my players receive or relay information in the game world of this concept?” From there, we can parse down the information input into simple but significant design components.

The most helpful part of the class was putting the ideas we had learned all week into practice on the last day. Paul Vebber and Dr. Ed McGrady facilitated a brainstorm, and then broke us into small groups to discuss each other’s ideas. My small group outlined a rough plan for how we would execute a game about state capture. Condensing our ideas and understanding of state capture into simple mechanics was difficult. At times, we got caught in details of team size and turn quantity, which felt a bit abstracted from the game concept– picking between two and three people per team felt arbitrary. However, as I reminded myself, the difference between two and three people as a thought-group is vast, and could influence how that team plays and approaches intra-team negotiation. Refocusing our mechanics meant tying team size back to the actual politics of state capture and returning to those fundamental concept questions. I enjoyed the process and learned a lot from the ideas of my classmates. Their different perspectives and experiences were reflected in their approach to game design and analysis. If I could change one thing about the course, I would have liked more time to pick the brains of the other participants after each lesson and activity.

Thank you to the instructors, Dr. Ed McGrady, Peter Perla, Paul Vebber, Phil Pournelle, Mike Markowitz, James “Pigeon” Fielder, and Becca Wasser for their time and expertise. Thank you to the MORS staff for hosting the class. I have so many ideas for game designs I want to pursue now, and the toolkit to approach it. Institutional access to the MORS course and other official forums for wargaming is essential for young wargamers and aspiring designers. Meeting wargamers far into their career and learning the trade from them gave me a view of the path I am following and what lies at the end.

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