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Gaming the pandemic: Do No Harm

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We at PAXsims believe that serious games are a very useful tool in the analytical or educational toolbox—if we didn’t, we wouldn’t put so much effort into this website and all of our other game-related activities. However, I often find myself warning about the limits of games too. They aren’t magic bullets. In some cases, moreover, they’re not even an especially useful tools.

I have been thinking about this quite a bit in relation to the current COVID-19 pandemic. PAXsims has tried to be helpful by making a number of gaming resources available. Others have done the same, notable the King’s Wargaming Network, which is offering to support appropriate gaming initiatives.

As we collectively grapple with the unfolding global crisis, however, I thought it prudent to also highlight some the risks of serious pandemic gaming. As I will argue below, while serious games have a great deal of utility, they can also be counterproductive. We thus all have a moral responsibility to make sure (as they say in the humanitarian aid community) that we DO NO HARM with our work.

First of all, there’s the modelling problem. We have to be very humble in assessing our ability to examine some issues when so little is known about key dynamics. Related to this is the “garbage in, garbage out” problem. Our data is often weak. The excellent epidemiological projections published by the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team have been very useful in spurring states to action, but in the interests of avoiding confirmation bias we also need to recognize that some epidemiologists are raising concerns about the adequacy of the data used in such models. We need to make the robustness of our game assumptions to clear to clients and partners. Be humble, avoid hubris, make assumptions and models explicit, caveat findings, and don’t over-sell.

Second, playing games with subject matter experts (SMEs) can pull them away from doing other, more important things. I’ve done a lot of work on interagency coordination, where there is a similar problem: coordination meetings are great, but when you add up the time that goes into them they can actually weaken capacity if you aren’t careful. Of course, you can run games with non-SME’s, but then the GIGO problem is exacerbated.

Any gaming generally needs to be client-driven. Do the end-users of the game actually find it worthwhile? What questions do they want answered? This isn’t a universal rule—it may be that gaming alerts them to something that they hadn’t considered. But do keep in mind the demands on their time, institutional resources, and analytical capacity.

We also have to recognized that the much-maligned BOGSAT (“bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table”) is sometimes preferable to a game, when the former is run well. For a game to be worth designing and running it has to be demonstrably superior to other methods, and worth the time and effort put into it. There is a reason, after all, why the CIA’s Tradecraft Primer: Structured Analytic Techniques for Improving Intelligence Analysis warns that gaming techniques “usually require substantial commitments of analyst time and corporate resources.”

We need to debrief and analyze games carefully. The DIRE STRAITS experiment at Connections UK (2017) highlighted that the analytical conclusions from games are often far from self-evident, and that different people can walk away from the same game with very different conclusions.

Messaging for these games matter. The public is on edge. Some are dangerously complacent. Some are on the verge of panic. One wrong word, and suddenly there’s no toilet paper in the shops. If you don’t consider communication issues, reports from a game could feed either a “don’t worry it’s not that bad” view or a “my god we’re all going to die” response in the media and general public.

We also have to beware of clients with agendas, of course [insert everything Stephen Downes-Martin has ever written here.]

We need to be careful of both uncritical game evangelism and rent seeking—that is the “it would be cool to a game/games solve everything” over-enthusiasm, or “here’s a pot of money, let’s apply for it.”

In short, in a time of international crisis, we need to do this well if we do it. In my view it generally needs to respond to an identified need by those currently dealing with the crisis—or, if it doesn’t, there needs to be a good reason for that. They’re busy folks at the moment, after all.

UPDATE: I did a short presentation on this for the recent King’s Wargaming Network online symposium. My slides can be found here: DoNoHarm.


For more on gaming the pandemic, see our COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

Using games to explore potential conflicts between emotional reactions and analytical decision making

The following piece was written for PAXsims by Patrick Dresch. Patrick is based in Salisbury (UK), and is interested in the application of board games as training tools for emergency and disaster response. In 2019 he completed an MSc in crisis and disaster management at the University of Portsmouth, supported by a dissertation investigating the potential for cooperative board games to be used to train emergency responders in interoperability. He has also had the opportunity to test the integration of game mechanisms with table top and live simulation exercises by designing and delivering exercises as a volunteer with the humanitarian response charity Serve On.


I am a great believer in the potential for board games to be used as tools to supplement training and exercising for those working in emergency response and disaster relief. My interest in this field has mostly focused on using cooperative board games to practice interpersonal skills which can improve interoperability, including the potential to improve coordination and joint decision making. More recently, however, I have also been considering how this platform could be used to prompt emotional reactions which may be at odds with what might be called a rational solution.

In an abstract game it is often easy to focus on a game as a puzzle which needs to be solved. A player may have a personal aesthetic preference for the red tiles in Azul (2017), for instance, but this is unlikely to determine their strategy when playing the game. Other popular games use art and aesthetics to reinforce the theme of the game, and provide narrative structure to what could otherwise be an abstract puzzle. One example of this is the choice of illustrations on the adventure cards for The Lost Expedition (Osprey Games, 2017) (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Examples of adventure cards form The Lost Expedition.

Here we can see that the illustration choices not only reinforce the jungle survival theme, but also help players construct a narrative framework by showing dilemmas which work with the symbols and triggers. It should be recognised thatThe Lost Expedition was developed not as a serious game for training purposes, but as a popular game for general entertainment. Other popular games also use story telling and aesthetic choices to challenge players with moral choices, be it through the crossroads cards in the Dead of Winter (Plaid Hat Games, 2014) games, or asking players how far they would go to survive in This War of Mine (Awaken Realms, 2017) which is based on the Siege of Sarajevo. Other games are less explicit in this aspect of design choices, but may still choose to humanise what could otherwise be non-descript pawns to add extra weight to the implications of decisions. Days of Ire: Budapest 1956 (2016) for example, which is based on Hungarian revolution of the same year, includes historic names on each of the revolutionary markers, as well as historic background on the events cards in the manual. These elements add another layer of depth to a game which could otherwise simply be a strategic puzzle, and encourage players to consider what the human cost of their decisions would be.

In addition to using moral dilemmas as a way to encourage players buy into the universe of the game, designers also make aesthetic choices to prompt emotional reactions. This may range from using cute and cuddly imagery to encourage players to smile and laugh, or even quite the opposite. This is certainly the case in Raxxon (2017) which is set in the Dead of Winter universe during the early stages of a zombie outbreak, requiring players to manage a quarantine and separate the healthy population from the infected. Here, players are presented with cards which not only depict ravenous zombies, but also healthy individuals and various other groups such as uncooperative but healthy, violent individuals, and carriers who could spread the infection. Each of these different groups presents players with different issues to consider when managing a crowd formed of a mixed population, with the game employing push-your-luck and role specialisation mechanisms. Moreover, the illustration choices used on the cards can prompt a player to revel in calling in an airstrike to remove zombies from the crowd, or give them a moment’s pause when dealing with carriers who look like they may just have a bad cold. The design choice to use black and white images which focus on the characters’ facial expressions against a coloured background (Figure 2) starkly portray individuals at a moment of personal crisis as they await to find out if they will be taken to safety or left with the zombies. By doing so, this choice puts players in the role of a frontline responder who must deal directly with the public, once again adding a layer of depth to a problem-solving puzzle.

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Figure 2: Examples of Raxxon crowd cards.

This is all very well for popular games focusing on entertainment, but is there also an opportunity for serious games to use similar design choices to create discussion points and teachable moments? It is arguable that the more limited market for serious games means that there may not be as much of a financial incentive to develop their aesthetics in the way that commercial entertainment games do. Many serious games also choose to focus on systems where emotional considerations do not have to be included in training, and a print and play approach is aesthetically acceptable. Some sectors, however, may find that including an emotional element is of great benefit to frontline staff who have to deal with the public. In the disaster response sector Thomas Fisher has commented that no matter how well players do in AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game (2015), thousands of people will die in the game. This provides an opportunity for those who are new to the sector to reflect on their own feelings to this simulated loss of life and consider whether a career doing this sort of work is really for them. It is also worth noting that Fisher has made the point that when considering design choices for AFTERSHOCK, a conscious decision was made to avoid gratuitous images. Nonetheless, it can be seen that there are some similarities between the illustrations used for Raxxon and some of the Images used in the “at risk” deck for AFTERSHOCK (Figure 3). Unsurprisingly perhaps, the image of children in distress could be considered an effective shorthand for provoking emotional turmoil among players.

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Figure 3: Examples of images used in the AFTERSHOCK “at risk” deck.

 

If we agree that the design and story choices used in games can provoke emotional reactions and moral dilemmas, how can we develop these ideas as effective teaching tools? One possibility would be to use emotional triggers in games to help players become more aware of their own decision-making processes. With practice, this could also help them become more confident in their intuitive decision-making when there is limited time or opportunity for planning and analytical-decision making. In a game this might be done by using art and story to prompt an emotional or moral reaction which if acted upon would be considered irrational play in an athematic puzzle or even an abstract game. This might mean putting triggers on cards which are comparatively high risk and low reward in a game, and observing if they are acted on more frequently than low risk and high reward cards which have neutral imagery. As always, one should consider the learning objectives one is working towards when designing a game, and how different mechanisms can be used to foster different behaviours. The approach described here may be useful for addressing humanitarian principles, for instance and one could discuss the choice of helping an individual in obvious distress while ignoring a card with a higher value which could represent faceless masses. Furthermore, emotional triggers should not be simply limited to images of crying children but could instead be more subtle and nuanced. An example of this might be addressing the humanitarian principle of impartiality by depicting a diverse population and seeing if there is an expression of personal bias in the players’ choices.

In conclusion I think that use of design choices and story should be carefully considered as a game-based learning tool. Not only should aesthetics be considered as a way of making a product appealing to potential buyers, but careful choices have the potential to provide effective learning outcomes. I certainly hope that this will prompt further discussion and study to establish if these ideas can be developed further. Many of these ideas are already put into practice in live simulation disaster response exercises, for instance by using actors, moulage and prosthetics to provide responders with distressed casualties who may not be cooperative. I certainly think that incorporating story and push-your luck elements into exercises could also benefit them, for instance providing a threat to team safety which may influence deployment decisions. The social, face to face nature of board games also makes them an ideal platform in which to practice skills with a social element in a simulated dynamic and developing situation at relatively low cost and with potentially high engagement among participants.

Patrick Dresch

David and DeRosa: Wargaming Contested Narratives in an Age of Bewilderment

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At The Strategy Bridge, Arnel P. David and John DeRosa discuss “Wargaming Contested Narratives in an Age of Bewilderment.”

The Contested Narratives Wargame builds on the assertions from Peter Perla and Ed McGrady that wargames “embod[y] two types of narrative: the presented narrative, which is what we call the written or given narrative, created by the game’s designers; and the constructed narrative, which is developed through the actions, statements, and decisions of the game’s participants.”[1] Over the course of the game, select participants shared presented narratives (pre-scripted stories) to amplify or dampen adversary and friendly narratives. Participants then moved between tables developing constructed narratives (revised scripts) amidst the various contested narratives. Using the World Café method, a professionally and nationally diverse group of participants took turns sharing stories of national resilience against malign influence wherein the pre-scripted presented narratives contest for resonance.

The World Café is an exploratory method, designed by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, that elicits communication patterns.[2] Set in a café-like environment with multiple tables, participants are invited to sit in small groups with participants from other nations. A facilitator initiates the conversation with a narrative prompt to the entire room—“share a story about national resilience,” for example. Then the participants engage in multiple rounds of storytelling. Paper tablecloths and colored pens allow participants to scribble and take notes creating artifacts for later review. As participants move around the room, narratives begin to circulate. Contestation emerges as designated players introduce stories scripted prior to the wargame from an adversary’s perspective. At the end of several rounds, Dr. John DeRosa—game designer, lead facilitator, and one of the authors—led discussions with the participants to find the l’entre deux, the between place, of presented and constructed narratives circulating within the room. In this sense, the process seeks to reveal if elements of the pre-scripted narratives (like those representing the adversary) appear in the revised scripts developed within the wargame.

Two key insights emerged. First, stories coupled with symbols construct powerfully resonant narratives. Second, unlike the linear action-counteraction-reaction model of traditional wargames, methods like the World Café can effectively mimic the complexity of the human dimension.

More at the link above.

h/t Mark Jones Jr.

Fielder: Reflections on teaching wargame design

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At War on the Rocks today, James “Pigeon” fielder discusses how to teach wargame design, drawing on his experience at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

I founded my course on three pillars: defining wargames, objective-based design, and learning outcomes over winning. First, I took a blend of James Dunnigan, John Curry and Peter Perla, Phil Sabin, and my own caffeinated madness to define wargaming as “a synthetic decision making test under conditions of uncertainty against thinking opponents, which generates insights but not proven outcomes, engages multiple learning types, and builds team cohesion in a risk-free environment.” Second, I enshrined the primacy of the objective. Put bluntly, without objectives you don’t have a professional game. Although we briefly discussed creating sandbox environments for generating ideas in the absence of objectives, sandbox design at best strays into teaching group facilitation (albeit game refereeing itself is a form of facilitation), and at worst enshrining poorly structured and long-winded BOGSATs as legitimate analysis tools. Finally, neither the U.S. Strategic Command wargame nor the National Reconnaissance wargame included absolute and predetermined winners. Both U.S. Strategic Command and the National Reconnaissance Office faced unmitigated disaster every time they bellied up to the table. The best learning comes from understanding failure, correcting mistakes, and revising strategies, not from sponsors patting themselves on the back. Summoning Millennium Challenge 2002’s chained and howling ghost, gaming with the sole intent to win, prove, and prop up ideas is an exercise in false future bargaining with real lives and materiel.

He cleverly had his cadets design games for real sponsors:

I divided the class into two eight-cadet teams respectively for U.S. Strategic Command and the National Reconnaissance Office. The sponsors and I initiated dialogue, but from that point the games were entirely cadet driven. The teams interviewed the sponsors for objectives, determined how to measure the objectives, prototyped and play-tested their games, and ultimately delivered effective tools for addressing sponsor requirements. Meaning, of course, the games generated more questions than answers: better to ask the questions at the table before bargaining with a real opponent or launching a new military service.

There’s a lot more besides that, including a discussion of the wargame design literature, as well as material on psychological roots and sociological narratives of gaming. James also discusses the importance of learning-through-play.

Go read the entire piece at the link at the top of the page.

RAND: Gaming the gray zone

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RAND has released a new report by Stacie L. Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser on Competing in the Gray Zone: Russian Tactics and Western Responses. This addresses two major sets of research questions: first, “How are gray zone activities defined? What are different types of gray zone tactics?” and second “Where are vulnerabilities to gray zone tactics in Europe? What are those vulnerabilities?”

Recent events in Crimea and the Donbass in eastern Ukraine have upended relations between Russia and the West, specifically the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Although Russia’s actions in Ukraine were, for the most part, acts of outright aggression, Russia has been aiming to destabilize both its “near abroad” — the former Soviet states except for the Baltics — and wider Europe through the use of ambiguous “gray zone” tactics. These tactics include everything from propaganda and disinformation to election interference and the incitement of violence.

To better understand where there are vulnerabilities to Russian gray zone tactics in Europe and how to effectively counter them, the RAND Corporation ran a series of war games. These games comprised a Russian (Red) team, which was tasked with expanding its influence and undermining NATO unity, competing against a European (Green) team and a U.S. (Blue) team, which were aiming to defend their allies from Red’s gray zone activities without provoking an outright war. In these games, the authors of this report observed patterns of behavior from the three teams that are broadly consistent with what has been observed in the real world. This report presents key insights from these games and from the research effort that informed them.

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While the study is interesting enough as it is, RAND has also released a second 45 page monograph by Becca Wasser, Jenny Oberholtzer, Stacie L. Pettyjohn, and William Mackenzie that outlines the gaming methodology adopted: Gaming Gray Zone Tactics: Design Considerations for a Structured Strategic Game.

Research Questions

  1. Can a game model gray zone competition in a empirically ground sound yet playable way?
  2. What is the game design process for developing a structured strategic game for a complex political-military issue that simultaneously operates in two different time horizons?
  3. How can structured strategic gaming help researchers gain an understanding of adversary gray zone tactics and tools?

To explore how Russia could use gray zone tactics and to what effect, the authors of this report developed a strategic-level structured card game examining a gray zone competition between Russia and the West in the Balkans. In these games, the Russian player seeks to expand its influence and undermine NATO unity while competing against a European team and a U.S. team seeking to defend their allies from Russia’s gray zone activities without provoking an outright war. This report details the authors’ development of this game, including key design decisions, elements of the game, how the game is played, and the undergirding research approach. The authors conclude with recommendations for future applications of the game design.

Key Findings

The Balkans gray zone game demonstrated that structured strategy games are useful exploratory tools and this model could be adapted for other contexts and adversaries.

  • While the gray zone remains a murky topic, this game demonstrated that it was feasible to break the gray zone down into concrete parts, to conduct research on each of these parts, and to link these components to create a playable strategic game that yielded useful insights.
  • The scoped and structured approach to this game allowed for enough structure to keep discussions on track and provided links between inputs and outputs while still allowing for creativity, flexibility, and transparency.
  • This gray zone game can be adapted to focus on different regions or adversaries, could include additional allies, or could be made into a three-way competition.

The RAND team started with a series of matrix games to scope out the problem, and then progressed to semi-structured game. Finally, they moved on to creating a structured, three-sided (US, Europe, Russia) gray zone board game focused on the Balkans.

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Countries were tracked for governance quality and diplomatic-political orientation, as well as economic dependence (on Russia) and media freedom.

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Players acted through a deck of action cards, each specific to the actor(s) they represented. Potential Russian (RED) actions are shown above, and sample cards below)

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The report discusses the game design approaches taken, assesses their utility, and concludes with some suggestions as to future modifications.

All-in-all, it is a rare and outstanding example of serious game designers fully documenting their game design approach and research methods so as to inform future work on the issue. Kudos to all!


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Historical research and wargaming (Part 2): Applying the framework to the Third Battle of Gaza (1917)

The following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by James Halstead.


 

Part Two: Applying the Framework

In Part 2, the framework introduced in Part 1 will be used to study debates around a historical battle: the 1917 Third Battle of Gaza. The ‘Gaza School’ counterfactual has been a recurring element of the battle’s historiography since its inception in the immediate aftermath of the battle and was brought to greater prominence in the 1930s with Clive Garsia’s book A Key To Victory which continues to be an influential source for studies on Palestine. The Gaza School therefore remains an intriguing counterfactual possibility amidst continuing debate within the historiography

The Third Battle of Gaza

The ‘Gaza School’ debate revolves around the strategy employed by Edmund Allenby to eject Ottoman forces from their defensive line between the towns of Gaza and Beersheba in southern Palestine through October and November, 1917. Historically Allenby launched attacks on either flank of the Ottoman line between Gaza and Beersheba, drawing Ottoman reserves to both flanks before breaking through the weakly held centre. The inland flank was attacked first with the Desert Mounted Corps (DMC) and XX Corps outflanking, surrounding and capturing Beersheba. Meanwhile XXI Corps diverted Ottoman reserves with a holding attack on Gaza while the formations in Beersheba built up water stockpiles then broke through the Ottoman centre, forcing a full-scale Ottoman retreat.

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Garsia champions the ‘Gaza School’ counterfactual in his book, A Key To Victory, which posits Allenby should have eschewed the attack on Beersheba and focussed all resources upon breaking through at Gaza then exploiting with cavalry rather than outflanking the Ottoman line on the more logistically precarious inland flank.[1] This article will use the wargaming research framework laid out in the first part to explore the feasibility of Garsia’s alternative plan. Indeed, the suggestion to use a wargame to model this came as early as the early 1930s in Cyril Falls Official History.[2]

Geography

A study of the terrain reveals the difficulty of attacking Gaza with several hills, traditional fieldworks and thick cactus hedges all significant obstacles and made the town difficult to take.[3] Two attacks at the beginning of 1917 had already failed while XXI Corp’s holding attack during Third Gaza did poorly, failing to achieve the modest objectives set.[4]While Garsia argues Gaza could have been masked by XXI Corps while the DMC broke through along the beach even this argument is difficult to qualify. High sand dunes near the coast made the ground unsuitable for wheeled vehicles and would make the movement of three cavalry divisions burdensome.[5] Force to space ratios are also often forgotten and a study of a map reveals the beach route offered a frontage less than a mile wide, through which three cavalry divisions would have to ride. This would necessitate a limited, single Brigade front to overcome the Ottoman positions codenamed Lion, Tiger and Dog positions and then further redeployments and fighting across the Wadi Hesi before the cavalry could cut Gaza’s supply, while a long spread-out column of cavalry might prove vulnerable to artillery fire and Ottoman counterattacks regaining the beach defences.

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Adherents to the Gaza School maintain the coast road would have made movement and supply much easier, there are a number of factors which discount this. This road moves directly through Gaza; where the heaviest held part of the entire Ottoman line was located so use of the road would have necessitated decisively shattering the heaviest part of the Ottoman defences, before pushing three cavalry divisions across heavily fortified ground, through a major urban area, across the heavily held Wadi Hesi and all along a single-track road.

Exploitation along the coast would also be harder than supposed with XXI Corps advance following Gaza’s evacuation requiring tractors to move supplies along the coast even with road access.[6] Heavier sand also exhausted the cavalry’s horses and bogged down wheeled transport making rapid movement difficult.[7] There were therefore significant obstacles to cavalry exploitation as a serious study of the terrain demonstrates.

Order of Battle and Generic Capabilities of Formations

Study of the order of battle reveals several insights. Firstly, that while the strength of Ottoman formations was highly variable, and the specifics of the numbers employed still remain unknown, they appear to have concentrated their best divisions on the coast behind Gaza. The historical attack on Beersheba pulled these troops away from the coast, to reinforce the inland flank, although even then there were still sufficient reserves to reinforce Gaza against the holding attack by XXI Corps. To focus the offensive on Gaza would, very likely, have meant that Ottoman forces could have concentrated upon holding Gaza and the terrain behind it even more rather than being split between two axis of advance as they were historically.

Third Gaza also provides an example of how order of battle research can reveal sources ignored by military historians in the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry (ISC) Brigade. Cyril Falls omits the Brigade from the Official History’s Order of Battle, a mistake which future historians have copied and while the absence of a lone Brigade may not seem especially significant the existence of 15 ISC is significant because the brigade’s performance during the battle provides direct evidence of how effectively larger bodies of cavalry would have operated on the coastal flank. [8]  Garsia argues it would have been sufficient to simply mask Gaza with XXI Corps and then slip the cavalry along the beach to cut Ottoman communications.[9] 15 ISC’s war diary, however, makes it clear that opening up a gap, and breaking through, would be no simple matter. The Brigade did actually form up behind the XXI Corps infantry assault but were unable to exploit through as Ottoman counterattacks recaptured the beach defences.[10] Additionally, as discovered in the survey of the terrain the heavier sand on the coast would have exhausted the cavalry. Cavalry tactics also heavily relied upon infantry, artillery and air support. Any unsupported cavalry penetration behind Gaza would struggle against renewed Ottoman defences and counterattacks as shown by EEF cavalry actions at Huj on November 8, Beit Hanun and in the (attempted) crossing of the Nahr el Auja.[11] In all of these cases unsupported cavalry on the advance struggled to overcome what were often weakly held defensive positions and indicates that the cavalry might not even have been able to achieve their objectives even had they broken through.

The EEF’s Decision Making Environment

While the creation of the physical model demonstrates the difficulties with the Gaza Camp approach further analysis of the decision-making environment in the EEF in autumn 1917 further supports a case that the Gaza School approach simply did not align with EEF strategic priorities. Philip Chetwode wrote in October: ‘it is desired to get the enemy on the move from his strongly entrenched positions with as few casualties as possible, relying on our preponderance in cavalry to do the execution.’[12] It is also worth bearing in mind the directive given to Allenby before the battle to capture Jerusalem and ‘occupy the Jaffa-Jerusalem line’ as cheaply as possible.[13] Preponderance in cavalry, and the advantage this gave, was a clear motivation for seeking the open, inland flank. While the EEF had three cavalry divisions, and three independent cavalry brigades the Ottoman cavalry only consisted of one division, barely stronger than a British cavalry brigade. Turning a weakly held flank would also likely be much cheaper than a head-on assault against the most strongly held part of the Ottoman line. The more indirect inland route via Beersheba was chosen because it maximised the EEF’s advantage in cavalry while helping to keep casualties as low as possible. XXI Corps losses in just their holding attack on Gaza were double those of the assault on Beersheba; and for little tangible gain with even the single Brigade of cavalry present unable to exploit.[14][15]

Allenby’s decision to risk the inland attack on Beersheba therefore is as much to do with wider strategic priorities as it is to do with the practicalities of the terrain and force composition.

Integrating wargaming within military historical research, not just within the context of counterfactuals, offers a number of important tools that military historians continue to underutilise. By creating an analytical model of events that aims to conform with the course of historical events military historians can analyse individual factors based on under-utilised (but commonly available) evidence while the successful creation of an accurate model encourages historians to explore the full range of evidence. If the model doesn’t work for whatever reason, then this simply encourages further research to understand why the model doesn’t conform. Extra playtesting and refining of the model is something that can introduce previously unknown or unconsidered factors that suddenly appear more decisive for their effect on the accuracy of the model.[16]

Wargaming military history therefore, while still a tool for support of a wider analytical goal (and as such should be employed appropriately), fills in a number of crucial gaps within a military historian’s toolkit. Design of a wargame encourages rigorous analysis of under-utilised sources in a wider framework and, most importantly, incorporates these into a wider model which must be adapted to fit the historical result. When an initial model doesn’t conform then this just encourages further exploration of why your rigorously researched model hasn’t conformed. Much like wargaming mechanics this creates an important feedback loop, and encourages the researcher to go back and check their sources again: something that the dominant research methodology within history fails to do. Indeed, much of the time in traditional military history contradictory, and inconvenient, sources are often seemingly explained away, ignored or subsumed into wider arguments. Wargaming encourages a more involved research process right from the beginning of a project and, furthermore, relies upon sources that very often can be easily obtained without endless days in the archive. Meanwhile testing the design, especially with a third party, can often lead to fundamental reevaluations of either sides decision space: ‘what constitutes ‘victory’ for either side and what are they willing to risk to attain it?’ are just two questions that applying a gaming approach can encourage. Designing a wargame for a battle at the outset of a project can often produce new priorities on archival research and when new evidence is discovered allows it to be reincorporated into the model: often improving the pursuit of a historically accurate result. While military history is increasingly moving to incorporate more qualitative, and innovative methodologies there are still ways that military historians can integrate more traditionally social science approaches like modelling, and wargaming, to the benefit of their research.[17]

[1] Clive Garsia, A Key To Victory: A Study in War Planning (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1940)

[2] Cyril Falls, Military Operations Egypt and Palestine: From June 1917 to the end of the War Part I (London, 1930), p. 32

[3] SHEA 6/2, The Liddell Hart Centre for Military Studies and JONES, CF, The Liddell Hart Centre for Military Studies

[4] Cyril Falls, Military Operations Egypt and Palestine: From June 1917 to the end of the War Part I (London, 1930)

[5] Lieutenant Colonel, The Honorable, R.M.O, Preston, The Desert Mounted Corps: An Account of the Cavalry Operations in Palestine and Syria 1917-1918 (Boston, 1920), p. 6

[6] Falls, Official History p. 142 and Marquess of Anglesey, A History of the British Cavalry 1816-1919: Volume 5, Egypt, Palestine and Syria (London: 1994) p. 188

[7] Anon. History of the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry, p. 17

[8] Garsia, Key To Victory, p. 206

[9] Garsia, Key To Victory, p. 206

[10] Anon. History of the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry, p. 16

[11] Falls, Official History p. 123, 215 and Anon, History of the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry, p. 16

[12] IWM, P183/1: Chetwode Papers, 1st October Letter: ‘Appreciation of the Situation on the 14th October’

[13] Falls, Official History, p. 67

[14] Wavell, Allenby: Soldier and Statesman p. 178

[15] John Ericksen, Ottoman Army Effectiveness in World War I: A Comparative Study p. 123

[16] Phil Sabin, The Future of Wargaming to Innovate and Educate, Public Lecture at Kings College, 22.11.2019

[17] Jonathan Fennel, Fighting the People’s War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Ben Wheatley, A Visual Examination of the Battle of Prokhorovka (Journal of Intelligence History,), Volume 18, 2019


James Halstead is a military historian who is primarily interested in the two world wars of the 20th century. He studied for his Masters at Kings College London (including Professor Phil Sabin’s Conflict Simulation module) and is currently studying for his PhD on Information Management in the British and Commonwealth Armies at Brunel University, London. James has delivered lectures on the Royal Flying Corps and Air Force in the Palestine Campaign at the RAF Museum, Hendon and will do so again at Wolverhampton in 2020. James can be found either on twitter at @JamesTTHalstead or you can read his research blog at:  youstupidboy.wordpress.com

Historical research and wargaming (Part 1): Constructing the framework

The following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by James Halstead. Part 2 can be found here.


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Historical research and wargaming (Part 1): Constructing the framework 

Wargaming offers a unique methodological toolset to study historical conflicts and while there has been interest in using wargames as an educational tool, there is little focus on what wargaming can offer analytical, military history research.[1] The first part of this article will outline how the structured, and exhaustive, research necessary to design historical simulations can provide unique insights for historical research. Since wargame design needs to account for player decisions that diverge from history there is a need to comprehensively research not just the historical record but counterfactuals too. This analysis is carried out in a structured framework which helps the designer to understand both the environment the battle is fought in, but also the military makeup and performance of both sides and how best to incentivise historical play.[2]

The research for a wargame therefore requires the creation of a very different and, in some ways, more rigorous and encompassing model than many traditional military histories. While there is a strong element of the counterfactual to wargaming this still presents ‘a highly useful way of exploring cause and effect.’ Developing a rigorous and thoroughly analytical representational model of historical conflicts can be of huge value in giving greater prominence to underutilised sources and in understanding contemporary opinions and priorities.[3]

Wargames research utilizes a framework that studies the geographical environment, the orders of battle of the opposing sides, generic capabilities of the formations involved and opposing decision environments.[4] This first section will study these factors individually, exploring exactly why they are important and the consequences that proper examination and integration of these factors can have for understanding of military history.

Geography

Studying the ground over which a battle is fought is vital for any study of a battle. Along with the Order of Battle, it is one of the most obvious research benefits of war gaming. Properly modelling a battle’s geographic environment can lead to interesting insights. For example, the German Operation Michael Offensive in March, 1918, against the British Fifth Army and elements of Third Army is often seen as being so successful (at least initially) because of the favourable force to space ratios in favour of the Imperial German Army, better tactics and weak British defences. What is often not considered is the nature of the terrain itself with the British defences lying on a wide, flat plain, with higher ground to the north and south. Approaching Operation Michael as a wargame reveals the nature of the terrain acted against the British defenders and they were forced to give up so much ground, falling back on river lines such as the Somme, partly because of the dearth of defensible features behind Fifth Army’s front line. In turn, these river lines were often only given up when outflanked; meaning that the British Army simply was not able to fall back on terrain favourable to a defence across the entire width of their front line. The German assault against the southern portion of Third Army units to the north of Fifth Army was less successful during Operation Michael and the follow-up, Operation Mars, partly because the British defenders were fighting in much more favourable terrain for defence. Because terrain is such an integral part of the wider model wargames encourage far more engagement than is usual with the characteristics of the terrain on which the historical conflict was fought. With most traditional military histories lacking good-quality maps this can encourage the wider use of easily available sources with a corresponding increase in the level to which terrain is considered as a factor in the historical result.

Order of Battle

Alongside the creation of a proper map, researching an order of battle and the generic capabilities of formations are the basic building blocks in the creation of a rigorously analytical model. This is important to the creation of a wargame because, unlike traditional military history, missing key formations out or incorrectly modelling their capabilities in combat can have important consequences.

The research of an accurate Order of Battle is often nothing much more than a necessary task that doesn’t reveal anything particularly exciting; however, it is still an important step to creating a viable model and therefore something that needs to be properly addressed. Again, like maps, many traditional historical works often give the order of battle only the most cursory of attention. Although orders of battle often do not provide anything particularly revelatory, they undoubtedly contribute a great deal to the wider framework. Knowing exactly which troops were where is an important part of creating a valid simulation and, again, creates a valuable, if incremental contribution to the wider wargame model and can lead to some important, if seemingly minor revelations regarding force to space ratios and the true strength of formations often represented on maps as abstract unit symbols.

However, in some cases the value of proper orders of battle created through commercial wargames have provided interesting revisions to historical works. Dave Parham’s research on the Battle of Stalingrad in the 1980s points out the 76th Infantry Division did not fight at Stalingrad: the assault on the city centre consisting of only two divisions rather than the three that many histories have commonly asserted.[5] Similarly Orders of Battle for Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia in 1914, are obscure and hard to come by, with the most modern, and easily accessible, order of battle found in a commercially published wargame.[6]

Generic Capabilities of Formations

Understanding the generic capabilities of formations which took part in the conflict is really the full marriage of the geographical study and order of battle into a fully realized model simulating the physical capabilities of the military formations involved. Studying the combat record of formations provides a wider appreciation of the generic capabilities of both side’s formations while understanding how the terrain affected the ability of the units collected in the Order of Battle to move and carry out combat introduces completes the basic physical model. The final step is to understand the contemporary military objectives, doctrines and politico-social priorities of participants.

Decision Making Environments

In order to produce an accurate simulation, designers must understand why commanders behaved as they did historically, which requires the priorities and motivations for both sides to be incorporated into the wider model. Historical actors often do not behave rationally to modern perspectives, and what good wargame and historical research does is uncover the reasons that made their choices made appear rational. It is necessary to study the strategic priorities and objectives of both sides to understand why they behaved as they did, and to introduce incentives into the design, to encourage players behave in this way.

For example, in a simulation of the German invasion of France in World War Two, it might seem obvious to the player that they need to attack on either side of any German breakthroughs, neatly cutting off and isolating the Wehrmacht Panzer formations. However, in any accurate simulation of the battle, there will be rules simulating command and control confusion in order to prevent the Allied player from doing precisely this. Similarly, accurately depicting the decision-making environment can also help bridge the gap between military and cultural or social history. A simulation of British and Commonwealth forces in Western Europe in 1944 and 1945 would not just require the accurate modelling of their capabilities but also consideration of the specific style in which they fought battles; to avoid casualties and maintain morale. A successful simulation might, for example, impose heavy penalties on the Commonwealth player for taking infantry casualties and encourage them to use heavy artillery support and set-piece attacks.

Studying the decision environments and the factor’s which the opposing commanders took into account when making their plans can provide very different perspectives from the logical assumptions modern audiences can make when analysing history. This is, of course, something that all good historians should be doing in the first place but the clear analytical framework process that war game design necessitates can often make those perspectives much clearer and assist insight into the wider battle.

Wargames, while utilizing the same skills as traditional military history, research within a framework that provides much more technical and specific understanding of conflicts which can, in turn, challenge many assumptions made by existing histories. It is not so much a radically new way of approaching research but of framing the evidence and creating an emphasis on underutilized, but very accessible, sources such as Orders of Battle or maps. In the second part of this article, this framework will be applied to studying the ‘Gaza School Counterfactual’ that was developed in the 1930s about the Third Battle of Gaza, as an example of the way that this wargaming research framework can benefit historical research by framing underutilized, but easily accessible evidence.

[1] Phil Sabin, Simulating War (London, 2012) and Robert Citino, ‘Lessons from the Hexagon’ in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming

[2] Phil Sabin, Simulating War (London, 2012) p. 47

[3] Paul Cartledge, The Spartans: An Epic History , (New York, 2013), p. 126

[4] Phil Sabin, Simulating War (London, 2012) p. 47-48

[5] John Hill, Battle for Stalingrad Main Rule Book, (Simulation Publications Incorporated: New York, 1980), p. 19

[6] Serbien Muβ Sterberien, (GMT, 2013)


James Halstead is a military historian who is primarily interested in the two world wars of the 20th century. He studied for his Masters at Kings College London (including Professor Phil Sabin’s Conflict Simulation module) and is currently studying for his PhD on Information Management in the British and Commonwealth Armies at Brunel University, London. James has delivered lectures on the Royal Flying Corps and Air Force in the Palestine Campaign at the RAF Museum, Hendon and will do so again at Wolverhampton in 2020. James can be found either on twitter at @JamesTTHalstead or you can read his research blog at:  youstupidboy.wordpress.com

Room to game (or, the Battle of Winterfell explained)

 

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Course of action wargaming for the Battle of Winterfell. Might the room be responsible for the defenders’ military missteps?

 

The Battle of Winterfell was the final battle of the Great War against the Night King and Army of the Dead. While ultimately successful, the human defenders adopted a notoriously weak defensive strategy, involving poorly-defended ditches, misplaced archers and artillery, and a suicidal frontal cavalry charge.

Scholars and historians have suggested that weak scriptwriting was responsible for this. However, recent scientific research suggests that the real culprit might be the room selected for pre-battle course of action wargaming.

Everyone who has ever conducted a serious game knows that the room matters. How early can you get access? Are the tables big enough? Can they be moved (and are they all the same height)? Will the audiovisual and IT systems work on the day—and what’s your fallback if they don’t? Are there breakout/team/control rooms nearby? If so, will their location enhance gameplay (by fostering the rights sorts of interaction and immersion), or undermine it? Where will coffee and lunch be served?

There is also, however, considerable evidence that room quality affects player performance in more fundamental ways. A recent study by M. Nakamura in Simulation & Gaming found that the size and layout of the room had significant effects on how players assessed the gaming experience in their debriefings:

Results from the current study demonstrate that the difference in room condition was influential. In HACONORI, participants felt more satisfaction in the small room than in the large room, while in BLOCK WORK, participants felt less usefulness in the small room than in the large room, but only when asked about the degree of usefulness before being asked about their degree of satisfaction. The effect of room condition seems to trend in the opposite direction in the two gaming sessions. This difference is because the amount of space has a different meaning in HACONORI and BLOCK WORK; for example, in HACONORI, group members can successfully work together by providing quick and responsive communication with each other. The small room must have encouraged such speedy communication. Conversely, in BLOCK WORK, participants can successfully work when they have more personal space since the task is more individualized; however, this may be affected by the order of questions. When participants were asked about the degree of usefulness after being asked about their degree of satisfaction, their attitude tone was fixed and the degree of usefulness was not affected by room condition. When asked about the degree of usefulness before being asked about their degree of satisfaction, they recognized the usefulness of the BLOCK WORK session in the large room more than in the small room.

We should take into consideration the movability of the desks as an essential factor in improving room function as this must have affected the results. In HACONORI, participants felt more satisfaction in the small room than in the large room. This is because the movability of the desks was high in the small room but low in the large room. In other words, the small room functioned well because of the movable desks.

Both studies reflect the powerful effect of room condition, which depends on the game attributes. They also demonstrate that the effect of the debriefing form is not as powerful as the effect of room condition, although as noted above, it is advisable to consider the order of the questions.

Perhaps even more striking are the results of a 2016 study by Joseph Allen et al in Environmental Health Perspectives on the impact of room ventilation on cognitive performance. They established three experimental room conditions (“Conventional,” “Green,” and “Green +”) with varying concentrations of volatile organic compounds and C02. The study found that “cognitive scores were 61% higher on the Green building day [and 101% higher on the two Green+ building days than on the Conventional building day].”

In other studies, lighting has also been shown to affect recall, problem solving, and other cognitive tasks (with some gender variation too). Room temperature has demonstrable effects on productivity, with 21-22C the ideal temperature—although this likely also varies with age, gender, and other factors.

Taken together, the existing research on environmental conditions suggests that wargame participants in an appropriately lit, well-ventilated room will perform complex cognitive tasks roughly three times “better” than those in one that is too hot or cold, poorly lit, and poorly ventilated. I suspect that even my PAXsims colleague Stephen Downes-Martin—who could quite rightly quibble about how I’ve rather breezily aggregated different measures of task performance here—would agree that the room matters a lot.

Back to Winterfell. Course of action wargaming of the battle took in a cold and dimly-lit chamber of the castle (above). The tallow candles and open braziers used to illuminate the space undoubtedly produced high levels of CO, CO2, and particulate pollution of various toxic sorts. Moreover, few of the participants had bathed in weeks.

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Was it the dragon or the room? Use of a well-ventilated war room (with natural lighting and healthy sea air) may have been an important factor in planning the very successful Battle of the Goldroad.

 

By contrast, planning for the very successful Battle of the Goldroad took place in the war room at Dragonstone. Unlike the dark and frozen chamber used at Winterfell, the room here is extremely well ventilated, has natural lighting, and is situated in a much more amenable climate. While many commentators suggest that the deployment of a giant fire-breathing dragon was key to the success of Daenerys Targaryen’s forces, we clearly cannot ignore the contribution made by an appropriate wargaming space during the critical planning phase.


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McGrady: Getting the story right about wargaming

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At War on the Rocks today, Ed McGrady notes the recent debates about analytical wargaming within the US defence community, and has some thoughts to offer:

There is a debate about wargaming in the Pentagon and it has spilled out into the virtual pages of War on the Rocks. Some say wargaming is broken. Others believe the cycle of research will solve our problems. There is a deeper problem at the root of all of this: There is a widespread misunderstanding of what wargaming is and a reluctance to accept both the power and limitations of wargames.

What we are seeing in the debate about wargaming looks a lot like what wargaming is best at: telling stories. But we have told ourselves several different stories at the same time, and none of these stories really agree with reality….

But failure to understand wargaming — what it is and what it is not — risks screwing up the one tool that enables defense professionals to break out of the stories we have locked ourselves into.

He goes on to question the notion that wargames are analysis:

Wargames do not do this through analysis. Indeed, wargaming is not analysis. “Analytical wargaming” jams the two terms together in a vague way that can mean anything, and often does. To be sure, good wargaming requires analysis: To design a game, one has to understand how things work. But the most important analysis one does for a wargame is about the people and organizations involved, not the systems. For example, defense analysts often find themselves grappling with future force projections and procurement. But the one organization that matters most for future force structure is not included in the assessments: Congress. Wargames can help senior leaders consider things like Congress whereas standard models and analyses cannot.

Wargames can also be the subject of analysis, but tread carefully: Wargames are not experiments unless they have been specifically, and painstakingly, designed as such. They are events: unrepeatable, chaotic, vague, and messy events. Collecting data from them is difficult — they produce “dirty” data, you often miss the best parts, and they cannot be repeated. But if you think that means you can’t learn anything from them, you might as well stop trying to understand real-world conflicts, because everything I have written about wargames in this paragraph is also true for wars.

So, you can analyze wargames, just not the same way you would analyze a set of data from a radar system or a series of ship trials. But in your analysis you have to focus on what wargames can actually tell you, and avoid making conclusions about what they can’t.

He goes on to suggest what we need to do:

First, we need to get our story straight and get it out there. Wargames are the front-end, door-kicking tool of new ideas, dangers, and concepts. In particular, they help you understand how you will get stuff done in the messy, human organizations that we all work in. They are really good at that. We also need to make sure that people understand what wargames are not good at: detailed, technical, complicated analysis that needs to be done to optimize particular aspects of ideas or concepts. They can tell you that the enemy may target your logistics, but they won’t tell you exactly how many short tons you need to offload per day at the port.

Second, we need to push back against the opportunists and charlatans who are colonizing gaming. While these people always show up when areas get hot, they are particularly dangerous in wargaming. Wargames not only provide new ideas and concepts, but also influence the future decision-makers that play in them. About the best we can do is call out bad games when we see them and, as part of our getting the word out about gaming, describe what games to discount when you hear about a bad game.

We can start by saying meetings are not games and speculation is not play.

Third, we need to make sure decision-makers understand that a good game is only the beginning of the journey, not the end. Much more work needs to be done after the game to figure out, through analysis, whether all those fancy concepts and ideas will work. And if we think they just might work, then we need to burn jet fuel and soldier-hours in instrumented and observed exercises to figure out if our forces and equipment can actually execute them. For future systems where we can’t do exercises, this means bringing the actual engineers into the operational picture. One of the best ways to bring the systems developers into the picture is through games.

You can read the full piece here.


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The Future of Wargaming working group report

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PAXsims is pleased to provide more of the impressive work done at the Connections 2019 (US) professional wargaming conference. Many thanks to Ed McGrady for passing this on for wider distribution.

Also, if you haven’t yet, please take a minute to complete our PAXsims reader survey.


At Connections 2019 we held a working group (WG2) to explore the future of wargaming.  We approached the problem several different ways.  First, several members of the working group contributed fictional stories describing what gaming might look like in the future.  Second, we had baselining briefs on future technologies, including virtual and alternate reality technologies and artificial intelligence.  Finally, we did a scenario planning exercise with the working group attendees at the conference.  This process resulted in a wide-range of different ways to think about, and predict, the future of gaming.

The working group was co-chaired by Mike Ottenberg and Ed McGrady, with stories contributed by Sebastian J. Bae, Michael Bond, Col. Matt Caffrey (Ret.), Dr. Stephen Downes-Martin, Dr. ED McGrady, and Dr. Jeremy Sepinsky.

Wargaming the Far Future working group report

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PAXsims is pleased to present the report of the “Wargaming the Far Future” working group, ably assembled by Stephen Downes-Martin. This 276 page (!) document contains the papers written by the working group, their discussions while they wrote and refined those papers from November 2018 to June 2019, and the discussions at the workshop held during the Connections US Wargaming Conference in August 2019.

Our most potent power projection and warfighting capabilities, developed in response to current and near future threats, are technologically advanced, hugely expensive, and have half- century service lives. The first of these characteristics gives us a temporary and possibly short lived warfighting edge. The second grants our political leaders short lived economic and political advantages. The last characteristic locks us into high expenses in maintenance and upgrades for many years in order to justify the initial sunk costs as though they were investments. This combination forces us onto a high-inertia security trajectory that is transparent to our more agile adversaries, providing them with credible information about that trajectory while giving them time to adapt with cheaper counter forces, technologies and strategies.

We must therefore wargame out to service life, the “far future”, to ensure our current and future weapons systems and concepts of operations are well designed for both the near term and the far future. However a 50 year forecasting horizon is beyond the credibility limit for wargaming. The Working Group and the Workshop explored and documented ways that wargaming can deal with this horizon.

Papers and comments are contributed by Stephen Aguilar-Milan, Sebastian J. Bae, Deon Canyon and Jonathan Cham, Thomas Choinski, John Hanley, William Lademan, Graham Longley-Brown and Jeremy Smith, Brian McCue, Ed McGrady, Robert Mosher, Kristan Wheaton, and of course, Stephen himself.


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Defense One Radio on wargames

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Defence One Radio has put together a very good 49 minute podcast on contemporary defence wargaming.

This episode we’ll learn why the Pentagon and the U.S. defense establishment are increasingly turning to wargames and simulations; what famous games of the past got right, and wrong; and why we still need experts who strategize almost exclusively in the analog world of plastic chips and toy soldiers and hexagon maps.

Guests include Becca Wasser, Stacie Pettyjohn, Ellie Bartels, Christopher Rice and Mark Herman.

You’ll find it here.


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Pournelle: Can the cycle of research save American military strategy?

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Phil Pournell has added his thoughts to the debate over Pentagon wargaming, with a piece in War on the Rocks:

There’s a debate in the Pentagon about wargaming, and it’s heating up. With a recent War on the Rocks article, John Compton, senior analyst and wargame subject-matter expert in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, has put his hat in the ring. Titled “The Obstacles on the Road to Better Analytical Wargaming,” the essay lays out a powerful case that the Defense Department’s wargaming enterprise is broken.

Compton argues that wargamers have ignored Peter Perla’s call to reform of the art of wargaming. Many practitioners continue to execute wargames which aren’t wargames (e.g. Bunch of Guys and Gals Sitting Around a Table), and have failed to adapt their types and styles of games to what the customers ask for. He then describes, accurately in my view, how many wargaming practitioners lack “analytic ownership,” and fail to properly construct their games using multiple methods.

While I largely agree with Compton’s criticism, I think he paints with too large a brush. Many in the wargaming community are working for the very reforms he calls for. Others work in fields which don’t directly apply, such as training or education. In some areas, however, he doesn’t go far enough. His article fails to highlight the danger of the status quo, and the real risk that poorly-constructed analysis (not just wargaming) can lead to battlefield losses. The future force is in danger of being designed based on the impetus of services’ prerogatives and history rather than on a proper inquiry, exploration, and evaluation worthy of a joint force. The detachment of wargaming and the other elements of analysis from an integrated approach cuts the military adrift from its analytic moorings just when the nation and its allies need it the most.

Practical advice on matrix games

PracticalAdviceOnMatrixGamesV11.jpgI have been running Chris Engle matrix games since 1988. With the increase in popularity and use of matrix games, both recreationally and for more serious matters, I felt that I should be prepared to stick my neck out and try to provide some practical advice on how to run the games in order to get the best results.

I have collated my notes into a small booklet, with short comments on the following topics:

  • What are Matrix Games?
  • Academic Underpinning
  • My Version of How to Play a Matrix Game
  • Argument Assessment
  • Diceless Adjudication
  • Notes about arguments
  • Turn Zero
  • Number of Things you can do in an Argument
  • Use of Dice
  • Reasonable Assumptions and Established Facts
  • Turn Length (in game)
  • Game Length
  • End of Turn “Consequence Management”
  • Inter-Turn Negotiations
  • Elections
  • Secret Arguments
  • Measures of Success
  • Killing Arguments
  • Spendable Bonuses and Permanent Bonuses
  • Levels of Protection and Hidden Things
  • Big Projects or Long-Term Plans
  • Number of Actors
  • Writing the Briefs for the Participants
  • Recording the Effects of Arguments
  • The Components (and Characters) Affect the Game
  • Starting Conditions
  • Cue Cards
  • Large-Scale Combat
  • A House Divided
  • Announcements
  • The Order in which Actors make their Arguments
  • Random Events
  • Dealing with Senior Officers, Dominant People and Contentious Arguments
  • Nit-Picking vs Important Clarification
  • Why I like Matrix Games
  • A few Words of Warning

Please bear in mind that this was chiefly written as “notes” to support demonstrations and course I have run using matrix games, rather than as a guide for someone who has never seen or heard of a matrix game.

The advice also does not cover how such games should be analysed in order to draw out any insights or conclusions. This is an important part of any professional game, but as I primarily use matrix games in an educational context, I haven’t had to that. In the times where I have run games for government departments, they have carried out their own analysis of the games (due to the level of classification), so the booklet doesn’t really cover this area.

More recently I have had the good fortune to be able to experiment with a couple of different game set-ups and mechanics, and I have incorporated them into the guide.

The guide is still a “work in progress”, and probably always will be, but I would like to add more to it in the future, if it is helpful. If anyone has an feedback, please get in touch.

You can download the booklet here.

Matrix games at the Canadian Army Simulation Centre

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


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

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

 

Background

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

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

This matrix game was intended to:

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

 

Conduct

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

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

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

 

Differences from Other Matrix Games

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

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

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

Further differences included having turns divided into three phases:

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

 

Results

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

 

Key Findings

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

 

Conclusion

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

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

 


Authors 

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

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

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