PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: methodology

Matrix games at the Canadian Army Simulation Centre

The following report was prepared for PAXsims by David Banks and Brian Phillips.


Dave Banks Facilitating.jpg

Dave Banks of the Canadian Army Simulation Centre facilitates the use of a matrix wargame during the 2019 Civil-Military Interagency Planning Seminar.

For the first time in its ten year history, a matrix game was employed during the Civilian Military Interagency Planning Seminar (CMIPS) conducted from 18 to 20 June 2019 at Fort Frontenac in Kingston, Ontario. The planning seminar is run annually by the Canadian Army’s Formation Training Group with support from the Canadian Army Simulation Centre (CASC).

 

Background

The intent of CMIPS is to foster understanding among the interagency participants with the intent of building better relationships in advance of any future interaction overseas or domestic settings.  The CMIPS had approximately 50 participants with half coming from the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and the remainder drawn from other government departments and international and local non-governmental organizations. The participants were broken into balanced groups of military and civilians who then discussed a common scenario by way of a table top exercise (TTX). While this is a proven approach, the event organizer, Steve Taylor, felt that a matrix game could be an interesting improvement to the Seminar this year.

Dave Banks and Brian Phillips, Calian Activity Leads (ALs) at CASC, with the support of CASC and the help of the other Calian Activity Leads, designed, developed and conducted a Matrix Game for one syndicate of the CMIPS. Dave Banks served as the Controller for the activity and Brian Phillips served as the Scribe.

This matrix game was intended to:

  • foster cooperation and understanding among the players (primary goal);
  • be a proof of concept for CASC in applying matrix games as a training and education tool; and
  • introduce the players to matrix games.

 

Conduct

The matrix game was held over two days followed by a review on the third day. Specifically:

Day 1 consisted of an introduction to matrix games,  a briefing on the specific matrix game set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a short read-in, and concluded with two hrs of play (two turns). During Day 1 the problem faced by the actors was the likely arrival of Ebola to North Kivu province. As much as possible, the participants represented their own, or a similar agency, during the game.

Day 2 consisted of two and a half hours of additional play. During this session a random event card was played that depicted the President of the DRC dying in a plane crash on landing at Goma in North Kivu province. While foul play was not suspected, the death of the president was expected to disrupt the political environment and potentially heighten the risk of violence throughout the DRC and in North Kivu in particular.

 

Differences from Other Matrix Games

While there is no definitive form or format for a matrix game, there were a few features of the CMIPS game that might not be commonly found in other matrix games.

Actor Cards.  The CASC product had fairly detailed Actor cards which included:

  • a brief outline of the nature, purpose and involvement of the Actor in the situation;
  • the Actor’s objectives, both overt and covert (where applicable);
  • the Actor’s limitations (ie: actions it would never take);
  • any specific special capabilities the Actor possessed (such as the ability to provide air or ground transport, deploy medical teams, etc);
  • the number, type and general location of map counters allocated to the Actor; and
  • a recap of the basic game procedures and concepts.

Further differences included having turns divided into three phases:

  1. Negotiation Phase (10 mins). During this phase the Players had 10 minutes to negotiate any support or cooperation they required amongst themselves.
  2. Argument Phase. Each player in sequence made their argument for their Actor’s action for that turn. Actions were adjudicated using a Pro and Con system and two six-sided dice.  Each player had a maximum of five minutes for their action which was strictly enforced by the Controller.
  3. Consequence Management (10 mins). During this phase the Scribe read back the Actions for the turn and some of the consequences were articulated including some consequences that the Players were unlikely to have foreseen.

 

Results

Overall, the matrix game was very well received by the participants. While the matrix game participants did not go into as much fine detail as some of the other syndicates did in their TTXs, the matrix game was immersive. One civilian participant remarked that the experience of uncertainty going into the first negotiation phase was exactly the same sort of experience that he had getting oriented on a previous humanitarian mission.

 

Key Findings

  • As this was the first matrix game run by ALs from CASC the three play testing sessions conducted prior to the event proved to be invaluable. Even with facilitators with significant experience in running TTXs, the specific preparation of the play testing was instrumental in successfully executing the matrix game at the first attempt. The time invested in deliberate play-testing and game development is well spent.
  • The two-person facilitation team of a Controller and a Scribe worked very well. Both the Controller and Scribe exercised firm control at different times to ensure the game stayed within the admittedly fairly wide arcs established for play. We strongly believe that this firm control is vital to the success of a matrix game: without it there is a risk that the game may degenerate, particularly if there are strong personalities around the table.
  • The key advantage of the matrix game noted by the players over a traditional TTX was the fact that the players had to participate. They could not sit at the table and just observe one or two participants dominate a TTX, rather, they had to make decisions and actively contribute.
  • There is ample reference material readily available to build matrix games from The Matrix Game Handbook(Curry et al.) to the Matrix Game Construction Kit offered by PAXsims and several online resources. As such it was fairly easy to find useful graphics for game pieces as well as ideas for rules, event cards, and game conduct through a simple web search. Tom Mouat’s website was invaluable and his Practical Advice on Matrix Games v10 was particularly useful.
  • The formal turn-structure of phased turns including, in particular, a Negotiation Phase, directly contributed to achieving the game objective of fostering co-operation and understanding amongst the players. The inclusion of a Negotiation Phase was one of the outputs of the three play-testing sessions.
  • The Consequence Management (CM) Phase was only partially successful. In future, this phase would benefit from some modification in implementation. At the end of the turn there should be a slight pause while the Controller and Scribe discuss CM and how they want it to proceed as it can function almost like a random event card. Thus CM should be implemented with some care and forethought. Whether that should be done as part of the CM phase or perhaps the CM phase should revert to a Situation Update/Summary phase. In the later case, the CM could be determined by the Controller and Scribe during the Negotiation Phase and briefed at the end of that phase. This will be play tested prior to the next running of the CMIPS matrix game.

 

Conclusion

The feedback from the CMIPS participants indicates that a matrix game proved to be a worthwhile investment of time and resources. These games take longer to prepare than a traditional TTX but the players’ active participation in the game experience made it a valuable learning event.

Matrix games have been added to the toolset offered by CASC and future serials of the CMIPS will likely continue to use this innovative activity.

 


Authors 

Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) David Banks served 38 years in the Infantry, both Regular and Reserve. He is a graduate of the Canadian Army Command and Staff College 1990 and is a Distinguished Graduate of the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College Quantico 1997-98. David has completed a number of overseas operational tours including Afghanistan, and participated in several major domestic operations in Canada. He has worked as an Activity Lead for Calian in support of the Canadian Army Simulation Centre and the Canadian Army Formation Training Group since 2011.

Lieutenant-Colonel (Retired) Brian Phillips spent 27 years in the Regular and Reserve force initially as an Infantry Officer and later as an Intelligence Officer. Brian holds an MA in War Studies (1993) and an MA in Defense Studies (2015) both from the Royal Military College of Canada and he is a graduate of the Canadian Army Command and Staff College in Kingston (2005) and the Joint Command and Staff Programme in Toronto (2015). Brian’s operational experience includes the 1997 Manitoba Floods, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Middle-East, Haiti with the DART in 2010 and Afghanistan twice. He has been employed as an Intelligence Specialist and Activity Lead for Calian in support of the Canadian Army Simulation Centre since 2017.

Lacey: Teaching operational maneuver

The following piece has been contributed by Dr. James Lacey, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Marine Corps War College and author of the recently-released The Washington War: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Politics of Power That Won World War II.


Lacey-9.png

Picture credit: War on the Rocks

TEACHING OPERATIONAL MANEUVER

For well over five decades the U.S. Military has ruled the tactical battlefield. While much of this tactical superiority is explained by superior military technology, it mostly reflects the literally thousands of “set and reps” tactical leaders receive in training events, professional military educations system (PME), and actual combat. We have highly capable and rapidly adaptive tactical units because, to a degree unequaled in other militaries, U.S forces really do train as they fight. As such, the battlefield is a familiar place, and given virtually any situation, an American combat leader can instantly reach into his memory to retrieve a similar circumstance from training.

This capacity of “instantaneous pattern recognition” is what keeps leaders from freezing in combat. So, although every training or combat situation has its own unique elements, effective training almost always creates sufficient similarities for experienced leaders to draw upon a stored “mental template” to rapidly build, in their mind’s eye, an accurate picture of the fight, and to immediately start making decisions. It is during home station training, while at training centers, on deployments, and in classrooms that our tactical leaders get the “sets and reps” they require to “see” the battlefield and react rapidly and appropriately, while under the stress of combat.

Unfortunately, none, or precious little, of this level of preparation exists at the operational level and above. While we are fantastic at fighting battalions and regiments/BCTs, the skills necessary to fight a dozen or two dozen BCTs as a coherent whole in a swirling maneuver battlefield have atrophied. If Multi-Domain Battle is going to become a battlefield reality, we must once again teach senior leaders how to fight battles, campaigns, and wars above the BCT level. Further, rising senior leaders need to relearn the art of combining a series of battles into combinations of war-winning campaigns.

Some may argue that PME accomplishes this at the ILE level.  And admittedly, there are some small pockets where the rudiments of what is necessary are still being taught, but, for the most part, ILE (and related) institutions no longer teach operational maneuver.  Instead they teach the “process.” Told to get ‘Force A’ to ‘Objective X’, an ILE graduate can layout courses of action, and present a plan to move along ‘Axis Y or Z’ to arrive at the objective. They can also do much of the detailed staff planning necessary to make such a move possible. What they cannot tell you is whether “Objective X” was the right place to assault in the first place.

I first noted that our senior officers had no idea about how to ‘think about or conduct’ an operational battle while attending various Service wargames. For instance, in one major game the scenario called for US and NATO troops to retake the Baltics, currently occupied by Russian forces. The solution that a room full of field grade officers arrived at was to send the attacking force straight north from Poland. The predictable enemy response was to launch the 1stGuards Tank Army into the attacking force’s unprotected flanks and rear – obliterating the four NATO divisions.

This only confirms something that has disturbed me ever since I began employing wargames in War College classrooms. To help the students master the mechanics of these complex games I bring in local civilians with years of operational and strategic level wargaming experience… but no military experience. In every case, no matter the time-period, or the game level (strategic or operational), the war college students are consistently outclassed by civilian hobbyists – it is not even close. This holds true even after the students have played the game a few times and fully understand the game rules and mechanics.  Time and again, my students are out-thought by civilians with no military experience or education.

This does not mean that civilian wargamers would be effective on a real battlefield.  In truth, few of them could lead a platoon out of a paper bag and most of them would seize-up if confronted by a real combat situation.  Moreover, wargamers lack the experienced-based judgement that is a product of years of training and combat experience.  When one plays a wargame, every unit has a set of assigned numbers, which typically everyone knows at the start of the game. For instance, unit counters will typically have their strength, speed of movement, and other factors printed on them. So, when a friendly unit runs into an enemy unit one can quickly calculate relative strengths and with a glance at the game’s combat results table instantly know the probability of success of any engagement.  In real life things are never that easy.  A unit’s strength is always a judgement call that must be made by an experienced commander. Moreover, this judgement (a mental number) is constantly changing as the battlefield situation evolves.  For instance, a battalion commander might mentally consider his best company a “10” on a scale of 1 to 10.  But, maybe he will assign that same company a “6” after it has been in prolonged combat for 72-hours without a rest… and reduce it further to a “4” or lower if it has lost a few key leaders. If he manages to rotate the company out of the line for 48-hours rest he may, once again, elevate it to a “7”, and then make it an “8” based on getting some quality replacements. In combat commanders are continually assessing their units and judging their relative effectiveness; no one is giving them that number.  Moreover, the best commanders are doing the same thing when they judge the relative combat power of their battlefield opponents.

At the operational level of war, the capacity to make such judgements are the result of years (decades) of accumulated experience. This is why the judgement of wargamers cannot be applied in an actual combat environment. Still, wargames remain the only way to “simulate” war at the operational level and above, short of training maneuvers on a scale no one is willing to pay for. And despite the shortcomings of wargames and civilian wargamers as military leaders, a singular truth remains; at the strategic and operational level, civilian wargamers display a capacity for “instant pattern recognition” that very few field grade officers can match. In most cases, a civilian wargamer requires only a cursory glance at a map and a rudimentary understanding of the game mechanics and objectives to comprehend the entire situation and decide on a course of action. Similarly, I can set up actual operational or strategic situations from World War II (or any past war) on a map and the civilian wargamers will come up with a plan of action in a fraction of the time it takes most professional military officers.

The answer appears simple; our PME systems must wed its students’ undoubted tactical expertise, leadership abilities, and judgement to the “instant” operational and strategic “pattern recognition” that many civilian wargamers possess. Getting there, however, is not going to be easy, as it means undertaking a major curriculum upheaval within almost every PME institution at the ILE level and above.

For over a decade-and-a-half, field grade PME institutions have been focused on teaching leaders how to integrate an all of government approach to fighting COIN conflicts. Given the global situation – almost all of the nation’s landpower engaged in two COIN fights – this was undoubtedly the right thing to do. But, while we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world refused to sit still. As we rise our sights above the COIN fight we find ourselves confronting two global military powers, each capable of meeting U.S. forces on the battlefield as peer competitors. It took nearly a decade to get the right people within PME to transform our institutions into COIN academies. Unfortunately, our potential peer-level opponents are unlikely to allow us that much time to realign curriculums back toward operational maneuver.

At this level of warfare civilian wargamers have a tremendous intellectual lead over most military professionals, as they typically have thousands more strategic and operational “reps and sets” than the average field grade officer. Our nation has been served well by company, battalion and brigade level leaders who, because of enduring thousands of “tactical reps”, have repeatedly proven themselves demonstrably superior to their battlefield opponents.  After two decades of training and combat experience we can be reasonably sure that a lieutenant-colonel confronted with almost any tactical situation (real or simulated) will think quickly, move rapidly, and act decisively; all because he has a stored “mental template” to work from. But, unless they are self-taught, military leaders are given few, if any, “reps and sets” at the operational level. Consequently, when confronted with an operational or strategic level problem, their capacity for rapid and decisive action vanishes.

The second great advantage civilian wargamers have over most military professionals is a deep grounding in history, particularly military history. That this advantage exists is somewhat surprising, as military officers are told from the start of their careers that they need to read widely and deeply into all aspects of military history. Unfortunately, disturbingly few bother to do so.

Almost every wargame hobbyist I have met is a walking encyclopedia of historical knowledge. Sit down to play one in a simulation of the Battle of Gettysburg and you will discover that they not only know the big events of the battle; most of them can also tell you what time and from what direction each of Hill’s and Ewell’s brigades arrived on the first day.  But their knowledge usually goes far deeper than such minutiae. Over numerous discussions, I have discovered that they are almost always well-read on the politics, diplomacy, and economics behind any strategic game or simulation. In fact, when it comes to discussing history the average wargamer of my experience can hold his own with any War College faculty member.

Consequently, when a wargame hobbyist examines a new operational or strategic situation he draws upon a huge reservoir of knowledge to contextualize and understand what he is looking at. In short, he has thousands of “mental templates” in his head that help him make sense of even the most complex situations. Moreover, they also have a very good idea of what others have done in similar situations – what worked and what failed.  On the other hand, the typical field grade officer, bereft of the opportunity to develop such “mental templates”, views every situation they are exposed to (and that is way too few) as something totally new… and every approach as novel.

As we begin to reform and realign PME our first question must be: how do we take tactically proficient proven leaders and turn them into – to use an old term – maneuverists? There really is only a single answer; it is the same one that that made them masters of the tactical battlefield. We must increase the number of operational and strategic “reps and sets” they are exposed too. This is the only way to instill in our future senior leaders the “instant pattern recognition” necessary to make them outstanding operational commanders and strategic thinkers.

There are, regrettably, no quick fixes for this problem, as there is no crash course that will give senior leaders the thousands of operational or strategic “reps” they require. Moreover, while most would agree that a leader’s progress toward higher levels of operational and strategic comprehension should start early in their careers, this has always proven a bridge too far. Besides, this is the time when young leaders must focus on the basics of the profession, learning how to lead, and becoming tactical masters.  We can, however, certainly do much better in placing more operational maneuver wargaming and simulations at the ILE level. And then using the war colleges to reinforce these initial “reps and sets”.

I am not advocating turning the “entire” curriculum over to wargaming/simulations and other forms of experiential learning, but they can and should become the “centerpiece” of operational level and strategic education. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Paul Selva have written: “Should we instead think about using wargames that explore joint multidimensional combat operations to pursue our JPME objectives? Building school curriculums around wargaming might help spark innovation and inculcate the entire Joint Force with a better appreciation and understanding of trans-regional, cross-domain, multidimensional combat.” Only by placing our future senior commanders within a series of operational and strategic situations can they begin building the “mental templates” and decision-making skills necessary for success on the maneuver battlefields of the 21stcentury. Time spent on often useless electives would be much better used running a series of operational and strategic exercises (or other experiential learning events) that will teach as well as challenge students at the higher levels of warfare.

The second part of the solution is to finally get serious about teaching military history to future strategic leaders. By this, I mean history writ large, in a program where military history is the focus, but also includes the political, economic, and diplomatic contexts in which conflicts are conducted.  It is no longer sufficient to create a booklist and hope officers read it (most do not). A professional reading program must be instituted and enforced (not talked about) at every level. At its best, such a program would eschew lists of required books, in favor of something akin to study guides. For instance, an officer desiring to develop a better understanding of the American Civil War, would be able to access a 2 or 3-page guide that lists a number of books he can choose from, depending on what his current emphasis of study is.

Where would I like us to get to? As a start, I would hope that every field grade officer would have the knowledge to reply to General Bernard Law Montgomery’s request for three courses of action to take Arnhem with: “Sir, should we not first consider taking Antwerp?

If you have no idea what the above analogy references, or you don’t know why “Antwerp” is the right answer then your study of military history is sadly deficient.  Get to work on that.

James Lacey
ME - 2

 

Wargaming and its place in PME

WoTRLeeLewis.png

War on the Rocks has just published a piece by Carrie Lee and Bill Lewis of the US Air War College entitled “Wargaming Has a Place, But is No Panacea for Professional Military Education.”

The school year is about to start, and not just for the kids. Senior-level professional military education is about to begin a new academic year, with new classes of students from across the services preparing to embark upon ten months of education that is meant to elevate their thinking from the operational and tactical to the strategic level. In the two years since the release of the National Defense Strategy (and the now-infamous paragraph that declared professional military education to be “stagnant”), a heated debate has emerged on the pages of this website about the best ways to accomplish the mission of professional military education. Suggestions for improvement have spanned the gamut, from teaching students to be good staffers to introducing diversity — both in the faculty and the curriculum — to improving the ways in which we assess strategic competency. Others have pushed back, pointing out that professional military education already is highly responsive to change and warning about the dangers of the “good idea fairy.” In April, James Lacy of the Marine War College proposed another solution: All professional military education institutions should include board game wargaming as a part of their curriculum.

While this recommendation may hold appeal with those who are explicitly focused on military history and operational art, Lacey’s proposal is both short-sighted and misses the importance of diversity in professional military education — both between service colleges and in the curriculum itself. There is little doubt that experiential learning can be a valuable part of any education, including professional military education. But it also comes in many forms, all of which have benefits and costs. If the mission of professional military education is to educate the next generation of senior leaders about the strategic level of war and expose them to the tools they will need to succeed at that level, then we must use a variety of methods across the service colleges, rather than defaulting to a series of one-size-fits-all solutions.

They conclude:

In order to best educate and prepare our students for this complex and challenging environment, a variety of tools are necessary, and “one size fits all” solutions may do more harm than good. There are many types of immersive programs that can be employed to achieve a broad range of learning objectives. We should strive to view our curriculum not as a checklist of required activities but instead as a wholistic educational experience.

Lee and Lewis are right, of course, that serious gaming is not some magic educational bullet. It takes times. Not all wargames are fit for educational purpose, even if they work well as hobby or analytical games. Academic schedules are crowded, and you can only do so much. There are many teaching techniques available. There is even overwhelming evidence that simulations, when used poorly, can do educational damage.

That being said, I’m not sure they really offer a great deal of guidance in what should be used when and in what ways, how this relates to other teaching techniques, and how we know we measure the effectiveness of all this.

Jim Lacey, who the authors critique as a point of departure, was quick to post a response to Facebook (reproduced here with permission):

Well it is not every day my approach to teaching strategic studies is called “shortsighted” by folks who apparently have no idea what I do. But, I suppose it is always an easy-out to set up a strawman – no matter how it departs from reality – as a foil to base an article upon .

In any event, it may have helped if you had read my earlier article on the topic

But in hopes of increasing your understanding of how we educate MCWAR students, please allow me to offer the following.. During the course of the year MCWAR students participate in a number of experiential events, including:

  • Conducting several staff rides, including Yorktown, the Overland Campaign, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Normandy. – FYI, the students also go on a two week trip to either Europe and Asia to immerse themselves in current issues
  • Engaging in multiple simulations (as you describe them). This includes participating in two multi-day geopolitical simulation at Tufts and Georgetown universities. Moreover, we employ a number of in-house simulations throughout a spectrum of historical, current, and future related topics.
  • I would dare say we also employ a large number of models (as you describe them) throughout the year.
  • When it comes to wargaming MCWAR employs the entire gamut: seminar games, matrix games, board games, computer assisted games, etc.
  • Engage in a number of simulations and wargames based on future scenarios against China, Russia, and Iran, which feed directly into ongoing concept development and Title 10 wargames
  • We also use boardgames, but they remain both a subset of our overall curriculum and a subset of our experiential learning program.

In any event, boardgames are never used in isolation. Let me give one example.

As part of our military history curriculum we examine the Civil War. The structure of that program breaks down as follows:

  1. The students are given a set of readings to finish before they enter the classroom
  2. They are then directed to a website I am developing, where they can listen to lectures from some of the best Civil War historians in the nation.
  3. They are also given CDs so that they can listen to other lectures in their cars
  4. Then, once they have absorbed this material, we conduct our seminar sessions. We only have two seminars at MCWAR…. So I break each of them into two parts and conduct a series of seminars with only 7-8 folks in each (as close to an Oxford tutorial as I can get).
  5. After all of this we conduct a board wargame. I run 3-4 wargames at the same time, so all of the students can fully participate. I have local community volunteers (long-time wargamers) sitting at each game to take care of the game mechanics, so that the students can focus on strategic decisions
  6. Then, when all of that is done, the class goes on their staff rides.

I am always looking for way to improve, and am hopeful that you can suggest ways I can do so.

In any event, I just wanted to clear the air and correct any misperceptions you and your co-author have as to how MCWAR sets-up its curriculum, as well as my approach to teaching and the use of wargames. Of course, a much of this could have been easily cleared-up with a phone call or an e-mail before you went to print. But, moving on… if there is anything I can do to assist your efforts to increase and enhance the use of modeling, simulations, and wargaming – or any other experiential learning methodology – at the Air War College, please do not hesitate to ask.

Thank you for your time and comments. I look forward to learning more about the Air Force conducts experiential learning.

This isn’t the first such debate. I’m not sure is should even be a debate, however. Rather, it points to the value of a common-sense “toolkit” approach to serious gaming. Wargames are tools. Sometimes they may be the best tool for the job. Sometimes there are better tools. Sometimes they are a pretty bad fit. Almost always, they need to be used in conjunction with other techniques.

Setting the (wargame) stage

Slide1.jpeg

I delivered a (virtual) presentation today to the Military Operations Society wargaming community of practice on the importance of “chrome, fluff” and other finer touches in promoting better game outcomes through enhanced narrative engagement. Having forgotten to set a calendar reminder I was a fifteen minutes late for my own talk, which only served to reinforce the stereotype of absent-minded professors. Apologies to everyone who had to wait!

The full set of Powerpoint slides is available here (pdf). Since the content may not be entirely self-evident from the slides, I’ll also offer a quick summary.

Slide4.jpeg

First, I argued—in keeping with Perla and McGrady’s discussion of “Why wargaming works“—that narrative engagement is a key element of good (war)game design and implementation.

Slide6.jpeg

In addition to their experience-based, qualitative argument, I adduced some quantitative, experimental data that shows that role-playing produces superior forecasting outcomes…

Slide8.jpeg

..and that the way we frame and present games has profound effects on the way players actually play them.

Slide9.jpeg

I also noted a substantial literature on the psychology of conflict and conflict resolution that points to the importance of normative and other non-material factors in shaping conflict and negotiating behaviour.

Slide11.jpeg

In other words, if your games don’t have players feeling angry, or aggrieved, or alienated, or attached to normative and symbolic elements, they’re acting unrealistically. Since the selling point of wargaming is that it places humans in the loop, you need those players playing like real humans, not technocratic, minimaxing robots.

Doing that, I suggested, requires nudging participants into the right mindset. One has to be careful one doesn’t overdo it—some participants may recoil at role play fluff that makes it all look like a LARP or game of D&D.

What then followed was a discussion of some considerations and ways that I had done it, but which was also intended to spark a broader conversation. Specifically we looked at:

  • How player backgrounds and player assignment will influence how readily participants internalize appropriate perspectives.
  • Briefing materials should designed to subtly promote desired perspectives and biases (without being too obvious about this). Things like flags, maps, placards, and so forth can all be used to make players more closely identify with their role.
  • In repeated games—for example, some wargames in an educational setting that might be conducted every year)—oral traditions and tales from prior games can make the game setting richer and more authentic (although at the risk of players learning privileged information from previous players). Participants might also contribute background materials, chrome, or fluff that you can use in future games—such as the collection of songs from Brynania that my McGill University students have recorded over the past twenty years.

  • Very explicit objectives and “victory conditions” should often be used sparingly, lest they promote both an unrealistic sense of the rigidity of policy goals and promote excessively “tick-off-the-objective-boxes” game play.
  • Physical space should be used to subtly shape player interaction, whether to foster interaction, limit it, or even create a sense of isolation and alienation.
  • Coffee breaks and lunch breaks should be designed NOT to pull players out of their scenario headspace. The last thing you want is Blue and Red having a friendly hour over lunch talking about non-game matters in a scenario where they are supposed to distrust or even hate each other.
  • Fog and friction should be promoted not only to model imperfect information and imperfect institutions/capabilities, but also to subtly promote atmospheres of uncertainty, fear, crisis, panic, frustration, and similar emotional states, as appropriate to the actors and scenario.
  • The graphic presentation of game materials should encourage narrative engagement and immersion. Avoid inappropriate fonts and formats, make things look “real,” and be aware that game graphics can very much affect how players (and analysts) perceive the game and it’s outcomes.

A variety of other issues came up in the Q&A and discussion. Many thanks to everyone who participated—I hope they found it as useful as I did.

Slide18.jpeg

 

 

CNA: After the wargame

cna-logo

In the third part of their wargaming trilogy, the CNA Talks podcast explores data collection and analysis in professional wargames:

In part three of our occasional series on wargaming, CNA’s chief wargame designer Jeremy Sepinsky returns, accompanied by Robin Mays, research analyst for CNA’s Gaming and Integration program, to discuss how they analyze the results of a CNA Wargame. Jeremy starts by describing the “hotwash” discussion that occurs immediately after a wargame concludes, and what insights participants often take away. Throughout this episode, Jeremy and Robin describe the type of information note takers record during a wargame, and how that data gets used in the final analysis. Using examples from actual wargames about logistics, medical evacuation and disaster relief, they explain how analysis reveals insights not readily apparent to those who played the game.

The link above also contains links to Parts 1 and 2.

Also, for those interested in game analysis, be sure to read the results of our DIRE STRAITS experiment on how analysts can influence (or bias) analysis.

Squeezing the Turnip: The Limits of Wargaming

The following piece has been written for PAXsims by Robert C. Rubel.


 

squeezing_blood_out_of_a_turnip.gif

“Measure it with a micrometer, mark it with chalk and cut it with an axe” is an old adage that cautions us that the precision we can achieve in a project is limited by the least precise tool we employ.  We should remember this wisdom any time we use wargaming for research purposes.  Dr. John Hanley, in his dissertation On Wargaming says that wargaming is a weakly structured tool that is appropriate for examining weakly structured problems; that is, those with high levels of indeterminacy – those aspects of the problem that are unknown, such as the identity of all the variables.  Problems with lesser degrees of indeterminacy are more appropriately handled by various kinds of measurement and mathematical analysis.  However, as the tools for simulation and the analysis of textual data become more sophisticated, the danger is we will attempt to extract precision from wargaming that it is simply not appropriate to seek.

There are three aspects to this issue that we will address here; the inherent ability of wargaming to supply data that can be extrapolated to the real world, the development of “oracular” new gaming systems, and the number of objectives a particular wargame can achieve.

Peter Perla wrote, back in 1990 what has been the standard reference on wargaming, aptly-titled The Art of Wargaming. Of late there has been a lot of discussion online about wargaming as a science, or perhaps more precisely, the application of scientific methodology to wargaming.  There is no doubt that a rigorous, disciplined and structured approach to designing, executing and analyzing wargames is a good and needed thing. Too often in the past this has not been the case, and lots of money, time and effort have been wasted on games that were poorly conceived, designed and executed.  Worse, decisions of consequence have been influenced by the outcome of such games.  But even the most competently mounted game has its limits.  In this writer’s view, games can indicate possibilities but not predict; judgment is required in handling their results.

It is one thing to use a game to reveal relationships that might not otherwise be detected.  A 2003 Unified Course game at the Naval War College explored how the Services’ future concepts were or were not compatible.  It was designed as a kind of intellectual atom smasher, employing a rather too challenging scenario to see where the concepts failed.  The sub-atomic particle that popped out was that nobody was planning to maintain a SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) capability that would cover the entry of non-stealth aircraft into defended zones. This was a potentially actionable insight that came out of the game, based on actual elements of future concepts. When games are used this way they are revelatory, not predictive.

Where we run into trouble is when we attempt to infer too much meaning from what game players do or say.  Dr. Stephen Downes-Martin has shown that game player behavior is at least partially a function of their relationships to game umpires, and so the linkage to either present or future reality is broken.  Thus there are limits on the situations where player behavior or verbal / written inputs can be regarded as legitimate output of a game.  There is a difference between having some kind of aha moment via observing player inputs and exchanges, and trying to dig out, statistically, presumed embedded meaning from player responses to questionnaires, interviews or even interactions with umpires or other players.

A first cousin to the attempt to extract too much information from a regular game is the attempt to create some new form of gaming that will be more revelatory or predictive than current practice can achieve.  Most of these are some riff on the Delphi Method, whether a variation of the seminar game or some kind of massively multi-player online game.  I know of none that have justified the claims of their designers and in any case they seem to violate the basic logic Downes-Martin lays out; the problematic connection between game players and the real world. When I was chairman of the Wargaming Department at the Naval War College I challenged my faculty to advance the state of the art of wargaming, but always within the bounds of supportable logic. My mantra was “No BS leaves the building!”

Even if a game is conceived and designed with the above epistemic limitations in mind, there could still be danger that the sponsor will try to burden it with too many objectives.  This was a common problem with the Navy’s Global Wargames in the late 1990s.  Tasked to explore network-centric warfare, the games became overly large and complex, piling on objectives from multiple sponsors, creating a voluminous and chaotic (not to mention expensive) output that was susceptible to interpretation in any way a stakeholder wanted.

The poster child of all this was Millennium Challenge 02, a massive “game” involving over 35,000 “entities” embedded in the supporting computer simulation, many game cells as well as thousands of instrumented troops, vehicles, ships and aircraft in the field and at sea.  Not only was the underpinning logic and design flawed – attempting to stack a game on top of field training exercises – but the multiplicity of objectives obfuscated any ability to extract useful information.  As it turned out, the game was sufficiently foggy to spawn suspicion of its intended use in the mind of a key Red player, retired Lieutenant General Paul VanRiper, and his post-game public criticisms destroyed any credibility the game might have had (I observed the game standing behind him as he directed his forces).

Modesty is called for.  While we might approach game design scientifically, and there are certain scientific philosophies upon which game analysis can be founded, gaming itself is not some form of the scientific method, even though rigor and discipline is necessary for their success.  An example of a good game was one run at the Naval War College in the spring of 2014 for VADM Hunt, then director of the Navy Staff.  The game was designed around the question “How would fleet operators use the LCS if it had various defined characteristics?”  Actual fleet staff officers were brought in as players and they worked their way through various scenarios.  What made a difference in the game was the effect that arming the LCS with long range anti-ship missiles had on opposition players.  The insight that VADM Rowden, Commander Surface Force, took away was that distributing offensive power around the fleet complicated an enemy’s planning problem.  One could consider this a blinding flash of the obvious, but in this case it was revelatory in terms of the inherent logic of an operational situation.  Trying to squeeze more detailed insights from the game, such as the combat effectiveness of the LCS, might have fuzzed the game’s focus and prevented the Admiral from gaining the key insight. He translated that insight into the concept of distributed lethality, now codified into the more general doctrine of Distributed Maritime Operations.

In a very real sense, games are blunt instruments, the analogue of the axe in the old saying.  Like the axe though, they can be very useful.  In this writer’s opinion – informed by many years of gaming – the best games in terms of potential for yielding actionable results, are focused on just a couple of objectives.  That said, in my experience, the most valuable insights are sometimes the ones you don’t expect going in.  In fact, some of the most influential games I have seen were essentially fishing expeditions. In 2006 the Naval War College conducted a six-week long strategy game to support the development of what became the 2007 A Cooperative Strategy for 21stCentury Seapower (CS21).  Going in we did not know what we were looking for but in the end a somewhat unexpected insight emerged (It’s the system, stupid) that ended up underpinning the new strategic document.  “Let’s set up this scenario and see what happens” is an axe-like approach that must not then be measured with a micrometer.


Captain (ret) Robert C. (“Barney”) Rubel served 30 years active duty as a light attack/strike fighter aviator.  Most of his shore duty was connected to professional military education (PME) and particularly the use of wargaming to support it.  As a civilian he worked first as an analyst within the Naval War College Wargaming Department, later becoming its chairman.  In that capacity he transformed the department from a mostly military staff organization to an academic research organization.  From 2006 to 2014 he served as Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, the research arm of the Naval War College. Over the years he has played in, observed, designed, directed, and analyzed numerous wargames of all types and written a number of articles about wargaming.  For the past four years he has served as an advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations on various issues including fleet design and PME.

 

CNA Talks: Playing a Wargame

cna-logo

CNA’s occasional podcast series discusses how to play a wargame.

In part two of our occasional series on wargaming, CNA’s chief wargame designer Jeremy Sepinsky returns, accompanied by Chris Steinitz, director of CNA’s North Korea program, to discuss what it’s like to play a CNA Wargame. Jeremy describes the different players in a wargame, emphasizing the value of people with operational experience who can accurately represent how military leaders would make decisions. Jeremy and Chris lay out the differences between playing Blue team and Red team. They also take us down the “road to war,” describing how the wargaming team lays out the scenario that starts the game.  Finally, Chris and Jeremy take us though the player’s decisions and how the results of a turn are adjudicated.

Lin-Greenberg: Drones, escalation, and experimental wargames

 

WoTRdrones.pngAt War on the Rocks, Erik Lin-Greenberg discusses what a series of experimental wargames reveal about drones and escalation risk. The finding: the loss of unmanned platforms presents less risk of escalation.

I developed an innovative approach to explore these dynamics: the experimental wargame. The method allows observers to compare nearly identical, simultaneous wargames — a set of control games, in which a factor of interest does not appear, and a set of treatment games, in which it does. In my experiment, all participants are exposed to the same aircraft shootdown scenario, but participants in treatment games are told the downed aircraft is a drone while those in control games are told it is manned. This allows policymakers to examine whether drones affect decision-making.

The experimental wargames revealed that the deployment of drones can actually contribute to lowerlevels of escalation and greater crisis stability than the deployment of manned assets. These findings help explain how drones affect stability by shedding light on escalation dynamics after an initial drone deployment, something that few existing studies on drones have addressed.

My findings build upon existing research on the low barrier to drone deployment by suggesting that, once conflict has begun, states may find drones useful for limiting escalation. Indeed, states can take action using or against drones without risking significant escalation. The results should ease concerns of drone pessimists and offer valuable insights to policymakers about drones’ effects on conflict dynamics. More broadly, experimental wargaming offers a novel approach to generating insights about national security decision-making that can be used to inform military planning and policy development.

You will find a longer and more detailed account of the study here.

This is a good example of using multiple wargames as an experimental method. Above and beyond this, it also shows how that wargames can generate questions worthy of further investigation.

More specifically, while the loss of a drone is less escalatory, an actor might be more likely to introduce a drone for this reason—possibly deploying one in a situation where they would not have risked a manned platform. If this is true, however, drones may still prove more escalatory overall. In other words, if the wargame is expanded to include the prior decision to deploy assets in the first place, the actual outcome might have been something like this:

  • Blue scenario 1: Deploy manned platform?
    • No, too risky.
    • No platform deployed.
    • Nothing shot down.
    • Result: No escalation.
  • Blue scenario 2: Deploy drone?
    • Yes, because no pilot at risk.
    • Drone shot down.
    • Result: Minor escalation.

Or, with regard to another situation—perhaps local air defences would have been reluctant to engage a manned aircraft because of the evident risk of escalation, but would happily shoot down a drone. In this case the experimental findings might have been:

  • Red scenario 1: Shoot down aircraft?
    • No, too risky.
    • Nothing shot down.
    • Result: No escalation.
  • Red scenario 2: Shoot down drone?
    • Yes, because no pilot at risk.
    • Drone shot down.
    • Result: Minor escalation.

In fact, if you read the full paper you will see this is exactly what occurred in a scenario involving a  shoot-down decision: participants were much more likely to use force against an unmanned drone.

In other words, while the study suggests that drones might reduce the chance of escalation, it also suggests that we also need to investigate whether the lower perceived risk of drone-related escalation might cause Blue to undertake more provocative overflights, or might lead Red to undertake more potentially escalatory shoot-downs.

Figure 1 below shows the main experiment: aircraft shoot-downs lead to major escalations, drone shoot-downs to minor escalation.

Slide1.jpeg

Figure 1: Experimental results suggest shoot-down of manned aircraft results in greater escalation.

Given the risk of escalation, however, decision-makers might decide against overflight in the first place.

Figure 2 examines a situation where no drones are available. It incorporates the possibility that decision-makers simply refrain from overflight because of the escalation risk, and assigns a (plausible but entirely made-up) probability to this. Moreover, knowing that a shoot-down of a manned aircraft is likely to cause escalation—a tendency noted by Lin-Greenberg’s other experiment—perhaps Red won’t actually open fire. Again, I have assigned a (plausible) probability to this. These numbers are just for the purposes of illustration, but here we note that with manned overflight as the only option there is a 16% chance of escalation.

Slide3.jpeg

Figure 2: Considering other decision points. Should Blue even send an aircraft, given risk of escalation? Should Red engage it, given the risks?

In this fuller model, now let us introduce drones (Figure 3). Given that they are less likely to cause escalation, let us assume that (1) Blue is likely to prefer them over a manned ISR platform, (as per earlier findings) (2) Red is more likely to shoot them down, and that (3) shooting down a drone causes minor rather than major escalation. Once again, I’ve assigned some plausible probabilities for the purposes of illustration.

Slide4.jpeg

Figure: Adding drones to the mix.

When we add drones into the mix, the risk of major escalation drops from 16% to 4%, but, the risk of some form of escalation actually increases to 60%.  Does this mean that drones have actually limited the risk of escalation, or increased it? Moreover, it is possible that tit-for-tat minor escalation over drone shoot-downs could grow over time to major escalation. If that were the case, it is possible that drones—rather than limiting conflict—are a sort of easy-to-use “gateway drug” to more serious problems.

Remember that I’ve essentially invented all of my probabilities to make a methodological point (although I have tried to make them plausible). My point here is not in any way to criticize Lin-Greenberg’s experimental findings—I suspect he is right. It is to say that the two sets of wargame experiments he undertook are useful not only for their immediate findings, but also to the extent that they generate additional questions to be investigated.

 

 

Beware the confidence heuristic

This quick tweet today by political psychologist Philip Tetlock caught my eye, since it has important implications for serious policy gaming.

As I have noted elsewhere, research on political forecasting (including Tetlock’s seminal book Expert Political Judgment (2005), as well as the work of he and his colleagues with the Good Judgment Project) has highlighted the greater efficacy of cognitive “foxes” (those not overly attached to a single paradigm) and Bayesian updaters in correctly anticipating future outcomes. By their very nature, such individuals are willing to accept new information and change their views accordingly.

By contrast, groups (including teams within wargames or other serious games) may be heavily swayed by persuasive, overly-confident rhetoric—the “confidence heuristic” referenced in the linked Bloomberg article. In many settings—especially with military participants—this dynamic may be further aggravated by the effects of hierarchy and rank. As a result, confident pronouncements by senior leaders may obscure uncertainty and drive out differing views, even if the uncertainty is important and the differing views might be correct.

overconfidence.gif

Much depends on the mix of individuals and group dynamics at work during the game, then, as well as the analysis and aggregation methods used to assess game findings.

For more insight into individuals, groups, and forecasting, I strongly recommend Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (2015), a highly readable book by Tetlock and Dan Gardener. Nate Silver (of FiveThirtyEight fame) stresses the importance of Bayesian updating in The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t (2015).

For a few brief thoughts of my own, see my presentations earlier this year on Wargaming and Forecasting (Dstl) and In the Eye of the Beholder? Cognitive Challenges in Wargame Analysis (Connections UK, audio available here).

Will to fight

Back in July, we mentioned Ben Connable’s presentation on “the will to fight” at the Connections US wargaming conference. Now we are pleased to post links to the two recently-released RAND studies on the military will to fight (Connable et al, 2018) and national will to fight (McNerney et al, 2018):

x1537447779761.jpg.pagespeed.ic.mrO8JdPXvH.jpgWill to fight may be the single most important factor in war. The U.S. military accepts this premise: War is a human contest of opposing, independent wills. The purpose of using force is to bend and break adversary will. But this fundamental concept is poorly integrated into practice. The United States and its allies incur steep costs when they fail to place will to fight at the fore, when they misinterpret will to fight because it is ill-defined, or when they ignore it entirely. This report defines will to fight and describes its importance to the outcomes of wars. It gives the U.S. and allied militaries a way to better integrate will to fight into doctrine, planning, training, education, intelligence analysis, and military adviser assessments. It provides (1) a flexible, scalable model of will to fight that can be applied to any ground combat unit and (2) an experimental simulation model.

x1537447770588.jpg.pagespeed.ic.-2B1VyhWWt.jpgWhat drives some governments to persevere in war at any price while others choose to stop fighting? It is often less-tangible political and economic variables, rather than raw military power, that ultimately determine national will to fight. In this analysis, the authors explore how these variables strengthen or weaken a government’s determination to conduct sustained military operations, even when the expectation of success decreases or the need for significant political, economic, and military sacrifices increases.

This report is part of a broader RAND Arroyo Center effort to help U.S. leaders better understand and influence will to fight at both the national level and the tactical and operational levels. It presents findings and recommendations based on a wide-ranging literature review, a series of interviews, 15 case studies (including deep dives into conflicts involving the Korean Peninsula and Russia), and reviews of relevant modeling and war-gaming.

The authors propose an exploratory model of 15 variables that can be tailored and applied to a wide set of conflict scenarios and drive a much-needed dialogue among analysts conducting threat assessments, contingency plans, war games, and other efforts that require an evaluation of how future conflicts might unfold. The recommendations should provide insights into how leaders can influence will to fight in both allies and adversaries.

The former study in particular examines the way in which wargames do or do not model “will to fight,” and suggests some key lessons for future wargame design:

Adding will to fight changes combat simulation outcomes

  • Most U.S. military war games and simulations either do not include will to fight or include only minor proxies of it.
  • However, the simulated runs performed for this report showed that adding will-to-fight factors always changes combat outcomes and, in some cases, outcomes are significantly different.

Recommendations 

  • U.S. Army and Joint Force should adopt a universal definition and model of will to fight.
  • Include will to fight in all holistic estimates of ground combat effectiveness.
  • War games and simulations of combat should include will to fight.

Design Matters: Tiny Epic Zombies…and Glasses

Design Matters: A series on matters relating to design, and why design thinking matters.

Rex Brynen and I recently play tested Rex’s brand new copy of Tiny Epic Zombies. Our ensuing after-play discussion got us thinking about the game and certain common, irksome points we thought were design pitfalls to be avoided in any games, whether destined for the entertainment market, or geared toward the serious gaming and educational spheres. Thus the idea of Design Matters was born.

Tiny Epic Zombies – A Game of Brutal Survival
www.gamelyngames.com
www.gamelyngames.com/tiny-epic/tiny-epic-zombies-deluxe

Watch it Played
https://youtu.be/O9u8VXz8u80

I LOVE Gamelyn Games. I do. I own every single one of their games, love the concepts, adore the themes, am awed by the artwork, thrilled with the simple —yet engaging— rulesets: all in small inexpensive packages.

I say this, because, while I do enjoy the theme, concept, and art, Tiny Epic Zombies presents a few significant —avoidable— problems that should come as a lesson to all game designers.

Size matters.

Tiny Epic Games are not small, by any means, in their effect or entertainment value. Where Tiny Epic Zombies’ (TE:Z) size is lacking is in its small font.

Graphic design is about much more that making something pretty. The fundamentals of graphic design deal with visual communication; the key word being communication. If information is not being clearly, and effectively, communicated it can severely impede gameplay. If this is an intended effect, to frustrate or slow players down, it can be an effective tool. Unfortunately, in the case of TE:Z it is not. Sometimes icons, or text are impossible to read at any reasonable distance.

From a graphic design perspective: parts of the rulebook, certain objective cards, some mall map cards, TE:Z comes up short. This author and Rex Brynen both had difficulty discerning the text on certain cards without picking up the card and playing with the distance, necessitating glasses, adjusting glasses, removing glasses, or resorting to using the magnifier function of my iPhone to read some text. In one particular case it was absolutely impossible to discern what icon was being used on an objective card. Not difficult, not challenging, but impossible. The font size used on the Investigate the Source Objective Card —for example— was simply too small. The print resolution would not allow for the icon in the text to be seen as anything other than a circle with a blob. This inexcusable error in graphic design was immensely frustrating, and forced us to work backwards, trying to figure out what the icon could possible be. The design decision to go with such an impossibly small icon is confounding and frustrating.

It is always important to remember that —particularly— in game design, form should follow function. Games enjoyment, and engagement depend so much on a suspension of disbelief that any shock to the system that brings us out of the game experience will have an associated detraction from said game experience. Stopping the action to peer over a card, squinting to read text is anathema to a positive game experience.

Contrast this user experience (UX) with the thoroughly adorable and fun ITEMeeples Gamelyn produces for TE:Z. ITEMeeples, are iconic, specialized, plastic avatars with holes in them to place “reminder” items on a player’s character piece, representing weapons. While fundamentally unnecessary to gameplay, they add so much enjoyment and fun to the UX, and suspension of disbelief (“no, I really am carrying a chainsaw!”) they become an intrinsic piece of the game experience and enjoyment. They are so intrinsic to the positive game experience, their creation and inclusion in a number of the Tiny Epic Games makes one wonder how we ever gamed without them.

This fabulous attention to detail in this particular aspect of the game experience, while ignoring the game experience in another should serve as a cautionary tale to game designers: everything matters.

Location, location, location

The Echo Ridge Mall is the nexus of this little slice of this apocalyptic zombie outbreak. It is beautiful, with a richness of art that I admire tremendously.

However, in our play test this richness in detail sometimes became problematic. Each of the separate “stores” has any or all of: its own written rules box, objective placement icons, room numbers, or secret passages. These elements get lost in the richness of the art at tabletop distances. If our two player test had troubles, I can only imagine the difficulty five players, huddled around a large table in a semi-lit room would have discerning what they were supposed to do o a given card. Certainly, after one has played through a few rounds, the card-store effects become second nature, but having to pick up a piece of the map in order to read what you’re supposed to do, displacing items, meeples, and tokens is problematic.

1528240027632Further, unlike other Tiny Epic Games I’ve played through, the precise placement of the cards can be quite important. Each of these store location cards is divided into three rooms, which are bordered by thick walls. Each card, in turn, is bordered by this same thickness of wall, creating a discrete, modular store. Eight (8) of these stores surround a central courtyard in a layout as pictured below. Gamelyn produces a TE:Z Gamemat and online visual aid to lay this out.

Where other Tiny Epic Games’ card-location is only important insofar as where they are placed relative to each other (adjacent or not), TE:Z’s location-cards are placed and played directly against one another. This impacts movement, shooting, and card legibility.

The problems with this scheme are many fold:

Some cards will be placed upside-down. This would not matter except for the fact that many rules are written on the location-cards themselves resulting in a situation where many cards’ rules will be upside-down relative to the player. Add to this the font-size problem discussed above and early play grinds to a halt as players jockey for position to read a card, or have to pick up said location in order to proceed.

This, in turn leads to another —fiddly— problem: position matters. Each location card has one main “opening” or entrance, otherwise it is bounded by a solid-line wall. Players may move through walls, as they are presumed to find or make gaps through (strangely weak?) mall walls. If players pick-up and replace location-cards, jostle location-cards during gameplay or accidentally shift their position in any way, this can dramatically affect movement, shooting, tactics, and approach to gameplay. The Gamelyn-produced TE:Z Gamemat-for-purchase addresses this somewhat, but this particularly fiddly scheme could have been more easily solved with a simple graphic element — an alignment arrow in the middle of each card edge.

As walls are so fundamentally important to the gameplay, it struck us as very strange that all walls were clear, and of uniform width except for the central courtyard walls. Where all location-cards’ rooms are very clearly delineated by thick walls or uniform width, the central courtyard is divided into five (5) sections by markedly thinner walls. These walls are so different, we didn’t even consider them walls when playing through the game in our play test. Only upon careful review of the rules did we realize, thanks to a simple qualifying statement (p.8 “*Note: the Courtyard has 5 rooms*”), that these were meant to be walls, and the courtyard was not simply one large room. This would have substantially altered our game outcome. The lack of consistency in the application of this design element is inexplicable to me.

The decision to go this particular route with location-cards (stores), has another side-effect: The playmap neither looks nor feel like a mall. Referring back to the suspension of disbelief and user experience (UX) design discussed above: a decision was made to create this particular schema that took Rex and myself out of the game. When something doesn’t feel like what it is expected to be, there is a cognitive disconnect that occurs that informs gameplay. This can be a powerful tool when implemented properly, or a distracting nuisance when accidental. The result was —for us— a persistent feeling that something didn’t quite feel right.

Dissociative Personality Disorder (AKA I can do what?)

On that same front, we questioned the abilities of a number of the Player Cards. Not so much the abilities themselves, but the abilities associated with the names of the Player Cards.

User experience (UX) is a tricky and very particular aspect of any game design to master, largely because it relies on fickle and finicky human emotion, response, behaviour, and expectation. Designers can use psychology, the senses, and numerous devices to shape this experience. Gotten right, a game’s UX can overcome many a shortcoming. Gotten wrong it can detract from the pleasure of play.

There are specific instances where the player has a reasonable expectation of what a particular Player Card should allow the player to do:

Athlete Card: enables greater movement
Burglar Card: expanded item acquisition powers
Mechanic Card: better at repairs

When this expectation (Based purely on Name) meshes with the effect of a particular card, the result is pleasing and harmonious: a triumph of UX design.

When this does not:

Fry Cook Card: somehow make less noise?
Photographer Card: ending your turn in a store with 2 zombies results in finding ammunition?
Scientist Card: if any other player kills three or more zombies gain ammunition?

a disconnect results while questioning the meaning/source of these effects. While not insurmountable, the unintended consequence of a naming convention and the resultant cognitive dissonance when an effect does not match one’s expectation is entirely avoidable.

If these Character cards were named for persons instead of a specific role —Mary instead of Photographer— there would be no (reasonable) expectation of effect: why can’t she, instead, see things better with her zoom lens —improving search— for example. While this won’t break a game, it will distract, and distractions of this type will almost always lead to lessening enjoyment. Anytime a player begins questioning what the designer was thinking, the player is out-of-the-game.

What Went Right

The above should serve as cautionary reminders to PAXSims’ community of game designers and enthusiasts: every aspect of a game needs to be considered. A solid theme/idea/ruleset is not enough, a designer needs to communicate clearly and shape gameplay with intention or the game experience can suffer.

However, when you do get things right —as Gamelyn often does— you can create great experiences.

Excepting the above, TE:Z remains an enjoyable game because what it gets right it gets really right.

Some design shortcomings aside, the game art is —simply— fantastic. The clear theme carries throughout the game and spectacular card and box art. The game’s art direction truly sets the stage for the coming zombie apocalypse. Before the players even open the box, the stage has been set, then reinforced. Gamelyn, in my view, always gets this right. This is the campy, fun, zombie game experience you want with the pièce d’art of the contemporary gaming world: ITEMeeples.

ITEMeeples add so much fun and thrill to the game that no tiny pieces of plastic have any business doing —they are near magical. The excitement of attaching a chainsaw or assault rifle to your character meeple is reminiscent of opening a surprise gift. Completely unnecessary to the rules, this component-based element of UX is beyond spectacularly fun. Add a police car or motorcycle into which you can literally place your ITEMeeple, and you’ll be making engine noises while moving your pawn like you did when you were pretend driving in the back of your parents’ car as a child. This level of engagement clearly demonstrates how well-chosen and designed components can directly impact the game experience. (A phenomenon we harnessed in developing MaGCK, using iconic images as aides-memoire for matrix gaming)

Objectives (excepting some of their card design problems) are largely fun affairs where the ongoing challenge of risk-reward balanced against time constraints and a little bit of greed (but I really want to pick up that bazooka in the other store) played out —for us— down to the wire. The game seems to achieve a great balance of ramping up danger, while keeping you on the edge of your seat with interesting choices. Developing appropriate challenges and choices shape the game experience and flow, great care was taken in creating and testing these objectives, I am certain.

Once you get into the groove of the gameplay (one or two full turns to get up to speed), the game progresses quickly, satisfyingly ramping up intensity. If not for the distractions discussed above, the play is near seamless, with decision points to test each player’s resolve. Ease of access, understanding, and a gradual learning curve benefit this (and many) game greatly.

The card-based AI work very well. We played cooperatively without a Zombie-player, and the anticipation of each end-of-turn search-card’s resolution kept us in some suspense. I look forward to playing a larger, competitive game with the full complement of 5 players to note the differing experience. (clearly knowing each location-card’s ability will be fundamental to this, I believe) Scalability is a great aspect of the game: playable by one to a full complement of five players.

Overall, while not my favourite Gamelyn gameplay experience, Tiny epic Zombies remains a game I would replay. For PAXSims’ readers’ purposes, the game does illustrate a number of avoidable design pitfalls that should be considered by game designers and producers:

Design matters:

We can see, in the example of TE:Z, it is not enough for a game to be pretty (but sometimes, it certainly helps!). While great visuals can immediately engage players, clarity and legibility are fundamental in rules layout, design, and ability descriptions. Form must follow function. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to read a rule, card, ability, or effect.

Consistency is key. A lack of consistent application of design elements can —and often will— lead to misunderstanding and misplay, affecting the overall game experience. Design must be purposeful and mindful in order to lead the player to the game experience the designer wants. Any lapse in this regard will have unintended consequences.

Expectations must be mindfully considered and managed as they will form an immediate opinion and impression. If something looks out-of-place it creates an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, which —if purposeful— can be a powerful tool —if accidental— will detract from a game and risk running it off the rails.

Components and visuals can have tremendous positive impact, when properly implemented, or detract from gameplay when applied carelessly. The purposeful use of media will have an important impact on a game. (As discussed at Connections North in the presentation Grand Designs – Design Thinking in Games)

An accessible learning curve, geared toward the target player creates ease and comfort, allowing players to engage in the game quickly. The faster a player can integrate the rules into their experience, and simply engage in the theme of the game, the more effective the game will be.

In-stride adjudication (Connections 2018 working group report)

Stephen Downes-Martin has pulled together a 187 page (!) report on in-stride adjudication from the papers and discussion presented at the Connections US 2018 conference. You can download it here.

In-Stride Adjudication Working Group Report 20180908.jpg

Jane’s Intelligence Review on matrix gaming

The September issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review has an excellent article by Neil Ashdown assessing matrix games as an analytical tool.

Key points

  • Matrix games are comparatively simple wargames, emphasising creativity and original thought, which have been used by a range of government agencies and militaries.
  • These games are focused on the participants’ intentions, which makes them better suited for analysing political-military strategy and novel or obscure subjects, such as cyber security.
  • However, this technique is unsuitable for analysing granular tactical scenarios, and the games’ relatively low cost and complexity can reduce their attractiveness.

 

JIR1809_OSINT2

I would like to thank Neil and JIR for making it available (pdf copy at the link above) to PAXsims readers. If you are interested in reading more about the technique, there are many matrix gaming articles available here at PAXsims, the History of Wargaming Project has just published the Matrix Game Handbook, and you can purchase the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK) User Guide as a downloadable pdf.

How can we avoid risky and dishonesty shifts in seminar wargames?

iss_12137_00953.jpg

Stephen Downes-Martin has written up the discussion from another Connections game lab session, this time on How can we avoid risky and dishonesty shifts in seminar wargames?

The group identified three research questions and identified and discusses nine ways that the risky and (dis)honest shifts could be baselined, measured, controlled or mitigated.

Two Behavior Shifts During Small Group Discussions

The (Dis)honesty Shift

Research indicates “that there is a stronger inclination to behave immorally in groups than individually,” resulting in group decisions that are less honest than the individuals would tolerate on their own. “Dishonest” in the context of the research means the group decisions break or skirt the ethical rules of the organization and societal norms, involve cheating and lying. Furthermore, the group discussions tend to shift the individuals’ post-discussion norms of honest behavior towards dishonest. First the discussion tends to challenge the honesty norm, then inattention to one’s own moral standards (during the actual discussion) and categorization malleability (the range in which dishonesty can occur without triggering self-assessment and self-examination) create the effect that “people can cheat, but their behaviors, which they would usually consider dishonest do not bear negatively on their self-concept (they are not forced to update their self-concept)”. The research indicates that it is the small group communication that causes the shift towards dishonesty that enables group members to coordinate on dishonest actions and change their beliefs about honest behavior”. The group members “establish a new norm regarding (dis)honest behavior”. Appeals to ethics standards seem to be effective in the short term [Mazar et al] but there is little evidence for long term effectiveness.

The Risky Shift

Research into risky or cautious shifts during group discussion looks at whether and when a group decision shifts to be riskier or more cautious than the decision that the individuals would have made on their own. One element driving the shift appears to be who bears the consequences of the decision – the group members, people the group members know (colleagues, friends, family), or people the group members do not know. There is evidence that individuals tend to be myopically risk averse when making decisions for themselves. Research indicates however that “risk preferences are attenuated when making decisions for other people: risk-averse participants take more risk for others whereas risk seeking participants take less.” Whether the group shows a risky shift or a cautious shift depends on the culture from which the group is drawn and the size of the shift seems to depend on the degree of empathy the group feels for those who will bear the consequences and risks of the decision.

Research into leadership shows that “responsibility aversion” is driven by a desire for more “certainty about what constitutes the best choice when others’ welfare is affected”, that individuals “who are less responsibility averse have higher questionnaire-based and real-life leadership scores” and do not seek more certainty when making decisions that are risky for others than they seek when making decisions that are risky for themselves alone. However, this research says nothing about the starting risk-seeking or risk-avoiding preference of the decision making leader.

See the full paper (link above) for further discussion, including the footnotes (which have been removed from the excerpt above).

How can we credibly wargame cyber at an unclassified level?

253020.jpeg

The frighteningly-efficient Stephen Downes-Martin has been kind enough to pass on a game lab report from the recent Connections US 2018 wargaming conference on “How can we credibly wargame cyber at an unclassified level?”  (pdf).

A small minority of cyber experts with wargaming and research experience have security clearances. If cyber operations are researched and gamed only at high levels of classification, then we limit our use of the intellectual capital of the United States and Allies and put at risk our ability to gain edge over our adversaries. We must find ways to wargame cyber[1]at the unclassified level while dealing with information security dangers to best use the skills within academia, business and the gaming community. During the Connections US Wargaming Conference 2018 a small group of interested people gathered for about an hour to discuss the question:

“How can we credibly wargame cyber at an unclassified level?”

The group concluded that it is possible to wargame cyber credibly and usefully at the unclassified level and proposed eight methods for doing so. The group also suggested it is first necessary to demonstrate and socialize this idea by gaming the trade-offs between the classification level and the value gained from wargaming cyber.

[1]“Wargaming cyber” and “gaming cyber” are loose terms which group deliberately left as such to encourage divergent thinking and to avoid becoming too specific.

%d bloggers like this: