PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: methodology

Mason: Designing public safety games and tabletop exercises

At the LECMgt blog, Roger Mason discusses designing public safety games and tabletop exercises.

Public Safety organizations employ tabletop style exercises to train their personnel. These exercises provide a flexible and cost-effective system to simulate a variety of critical incidents. This article will discuss how to design tabletop exercises and the next level of simulation complexity, wargames. I will discuss the uses of these exercises and the common and unique characteristics of each.

We will explore five steps for designing a game or exercise and how to validate the design. Some people maintain that tabletop exercises are simple to design because they appear to be simple. There may be more to designing a tabletop exercise or wargame than some people believe.

It’s a very useful overview of the process and considerations involved and well worth a read.

Barzashka: Do academic standards for research excellence apply to professional wargaming?

The following item has been written for PAXsims by Ivanka Barzashka (Managing Director of the Wargaming Network at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London), based on her recent presentation at the Connections US 2021 professional wargaming conference. This article expresses her personal views and does not necessarily reflect an institutional position. 


Wargaming has long practiced as a professional enterprise but is only emerging as an academic discipline. Civilian universities play an important role in bringing established standards of academic excellence to the theory and practice of wargaming for both research and education. 

Ensuring excellence in analytical wargames is especially important as governments increasingly looking to wargames to innovate and inform decisions. The pool of analytical wargame providers is rapidly expanding beyond the well-established expert circles. 

To achieve and demonstrate research excellence, analytical wargames need to follow established research integrity and ethics principles. Researchers, institutions and funders can then ensure these principles are implemented in practice, and action is taken when behaviours fall short. 

Research Integrity & Ethics in Analytical Wargaming 

What are these fundamental principles and how do they apply to wargames used for research? I answered this question in a recent presentation at the US Connections Professional Wargaming Conference from an academic perspective informed by King’s College London policies. I also highlighted some challenges facing scholars who wargame. You can listen to the talk here and view my slides below. 

The key takeaway: while wargaming scholarship is progressing, there is still a way to go. To properly meet research integrity standards, we need more fundamental research on wargaming, more educational opportunities in wargaming theory, methods and practice, and appropriate publication outlets. It is impossible to follow “disciplinary standard and norms” when scholars do not know or agree what these are. It is difficult to demonstrate rigour in “using appropriate research methods” when scientifically-sound analytical wargaming methods are only beginning to emerge in the open literature and are being applied for the first time for scholarly inquiry. Academics who strive for “transparency and open communication” still have issues publishing wargame findings in reputable journals.  

Expectations for Scholars vs Professional Wargamers 

But to what extent do research integrity and ethics requirements for analytical wargaming differ for academics versus professional wargamers? To advance this discussion, I offer three propositions.  

Most, but Not All, Academic Research Integrity Principles Apply to Professional Wargaming 

First, while the general principles for research excellence are fairly standard, a major difference between academic and professional wargaming is the expectation for transparency and open communication. For example, analysts who use wargames to support research for government clients are not expected to make their methods and findings available to others. In contrast, scholars are required to publish research and are promoted on the number of publications. 

Responding to Research Misconduct and Questionable Research Practices 

Second, the extent to which research integrity principles are applied in practice differs significantly among institutions and sponsors. This includes taking appropriate measures when there is evidence of research misconduct or questionable research practices.  

Research misconduct, which includes falsification, fabrication, plagiarism and misrepresentation, is a potentially fireable offence at a university. But could professional wargamers lose their jobs over poor game design or inadequate analysis of gameplay data?  

Looking at King’s definitions for categories of misconduct, many common wargaming practices would raise red flags in academe. Here are some examples: 

Falsification includes “inappropriate manipulation and/or selection of a research process.” According to this definition, creative injects by a control team that affect or determine outcomes of player decisions, but do not clearly link to research objectives and protocols, would raise questions.   

Misrepresentation includes “suppressing relevant results or data, or knowingly, recklessly or by gross negligence representing flawed interpretation of data.” Cherry-picking insights from a plenary discussion, while ignoring gameplay data, would get wargame analysts in trouble in this category. 

Another issue is plagiarism. Not acknowledging other people’s “ideas, intellectual property or work (written or otherwise)” in wargame design would be especially problematic in an academic setting but is common practice in the gaming community. 

Major Research Ethics Risks 

My third proposition concerns research ethics. The ethical issues that arise from the application of a particular analytical wargaming method that collects data from human subjects are mostly the same – regardless of whether the principal investigator works for a university or a government agency. However, the likelihood and consequence of ethical risks materialising will differ significantly in different settings. 

Scholars applying for research ethics review of an analytical wargaming process are most worried about preserving anonymity of research participants and ensuring the confidentiality of personal data. This risk arises because wargames are conducted in group settings and require support from large research teams (e.g. rapporteurs and facilitators). 

However, scholars can effectively manage these risks by carefully applying best practices, such as minimisation of directly or indirectly identifiable personal data, pseudo-anonymisation, access limitation, data separation and retention policies. These risks can be further reduced by careful recruitment and training of game staff. (At King’s, we spend 6 months selecting and training our wargame rapporteurs.) 

For professional wargamers, the major ethical risk is the conflict of interest between them and their sponsor. Stephen Downs-Martin describes the issue well in this article. Research ethics problems deepen when lines of responsibility and accountability are not clearly defined, and when the research process is not (or cannot) be made transparent. Mitigating these risks requires clear communication between a wargame provider and their sponsor but doing so might not be in the self-interest of the parties involved. 

Other ethical risks will be just as big, regardless of setting. For example, risks of harm to individuals could result from using wargames to investigate topics that could trigger stress or violence. If a principal investigator uses deception, including not fully informing participants of the purpose of the wargame, this also raises ethics concerns. (Thanks to Rex Brynen for highlighting these points.) 

Are Scholars Better Positioned to Ensure Research Excellence in Wargaming?

Ensuring and demonstrating research excellence in wargaming requires understanding, applying, and enforcing integrity and ethics principles. These principles are well established, but expectations differ in academic and professional wargaming settings. Professional wargamers face greater ethical risks than scholars who wargame, and these risks cannot be easily mitigated.   

Overall, scholars at universities are better positioned to ensure research excellence in wargaming than their professional wargaming colleagues. This does not mean professional wargamers are less interested in honesty, rigour, transparency, or ethics. Quite on the contrary – the wargaming community of practice is conscious of these risks and limitations, and the topic of this year’s US Connections conference is testimony to this fact. But there are powerful institutional incentives that influence research integrity and ethics in practice, which cannot be wished away. 

If people who are professional wargamers want to effectively demonstrate research excellence in wargaming, they should consider a sabbatical to spend some time at a university. 

Ivanka Barzashka

Building a climate change megagame (Part 3)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You can read Parts 1 and 2 here and here.


Concluding thoughts

One of the first impressions was that we were rather overwhelmed by the experience, which is one of the reasons this blog post, long overdue and way too long, did not materialize until at least one academic period had transpired after the main CCM event. However, now that we have gathered our thoughts a bit, we realized that we have probably learned a great number of things so far. For instance:

1.     Reasons for creating a megagame on climate change and social transformation

There are many types of games that relate to climate change and negotiations, but few that we feel concern the types of negotiations, dilemmas and interactions that may be common for professionals in companies and citizens in local regions facing the prospect of societal change. One of us, Ola Uhrqvist, had previous experience developing a game about city planning to take both climate adaptation into account— but there, few negotiations were conducted as the game was primarily a single-player web application. 

In the literature on learning for a sustainable development, engagement and various pedagogical forms is stressed as key to ensure that learners experience first-hand the dilemmas and difficulties they need to overcome. Furthermore, we noticed that when we pitched the idea of a “Climate Change Megagame”, it immediately piqued people’s interest in a way that acted as an icebreaker and helped us to engage rather diverse groups in conversations. Even though there were practical issues with every single version of the game we have tried, the concept itself has been intriguing enough to make people joining as players or contribute as control team and even contributing to game development. However, to understand exactly which difficulties to subject players, and what type of realistic situations to simulate, has proved to be almost as elusive as real societal transformation.

2.     The eternal challenge of playable realism

Serious games always needs to balance between relevance and playability. The activities players engage in, and the type of experience they have, must be of relevance whether it is “realistic” or not. We learned that some types of realism, such as players getting bogged down by managing their daily lives, may not be helpful in ensuring that the resulting experience is relevant to the end goal of understanding dilemmas and options for societal transformation. We wanted the game to offer interesting challenges without directing players too much with respect to what they would want to do. As designers, we can include mechanisms that reflect aspects of reality such as economic capital being vital for investments in infrastructure, say, without going so far as to say that without a growing economy, people would starve to death. We wanted to provide enough context and feedback mechanisms to stimulate discussions and make different visions apparent, without constricting players in such a way that their room for creative discussions and maneuvering would be artificially restricted. 

A golden rule for how to ensure players understand the rules well enough to be comfortable about breaking them and understanding just how much freedom they have to negotiate freely probably don’t exist but we understand much better now than before what would count as interesting and relevant challenges compared to “realistic” ones. In our experience minimalism of game mechanics is desirable in order to let participants focus on the content. 

3.     Recruiting and maintaining a committed and diverse design team

Including more people from the early playtests in game design and discussions made it apparent that it was difficult to ensure equal commitment among all when the game concept changed quite a lot, partly as a result of feedback. Also, we wanted to be open to suggestions about how different groups could contribute to the project, which placed high demands on participants to express clearly what they wanted to contribute to and what they expected. Some of the early contributors who provided invaluable feedback on the game and made it much better in the end still did not feel comfortable joining at the end as the game changed quite a lot between playtests. Though it was necessary to make the changes, it became difficult for all members of the design team to keep up with the ideas for changes that the core group brought forward, especially as we became limited to digital meetings during the pandemic. The take home lesson is the value of a clear aim, participants roles and modes of decision making and communication is increasingly important in a dynamic, explorative project.

4.     Going digital

Going digital opened up new opportunities for players from around the world to join and it greatly simplified our ability to collect data on how the game progressed, but also introduced a whole host of new issues. We spent quite some time even after the core game mechanics and graphical elements had been decided to ensure that the digital platform (Miro) could handle all graphical components and the 50 players with decent latency. Therefore, some graphical optimizations were required before the main event took place. For instance, components were merged into bitmaps instead of hundreds of separate graphics components. The communications channel (Discord) was set up very professionally by our Megagame colleague Darren Green from Crisis Games in the UK and that enabled players to have both private and public spaces for communications. Even with such a setup though, some players felt lost between all the channels and the Miro board. Having a technical setup and preparation before the main event, just focusing on the technical aspects of the game would probably have helped some participants who were struggling.

The main event was hosted at a venue where we broadcast everything live from a studio over Vimeo. This worked rather well as a compromise between having only an internal event and only having a studio with professional talking heads but having dual roles as hosts for both the game and the “show” was hard to manage. It would have been better to have studio hosts who could have focused on being hosts. Then again, a digital event that plays out through discussions on Discord and board changes on Miro might not offer enough continuous action for a continuous live show.

5.     The importance of good debriefing

The main event was intended to let people experience and reason about the needs for mitigation and adaptation, as in the needs for making changes to our societies that will reduce emissions versus the needs to adapt to climate change we cannot avoid. The primary aim of the debriefing was to capture the perceptions of these potentially conflicting needs, but it became apparent that the participants were mostly preoccupied with thoughts about the game mechanics, graphical elements and direct experiences. A debriefing is very important for a proper learning experience, and for us, the fact that people became preoccupied with the mechanics and graphical elements indicated that these were in fact the objects they thought mostly in terms of directly afterwards. Maybe the game was too heavy on mechanics since it became hard to talk about abstract things such as mitigation and adaptation in direct connection to having played. It would probably have been easier to first address game-specific issues and then later broaden the horizon to comprise the real world.

6.     Future development

The project had until this point been run exclusively on a small amount of seed money for a pedagogical project and a lot of personal commitment. We realized that continued work with this require us to leverage our initial experiences and gain access to proper funding for work that could significantly expand on what we have been doing. The game itself is not a goal, it is not even a product that may be finished but at best a way to help us think better, as designers and players, about what a sustainable society may be like. With some luck, we may have a chance to build on all we have learned and enable others to learn as we have about how to move constructively towards a societal transformation to sustainability.


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

Building a climate change megagame (Part 2)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.


Playtesting

Play-test 1: Card-driven anarcho-communism

The first iteration of the game was card-driven and centered around meeting different needs such as housing, food and transportation needs, while also being about changing the way you fulfill those needs (from more carbon-intensive variants to less carbon-intensive ones). Much of the game centered on meeting needs and negotiating with local politicians as well as companies on how to do that in a low-carbon manner. We had 15 players, three different municipalities in our region along with some companies and regional politicians. Everything was definitively NOT ready, but we understood enough of what we wanted to do so that we could start playing the game. After a few rounds of learning how to fulfill needs in general, people started getting creative about the use of different transportation methods so that we ended up having an electric garbage truck from one of the municipalities helping the population with food deliveries. Not quite sure about whether that would have conformed to sanitary guidelines, but we were rather happy about the level of creative thinking the group had going.

On the whole, the initial playtest left a bewildering mix of impressions. On the one hand, everyone present very much loved the format and engaged in lengthy discussions about how to develop the game further. On the other hand, we had succeeded in reducing carbon footprints in a way that may not have revealed very interesting tensions. As one commented, as players we seemed to behave as an “anarcho-communist collective”. Maybe not what we’d expect to see. We were not sure about how to interpret the outcome either. The companies were rather willing to forego profits and instead help the population get goods and services to meet their needs at cost. The local politicians had few restraints on their willingness to spend or meet needs or expectations from the local population. The emissions were not important in providing guidance to the players, and were not even noticed as part of playing. We succeeded without having very difficult conversations. In all, our collective success and limited sources of friction gave us much to consider for our next iteration of the game. Was the game too easy? Were we just too few to create interesting social dynamics? Did we need to pitch business owners or politicians as antagonists to the overall goal of achieving a transformation to reduce emissions, or did we simply need stronger incentives or opportunities for people to act in their own interests?

However, one design decision that was made at this stage was critical, and influenced the final game version: the general population of our region, Östergötland, would be represented in the game by players who would be able to take actions and make decisions, not as abstract values and mechanics such as tracks manipulated by decision-makers such as politicians, corporations, etc. This decision caused quite a few problems in the later stages of the design process, but in the end contributed to add a layer of interaction to the game that would otherwise have been missing and possibly sets the CCM apart from other megagames. In a megagame about, for example, the Napoleonic Wars, there are players playing generals and the officers they command, but there are no players playing the actual troops fighting the battle – whether they march where the general orders them to or refuse to move is most often decided by a morale roll, it is not the decision of a player. In this respect, the CCM was designed to bring to the table the debate taking place in society and the sometimes – from a societal planning point of view – irrational refusal by the entire or parts of the population to follow regulations and use available options to create a sustainable future.

Play-test 2: Overwhelming complexity

From the first to second iterations, we made several changes to explore designs hinted at by these questions. For one thing, we introduced quality of life, as a general mechanism that would see players optimizing well-being for the populations in their respective municipality, where reduced well-being of a population would trigger different sorts of social unrest.

Two main game mechanics were introduced in this version: the Quality of Life (QoL) tracker and Climate Impact tokens. The idea for the former began as a perceived need to track the progress of individual players in a clearer and more comparable way – an attempt to introduce the neighbour effect, i.e. ‘if my neighbour has it, I want it too’. This functioned as a form of victory points for the population players, which was affected by the overall goals in an indirect way, as extreme weather events could impact a player’s QoL, but would not necessarily do so depending on the type of event and what community it impacted.  

Here, each population player played a social stratum of the population: the population player’s needs were affected by the generations in their part of the population – each player began with 2 or 3 generations, each of which aged between turns and ran a risk (represented by a die roll) of ‘dying’ of old age and ill health. The latter was represented by a tracker, and players had to keep track of their generations so that they got proper health care, either from the local authorities or by purchasing it from private companies. This was introduced to give players a sense of relationship to a part of the population in one of the towns or municipalities. 

There were quite a few things to keep track of in this version of the game. All the needs cards in this version of the game had been replaced by boards and trackers, and players had to run back and forth to get the right resources to cover the needs boxes on their player boards. Some thought had been given to this being an obstacle in a game of a hundred players in the same room, and so some of the aspects, such as housing, had been placed on the board beforehand and did not change much during the game. Overall, however, the complexity of scaling up the original version of the game became a major problem: over 4000 cards and 50 player boards was needed for a game intended to be played by an estimated 30 players for the playtest – a climate impact issue in itself, as was noted by the control team when spending two hours cutting cards and boards. Also, if all 30 playtesters had turned up, we came to realize that there would have been chaos in the bargaining to get the resources they needed. 

The Climate Impact (CI) tokens was tied to the overall sustainability goal, which had been rather vaguely formulated in the first version of the game. The idea was that each action would carry with it its own ‘shame pile’, as one of the team members called it, in the form of a pile of CI tokens that accumulated over the lifetime of the resource. As an example, a good produced in Asia, with a certain amount of CI token already on it as decided by its production method and mode of transportation to Europe, would be purchased from the world market by a corporate player and then sold to a population player. As part of the negotiation to sell the good, the corporate player could offer to sell it at a lower price to if the population player would also take with them all CI tokens – or else offer to take all or some if the CI tokens in exchange for a higher price. The idea of the ‘shame pile’ was for each player to stand at their player board at the end of each turn and take in the sight of the climate impact they had given rise to during the turn. This was intended to provide incentive to opt for products and production methods that would lead to fewer CI tokens for the player, while giving them tangible feedback on their progress towards a sustainable society.

The complexity issue became apparent even with fewer playtesters than anticipated, and we figured out that we needed a better way of managing the small communities in the region, so we thought that having groups of players collaborating in smaller teams explicitly for the purpose of a small community might be a way forward. Also, we wanted to understand if the game design could work with a wider group of players and decided to recruit playtesters from a broader group for the next playtest.

Playtest 3: Decreasing complexity and the breakdown of the market system

Thanks to broader marketing and better advance planning, the third playtest featured a much more varied group of players, with roughly 25 playtesters of varying ages and backgrounds that attended the session. This was the first time we encountered accessibility issues relating to e.g. English as the only language for rules and components to cater the the minority of English-only participants, the height of tables in relation to wheelchairs and other aspects which had not been considered before with our smaller group.

This version of the game was a streamlined version of the one used in Playtest 2, and thought had been given to decreasing the complexity of the game and focus on the sustainability goals while not giving up the idea of simulating the problems faced by the population players in meeting their needs of the various generations of the population strata they represented. Generations were made a more central game aspect as they provided population players with actions and income, and the population players were also given more distinct roles with role-specific actions, e.g. the ability to steal from other population players or increase the resources gained from certain standard actions. The number of players per population had also been increased from one to two or three to decrease the complexity and workload of each player, and as it was beginning to dawn upon the game design team that megagames are played by groups of players, which had been noted in Playtest 1, when individual players banded together to discuss things and make sense of situations. 

The political system, which had been absent in Playtest 2 due to a lack of players, was incorporated into the game through the population player’s vote cards, which allowed them to give one of three political parties their vote. The parties, which were represented by one or two players, between them decided on regional policy. Such policies included taxes and restrictions – the power each party wielded was decided by how many vote cards they had and their ability to make voters stay with their party. The population players could change their vote at any time. This system proved to be rather static, as almost all vote cards were placed with one of the parties and few players gave their vote any thought during the game, leaving the players of two parties to try to get people to change their votes, which was in vain due to them being fully occupied with trying to sort out all of their needs and actions. This may have been rather realistic, as some of the players noted, but not great in terms of game experience. 

Two other roles were completely overwhelmed: the local authority player and the corporate players. These were more or less assaulted by a horde of population players demanding all kinds of goods and solutions to their problems, and getting access to market and local authority players became so difficult that the game rounds ended before all players had had a chance to get to the front of the line that formed in front of the market table. Thus, this version of the game showed that it would be impossible to hold on to the idea of simulating the complexity of the economic system of supply and demand – even in simplified form – by moving cards and tiles from one place to another. This also proved to be the fall of the ‘shame pile’ system as it had been imagined up to this point, as it proved far too problematic to transport the CI tokens in the room.

Research also made a small appearance with the introduction of research players, which tried to get funding to carry out research projects that would improve production processes and other aspects of the game. As this had not been given proper thought, the main role of the researchers, who represented universities as well as private research institutions, became to distribute university education and discuss matters connected to the Swedish government, which was not represented by a player in this game, but rather appeared on screens with different kinds of national policy, which the politicians were to deal with. 

After the playtest, further playtests and the main game event was postponed due to restrictions following the pandemic, which left ample time for reflections and rebuilding the game. In May 2020, the game design team met to discuss a heavily revised version of the game, which relied on the ‘steady-state system’ to deal with the choke points presented by the reliance of population players on the market and local authority players to get hold of the resources they needed to play the game. The object of this was to place more focus on the issue of discussing the overall goal of the game—a societal transformation towards a sustainable society, which had been more or less completely ignored by players during Playtest 3 – again, rather realistic, but not ideal for a game such as the CCM.  

Even though we wanted to illustrate that as citizens we have to spend our time managing our own lives instead of considering changing lifestyles and promoting a societal transformation, this was an unwanted piece of “realism” in CCM. Both game designers and playtesters wanted an immersion in the decisions and dilemmas inherent in societal transformation. To simply implement mechanisms that deflect from those decisions because those mechanisms are in place in real life would not stimulate the kinds of discussions we wanted. In that way, we did not want a “realistic” game experience but an engaging, immersive and relevant experience. We realized the difference between the two at about this point.

Playtest 4: The making of a megagame

The fourth and final playtest was held in October and was partly digital – some players sat by their computers in the same room as the control team (the only restriction at that time involved groups over 50 people) and others participated from their homes over Discord. This was in preparation of the main event, which in the end were to be entirely digital, a fact that was suspected at this point in time. Just under 20 players and control team members participated, and the playing was done using a Miro board. 

During Summer 2020, the game had been reinvented based on the lessons learned during Playtests 1-3 and the lead game designer’s improved understanding of megagames after studying them more closely over the past year. Population players were assigned roles tied to age group (young, working-age, old) rather than social stratum and, together with a local authority player, placed in groups based on which community in Östergötland they represented. This made it easier for players to act as a group against other groups, but also gave each player an individual income and a special ability, which both made them useful to the group and put them in a position to negotiate with the group members to reach their individual goals. The same was done for the corporate players, the researchers, and the politicians, who were all placed in groups (the business community, the research community, and three different political parties) with both common and individual goals. A map of the region divided into hexagons and some rules connected to it made the impact of extreme weather events and actions such as farming and harvesting forest clearer.

The most notable change was the disappearance of the market system and the cards or tiles for various needs as this proved to be a major detraction from the discussions we wanted to promote through the game. The constant negotiations to fulfil needs were replaced by an abstract ‘steady-state’ system in which only changes were recorded, and the needs of each community were reduced to four areas (food, goods, transportation, and housing). Each area was represented by a track with six boxes: three orange (technological solutions) and three blue (changes to lifestyle). By investing economic capital (earned primarily by working-age population players and local authority players), social capital (earned primarily by young population players), and cultural capital (old population players) the communities could either buy technological solutions or make changes to their lifestyle to decrease their community’s CI, which was displayed on the game board in relation to the goal of a CO2-free society in 2050.

Most of the lifestyle changes were available from the start of the game as they involved reducing consumption, often at the assumed social costs (which resulted in negative effect cards being drawn to affect the community occurring at the end of turn). The technological solutions, however, were mostly unavailable at the start of the game and had to be unlocked by the business community, which in turn relied on the research community to make the necessary technological advancements. Thus, economic capital flowed from the corporate players to the researchers, who worked hard to research the technologies that would allow the business players to unlock the technological solutions on the communities’ boards, allowing them to be purchased by the communities. However, even with technological solutions unlocked, community players could choose not to buy it and instead opt to implement lifestyle changes to reduce their climate impact. 

In this version of the game, the business community was made up of corporate players without specific roles, which made them act more like anonymous risk capitalists than local businesses.

Also, in this version the communities’ choices of technology and lifestyle did not affect the income of the corporate players which we realized was a missed opportunity for conflicting interests.  

Regarding research, a single player handled research using a deck of cards in which they put research objectives that came into effect as soon as they were drawn from the deck (this could be sped up using economic and cultural capital to draw additional cards, increasing the chances of success), which made the impact of research very low, which may be a realistic interpretation, but made the research sub-game less rewarding. 

As for the politics, no politicians were included in this playtest and instead one of the control team took on the role of discussing with anyone who wanted to contact the regional/national government, regarding, for example, increased research grants. No vote cards were used as this aspect of the game design was at this time in doubt whether they would actually contribute to the game experience. In the end it was concluded that they would, as they were reinstated in a slightly different form in the final version. 

The game lasted for two rounds out of the planned three, and the general feeling among the players afterwards was that the game would be very interesting to play, which resulted in several of the playtesters joining the control team for the main event. The game design team felt that the game inspired the intended kind of negotiations, even though feedback from the debriefing session mainly related to the game experience rather than to its connection to the real world. At this stage, we felt we were approaching what we imagined a proper Megagame experience should be like, and we were feeling increasingly confident that we could pull this off for a larger audience.

Some of the major lessons from the fourth playtest were that we needed some tighter connections between different groups of players. For instance, all corporations (each being run by one or two players) were given specific abilities and goals that were directly related to either local production (farmers, private forest owners, local factory owners, etc.) or import businesses (food store chains, import goods businesses, import car dealers, etc.), reflecting the conflict between local supply and global trade. The final version of the game was to feature two main contentions as we had uncovered from literature on differences between sustainability visions: technological change and intact/growing economy versus behavioural changes to reduce the economy, and global solutions versus local self-sufficiency.

Also, the community players’ decisions to make behavioural changes was made to affect the income of business owners in the final version of the game and research became directly connected to the business community’s ability to make technological solutions available to the communities.

The main event: Playtest 5

The main event was held November 21, 2020 and attended (digitally) by some 40 players from different countries. From our earlier playtests, we now had a well-functioning control team and managed to host the game from a studio at the local concert hall in Linköping which had been retrofitted into a studio for digital events during the pandemic. Two of us, Ola Leifler and Ola Uhrqvist, acted as both hosts and play leaders. As we ended up with roughly half the players required for a full game, it was decided that half the communites on the map (four out of eight) were not to be played. The work leading up to the event included a control team briefing session held via Discord and session a few days before the event, and a few days before that the sending out of 4-page role and rules documents to players. 

The changes that had been made to the version used in Playtest 4 involved the completion of the business and research communities as outlined above, and the addition of the regional council (politicians) and vote cards. Further reductions in complexity of game mechanics had been made, which resulted in cultural capital being removed and social capital being changed to social change tokens, which represented the snowball effect of change begetting change in that the more social change tokens were used, the more the young population players received the turn after. The old population players were also given a single social change token, as well as the power to make populations (now tokens on the game board) into generalists that could survive without the support of modern society to bring this option to the table as well. 

Final version of the game board: overview.

The politicians were divided into three distinct parties and given the option to grant economic capital to aid the communities and the business and research communities in their efforts achieve specific boxes on their development tracks, which provided them with both incentive for negotiations with other players and collaboration between the parties.

The individual goal of the politicians was to collect as many vote cards as possible, which all players (not just the populations) had been given and were free to give to any politician at any point up to the penultimate turn. Players could not take back their vote once cast, so it was important not to make the wrong choice or sell out too cheap in negotiations with politicians; most players waited to the very last minute to give someone their vote. The vote was used in an election held at the end of the penultimate turn, which decided which party/-ies would control power in the last turn. As the votes spread quite evenly the party with the most votes still had to make deals with at least one party made deals in the last round, so this did not change matters very much. 

The outcome of the game was that the four communities very nearly made it to a carbon-free society in 2050. As expected, most communities did not opt for only technological solutions or only behavioural changes but went with both, which left the business community rather poor at the end of the game due to heavy investments in research paired with loss of income from the reduction of consumption following lifestyle changes. The differences between communities was mostly during the first round, when some communities (primarily the large ones) opted to wait for the technological solutions to turn up (or even actively invested in research to make that happen), whereas others engaged all they could in lifestyle changes (the small and medium ones, who had little economic capital). During the second and third turns, the former made many lifestyle changes too, likely because they had the capital to do so and did not want to take any chances, and the latter gained handsome deals from the business community, which was trying to expand business to make up for lost income.  

Final version of the game board: close-up.

After the final round and looking at the results, debriefings were held and afterwards analysed (see a separate report. From a game design point of view, it was concluded that the game may have been a bit too easy to ‘win’, as in there may have been too much economic capital in relation to the price of unlocking the development boxes. On the other hand, all parts of the game functioned as intended and there was a great deal of negotiation going on, and the general tendency was for players to become more and more comfortable in their roles with each turn, which suggested that the game is possible to understand and make sense of. This was also suggested by the player debriefings, and the initial confusion reported by some appears to be mostly related to the megagame experience being difficult to envision beforehand, as well as the all-digital format which made it challenging to see how you could engage in conversations with other players when not in the same physical location.


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

Building a climate change megagame (Part 1)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You will find Parts 2 and 3 here and here.


Part 1:  Building a game about regional transformation towards a sustainable society

We have made major breakthrough in understanding cultural change and human behaviour”!

“VOTE for the Market Prophets if you believe in emission free transport, eco-building, repair shops and advanced food technologies such as synthetic meat”!

How do you convince people, a lot of people, to engage in meaningful conversations, or wild speculations such as those above, about societal transformations towards a sustainable future? How can you bring different perspectives to life through roleplaying in a way that not only roleplaying nerds can handle? How can you bring over 50 people from all over the world to sit in front of computers for 8 hours, starting from 3am or ending in the middle of the night? As it turns out, a Megagame on societal transformation, the Climate Change Megagame (CCM), was just what the doctor ordered. That it came to fruition as a digital event in the middle of a pandemic came as a surprise to those of us involved, but we speculate that it may have been a result from sending invitations for participation, and with people demonstrating and interest in participating, we settled on a date, panicked upon realizing that we had to create an all-digital version of the whole thing, and somehow forgot our panic and got to work. This is our story, as they say.

In early 2019, two of us (Ola Leifler & Ola Uhrqvist), who had met a number of times before but not really worked together, came to realize that we are both engaged in ensuring that learning becomes a platform for working towards a sustainable development, and we are both interested in creative approaches to learning as well including the use of boardgames and role-playing. One of us had heard about Megagames from a boardgame review site (Shut Up & Sit Down) but we had never played one ourselves. However, the concept sounded interesting enough and we also happened to have some seed money from a pedagogical project involving how to make use of climate simulation data in education, so we enlisted our third core member Magnus Persson as lead game designer and started our journey.

At the start, we wanted to illustrate how a societal transformation towards a long-term sustainable society would induce tensions between regional actors and interests such as conservation groups, business interests, the general public and politicians in a Swedish region of 500 000 inhabitants. Also, we wanted to make it clear that even as climate change effects will not be felt exactly the same by our region as others, and effects will be cumulative and delayed, there will be disruptions to food production and serious extreme weather events in the coming decades.  The exact nature of tensions and future visions were not very clear initially though, even as we read through reports from different research projects as well as national transformation initiatives. It became clear that visions for a transformed society could look rather different. There was also a whole lot of research on synergies and trade-offs between the different sustainable development goals which seemed to indicate that there are many layers of interactions between the different goals, both on regional but also national and international levels. An initial source of tension that we found to be interesting to explore through a Megagame concerned whether to make changes to our current way of life as we anticipate that it is not long-term sustainable, or focus on achieving short-term goals for ourselves such as going on vacation, building a house, buying groceries or finding a decent pair of shoes. 

So, was our challenge just to create a simulation of a region in a complex global industrial society? That would have been far too easy. We soon realised that this was just the point of departure on top of which we also had so simulate different futures depending on the paths the participants would embark upon and the transformation to get there. Oh, yes, we almost forgot, the game had to be comprehensible enough to be grasped in less than 20 minutes. 


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

Sepinsky: Rigorous wargames vs effective wargaming

At War on the Rocks, Jeremy Sepinsky (CNA) addresses “Is it a wargame? It doesn’t matter: Rigorous wargames vs effective wargaming.

We need to stop telling ourselves that the key to a better wargame is to add more detail. Some of the most rigorous, well-researched wargames I’ve participated in have struggled to create any lasting impact on the sponsors. Yet many of my ad hoc, quickly assembled, and lightly adjudicated wargames have created exactly the lasting impacts that we are looking for: sponsors thinking hard about future plans, policies, or objectives. Why? Because a rigorous wargame is usually not the same thing as effective wargaming. Without sponsors who understand the role of wargaming within their organization’s priorities, even a great wargame will often become a simple exercise of telling the players what they already know. The wargaming community can and should be better, but the community and its sponsors need to address the critical element that allows a wargame, whether deeply rigorous or hastily assembled, to also be effective wargaming: the ecosystem — the personal networks, cycle of research, follow-on activities, and continued intellectual engagement with the insights that emerge from it.

Yuna Huh Wong and Garrett Heath raise questions about the quality of defense wargames in these pages, noting, “Much of what the Department of Defense calls wargaming is not actually wargaming.” They are quite right — but that’s not necessarily a problem. Wargamers will debate till they are blue in the face about what is and is not a wargame. It does not matter. For those of us who deliver wargames to sponsors in the Department of Defense or other government agencies in support of current priorities, these semantics have little value. If the players or sponsors are better equipped at the end of the wargame to do the things they need to do, then there is value in the activity. Nothing else matters.

You can read the rest of the article at the link above.

MORS: Sabin on simultaneity of action in rigidly adjudicated wargames

On Wednesday, January 27, Prof. Philip Sabin will be speaking to the MORS wargaming community of interest on “How to Achieve Simultaneity of Action in Rigidly Adjudicated Wargames.” The session starts at 1130 ET.

Philip Sabin retired a year ago as Professor of Strategic Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and is now Emeritus Professor. He worked closely with the UK military for many years, especially through the University of London Military Education Committee, the Chief of the Air Staff’s Air Power Workshop, and KCL’s academic links with the Defence Academy and the Royal College of Defence Studies. Professor Sabin specialises in strategic and tactical analysis of conflict dynamics, with a particular focus on ancient warfare and modern air power. He makes extensive use of conflict simulation techniques to model the dynamics of various conflicts, and since 2003 he taught a highly innovative MA option module in which students design their own simulations of past conflicts. He has written or edited 15 books and monographs and several dozen chapters and articles on a wide variety of military topics. His books Lost Battles (2007) and Simulating War (2012) both make major contributions to the scholarly application of conflict simulation techniques. Besides co-organising the annual Connections UK conference at KCL, he has taken part in several defence wargaming projects, and he worked with the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research on the initial design of the Camberley Kriegsspiel with which officers may practise battlegroup tactics. Professor Sabin was also co-director of the King’s Wargaming Network, which is taking forward KCL’s leading role in the academic study of wargaming after his retirement. He is continuing to design a succession of innovative games modelling the grand tactics of combat (especially air combat), and to lecture internationally on aspects of wargaming and airpower.

See the link above for more details. A copy of Prof. Sabin’s paper can be found here:

Pellegrino: Modelling and games

Pete Pellegrino is a retired USN commander and former Naval Flight Officer, currently employed by Valiant Integrated Services supporting the US Naval War College’s War Gaming Department as lead for game design and adjudication and lecturing on game related topics for the department’s war gaming courses.  In addition to his work at the college since 2004, Pete has also conducted business games for Fortune 500 companies and consulted for major toy and game companies. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.

The various Excel tools mentioned in the lecture can be found here.

Others in this series can be viewed at the PAXsims YouTube channel.

Pellegrino: Distributed gaming taxonomy

Fortunately for all of us, Pete Pellegrino recorded his excellent presentation on distributed wargaming to the recent Connections Global 2020 conference—so here it is.

Pete Pellegrino is a retired USN commander and former Naval Flight Officer, currently employed by Valiant Integrated Services supporting the US Naval War College’s War Gaming Department as lead for game design and adjudication and lecturing on game related topics for the department’s war gaming courses.  In addition to his work at the college since 2004, Pete has also conducted business games for Fortune 500 companies and consulted for major toy and game companies. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.

Successful professional wargames: The Movie

Graham Longley-Brown had the foresight to record his recent presentation at the Connections Global conference, in which he highlighted some of the key points from his book Successful Professional Wargames: A Practitioners Guide (2019). Here it is, via YouTube, for those who might have missed it.

Pellegrino: Better visual communications with PowerPoint

This latest video by Pete Pellegrino isn’t primarily about wargaming, but instead about how to more effectively communicate game findings (or any other information) using PowerPoint.

Pete Pellegrino is a retired USN commander and former Naval Flight Officer, currently employed by Valiant Integrated Services supporting the US Naval War College’s War Gaming Department as lead for game design and adjudication and lecturing on game related topics for the department’s war gaming courses.  In addition to his work at the college since 2004, Pete has also conducted business games for Fortune 500 companies and consulted for major toy and game companies.

Others in this series can be viewed at the PAXsims YouTube channel.

Pete kindly provided PAXsims with permission to share this video. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.

Serious games for humanitarian training: The Movie

Yesterday, Tom Fisher (PAXsims and Imaginetics) and Matt Stevens (Lessons Learned Simulation and Training) spoke about their work on serious game for humanitarian training. If you missed it, the Georgetown University Wargaming Society has posted the video of the event to their YouTube channel.

Pellegrino: Problem statements and problem sponsors

Pete Pellegrino is a retired USN commander and former Naval Flight Officer, currently employed by Valiant Integrated Services supporting the US Naval War College’s War Gaming Department as lead for game design and adjudication and lecturing on game related topics for the department’s war gaming courses.  In addition to his work at the college since 2004, Pete has also conducted business games for Fortune 500 companies and consulted for major toy and game companies.

Others in this series can be viewed at the PAXsims YouTube channel.

Pete kindly provided PAXsims with permission to share this video. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.

Practical lessons from teaching online with wargames at CGSC

The following was written for PAXsims by Dr. James Sterrett, Directorate of Simulation Education (DSE), U. S. Army University.


The Directorate of Simulation Education (DSE) at the Command and General Staff College (CGSC), U.S. Army University spent mid-March through early June 2020 to prepare for, and then to conduct or support, three elective courses online using commercial wargames.  This article outlines our key lessons learned, and then discusses some details of what we did.

In total, the class events we ran totaled 10 different games, each running from 2.5 to 8 hours, each preceded by at least one 3 hour preparation session.  In addition, many of these involved numerous internal trainup sessions with each game, plus many trial runs of many games to assess their suitability for use, or in testing VASSAL modules we built for some of these games.  For around 9 weeks, from 30 March through 2 June, we averaged one 3-hour online wargame session a day, for testing, preparation, or classes.

We ran wargames for 3 different courses:

  • Bitter Woods for the Art of War Scholars Program (2x 4 hour classes)
  • Aftershock for the Defense Support to Civil Authorities elective (1x 3 hour class)
  • Eight games for History in Action, which we teach in collaboration with the Department of Military History.  (8x 3 hour classes)

Key Lessons

Top lesson 1: Online wargaming works, but it’s harder than live. Compared to running wargames live, it requires more manpower, time, effort, and technology from both students and faculty.

Top lesson 2: Success requires scaffolding.  Don’t assume students are ready with their technology or that they understand the online engine.  Plan for on-call tech support during every class. Plan to explicitly teach both the online engine, and the game itself in that engine.

VASSAL (http://www.vassalengine.org/is our tool of choice.

This is the most surprising outcome to us.  Several of us had prior experience with VASSAL and were not very fond of it; we are now converts.  VASSAL proved to be simple, reliable, effective, and made lower demands on computing horsepower and networks – and it is free.  In addition, it was an easier and more powerful tool to make new game modules for. 

(Read the detailed section for a more nuanced view of some of the other options.)

Test your tools in online classroom settings before committing to them.

Our initial impressions of tools were frequently overturned after gaining more extensive experience with them in testing.

Ease of use beats flashy presentation.

The more you can minimize the friction of using the online game tool, the more effort you can put elsewhere.  This is why VASSAL became, unexpectedly, our favorite application.

Running a wargame online needs more manpower than running the same game live.

Running wargames live, a skilled facilitator can sometimes run 2 or 3 games.  Online, you must have one facilitator per game.  When teaching the game, you must have one person doing the instruction while another monitors a chat window for questions and puts them to the instructor at appropriate moments.

In addition, we found we needed to have a separate person as dedicated on-call tech support, every time.  Although a few classes did not turn out to need tech support, most did, and dedicated tech support meant that the game facilitators could keep the games running while the students with tech problems got helped.

Running a wargame online requires a higher level of skill across the facilitators than running the same games live in one room.

Running wargames live in one room, one person can be the expert whom the others can rapidly turn to for help.  Running online, everyone is necessarily in separate rooms, and even with side-channel communications, the question and answer interchange is much slower.  Each facilitator needs to be an expert.

Keeping the game moving is harder online due to the limited communications.

Live, you can see what students are doing.  You usually know who is thinking, who is confused and needs help, who is done making a move.  Online, you usually have no idea.  Is the student silent because they are thinking?  Confused and lost? Conferring with their partner? Done but forgot to announce it?  Done, and announced it, but failed to activate their microphone or had some technical issue?  When do you break in to ask, possibly breaking their concentration and creating more friction?

Everything takes longer online.  

Your game is hostage to hardware issues beyond your control.

A bad internet day makes for a bad class day.  Students come with widely varying degrees of computer savvy.  They also come with widely varying quality of equipment.  We had one student whose computer was a low-powered laptop around a decade old, which created frequent technical issues.  Another used a Surface tablet, which had no direct technical issues, but the small screen caused usability problems.

Ideally, each participant should have least 2 large monitors.

A reasonably modern computer, preferably with at least one large monitor, and, ideally, with two or more large monitors, definitely worked best.  Multiple monitors enabled placing documentation and chat windows on one screen while placing the main game map on the other.

Those with only one monitor, especially if on a small screen, found themselves constantly paging between windows and struggling to manage limited screen space.

Some students and faculty took to using a high definition TV as a second monitor, which worked well.

Technology in More Detail

Communications

Ideally, we would have done extensive R&D into both a wargame engine and into a communications solution.  However, we rapidly determined that Blackboard, which the Army already had on contract, provided a communications system that was both sufficient for our purposes and that students already knew how to use.  While not perfect  (the interface for splitting students into small groups can be a pain to use), Blackboard worked well for us. Specific features we came to rely on:

  • The ability to break students into breakout groups, and to have instructors move easily between breakout groups.  Each breakout group was one game.  Also, we could easily recall all the breakout groups into one room when it came time to return to group discussion.
  • Screen sharing to assist in teaching the games.  While the shared screens were sometimes very fuzzy (which we worked around by zooming in when details were important), the shared screen allowed us to direct people’s attention to the item currently under discussion.  In a perfect world, the game engine itself would provide a means of directing attention.
  • Multiple chat lines: Direct 1 to 1 chat, alongside breakout room chat, alongside group discussion chat, all at the same time.  The major feature we wanted, and did not have, was a direct chat line between any subset of people without creating a new breakout room – so that 3 or 4 people on the same side could coordinate their strategy and tactics, for example.  We worked around this by having students use their cell phones.

Wargame Engines

We spent several weeks testing online game engines, both for running games and our ability to modify or create new games.

 VASSAL (http://www.vassalengine.org/)

As noted above, several of us had prior experience with VASSAL and did not have a high opinion of it.  However, those opinions were based on the state of VASSAL in the later 1990s, when it was relatively new.  VASSAL has improved a lot in the last 20 years, and those improvements are a great credit to its volunteer coding team.

VASSAL is not the prettiest or slickest engine out there.  However, it had several decisive advantages:

  • Highly reliable, it worked on all the equipment students brought into the classes.
  • Free, while every other solution required either the instructors, or everyone, to buy software.
  • Easier for students to learn than other systems.
  • It was significantly easier for our team to make new or modified modules in VASSAL than in other systems.  
  • Presented the widest variety of ready-to-go games relevant to our courses.
  • Because it is built from the ground up to support wargames, VASSAL’s standard interaction set is tailored to supporting wargames.  The other engines seemed, to us, to have standard interactions best suited to running Euro games or role-playing games (which those other engines chase because those are much larger markets!)
  • VASSAL doesn’t enforce the rules.  We thought this would be a weakness, but when the computer enforces the rules, it prevents the facilitator from fixing mistakes – and with first-time players, it’s very handy to let the facilitator see and do anything they want.

Two key workarounds we used with VASSAL:

  1. Normally only one player can join a specific role.  However, if everyone who is going to join that role does so simultaneously, you can pack many players into one role,  permitting a small team of students to play the same side while maintaining fog of war.  Note that this feature is not officially supported.
  2. Most modules that had fog of war also included a “Solo” player who could see everything, so we used this as a facilitator role.  We modified the Triumph & Tragedy module to include this as well.  Without the ability to see through the fog of war, the facilitator cannot effectively answer questions and solve problems.

Tabletopia (https://tabletopia.com/)

Tabletopia was our initial favorite, with a slick interface and great presentation.  Our favorite feature is the ability to see the “hands” of the other players, which makes it really easy to direct attention – “Look at the Blue Hand”.  Tabletopia is browser-driven and thus is platform independent, which is a great plus.  It is also the only way to play 1944: Race to the Rhine online, which we very much wanted to include in our history course.

However, Tabletopia also had some problems.  Running a multiplayer game requires that at least one player has a paid account ($9.99/month), and the Terms of Service for game creation included language that we were wary of.  In testing, it was much more difficult to make a new game in Tabletopia than in VASSAL, and essentially impossible to modify an existing game we had not made.  We could not figure out how to enforce fog of war in a blocks game in Tabletopia.

The great surprise came when we used it in class.  We expected students would find the interface simple.  However, students found Tabletopia confusing to use and said they preferred VASSAL.  Students with weaker computer hardware or slower internet connections found Tabletopia crashed or refused to start.

While we may use Tabletopia again in order to use the excellent Race to the Rhine, we also know we need to figure out how to work through its issues first.

Tabletop Simulator (https://www.tabletopsimulator.com/)

Tabletop Simulator (TTS) has a very large following, but we wound up bouncing off it.  The large number of possible interactions means it also has a large number of controls and possible customizations.  We found it confusing, and the physics model got in the way of ease of use as pieces bumped into each other.  A friend who likes it admitted it takes at least 10 hours to get comfortable with TTS, which is longer than we can afford to spend for classes.  In addition to these issues, TTS is a $20 purchase.

Roll20.net (https://roll20.net/)

Roll20 is built to support role-playing games.  Unlike the other options mentioned here, Roll20 includes fairly robust voice and chat communications.  It’s reasonably simple to set up a new game in Roll20 as well.   

Roll20 fared well in initial testing, and thus became a strong candidate for running Matrix games.  However, in full testing, its communications fell apart under the load of around a dozen people.  In addition, we ran into significant issues with allocating permissions to move pieces; as far as we could tell, players needed to join so they were known to the game room, then leave, so the GM could make permissions changes, then rejoin, which seemed like an overly complex dance to go through under time pressure in a class with students.

We suspect that our inexperience with the tool is key in some of these problems and intend to retest Roll20 in the summer.  In addition, we know of others who have used Microsoft Teams and Google Sheets to run Matrix games.

No Computer Games – Why?

We avoided computer games for several reasons:

  1. Students would need to buy them, and potentially need to buy many games for one class.
  2. Many games of interest run on only a subset of student computers (only Windows, or only high-end Windows computers, for example).
  3. Each computer game has its own interface to learn, on top of learning the game system, increasing the training overhead needed to get to the learning for the class; this is particularly an issue for our history class.
  4. In many cases, understanding the games’ models is an essential component to learning the wider lessons of the class. In our experience, this is harder to do with computer games, whose models are obscured in comparison to manual games.  (This is the price paid for the computer doing the heavy lifting of the model; the payoff of the computer is that it does that work.)

We are not adamantly opposed to computer wargames; we use them in our Simulations Lab during live instruction, and are investigating using them in some courses this fall in DL.  However, in the short timeframe we had, the above complications were sufficient to rule them out.

Teaching the Games

In all cases, we learned that it works best to:

  1. Provide a 15 minute introduction to the game at the end of the prior class.  Students won’t learn the game from this but the overview helps them learn better from the rules and videos in step 2.
  2. Provide the rules and tutorials as homework.  YouTube tutorials were very popular with students, when they existed. Students will not learn the game from these but they will come armed to steps 3 and 4 with a better framework.
  3. Provide a practice session.  We routinely ran a practice session the afternoon before class.  These lasted 3 hours (the same duration as the class) and included the full teaching script plus playing the game.  We warned students that this was partly internal trainup, so they knew to be patient with periodic digressions as we worked out unexpected wrinkles.  Because they actually play the game, students learn the game in these.  If you control the groups, distribute the students who came to the Practice session across the class day student groups. As time went on, we learned to have internal trainup sessions before the official Practice session, so that our people were ready to run a game on their own in the Practice session.
  4. Teach the game at the beginning of class.  We find it always helps to begin by identifying the sides and their victory conditions, because you can tie all the game mechanics in the game back to them.

We establish up front that we will not teach all the details of the game, and thus many of these will pop up as they become relevant.  We try to warn people if they are going to hit a special case, and if somebody winds up in a bad position because of a rule not previously explained, we will try to come to a reasonably fair adjustment so they are not unfairly punished by an unknown rule.

Doing all this requires facilitators who are experts on the game, as noted earlier. 

We find that putting students into pairs on a given side works well in most cases.  Two will tend to plan together, each can compensate for the places where the other finds things confusing, and provide moral support where one sometimes feels confused and alone.  Three on a team, however, sometimes means one gets left out.

Teaching the Courses

Bitter Woods for the Art of War Scholars Program

The Art of War Scholars Program is a highly select group of CGSC students who engage in a wider-ranging and academically more rigorous course of study, focused on studying the art of warfighting through a combination of seminars and research focused on the operational and strategic military history of the past century.  Each student must write a thesis in the CGSC Master’s of Military Art and Science program.

Dr. Dean A. Nowowiejski, the instructor for the Art of War Scholars Program, wanted the wargame to do three things: introduce the students to wargaming, introduce the terrain of the Battle of the Bulge to students for a follow-on virtual staff ride, and to examine the dilemmas facing the Allied forces in reducing the Bulge.

To support this, we need a game simple enough for new wargamers to play effectively, that covered the Bulge in enough detail to gain an appreciation for the terrain and forces involved, and that could be made to start later in the battle in order to cover the reduction of the Bulge.

We selected Bitter Woods for having the best balance of both a simple system (using only the basic rules) and the ability to run the Battle of the Bulge into January 1945.  The runners-up were GMT’s Ardennes ‘44 and MMP’s Ardennes.  Ardennes ’44 is more complex and Ardennes is out of print, the latter being a key criterion when we made the selection in January 2020 and expected to run the event live.

In order to highlight the dilemmas in reducing the Bulge, we created a scenario that began on 27 December 1944, and also modified the existing Bitter Woods 22 December ’44 start point to cover the entire map, both accomplished with assistance from LTC William Nance, PhD, of the CGSC Department of Military History.   After testing both of these, we concluded that the dilemmas showed up best on 22 December, as Patton’s forces begin to arrive.  This start point also made a better set of dilemmas for the Germans, as their offensive is not out of steam on 22 December, leaving them with difficult choices about how to protect their flanks while aiming for victory.  We divided the twelve students into three separate game groups that executed simultaneously.  We had teams of 2 on each side in each game, and each team was split between a northern and a southern command.

Dr. Nowowiejski told us that the Art of War Scholars students would be prepared, and he proved correct.  This group of top-flight students, all very comfortable with technology, had no technical issues.  In addition, while we ran the game, LTC William Nance moved through the 3 game rooms, offering both historical commentary and acting as the high command for both sides to ping students with questions about their plans in order to ground those in the wider concerns of their historical counterparts.  This left Dr. Nowowiejski free to circulate through the groups, observe the students, and discuss wider points with them.

Dr. Nowowiejski had students discuss their plans and operational assessments with the entire class at the end of each of the two 4 hour classes, for a mid-point and final AAR.  As the students in the various Allied and German teams uncorked radically different plans, this provided a chance to compare possible courses of action and outcomes for both sides.  Students did find they had more units than they could easily control, but this produced useful discussions on the difficulty of integrating tactics into operations.  Overall, Dr. Nowowiejski judged the event “very successful” and hopes to have us run it, live or on VASSAL, next year.

Aftershock for the Homeland Security Planner’s Elective

We have run Aftershock in person several times in the past for Clay Easterling and Joseph Krebs’ Department of Joint & Multinational Operations Homeland Security Planner elective course. Much of the course examines higher level legal and policy issues.  Playing Aftershock in the middle breaks this up, and also serves as a reminder of the practical impact of the plans and policies they are discussing.  Students regularly name it their favorite part of the course.  Now we needed to run it electronically…!

No computer version of Aftershock existed.  The designers, Dr. Rex Brynen and Thomas Fisher, readily granted us permission to create a version in VASSAL, and Curt Pangracs of DSE spent around two weeks creating and testing the module in time for the course.

There were 33 students in this elective, divided into pairs for each of the 4 teams in the game, making a total of 4 games run in parallel.  Four of us from DSE ran the games, while a fifth stood by for technical support, ensuring the two instructors could circulate between the three sessions to observe and discuss.

We knew that this course tended to have a solid proportion of officers with low levels of experience with computers. Because of this, we set the Aftershock module up with two participant roles:  the Facilitator, who controlled everything on the board; and the Observers, who could not change anything, but could see everything and call up the supporting documentation.  This matched the way we often run the game in person, where the facilitator can keep the game moving by running the board and presenting the players with the next decision. We figured that with some of the students being less technical, making the students Observers would allow them to concentrate on making decisions instead of trying to puzzle out how to make the game execute their intended course of action.

We had far more technical issues than we expected, possibly because the larger number of students – nearly three times the number in any of our other groups – meant there were more opportunities for problems.  As a result, in each of the four games, the facilitators wound up using the backup plan of streaming their VASSAL screen of Aftershock out to some of the students who could not otherwise see the VASSAL screen. This is far from ideal, as those students reliant on the stream could not control the view, and the Blackboard shared screen is often fuzzy, but it was better than not seeing the screen at all.

Despite the technical issues, students found the exercise very useful, and the instructors named it “a highlight of the course”.  As one student wrote in their AAR, “Finally a time at CGSC where we are truly talking with one another to get something done and seeing the results of our decision”.

However, a key lesson here is that the event would have gone a lot more smoothly if we had conducted a readiness check at the end of the prior class session, just to make sure that everybody had VASSAL installed, could load the Aftershock module, and could join the online session – and then to help those who could not, so their troubles were fixed before the main event.

Note that Dr. Brynen’s notes on facilitating Aftershock are extremely helpful!  

History in Action Elective

History in Action is a joint elective taught by DSE and the Department of Military History, run with the aim of teaching military history through wargaming, and also teaching a better understanding of wargaming through learning the history.  Knowledge of history should inform both playing and assessing the game.  Equally, playing the game should help better understand the history; while wargaming can’t let you walk a mile in someone’s shoes, it can let you walk ten feet in their socks.  In prior years, DSE’s partner in this class was Dr. Greg Hospodor, but he moved away and we now partner with Dr. Jonathan Abel, and were also assisted by LTC William Nance, PhD, when he was available.

To be selected for this course, a game has to pass all of these tests:

  1. It has to be a good game – fun is the hook, though it isn’t the point.
  2. It has to be available for our use (some that pass the other criteria are out of print, or, for online, have no online implementation).
  3. We have to be able to teach and run it within the 3 hour class time while leaving time for discussion.
  4. It must be dripping with history.  It has to highlight unique aspects of the historical event it covers, so it both helps teach that history directly, and further helps teach when compared to the other games in the course.  This tends to rule out many less complex games because they wind up being functionally generic.  For example, if the game system doesn’t help drive home the difference between commanding World War 2 armor divisions and Napoleonic cavalry divisions, or treats the employment of the Roman manipular legion as little different from that of the Macedonian phalanx, then it doesn’t drive the learning we are looking for.

While in past years we tried to sequence the games according to a theme or timeline or the scale of the actions, our test sessions in early April convinced us that we should sequence the games in order of probable complexity to students.  While we began with the list of games we use when teaching the course live, but some of them were not available online, while others we would like to use were.   We used, in order:

  • Battle for Moscow (The 1941 drive on Moscow)
  • Napoleon 1806 (The Jena/Auerstadt campaign)
  • 1944: Race to the Rhine  (The Allied drive across France, with a logistics focus)
  • Drive on Paris  (Schlieffen Plan and Plan XVII in 1914)
  • Strike of the Eagle  (1920 Soviet-Polish War)
  • Triumph & Tragedy  (The struggle for Europe, 1936-1945)
  • Fire in the Lake  (Vietnam War)
  • Nevsky  (Teutonic Knights vs Novogord Rus in 1240-1242)

In each 3 hour class, we began by teaching the game, then we ran it in parallel student groups until there were 45 minutes remaining.  The next 30 minutes or so were spent in discussions, and the final 15 minutes or so were spent introducing the next game in the class.  Between classes, students were assigned material on the history behind the next game, rulebooks and tutorials to learn the next game, and a graded AAR sheet to fill out on the game just played.  The AAR sheet asks for paragraph-length answers to these questions:

  • What was your plan/COA going into the game?
  • How did your plan/COA work?
  • How did the game illustrate the specific contextual elements of the period?
  • Was the game effective in conveying these contextual elements? How or how not?
  • What did you learn about warfare in the game’s time period? What surprised you?
  • What specific lessons can you draw from this game to apply to the future?

We were very pleased with student learning in the class.  Student AAR papers were full of observations on things they had learned about history, about wargaming, and that they could carry forward to future assignments.  As one student wrote in their end-of-course feedback, “more than anything the course provided context and examples that I can use in the future when explaining the challenges at the operational level of warfare”.  Success!  However, we did have to overcome various issues along the way.

We intentionally began with Battle for Moscow, the simplest game, to ensure we could also teach VASSAL in the same class.  This generally paid off, as subsequent games utilized, at most, a few more features of VASSAL each time, and thus the learning curve was well controlled and students seemed comfortable with VASSAL most of the time.  This process worked poorly when we jumped to Tabletopia for Race to the Rhine in class session 3, and then back to VASSAL for session 4 and beyond.  Some of our issues with Tabletopia likely stem from our assumption that its interface was easy enough to need little direct training, and to the ways in which it is different from VASSAL.  Equally, we had a slight uptick in trouble with the VASSAL interface in class session 4, perhaps because the students had been out of touch with it for a time.

We began inviting students to our internal prep sessions once we realized they might be able to attend.  Students who had the time to attend these were normally much better versed in the game than their peers.  We, in turn, had to recall that those unable to attend the optional prep session should be assumed to have a good reason!  We also learned to spread the students who attended the prep sessions across the student groups.  Arranging the student teams ahead of time, and publishing them for students, also helped, as some student teams would strategize ahead of the class.

This course charted the middle ground in the level of technical issues.  All the students were comfortable with technology, but some had poor internet connections or weak computers, including the roughly ten year old laptop mentioned earlier.  This led to those students losing connection to VASSAL or Blackboard.  When using Tabletopia, weaker internet connections and weaker computers completely failed.  Just as we all have learned that internet meetings go better when everybody turns off their video feed, opting for systems, such as VASSAL, that made less intensive use of network and computing power proved better in practice.

Key Takeaways

Online wargaming works, but it is more effort than live, because:           

  1. Test your technology thoroughly and ensure you have support on hand to run it.
  2. Running wargames online will require a higher level of expertise from all of your facilitators, of technology and the games.
  3. Running wargames online will require more preparation from students, both in learning the game and ensuring their technology is ready.

BoardGameGeek (description) and VASSAL (module) links for all the games mentioned:

Sepinsky: Wargaming as an analytic tool

William Owen recently offered some thoughts at PAXsims on “what is wrong with professional wargaming.” Jeremy Sepinsky (Lead Wargame Designer at CNA) then replied with some comments—which I have reposted below for greater visibility. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.


 

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I think the challenge here comes with equating “wargaming” with an analytic discipline rather than an analytic tool. Wargaming looks completely different in various context, but criticizing the rigor of the discipline is like criticizing the p-test, the Fourier transform, an MRI, or anonymous surveys: there very valuable if done well, and damaging if done poorly. The trick is in educating sponsors and potential sponsors as to what “bad” looks like. Even peer-reviewed journals have gone for years without identifying the “p-hacking” that has been taking place in quantitative analysis. And wargaming is a lot more diverse a toolset with a smaller number of skilled practitioners (and no peer-reviewed journals, as you point out) than quantitative methods, which makes it even harder to call out the bad actors.

To respond to Owen’s question of “so what, is it obvious?”: When a person running a professional wargame cannot effectively translate real-world decision making into relevant impacts in the conduct of the game, then either a) the person needs to be able to fully articulate why decisions at that level are beyond the scope of the mechanics, or b) it is a poorly run wargame. But many of the situations he discusses are “game-time” decisions. And it would be impossible/impractical (though probably beneficial) to include Matt Caffrey’s “Grey team” concept in all games. In that concept, there is an entire cell whose job it is to evaluate the wargame itself. Not the outcomes, or the research, but instead to critique whether the wargame was an appropriate model of reality for the purpose defined. Though, to support the other points in Owen’s article, I have not been able to find any published article discussing the concept.

But this leads into another point: wargames are more than combat modeling. Many of Owen’s examples and statements about the model seem to imply that the wargames he discuses are those that are interested in modelling and evaluating force-on-force conflict—and that the side that understands the underlying wargame mechanics of the conflict will succeed. To that end, those games do not seem to be played manually for just the very reason that you’re discussing. However, they are instead reproduced as “campaign analysis“. Models like STORM and JICM are trusted, I would argue, overly much. It takes away the requirement for the player knowing the rules, because it pits computer v. computer where both sides know all the rules.

When a given conflict can be reduced to pure combat, campaign analytics are a good tool for calculation. But when conflict is more than combat, the human element comes to the fore and wargames have an opportunity to expose new insights. In these cases, the specifics of the combat models should play less of a role in the outcomes. They are more highly abstracted to allow time and attention of the more humanistic elements of war: the move-counter-move in the cognitive domain of the players. Wargames structured properly to emphasize that cognitive domain should overcome the requirement of memorizing volumes of highly detailed rules by simply not having that many rules. Players only have so much mental currency to spend during the play of a single game, and where that currency is placed should be chosen (by the designer) wisely.

Finally, I’ll concluded with a response to Owen’s final statement: “The right wargame applied in the right way clearly does have immense value. It merely suggests we need to get better at understanding what has value and what doesn’t.” Who is it that defines the value of the wargame? Is it the sponsor? The designer? The players? I guarantee you that each come out with some value, and that they all may not agree on what that value was. Most US Department of Defense wargames that I am familiar with are one-off events. Understanding the implications of each wargame rule on every wargame action or decision is beyond the scope of most wargames and beyond the interest of wargame sponsors. Instead, we wargamers can do a better job explaining the limits of our knowledge. When we design a game, there is a delicate balance between fidelity and abstraction. Some aspect of the game are highly faithful to reality, while others are highly abstract. Where you place the fidelity and what you abstract has a tremendous outcome on the conclusions that you can make at the end of a wargame. Wargame designers, facilitators, and analysts owe it to their sponsors to make it clear what insights and conclusions are backed by a high degree of fidelity and which are not. Complex wargame models always run the risk of inputs being identified as insights, and our due diligence is important here. But that diligence extends beyond the numerical combat modelling into the facilitation, scenario, and non-kinetic aspects of the wargame as well.

Jeremy Sepinsky 

 

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