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Category Archives: simulation and game reports

The Orchard: A conflict resolution simulation

Lorenzo Nannetti is a senior analyst at the Italian think tank Il Caffè Geopolitico, a researcher for the Italian branch of the Atlantic Treaty Association, and an analyst for the US thinktank Wikistrat. He is also a PAXsims reader, and sent on this account of his conflict resolution simulation, “The Orchard.”


For fifty years, the countries of Cortia and Appal have been at peace. Between them lies a territory called “the Orchard”, a fertile area rich in water and resources that is vital for both countries’ populations. Neither Cortia nor Appal controls the Orchard. A treaty between them keeps the area neutral and governed through a joint system, so that both countries can enjoy its richness. Everything looked fine, until eight days ago…

This is the beginning briefing of “The Orchard” an international crisis simulation I ran at the Festival Francescano 2017, a Christian-inspirated forum for public debate in Bologna, Italy. This year’s theme being “the future”, I proposed a workshop about “building a peaceful future”, which aimed to explain common errors and pitfalls in preventing international crises and give participants some glimpses about crisis resolution and international negotiations.

The scenario, inspired by negotiation simulations at the Program on Negotiation by Harvard Law School, was created by me and adapted for participants who mostly had no professional background in international relations or related disciplines. I run it two times during the Festival, one on Saturday 23rd September, one on Sunday 24th, with different groups.

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Appalian diplomats strongly stating their refusal to accept a proposed offer. I’m the one standing up. Photo credit: Festival Francescano

Participants were divided into 3 teams: Cortian diplomats, Appalian diplomats and UN mediators. The dispute was fairly standard and straightforward: a precious contested area that one state had occupied and the other tried to reclaim, with widespread destruction threatening to harm both.

As set of instructions different for all factions stated aims, negotiating points, red lines and prejudices. That was the key.

With Cortia and Appal being fictional and players being non-professionals, the crisis was simplified and would have been easy to resolve. But players had to deal with restriction on what they could tell the other side, representing  prejudices and lack of trust, so common in real world. Mediators had more leeway, but they too had indications about what they thought was the best solution, representing their preconception about the conflict. Unfortunately, this solution wasn’t really the best one, as it missed the contenders’ interests. In order to solve the crisis, mediators would have to question their own beliefs and bring the contenders to at least understand the need to consider (even if not necessarily approve) the other point of view as well.

During the game players failed both times and both times the war went on as no satisfactory agreement was reached. But this failure brought the best insight as they had experienced first hand how easy it was to ignore opposing points of view and that even simple questions about the other side intent weren’t considered.

A good debriefing (originally thought to last 30-40 minutes, but which instead lasted almost 1 hour more due to interest) brought out some of the main basic points from crisis resolution: the concept of BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) and the “three tensions” (creating value vs distributing value, empathy vs assertiveness, principals vs agents), with real life examples (North Korea-USA now, Egypt-Israeli negotiation over the Sinai in the late 1970s) being used to show how what they played would transfer to the real world.

During the first game, near the end, two players from Cortia (after asking me for permission) decided negotiations were going nowhere, faked throwing a grenade at the table and said “we attack while negotiations go on to get what we want”! To the astonishment of all other players, both friends and foe. This, too, provided good insight during the debriefing.

I feel crisis simulations like this one are good for training and educational purposes because they put participants (even non-professional ones) into roles they normally don’t fill and let them experience some of the issues and questions they face. This gives a deeper insight on real world dynamics and a better understanding of the decision-making process of “the opposing side” as well as their own. Sceanrios can be made simple or complex depending on which aspects should be taught and the experience of participants. For inexperienced ones, fictional countries are easier to use as they don’t require prior knowledge of real situation. For professional participants, real crises (or fictional ones that mirror real ones more closely) can be used.

Participant numbers are something to keep in mind. Originally thought for max 15 people, I had 21 the first day due to a large group asking to participate at last minute. On the other hand I had 6 participants the second day.  A large group can bring more richness, but without proper space can be hard to manage and some players may feel not involved. The smaller group was easier to handle and if enough referees are available, larger groups could be divided into more parallel games running at once – and then use the opportunity to compare results, strategies, etc. Still, both groups brought interesting discussion during debriefing.

The game was played in the open central square, and people stopped to look at the simulation curious about what we were doing. Some of them stayed for the whole game, including an Italian former Defence Minister (can’t disclose the name) who after the game asked for more info about the methodology used.

Was the workshop a success? I received good feedback, even some days later. One email I received probably summed it up: “I really wanted to thank you again because the workshop spurred a good and rich debate among our group even after the end”.

I feel that when players continue to talk positively about it even later, or continue to discuss the issue because they felt engaged and challenged, probably it’s a good sign.

Lorenzo Nannetti  

Diplomatic challenges in the South China Sea

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On September 20, some of the PAXsims crew (Tom Fisher and I) ran a full-day foreign policy game at the Canadian Foreign Service Institute, exploring economic opportunities and diplomatic challenges in the South China Sea. In many ways, however, the topic and region was a secondary consideration: the primary purpose of the event was to examine how serious games could contribute to both diplomatic training and to foreign policy analysis within Global Affairs Canada and beyond. More than two dozen officials from GAC, the Department of National Defence, and Defence Research and Development Canada took part.

None of this report, nor the game play itself, should be seen in any way as representing the official position of the government of Canada—it was left entirely to us to design and run the game. Instead, the key issue here is one of evaluating gaming methodology.

Game Design

We decided at the outset that we wanted a game that would focus on the regular business of diplomacy, rather than being dominated by major crises or military confrontations. Crisis and warfare is actually easier to model in a game, and it is also much easier to maintain player engagement when participants are focused on blowing each other up. Here, however, we would have long (six month) turns, and many foreign policy initiatives would be mundane things like trade talks, ministerial visits, coast guard patrols, and development initiatives. At the recent Connections UK professional wargaming conference, one panelist had commented that the problem with gaming foreign policy is that “foreign ministries don’t actually do anything.” He was being a little too cynical I think, but was also highlighting that diplomacy is as much or more about cultivating and maintaining long-term relationships as it is about achieving immediate, focused objectives. How could we reflect that in a workable game, one that challenged players to explore ways of gaining a diplomatic edge, advancing national interests, and (to quote the phrase much beloved of middle powers such as Canada) “punch above their weight” in international relations?

As a further complication, I very much wanted trade and investment to be an important part of game play, but in a way that highlighted Western businesses as largely autonomous, profit-seeking entities—actors that are certainly happy to win the support of governments, but are ultimately trying to maximize the return on their investments. As one of my wargaming colleagues noted, we were trying to put an thinking, self-interested E (economic) back into DIME (diplomatic/information/military/economic).

In the end, we decided to use a modified matrix game. Most game components were produced using the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK). A large map in the centre of the room depicted the South China Sea and surrounding area, including various disputed maritime boundaries, key outposts in the Spratly Islands and elsewhere, and major offshore oil resources.

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Seven countries were represented in the game, each played by a three-person team: China, the United States, Japan, Canada, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Each could take one action per turn. However, teams also started with several diplomatic, economic, and military bonuses, represented in this case by cards. A single card could be spent to secure a +1 modifier to a matrix argument (or impose a -1 modifier on someone else’s argument), or multiple cards could be spent to secure an extra action that turn. This is essentially the same system outlined in the MaGCK User Guide (although we used cards rather than tokens), and it has the advantage that it enables flexible and creative gameplay without bogging the game down in complex mechanisms. Players could receive new bonus cards at various points for foreign policy achievements.

In addition to the state actors, we also had one player representing “global (Western) trade and investment,” and another representing “Chinese trade and investment.” Both had a hand of trade and investment cards, each outlining a sector and potential project, the company concerned, and the sorts of factors that would determine its success. The global player’s cards also noted the nationality of the company. These cards were played as matrix actions, and the profitability of the investment was a function of the success of the associated matrix argument. This created an incentive to place investments carefully, and to seek supportive conditions—perhaps local tax breaks, or business reforms, or synergies with other projects, or diplomatic support. We kept a “market share” score to encourage a competitive spirit.

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There was one key difference between the global and Chinese investors, however: the latter were also part of the Chinese team. Certainly, they wanted to make the best business moves possible—but they also were expected to advance foreign policy objectives to a certain degree, including China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy to secure trade routes, markets, and natural resources. This provided an extra instrument to Chinese foreign policy, although at times it also seemed a constraint on effective Chinese overseas investment.

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A final element of the game were the news reports at the start of each turn. This consisted on a major news item (such as commodity price changes, an oil spill in disputed waters, or a destructive typhoon), plus several minor stories. Included with this inject was a reward for effective diplomacy: for example, a bonus to the team that had most strengthened its maritime claims, or which had achieved the greatest diplomatic success last turn.  Where necessary, the group of senior game observers acted as the jury in deciding who should be rewarded and why. The game covered two and a half years, from late 2017 into early 2020—not entirely coincidentally, the years immediately prior to the recent DIRE STRAITS megagame at Connections UK.

One of our biggest worries in all this was the timing. We had seven teams, plus two other players. Nine actors are certainly more than I would usually recommend in a matrix game. To keep everything on time, and to get in a reasonable number of turns (five), we had to keep everyone on a tight schedule: 10 minute turns for China and the US, and 5 minutes for everyone else. Still, that also meant it would take an hour before a team would take its next turn. Would everyone get bored and tune out?

Game Play

As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. The players were superbly engaged—they quickly picked up on the matrix game method, were very active throughout each turn consulting with other teams, and very much embraced their roles.  It was all a lot of fun too.

As noted at the outset of this report, the actual gameplay cannot in any way be seen as representing any sort of official Canadian view of Southeast Asia—the players were all playing as individuals, not officials, and Tom and I were the ones who designed the game. However, it does give a good sense of how varied and interesting the unfolding narrative was. I was particularly impressed with the way all the teams employed the various tools of modern diplomacy to advance their interest.

China slowly extended its influence, largely through economic means. They also significantly enhanced their ability to offer humanitarian assistance in the region, setting up a regional crisis centre—a move intended to also project greater Chinese influence. Although the United States viewed Beijing as an emerging regional competitor, the subtlety of Chinese diplomacy meant that there was little they could do to counter its influence. They fostered good relations with all local countries (especially Malaysia), and at the end of the game (with the Trump Administration facing growing political problems at home) they launched a series of countermeasures against alleged unfair Chinese trading practices. Japan exerted considerable economic influence by virtue of its aid, trade, and investment in the region, as well as its not-inconsiderable military resources. However, they were well aware of the dangers of being too assertive, and generally focused on reassuring others while subtly promoting their own economic interests. Canada had much fewer diplomatic resources to bring to bear, but did well in promoting commercial opportunities and fostering innovative partnerships.

The various ASEAN countries represented the game all pursued rather different strategies, but all were successful in their way. Vietnam engaged in major reform efforts: first a major anti-corruption drive, and later a move to reduce government red tape. This made it an even more attractive destination for foreign investment. While much of that investment was Western, it was open to Chinese investment too, despite its trepidation over Chinese claims in the South China Sea. By contrast, the Philippines undertook few reforms—on the contrary, a tough anti-drug campaign raised growing human rights concerns. However, they were prepared to wheel and deal with anyone, and cultivated the growing power of China as well as traditional ally the United States. Manila and the Hanoi also agreed on a joint fisheries protection regime that was aimed at countering overfishing but which also subtly pressed back against some Chinese maritime claims. Malaysia suffered an ISIS terror attack early in the game, and thereafter took several measures to enhance its security, including deeper intelligence cooperation with the US and further naval modernization (which the US supported too).

Finally, our global and Chinese investors were very active. In the end, the former came out slightly ahead—in part due to a major sale of US armoured vehicles to the Philippines, which turned down an offer of comparable (or even slightly better) Chinese equipment.

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The real proof of concept from this pilot project will be if the participants and observers found it of value. I think it was pretty easy to demonstrate the value of this type of game as an educational and training tool. As a mechanism for policy analysis and development, however, the test is a little harder. The very general topic and long time frame probably didn’t help in that regard—it is easier to show analytical payoffs with a more focused topic, such as with the ISIS CRISIS series of matrix games. Nonetheless, I do think the event clearly demonstrated that games can be used to encourage innovative thinking, challenge conventional wisdoms, crowd-source ideas, anticipate possible responses, explore second and third order effects, and generally approach policy questions from a new and interesting perspective. Certainly, the feedback to date has been very positive.

Experimenting with DIRE STRAITS

As PAXsims readers will know, the recent Connections UK professional wargaming conference featured a large political/military crisis game exploring crisis stability in East and Southeast China: DIRE STRAITS. This is the second time we have held a megagame at Connections UK, and—judging from last year’s survey—they are popular with participants. This year we organized something that addressed a series of near future  (2020) challenges, said against the backdrop of uncertainties in Trump Administration foreign policy and the growing strategic power of China.

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We also conducted an experiment.

Specifically, we decided to use the game to explore the extent to which different analytical teams would reach similar, or different, conclusions about the methodology and substantive findings of the game. If their findings converged, that would provide some evidence that wargaming can generate solid analytical insights. If their findings diverged a great deal, however, that would suggest that wargaming suffers from a possible “eye of the beholder” problem, whereby the interpretation of game findings might be heavily influenced by the subjective views and idiosyncratic characteristics of the analytical team—whether that be training/background/expertise, preexisting views,  or the particular mix of people and personalities involved. The latter finding could have quite important implications, in that game results might have as much to do with who was assessing them and how, as with the actual outcome of the game.

To do this, we formed three analytical teams: TEAM UK (composed of one British defence analyst and one serving RAF officer), TEAM EURO (composed of analysts from the UK, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands), and TEAM USA (composed of three very experienced American wargamers/analysts). Each team were free to move around and act as observers during the games, and had full access to game materials, briefings, player actions and assessments, and could review the record of game events produced during DIRE STRAITS by our media team.

We were well aware at the outset that DIRE STRAITS would be an imperfect analytical game. It was, after all, required to address multiple objectives: to accommodate one hundred or so people, most of whom would not be subject matter experts on the region; to be relatively simple; to be enjoyable; and to make do with the time and physical space assigned to us by the conference organizers. It was also designed on a budget of, well, nothing—the time and materials were all contributed by Jim Wallman and myself. From an experimental perspective, however, the potential shortcomings in the game were actually assets for the experiment, since they represented a number of potential methodological and substantive issues which the analytical teams might focus on. To make it clearer what their major take aways were, we asked each team to provide a list of their top five observations in each or two categories (game methodology, and substantive game findings).

And the results are now in:

All three teams did a very good job, and there is a great deal of insight and useful game design feedback contained within the reports. But what do they suggest about our experimental question? I have a lot more analysis of the findings to undertake, but here is a very quick, initial snapshot.

First, below is a summary of each team’s five main conclusions regarding game methodology. I have coded the results in dark green if there is full agreement across all three teams, light green for substantial agreement, yellow for some agreement, and red for little/no agreement. The latter does not mean that the teams necessarily would disagree on a point, only that it did not appear in the key take-aways of each. I have also summarized each conclusion into a single sentence—in the report, each is a full paragraph or more.

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A Venn diagram gives a graphic sense of the degree of overlap in the team methodological assessments.

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One interesting point of divergence was the teams’ assessment of the White House subgame. TEAM USA had a number of very serious concerns about it. TEAM EURO, on the other hand—while noting the risks of embedding untested subgames in a larger game dynamic—nevertheless concluded that they “found this modelling fairly accurate.” TEAM UK had a somewhat intermediate position: while arguing that the White House subgame should have have been more careful in its depiction of current US political dynamics to avoid the impression of bias, this “obscured the fact that there were actually quite subtle mechanisms in the White House game, and that the results were the effects of political in-fighting and indeed, it could even show the need to “drain the swamp” to get a functional White House.” The various points made by the teams on this issue, and the subtle but important differences between them, will be the subject of a future PAXsims post.

Next, let us compare the three teams’ assessment of the substantive findings of the game. TEAM USA argued that the methodological problems with the game were such that no conclusions could be drawn. TEAM EURO felt that the actions of some teams were unrealistic (largely due to a lack of subject matter expertise and cultural/historical familiarity), but that overall “the overall course of action seemed to stay within reasonable bounds of what can be expected in the multitude of conflicts in the area.” TEAM UK was careful to distinguish between game outcomes that appeared to be intrinsic to the game design, and those that emerged from player interaction and emergent gameplay, and were able to identify several key outcomes among the latter.

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As both the table above and the diagram below indicate, there was much greater divergence here (much of it hinging on assessments of game methodology, player behaviour, or plausibility).

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Again, I want to caution that this is a very quick take on some very rich data and analysis, and I might modify some of my initial impressions upon a deeper dive. However, I do think there is enough here to both underscore the potential value of crisis gaming as an analytical tool, and to sound some fairly loud warning bells about potential interpretive divergence in post-game analysis. At the very least, it suggests the value of using mixed methods to analyze game outcomes, and/or—better yet—a sort of analytical red teaming. If different groups of analysts are asked to draw separate conclusions, and those findings are then compared, convergence can be used as a rough proxy for higher confidence interpretations, while areas of divergence can then be examined in great detail. I am inclined to think, moreover, that producing separate analyses then bringing those together is likely to be more useful than simply combining the groups into a larger analytical team at the outset, since it somewhat reduces the risk that findings are driven by a dominant personality or senior official.

One final point: DIRE STRAITS assigned no fewer than nine analysts to pick apart its methodology, assess the findings in light of those strengths and weaknesses, and we have now published that feedback. Such explicit self-criticism is almost unheard of in think-tank POL/MIL gaming, and far too rare in most professional military wargaming too. Hopefully the willingness of Connections UK to do this will encourage others to as well!

Dissecting DIRE STRAITS

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The DIRE STRAITS megagame was held on September 5 at King’s College London, and formed part of three days of activities, panel discussions, and break-out sessions at the Connections UK professional wargaming conference. You’ll find my overall report on the conference here, and a BBC report on the game here.

In this blog post I thought I would reflect a little on the exercise: the rationale and objectives for the game, the scenario, game design choices, how it all went on the day, and what (if any) substantive policy lessons we can draw from it.

 

Game Objectives

Connections UK first held a megagame as part of the conference programme in 2016, when Jim ran War in Binni—a civil war scenario set in a fictional country. It proved very popular with participants, who expressed a desire that the conference organizers do something similar for 2017.

However, since Connections is about improving the art and science of wargaming, and most of the participants are folks who participate in, design, or facilitate professional wargames (or other serious games), we thought that this time we might try to simulate a real, near-future situation. This is a more difficult challenge: the game designer needs to accurately reflect reality, and cannot play around with that reality solely to create more interesting game dynamics.

Complicating all this were the practical requirements of the event:

  • There would be more than 100 participants, and so the game had to accommodate this many roles and sub-roles. Everyone needed to be engaged and involved.
  • Related to this, we wanted people to enjoy themselves. Quite apart from whatever insight the game might offer into wargaming and its subject matter, it also served as a conference ice-breaker and networking opportunity.
  • Participants would have a wide range of subject matter expertise and wargaming experience.
  • The game would take up much of the first day, involving around 6 hours of game play (including briefing and lunch).
  • Physical space was rather limited: one large room, and two smaller rooms.
  • There would be no time for pre-reading. The game briefings had to be sufficiently straight-forward to enable everyone to assume their roles with minimal preparation.

As if that wasn’t enough, we later decided to raise the bar a bit higher still by adding an experimental research component to the game. This would examine issues of convergence and divergence in wargame analysis. Specifically, would three different groups of analysts, each observing the same game and with access to similar materials and documentation, reach similar conclusions about the validity of the wargame methodology adopted and the substantive findings of the game? The megagame would give us an opportunity to explore this important question.

 

Scenario

Our very first thought was to do a China-Taiwan crisis, which gave rise to the title DIRE STRAITS. However, it soon became apparent that this would not easily sustain 100+ participants. Consequently, we expanded it to include other potential regional crises: North Korea’s development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons; China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea; and growing tensions between India and China. Virtually all of these issues were in the news, and indeed were increasingly so as the summer progressed.

At the same time as we were developing the scenario, we also settled on a central question that the game would address: how would the unpredictability of US policy under the Trump Administration, and the growing strategic power of China, affect crisis stability in East and Southeast Asia? In order to make any such effects clearer, we set the game in early 2020. The Trump Administration was said to have survived the Special Counsel investigation, but suffered political damage. Parts of the Republican Party were in open revolt, and Trump faced a Republican challenger for the 2020 presidential nomination. North Korea was on the verge of resuming major weapons tests, and suffered from growing internal unrest. In Taiwan, revelations of Chinese (PRC) efforts to hack the island’s January 2020 elections had spurred a strong pro-independence backlash there. Just to push things along, we also planned an assassination attempt against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for Turn 2 of the game.

Marc Lanteigne (Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University)., who specializes in Chinese and East Asia security issues, was kind enough to review our scenario ideas and confirm it all seemed plausible.

 

 

 

Game Design

Although he might disagree and break into post-traumatic twitches at the mere mention of DIRE STRAITS, it was (as in the past) a sheer joy to be working with Jim on this project. We quickly divided the work between us. I handled the scenario development and team/player briefings, the White House and North Korea subgames, and the “Connections Global News” media unit. He developed the overall game system for the deployment and use of military units, the maps, and most other game components.

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We took pity on the Royal Navy and let them have the F-35Bs operational on HMS Queen Elizabeth a few months early

In developing the game system we very much emphasized relatively simple rules, with a very general combat model. With one week turns, large aggregate forces, and large areas of the region depicted, there was little need to model individual platforms and weapons system. Moreover, given that we were dealing with a series of crises that might involve more signalling than actual use of force, we decided to stress posture (how prepared and mobilized military forces were) and commitment (willingness to use force in a confrontation).

The maps used a simple system of zonal movement. Again, with one week turns, fine detail was unnecessary.

Teams were typically subdivided into a national leader, a foreign minister, a senior military commander, an intelligence chief, and one or more ambassadors. Each team would issue military orders (movement of forces, as well as changes in posture and commitment) using a  Military Operations Form. Other major decisions (including options presented in the team briefing) were recorded using a Major Decision Form. In order to provide greater insight into goals and perspectives, we also had each national leader complete a Strategic Assessment each turn, while each intelligence chief completed an Intelligence Assessment to identify threats and likely future developments.

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The Koreas map. Other game maps depicted the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the Chinese-Indian border region.

The White House subgame was an essential part of the design. In particular, we needed to recreate the uncertainties and internal power struggles of the Trump Administration. We decided early on not to have a participant playing the President himself, for fear that excessively crazy (or reasonable) behaviour might adversely affect the entire game. Instead, potential presidential policy directions were represented by various Tweets, most of them based on previous statements.

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Members of cabinet and the White House staff each had different policy preferences (anti-globalism, defeating the Republican challenger, confronting China, encouraging diplomacy, projecting American military strength, promoting the Trump brand, achieving a well-run White House, or “Making America Great Again”), and sought to influence the policy by moving various ideas up a snakes-and-ladders -type game board using White House Politics cards. Some of the latter are displayed below.

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White House players who had their favoured policies adopted by the President received Trump points. Amassing these was essential, for periodic staff shake-ups could result in the ouster of the lowest-scoring player. Once a policy was in place in a given issue area, it remained there until replaced. Of course, just as in the real world, US players would have considerable latitude in how to interpret President Trump’s statements.

The North Korea subgame took a very different approach: we didn’t really establish much of a game at all, and asked North Korea Control (Tom Mouat) to improvise if need be. At the DPRK table we placed various displays indicating the various key power centres of the regime, onto which the players placed pawns indicating their loyal cadres. Not surprisingly, the Supreme Leader had the most cadres, and controlled the key positions. However, in the event that the assassination attempt succeeded, we envisaged using matrix-game adjudication to determine the success and outcome of any internal actions. Party Politics cards added some additional richness to this.

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Some of the North Korean Party Politics cards.

It was important that lesser players retain support in the Central Committee lest they be purged. Kim Jong-un was also given—partly for fun, but also to simulate the demonstrative displays of public support that sustain authoritarian regimes by projecting omnipotence—a number of Obsequious Loyalty Forms. With these he could set his minions a task each turn, with rewards and punishments for those who exhibited impressive or disappointing revolutionary enthusiasm.

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One of the North Korea power structures displays, in this case depicting the Korean Workers’ Party. The others depicted the military, the intelligence and security services, and the civil government.

The presence of a complex-looking internal politics game on the North Korean table was also intended to generate a sense of uncertainty and confusion among other teams as to what exactly was going on in Pyongyang.

The US and North Korea subgames might seem a little satirical, and indeed were designed to allow the players to enjoy themselves. However, we were fairly confident that their actual outputs would be quite realistic. Statements from the US President would be rhetorical and unpredictable, reflecting his own views and the intense ideological, political, and personality battles within the White House. Indeed, most were simply restatements or tweak of previous statements made by Donald Trump during the election campaign or since assuming office. North Korean politics would be complex, but opaque to outsiders. This was also a case of designing for our audience, who we knew could appreciate the humour while remaining focused on their simulated tasks.

With regard to our media team (Connections Global News), this Jim and I recruited outside the conference from among experienced megagame players and some of my former political science students (all of whom were veterans of my own intense, week-long Brynania simulation). The media play an absolutely essential role in such games, making sure that players are well-informed by providing a stream of generally reliable information. Jim was able to staff the various Control positions from among experienced gamers attending the conference.

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More game materials. Photo credit: Jim Wallman.

When assigning players to teams, we did our best to match subject matter expertise and experience to roles. We were fortunate to have several people with expertise in the East and Southeast Asian security issues among the conference participants.

 

Game Play

Both Jim and I were very pleased with how it all went. The players remained extremely active and engaged. Team behaviours were all plausible. The Control members did an excellent job, and Connections Global News managed to tweet no fewer than 365 news reports in five hours of play, at a rate of more than one per minute.

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The initial CGN game briefing underway. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

The North Korean crisis attracted the most international attention. Kim Jong-un, who survived the assassination attempt thanks to his loyal secret police, approved testing of a multiple warhead version of his ICBM, and then deployed a basic SLBM system on modified conventional submarines. The missile tests took place over Japan, moreover. Each of his decisions was met with rapturous applause from members of his government (although one overly ambitious ambassador did have to be disciplined).

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North Korea’s Supreme Leader practices his very best resolute-stare-in-the-face-of-capitalist-neoimperialism.

South Korea, Japan, and the US responded by placing forces on alert. South Korea decided to undertake covert efforts to promote peaceful change in the North. While the DPRK’s Supreme Leader (ably played by Brian Train) projected the revolutionary self-confidence one might expect of the vanguard leadership of the Korean Workers’ Party, I think that as they saw the build-up of military hardware in their neighbourhood they might have been a little anxious as to whether they had overstepped a little.

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Players react as CGN reports on a North Korean missile test. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

Unknown to most (except the CIA), South Korea also began secret preparatory work to enable it to launch an accelerated nuclear weapons development programme at some future point, if the need arose. The growing strategic threat from the North was the primary reason for this. However, Seoul was also concerned that US commitments were perhaps less reliable than in the past. This was a concern for Japan too.

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Things heat up around the Korean Peninsula. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

Indeed, within the US Administration there was a lively, and often confused, debate over how to respond. Some felt it was essential to send a strong message of US resolve, and indeed at one point US Pacific Command recommended that the US consider sinking a North Korean SSB to send a message. That was quickly ruled out by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense. Others argued for caution, arguing if too much pressure was placed on Pyongyang the regime might respond in dangerous ways.

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The White House. Photo credit: Connections UK.

When Pyongyang briefly hacked Donald Trump’s Twitter account, however, the President was furious. The NSA and US Cyber Command responded by briefly shutting down North Korean radio and television.

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Inside the White House. Photo credit: Ivan Seifert/KCL.

A key point of difference within the American Administration concerned the role of China. Some favoured diplomatic outreach to Beijing to coordinate policy regarding the Korea crisis. Others felt China’s interests were too different from those of the US. Still others, with an eye on US domestic politics, were eager to advance the President’s trade policy by putting pressure on “#cheatingChina” to make economic concessions. The result was that US policy signals were mixed at best, reflecting as much the tug-of-war within the White House as the evolving strategic crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, the situation grew increasingly fraught, and a subsequent review of national intelligence estimates showed that several countries assessed the probability of war in coming weeks at greater than 50/50.

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Everyone on alert. Photo credit: Paul Howarth.

US diplomats in their region, however, did their best to pursue a steady course, downplaying some of the President Trump’s more provocative statements and working with regional actors. China, Russia, and the US met to resolve the crisis, while both North and South Korea took steps to de-escalate the situation. The US also took the decision to expand and accelerate deployment of a range of ant-ballistic missile (ABM) systems (THAAD, Aegis, and GBD/GBI) to offset North Korea’s growing capabilities.

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Game play underway at CGN headlines are displayed on the room monitors. Photo credit: Paul Howarth.

While all this was going on, the Taiwanese team—angered by the “Chrysanthemum Conspiracy” election hacking scandal—pushed for greater Taiwanese independence from the People’s Republic of China. When efforts to win observer status at the United Nations were blocked by China in the Security Council, efforts shifted to the General Assembly. At the same time, a constitutional reform process was announced, with considerable public support. Taipei hoped that Beijing would be too distracted by the Korea crisis to respond forcefully to these moves. France was particularly outspoken in supporting Taipei’s efforts, including a promise of arms sales.

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Tensions grow in the Taiwan Strait. Photo credit: Paul Howarth.

The PRC’s response was rather less severe than one might have expected, Nonetheless, it did begin a build-up of naval forces in the Taiwan Strait, and sent a warning shot in the form of a massive cyberattack that disrupted internet traffic across the island. The US dispatched a carrier task force to the area, and President Trump at one point tweeted apparent support for Taiwan’s UN bid. However, back in Washington another heated debate was underway. Some favoured supporting democratic Taiwan. Other advocated abandoning President Tsai to win greater support from Beijing on the Korea issue. In the UN, the US refrained from actively supporting Taiwanese efforts.

In the South China Sea, ASEAN countries found common ground in resisting Chinese maritime claims. Such enhanced regional cooperation seemed to be spurred on by a feeling that American support would be uneven going forward. France and the UK joined several regional countries (Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines) in naval exercises, while Indonesia announced that it would be upgrading military facilities and constructing an airbase in the area. Several countries announced more active measures against Chinese fishing in disputed waters, resulting in a couple of incidents between fishing vessels and coast guards.

Vietnam—adjacent to China, still smarting from China’s 2017 threats against an offshore oil project, and with bitter memories of the 1979 war between the two countries, was especially active in reaching out to other partners. It signed a secret agreement with the US to establish a joint signals intelligence facility to monitor Chinese military communications, concluded an arms deal with Russia, and allowed a Russian naval visit in conjunction with planned joint oil exploration in the area. Beijing was none too pleased by all this, but was preoccupied by other events.

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The Vietnamese team issues new military orders. Photo credit: Ivan Seifert/KCL.

Amid all this, border tensions between India and China were quickly resolved. Although military forces were briefly placed on somewhat higher alert, the two countries quickly agreed to accept the status quo and reduce tensions. Thereafter India largely focused on economic development and pursuing amicable relations with its neighbours—except Pakistan, where tensions over Kashmir flared.

And so it was that DIRE STRAITS ended with a few incidents at sea over illegal fishing and a some major cyber-attacks, but no open warfare. This, I think, was a very plausible outcome—although the Chinese response to signs of greater independence by Taiwan were rather less forceful than I imagine their real-world response would be. While it all might seem surprisingly peaceful in retrospect, many countries spent much of the game expecting war to erupt at any minute.

We also saw the President’s beleaguered Chief of Staff dismissed from his post amidst White House intrigue, and his overwhelmed Secretary of State resign at the end of the game rather than be fired.

 

Broader Lessons

After all of that, what conclusions might be drawn from the game concerning both the topic under examination, and the use of megagames as a serious gaming method?

Despite the various requirements imposed by the conference and venue, I do think the game generated some insight into current policy challenges. Specifically:

  • US policy under the Trump Administration is much less predictable than under any other president in modern times, a function of both the President’s mercurial and populist political instincts, and the clash between differing priorities and world-views within the White House. True, we had designed the game system to encourage this, but none of it was predetermined, and players could have taken a more cooperative route (as they did when deciding to increase the American investment in ABM systems). As White House Control, I was pleased to see how realistically and enthusiastically participants role-played their roles. Debate centred around different political views and goals, and not the manipulation of game mechanics. Domestic political concerns often trumped geopolitics. In short, if one builds a game system that models the existence of factions, rivalries, and differences within the current White House, one gets game outputs that look very much like current US foreign policy.
  • The mixed and sometimes wildly oscillating signals coming out of Washington do less damage than might be the case because they are quietly spun, nuanced, and moderated by cabinet officials and ambassadors in the field. In DIRE STRAITS the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State, and various ambassadors played a key role in this. Indeed, it was precisely because he spent so much time trying to patch over problems arising in Washington that our simulated Secretary of State found himself with little influence in the Oval Office and was ultimately sacked.
  • Despite this, uncertainties in US policy generate anxiety among American friends and allies. Neither South Korea nor Japan seemed to feel they could fully rely on Washington, as evidenced by the former secret decision to prepare a potential nuclear weapons programme. Taiwan was never quite sure how much latitude and US support it had, and Beijing was also left guessing about American commitment to the “One China Policy.” ASEAN countries increased regional security cooperation in part because US backing seemed uncertain. Several countries diversified their relations to counterbalance China and hedge their bets regarding American support.
  • The game clearly showed that there are no good policy options regarding North Korea’s nuclear capacity, only less-bad ones. Everyone was wary of pushing Pyongyang too far. Toppling the Kim Jong-un regime was seen by most (but not all) as dangerous, since it risked retaliation or chaos in a nuclear-armed state. In this sense, Pyongyang’s nukes demonstrated their value as a deterrent. Rather than punitive strikes or intervention, a messy mix of threats, deterrence, sanctions, and diplomatic dialogue appeared to offer the best path to crisis management. US-Chinese cooperation was important, but undermined by mutual suspicion, as well as tensions between Washington and Beijing on other issues (such as trade or the South China Sea). Overall, the game seemed to suggest no meaningful path to denuclearization, a real risk that South Korea (or even Japan) might consider a future nuclear weapons option, and the reality of having to live with a nuclear-armed DPRK while mitigating the threat and deterring North Korean adventurism.
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Some of the media team (and me). Photo credit: Patrick Brobbey.

Regarding the game method, there’s not much I would change. There were a few cases where misleading information circulated (CGN initially reported Taiwan was successful in its bid for UNGA observer status, and had to correct this—no such vote was held, and they would have likely lost), but overall the information flow and quality was excellent. The subgames worked well, and it was noteworthy than many/most non-American players were unaware that “Donald Trump” was a game system rather than a human player until after it was all over. Jim’s decision to dramatically simplify the military/combat system, and to emphasize issues of posture and commitment, was absolutely right. The map displays had just the right amount of simplicity and detail.

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The US analytical team. Photo credit: Connections UK.

Longer turns would have been nice—I think we would have had better briefing back to leaderships as well as more considered strategy discussions. However, longer turns would have also meant fewer turns, and we thought it important that there be ample opportunity for players to see the consequence of their actions. We also surprised players by ending the game one turn early to prevent “last turn madness.”

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More analysts analyzing. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

We could have had more effective data collection, but here we were limited by the realities of the exercise. Teams did complete our military and major decision forms as required, but strategic and intelligence assessment forms were sometimes forgotten (or lost) in the hustle and bustle. All the news reports were archived, and pictures were taken of each game map each turn to provide a record of the military situation. Members of the three analytical teams freely circulated around the game during play, and were able to listen in on strategy discussions, negotiations, and sundry plotting. I’m eager to see what they will have to say.

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At the moment, it looks like we will be designing another megagame for Connections 2018 (pending the results of the participant feed-back forms). The subject matter, however, has yet to be determined. Ideas, anyone?

BBC: Can war games help us avoid real-world conflict?

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The BBC has a report on the recent Dire Straits wargame at King’s College London, part of this year’s Connections UK professional wargaming conference.

North Korea has just fired off an intercontinental ballistic missile over Japan. Japan is uncertain as to whether the US wants to start a war.

It’s trying to find out why a massive American naval fleet has just arrived in the region. But it’s not getting any answers. There’s chaos in the White House as various factions try to influence the president.

Some of this might sound familiar. But this is not real life. It’s the scenario in a war game called Dire Straits, set in 2020.

And it’s being acted out, not on the world stage, but in a lecture theatre and seminar rooms at King’s College, London.

I’ll be posting a full report on both Dire Straits and Connections UK in the coming days.

Onward to Victory with Dstl!

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Some of the wargaming team at HMS Victory (left to right: Paul Strong, Mike Bagwell, Colin Marston, me, James Bennett, Mike Young and Major Tom Mouat).

Public release identifier DSTL/PUB103767

In mid-July I was fortunate to spend the better part of a week with the (UK) Defence Science and Technology Laboratory wargaming team at Dstl Portsdown West, near Portsmouth. As with my visit last year, I had a very enjoyable and productive time, exchanging views, discussing challenges and approaches, and generally benefitting from their broad experience. The schedule and pdfs of all my slides are provided below. (The videos have no sound, and are just another way to present the slides.)

20170728_PAXsims Agenda

Monday: Presentations

On the first day of my visit I made four presentations, each of which was followed by broader discussion with the group in attendance. The first of these examined wargaming as an educational (vs analytical) tool [pdf]. In this I discussed the strengths—and potential weaknesses–of serious gaming as an educational and training tool. I emphasized that educational outcomes depended not just on a game’s design, but also how it was used, and how it related to course objectives—the debate over the Statecraft international relations simulation being a case in point. I highlighted four general types of educational games, which I termed “pathway,” “strategy, “perspective,” and ‘fog and friction” games. I noted how the design of these differed from analytical games intended to answer one or more research questions. However, while games should certainly be designed for their intended purpose, I also suggested that practical realities (including limited resources) meant that it might sometimes be necessary or desirable to conduct dual-purpose games that have both analytical and educational dimensions. Much of the rest of the discussion focused on how best to do this without adversely compromising either aspect.

My second presentation [pdf] looked at wargaming unpredictable adversaries (and unreliable allies)—a topic of growing importance given the challenges of global terrorism, North Korean missile and nuclear weapon development, the current crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and similar challenges, coupled with the complications posed by uncertainty in US policy under the Trump Administration, plus Brexit in the European context. Much of my talk drew upon ideas I first raised in an article on the topic at The Strategy Bridge in March. I discussed several possible approaches to representing unpredictability/unreliability in a game, including scripting, stochastic (random) behaviour, responsive variables (with stochastic elements), using the white cell, and two (or more) level games.

After that, attention turned to gaming the semi-cooperative [pdf]. Here we explored the challenge of designing games that are cooperative but retain plenty of room for competition, poor coordination, and friction. This can be done, of course, with game mechanics that offer tangible rewards for both sets of behaviours, such as the dual metric system of (cooperative) “relief points” and (individual) “organization points” in AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. However, I suggested, there are limits to such a utility-maximizing, game theoretical treatment. Designers should also emphasize a psychological approach, whereby player engagement with the game narrative, imperfect information and communication, time pressures, game facilitation, and other methods are used to internalize sources of potential disagreement among the various participants.

The final presentation for the first day explored wargames as experiments [pdf ]. Here I suggested that wargames were rarely proper experiments: idiosyncratic variations between players, the limited number of iterations possible (often only one), and the complex, highly contingent nature of outcomes, all weighed against true experimentation. Nonetheless, some quasi-experimental designs were possible, and wargaming was extremely useful both as a way to generate questions for further study and in the context of efforts to triangulate findings using mixed methods. I pointed to a few techniques that might be used.

I also suggested that we needed more research on wargaming methodologies. One possible way of encouraging this would be to have an annual game design challenge, wherein wargamers would be invited to submit wargames exploring a set topic. This would allow methods and outcomes to be compared. (As Paul Strong pointed out to me, this is something the Society of Ancients already does in the hobby arena, annually refighting an ancient battle using a number of different rule sets.) A Dstl challenge for Connections UK 2018, perhaps?

 

Tuesday: Matrix Gaming and MaGCK

Most of the next two and a half days were taken up with a workshop on basic and advanced matrix game techniques [pdf], including an overview of the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK) prototype. For this I was joined by Major Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK), a fellow member of the MaGCK design team. We both found it very useful to get some feedback on the kit and its contents. Most of suggestions we received will be incorporated into the final production version, which will be launched at the Connections UK professional wargaming conference in September.

Day 2 also featured a presentation on gaming foreign policy [pdf]. This examined the value of serious gaming for training and policy analysis, and reviewed some of the work colleagues and I had done over the years gaming various aspects of conflict and peacebuilding in the Middle East.

At the end of the day we sat down to play A Reckoning of Vultures, one of the sample matrix games included in MaGCK:

A Reckoning of Vultures is set in the capital of the fictional Republic of Matrixia.

There, in the ornate Presidential Palace, surrounded by his most loyal Presidential Guards, the President-for-Life is on his death-bed—and various power-hungry factions are jostling to take power themselves.

Once the President passes, competition between these would-be successors will escalate to open conflict, until the Central Committee of the Ruling Party can meet and agree on a new leader

The Central Security and Intelligence Directorate (CSID) are Matrixia’s shadowy—and much-feared—secret police, responsible for maintaining a close watch on both dissidents and potential rival power centres within the regime. Although lacking large numbers of armed personnel, covert CSID operatives are well-placed to blackmail, influence, sabotage, subvert, or spy.

The Matrixian Armed Forces can call upon large numbers of military personnel located in three major military bases around the capital. Inter-service rivalries and the influence of other factions may mean, however, that not all MAF units are loyal or obey orders.

The Ministry of the Interior has authority over police and emergency services personnel in the capital. Although MoI units are well-positioned across the city, most are inferior in combat capability to those of the regular military.

Much of what happens in Matrixia is manipulated by a group of rich and powerful Oligarchs, who both control much of the business sector and have deep ties to the country’s major criminal syndicates. Although they have only a few private security guards and mercenaries to safeguard their position, they have considerable wealth that can be used further their political ambitions.

The National Union of Toilers represents the downtrodden workers of the country. NUT hopes to mobilize the masses and advance their political agenda through strikes, demonstrations, and direct action. If they can arm some of their followers and form a workers’ militia, they could become very powerful indeed.

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Things heat up in the capital of Matrixia (left to right: me, Colin Marston, Mike Larner and Major Tom Mouat).

In this particular case, our game involved a dead President (of course); student protests, which were soon crushed by hired thugs; an amphibious landing by MAF marines to wrest control of the port; a failed airborne landing at the worker-controlled oil refinery; a spectacularly unsuccessful jailbreak (in which unguarded prisoners preferred to stay in their cells than follow the revolutionary NUT leader); sabotage of the Ministry of Information communications system; bombing of the civilian airport by government jets; a dramatic face-off outside the Presidential Palace, in which tanks were vanquished by protesters (presumably through moral suasion rather than any sort of inherent anti-armour capability); and a closely fought vote for supremacy in the Central Committee of the Ruling Party. While it was all good fun, the scenario—as intended—demonstrated a variety of different matrix game techniques. Moreover, it was possible to relate most of the game events to real life coups and succession struggles in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and elsewhere.

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There was pointing too. No wargame is complete without much high-quality pointing.

 

Wednesday: More matrix gaming, and a dockyard tour

For me, one of the most interesting part of the programme was the opportunity to develop a matrix wargame from scratch with members of the Dstl staff, as a way of exploring matrix gaming and game design more broadly. The choice of topic was left up to me, so as a Middle East analyst I chose a possible future conflict between Israel and Hizbullah. After an overview of key aspects of the issue [pdf], we all set to work for a couple of hours. The result was a game design with four actors (Israel, Hizbullah, the Lebanese government, and civilians fleeing the fighting). Reflecting the complex, multi-sided character of Lebanese politics, the Lebanese government randomly determined each turn whether its actions reflected a common national interest, or the interests of a particular political or sectarian group. The civilian player represented the interests of Israeli and Lebanese civilians alike, and their actions offered an interesting way to model the safety-seeking behavior of local populations in wartime.

During peacetime phase, Israel and Hizbullah would each take one action each per turn, while the Lebanese government and civilians could take one action total during the entire phase. Once major fighting started, Israel and Hizbullah received two actions per turn (one military, one non-military), while the Lebanese government and civilians received one each. The war would continue until a ceasefire was agreed to by the parties, or the domestic support level of one of the belligerents fell to zero.

After all this it was down to Portsmouth, where we went on a specially-arranged tour of HMS St. Albans, a Type-23 Royal Navy frigate. Members of the crew were very ­informative—especially the watch officer who showed us around, and the senior engineering rating who offered a detailed look around the engineering control room and engine room (my first opportunity to get up close and personal with a Rolls-Royce Marine Spey gas turbine). The Dstl team later presented me with a copy of the ship’s crest—a lovely gift, even more so because it had been signed by everyone. We also had some time to see HMS Victory at the Historic Dockyard. Appropriately enough, dinner that evening was at the officer’s mess at HMS Nelson (Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Portsmouth), where–in the best traditions of the empire–it was curry night.

Finally, I spent a couple of hours that night, putting together a playable version of our prototype Israel-Hizbullah game, writing up rules and player briefings and using components from MaGCK.

 

Thursday: Playtesting and game design

The morning of Day 4, we playtested the Israel-Hizbullah matrix game. The game featured two distinct phases. The first depicted growing tensions, with a major arms build-up by Hizbullah, Israeli bombing of one particularly significant weapons shipment through Syria, the successful Israeli assassination of a senior Hizbullah military commander, and an ominous border incident. A system of random event cards left players the option of initiating conflict (at a political cost), or waiting for events to make it inevitable.

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The Israel-Hizbullag game being playtested. The white tokens are all civilians at risk, controlled by the civilian team. The map was made by simply drawing on an acetate overlay of a Lebanon map, while all other components were quickly assembled using MaGCK: Matrix Game Construction Kit.

Finally, the war came. Israel, which had already called up a substantial number of reservists for a planned military exercise, crossed the Lebanese border on a wide front, hoping to destroy most of the estimated 150,000 rockets Hizbullah had amassed in southern Lebanon. Going was slow, however, with Hizbullah forces making good use of the terrain, minefields, bunkers, ATGMs, and the combat experience it had gained in the 2006 war, the Syrian civil war, and elsewhere. However, most efforts by the Shiite militia to score a major propaganda victory—for example, by downing an IDF helicopter laden with troops—were largely unsuccessful.

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Contemplating the situation in Lebanon (left to right: Lt Cdr James Winsor, Stephen Ho and Ben Short).

The Lebanese government pressed for a ceasefire, and was ultimately successful in seeing a draft resolution tabled at the United Nations Security Council with the support of Russia, China, and the European Union. The Trump Administration, however, was sympathetic to the Israeli operation, and vetoed the resolution to give the IDF more time to achieve its objectives.

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Tom Mouat’s notes from the Israel-Hizbullah game.

There we had to end the playtest–Israel was narrowly ahead on points, but Shiite support for Hizbullah was high, and there was little evidence that the group had suffered a fundamental setback.

Later that day I made my final presentation for the week, on gaming corruption [pdf]. I differentiated between three levels at which corruption might be represented in a game: as a complicating factor largely beyond the control of players (represented by some limit or random event); as significant secondary dynamic that players could interact with and affect (as in Mission Zhobia);  and finally as the primary focus of the game. In the case of the latter I drew upon the serious games that Tom Fisher has developed for the World Bank and Egmont Group on money-laundering and anti-corruption efforts.

Last but far from least, the final part of Thursday was spent in an extended discussion of possible design elements for a project that Dstl is currently working on. I can’t disclose the topic or participants, but can say that our discussion addressed a variety interesting issues regarding:

  • in-game communication, including the constraints imposed by classified material
  • using the red cell in a way that both offers red “the freedom to win,” yet assures that game stays on course for its analytical or experiential purpose
  • employing subject matter experts (and keeping them sufficiently busy and engaged)
  • determining the level of military fidelity necessary (and deciding what of this should be communicated to the players)
  • the use and abuse of marker tracks and metrics
  • generating narrative engagement and immersion

 


 

With that, my visit to Dstl came to an end. It was enormously valuable to me to have had the opportunity to share ideas and insights with such a talented group of wargamers and defence analysts—and in a casual setting conducive to frank discussion, innovation, more than a few cups of tea, and a great deal of fun. I’m very grateful to Colin Marston and the rest of the team for their hospitality, as well as their support for the MaGCK project.

For those of you who want to try A Reckoning of Vultures or the Israel-Hizbullah War 201? matrix games, we will be running both during the games fair at Connections UK in September.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“One Belt, One Road” matrix game

We are pleased to feature this report on the One Belt, One Road matrix game developed by COL Jerry Hall. The report below was written by Ryan Carragher, a Boston College student, ROTC member, and intern at the US Army War College. We are grateful to Jerry for sharing the complete set of rules and to LTC Joseph Chretien (US Army War College) for passing all of this on to us.


“One Belt, One Road” (OBOR-MG), a new matrix game developed by Colonel (COL) Jerry Hall, United States Army, focuses on China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan for trade expansion and growth.  The game is a six-player game, with teams of China, Russia, India, the European Union, the United States, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). With China’s influence expanding, it is up to the other teams to either determine how to counter China, or find a way to grow with them. The game’s scenario begins in the present day and advances three to five years each round, which replicates China’s end goal of completing OBOR by 2050.

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COL Jerry Hall discussing the rules of OBOR-MG

The goals and objectives of OBOR-MG are to explore where China’s OBOR plan may take the world over the course of the next few decades, to expose players to the growth of China through trade, and to force players to think of ways that China can be countered.   Within the context of the game, agreed upon trade routes must be invested in to be established, and new trade routes can be planned and opened.  More directly, the game requires players to use their National Elements of Power (DIME-Diplomacy, Information, Military, and Economic) to exert influence throughout the globe.  In doing so, the game requires players to manage multiple different mechanisms of foreign relations.  This forces players to expand their thinking at the strategic level.  Military leaders playing must consider the diplomatic, economic and information alternatives, while other government officials playing the game must consider the military options as well.   This aspect of the game allows it to accomplish its objective of being an effective tool for strategy development and analysis, to test different courses of action, to determine potential U.S. national interests, and to explore potential outcomes of China’s trade expansion.  The OBOR-MG game is extremely versatile in its intended audience.  Indeed, it is a useful tool for not only military leaders and organizations but also civilian leaders to test and expand strategic plans as well as for students studying any of the countries and regions involved.

The game was built using lessons learned from past matrix games developed at the Center for Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Army War College.  COL Hall recognized the need for a matrix game revolving around China’s planned growth in order to better educate students and leaders on how the future can be handled.  Furthermore, he thought it was vital to include all aspects of the National Elements of Power, as had been done in previous matrix games, such as the South China Sea and Kaliningrad.

A new design element in this game comes in the form of each player having multiple chits (moves for each element of power) per turn.  This allows for a more accurate representation of each player countries’ strengths in individual fields.  For example, China begins the game with three economic chits, and one chit for Diplomacy, Military, and Information.  This is indicative of the enormous amount of investment China is dedicating to the development of trade routes in order to advance its growth.  The United States begins with two diplomacy, military, and economic chits, as well as one information chit.  This shows the fact that the United States has diplomatic and military power in the region, but is not investing as much as China.

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One of the trackers in OBOR-MG used to track open corridors.

OBOR-MG goes one step further in allowing each payer to play a chit in response to another player’s move, directly after the player makes the move.  This allows other players to modify the dice roll by opposing the action with their pieces and making the roll more difficult, or by supporting it and therefore lessening the required role.  By adding this facet to the game, COL Hall made OBOR-MG a more realistic test of foreign policy, as players must manage their elements of power in the most effective way possible and have the ability to respond to opponents’ actions in real time.  In the game’s development stages, COL Hall also refined the mechanism by which countries gain economic chits.  Emphasizing the economic value of the trade routes, countries through which the route travels, upon the route’s completion, increase the number of economic chits they receive at the beginning of each round.  Countries that invest in the routes but are not located along them receive an increase in influence in the region of their investment.  This aspect of the game’s development is vital, as it accurately recreates the incentive for competing powers to invest in spots that will not show immediate economic gains but will further their long term goals.

OBOR-MG was play-tested extensively by the Strategic Simulations Division at the Center for Strategic Leadership.  This play testing recognized the value of players’ ability to make multiple moves and respond to their opponents.  It also brought about minor changes in the numbers of chits given to each player at the start of the game.  For example, China’s economic chits at the start were reduced from four to three, and the United States’ was increased from one to two.  These small changes were made to make the game as reflective of the real world situation as possible.  The play testing also shed light on areas in which the game could expand due to players’ actions.  For example, the European Union and ASEAN can now develop military chits by working with other players or by establishing a military force through “big” actions – projects that may take multiple turns or chits to accomplish.  This rule allows for players to greatly expand the possibilities of what they can do, but in a way that reflects potential real-world developments.  With this ability, players are now more capable of testing potential strategies by different countries.

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Playtesting the game.

China’s “One Belt One Road” plan has the potential to drastically change the economic world and world power balance, if it is as successful as China expects it to be by 2050.  This game has the potential to provide the United States and its global partners a road map on how best to counter China, or how to join them.  COL Hall’s OBOR-MG provides a well-developed platform for leaders to test new strategies and for enterprising students to learn about the future of trade, power, and global politics.

Ryan Carragher

 

Gaming the apocalypse: Northland edition

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A few hours ago the world’s first ever “wide-area megagame” ended. Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos concerned a growing zombie apocalypse in a fictionalized United States. It involved some five hundred or so players in 11 cities in five different countries: London, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Leeds, Southampton (UK); Brussels (Belgium); Nijmegen (Netherlands); New York, Austin (US); and finally our small band in Montréal. The games were simultaneous (which meant a 6:30am start time for us) and linked (so what happened in one game affected the others). While subject wasn’t a serious one, many of the game design elements could certainly be applied to more serious topics.

While the rules were generally identical across games, there were a number of innovations in the “Northland” (Montréal) game, as befitted our status as the neighbouring country. Communications between games was by email and a centralized website for local and national news. Our own game had three components: a strategic game involving federal and provincial players, and two city/regional games, one depicting the Windsor/St. Catharines area (adjacent to Buffalo) and depicting the London/Windsor/Sarnia area (adjacent to Detroit or “Romero City”) .

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The peaceful streets of St. Catharines, Ontario, on the eve of the apocalypse.

The day started off with growing numbers of refugees from South of the Border arriving in Windsor and Niagara, as well as other areas on Ontario from Sault Ste-Marie to Cornwall.[1]

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In Ottawa, PM Trustin Judeau photogenically ponders the growing crisis.

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Windsor police—outside a Tim Hortons doughnut shop, of course.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the federal government immediately declared a nationwide state of emergency, which speeded the mobilization of federal and provincial assets. Prime Trustin Judeau was dispatched to London to cheer up hospital patients with smiling selfies.

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Trustin Judeau at London Health Sciences Centre.

In Niagara, local authorities quickly established a quarantine center and refugee camp. Newly-arrived refugees were screened and escorted to the camp, while zombie infestations were cordoned off until they could be dealt with.

In southwest Ontario, however, things quickly went from bad to worse. A light aircraft crashed at London airport, causing several casualties and closing it for more than 8 hours. Failure to screen arriving refugees led to several outbreaks, and other zombies started to float into coastal areas of Lake Erie. Local authorities were slower to establish cordons, which allowed the virus to spread. It didn’t help that conditions were equally bad, or even worse, in neighbouring Romero City (Detroit) and much of the rest of Mishigamaa (Michigan):

Mayor Mayhew tried to rally his troops:

Mayor Callum Mayhew, speaking at London City Hall today, praised municipal preparations to combat the zombie menace, and encouraged city workers to “hold your ground!”

The Mayor went on to say “Sons and daughters of London, of Windsor, my brothers/sisters, I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men and women fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.”

He added, “An hour of undead and shattered riot shields, when the Age of Persons comes crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight. By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, municipal employees of southwest Ontario!”

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Floaters! Undead abominations wash up on the northern shores of Lake Erie. The Munsee-Delaware (marked by the symbol in zone #49), Chippewa, Oneida, and other First Nations would do an admirable job of keeping their areas zombie-free.

When a small group of survivalists arrived by boat near Owen Sound and proceeded to shoot up the Bruce nuclear generating station, Acting Prime Minister Aaron Brennan ordered the closure of Canadian airspace to civilian traffic, and deployed Coast Guard units and Ontario Provincial Police helicopters to Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron to interdict unauthorized boats trying to enter the country.[2] the importance of doing so was highlighted the next day when a lake freighter docked in a Northland port—only to disgorge a cargo of zombified crewmen. Only a quick response by the Northland Armed Forces prevented disaster.

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PM Trustin Judeau confers with Ontario provincial officials in Toronto. To the northwest, a small group of foreign survivalists fleeing from South of the Border asserts its so-called “Second Amendment right to loot nuclear power stations.”

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A classified map from the Pentagon, obtained after the crisis. Areas have been coded 1-5 for severity. As can be seen, large areas of Mishigamaa have been marked as lost.

Infected refugees led to a zombie outbreak in Sault Ste-Marie, but this was quickly suppressed by the timely arrival of elite JTF2 special forces and 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron, operating from Ottawa and NFB (Northland Forces Base) Petawawa. Other outbreaks occurred elsewhere from time to time, but were quickly dealt with.

Despite interdicting some would-be arrivals, Northland did not turn its back on its southern cousins. A refugee camp and quarantine site was established at the Cornwall, Ontario border crossing, in cooperation with the Northland Red Cross. This was opened to displaced persons of all nationalities. The Northland Public Health Agency contacted federal officials South of the Border, and offered their assistance with research—including a sample of the Pithovirus Sibericum B zombie virus that had been isolated by pathologists at the Niagara Health Services hospital.

Perhaps most important, as soon as the mechanized infantry of the 1e battalion, Royal 22e Régiment had formed up at NFB Valcartier they were ordered to the border south of Montréal. Northland then offered to deploy these forces to assist the state of Adirondack, which had suffered serious zombie infestations in Albany and elsewhere. It took a while for federal and state officials to sort out the necessary permissions and command protocols, but the Northland contingent was eventually dispatched to secure Plattsburgh and support efforts to liberate Albany.

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Northland Armed Forces units wait for a green light to assist local Adirondack officials across the border. The Cornwall Refugee Reception Centre can be seen to the west. Local OPP, SQ, and RNMP police units stand ready to screen new arrivals and escort them to the camp. Members of the Joint Incident Response Unit, based out of NFB Trenton, have established quarantine facilities there to prevent infections spreading among the refugees. (The misspelling of “Plattsburgh” was a cunning ruse to fool zombie cartographers. Given the absence of zombie maps after the crisis, it appears to have worked.)

At Owen Sound, an Ontario Ministry of Health HAZMAT team responded, and—working with local engineers—was able to seal a small breach at the Bruce NGS that had vented some radioactive steam. On two occasions aircraft ignored the closure of Northland airspace, and attempted to land anyway. On both occasions the government decided not to shoot them down. The first, landing in Ottawa, turned out to be a young family in a desperate search for safe refuge. The second, arriving at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, was a group of armed survivalists. They refused to surrender their weapons and opened fire on airport security personnel, but were soon brought under control by reservists from the 48th Highlanders and Royal Regiment of Northland. The airport was closed for several hours as a result of this incident.

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Infected refugees lead to a zombie outbreak in Kitchener, Ontario—but it is soon dealt with by reservists from the Royal Highland Fusiliers. To the east, a large concentration of refugees can be seen at the Toronto Refugee Reception Centre, guarded by an OPP SWAT team. At the top left an Ontario Ministry of Health HAZMAT team checks radiation levels at the Bruce nuclear power plant, following the incident with survivalists there.

Meanwhile in southwest Ontario, increasingly concerned municipal authorities took the drastic decision to have firefighters to refill their tankers with gasoline from the Sarnia refinery, and turn this on the undead hordes.

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The London Fire Department warily try their new weapon, as Mayor Mayhew and Chief Islam look on approvingly.

This worked about as well as one might expect: a few hordes were singed, several firefighter units suffered serious casualties, and a lot more fires erupted—including one at the Sarnia refinery. This promptly exploded, causing a fireball and column of smoke that could be seen in neighbouring Mishigamaa. Mass panic gripped the city.

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Grrrr, arghhh

In Windsor, all seemed lost. Large numbers of refugees had gathered here from Romero City, their onward route to Toronto blocked by the zombie packs that prowled large sections of Highway 401.[3] Police units had become cut off. Small children cried as undead abominations crept ever closer. Although loud Nickelback music[4] succeeded in driving back the zombies in some areas, it was only a matter of time before Windsor was completely overrun.

Then they heard it. First came a series of loud explosions, as CF-18s of 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron began airstrikes on the largest concentrations of animated abominations. This was then followed by the dull thud of helicopters in the distance. Led personally by General Daryl Cartier, Chief of the Defence Staff, Direct Action Company A of the Northland Special Operations Regiment and 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron undertook an airmobile assault to secure Windsor airport. Soon thereafter, the remainder of the regiment arrived, transported by CH-130s of 436 Transport Squadron.[5] They quickly took control of area and started to push back the undead.

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General Cartier looks on as reinforcements arrive to secure Windsor, Ontario.

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Pretty much everything in Sarnia is on fire (left) and airmobile Northland special forces secure Windsor (right).

In London, advance elements of Royal Northland Dragoons and Royal Northland Regiment started to arrive in the city, supported by reservists from 31 and 32 Brigade. As municipal police, fire, and reserve military forces (notably from the locally-based Windsor Regiment, Essex and Kent Scottish, and 1st Hussars) formed a cordon around the largest outbreaks, heavily armed regular troops began the counterattack. Additional mechanized infantry forces, this time from 2e battalion, Royal 22e Régiment, arrived a few hours later and began to push down the 401. Drawing upon the benefits of international research collaboration, a HAZMAT team from the Northland Public Health Agency began field trials of a new cure for the zombie virus. The early results were encouraging.

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The NPHA mobile lab deploys the experimental cure as the Mayor looks on (or, perhaps, at the fire down the road).

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A convoy of Vandoos advances down the 401 from London to Windsor, escorted by local police

It came not a moment too soon. NORAD and the Pentagon urgently informed the Northland government that Russian Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack nuclear-armed bombers were airborne, and might be headed southwards. All aircraft were re-tasked to intercept. In a tense call over secure communications, the Deputy Prime Minister and Chief of the Defence Staff agreed: the order would be given to engage any hostile armed aircraft entering Northland airspace…

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CF-18s of the Royal Northland Air Force streak northwards to intercept possible Russian bombers, “loaded for Bear”…


Reflections

We had far fewer players than we had initially planned for. A 6:30 am start on a national holiday (July 1 is Canada Day) is, it seems, a hard sell. However, everything went very well indeed. There were some communications issues—the central news website wasn’t always available due to server bandwidth problems (I couldn’t access it three-quarters of the time), and the email system could have functioned better. Busy players probably meant that not all of the information that could have flowed between games did flow between games. However, it was the apocalypse, so what do you expect?

Our small group had an absolutely terrific time. Unlike the other UNSOC sessions we had no elections subgame, but rather a competition to earn smug self-righteousness cards (“Smuggies”). Mayor Jano Bourgeois of Niagara and Acting Prime Minister Aaron Brennan were tied at the end, and so shared the trophy for the most outstandingly nice Northlander.

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Mayor Bourgeois (left) and Acting PM Brennon (right).

However a dispute erupted when the Mayor discovered one more Smuggy which he had forgotten about. The issue was resolved with a traditional hockey brawl, and then everyone made nice again and finished off the Timbits.

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Federal and municipal officials discuss the recent crisis.

I was very happy with the way that our Northland modifications (zonal maps, refugees) worked. Indeed, in addition to being a lot of fun, it had the real feel of an emergency management game. I might even use a modified version of UNSOC: Northland in my teaching on humanitarian crisis response next academic year.

The tokens and stickers we used for units were based on the MaGCK system that Tom Fisher, Tom Mouat and I are developing. The stickers are removable, so all the tokens can be reused.  It took maybe two hours to print and assemble 200 components. Total cost: probably $10 or so for the printing. While we’ve designed MaGCK for matrix gaming, it clear has some megagame applications too!

 

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WAMCOM Kevin Farnworth (left).

Particular gratitude is due to my CONTROL team counterparts, Tom Fisher (who ran not one but two city maps simultaneously) and Kevin Farnworth (who served both as WAMCOM, interacting with the other games, and as the Northland press). Of course, none of this would have been possible at all without the megagame design and organization skills of mad genius Jim Wallman, who put the wide-area megagame together.

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City CONTROL, Tom Fisher. Note the relative calm in Niagara/St. Catharines (foreground) as local police, reservists from the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, and a Northland Border Services Agency K9 unit meet refugees crossing the Niagara River, preparing to escort them to the nearby refugee camp and quarantine centre. A SWAT team patrols the Queen Elizabeth Way. Meanwhile, firefighters deal with a small fire east of Welland, while St. Catharines police respond to a robbery in progress.

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The heroes of Northland.


Notes

[1] Refugees were a major component of the Northland game. They could be regular refugees, armed survivalists (prone to looting), or infected (who might turn into zombies). Police and military units could screen these and escort them, otherwise they would all slowly head towards Toronto or Montréal. Refugee camps could be established to hold them, and these could be upgraded with security and medical quarantine facilities.

[2] In the Northland game, the flow of refugees could be slowed by interdiction efforts in the air and by the use of Coast Guard and other assets on the Great Lakes.

[3] While most of the UNSOC games used a hex grid, we used zonal maps overlaid on Google Map images. The various major highways provided a much faster route than the city streets or rural roads. Also, our London/Windsor/Sarnia map was on a larger scale than others, with movement allowances scaled accordingly.

[4] Among other Northland-specific special action cards, our game featured Tim Hortons, support from First Nations communities, an emergency telephone conversation with the Queen, polite neighbours, the War of 1812, and local hockey teams with protective gear and sharpened zombie-killing hockey sticks.

[5] The Order of Battle in the Northland game accurately mirrored the actual deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces, with every single combat unit in 2 Mechanized Brigade Group, 5e Groupe-brigade mécanisé, 31, 32, 33, 34, and 35 (reserve) Brigade Groups, and the 1st, 3rd, and 8th Wings of 1 Air Division represented at the Company or Squadron scale. Representation of Royal Northland Mounted Police, Ontario Provincial Police, and the Sûreté du Québec generally reflected their actual deployment and organization too.

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The Austin Archaria Experiment

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Allan Shearer (School of Architecture and Centre for Sustainable Development, University of Texas at Austin) has kindly shares his report on the “Austin Archaria Experiment,” which explored the action and interaction of key local stakeholders in the context of NATO peace and stabilization mission.

PURPOSE

This discovery experiment explored potential dynamics among key host nation and international community actors who could contribute to social order in the Archaria 2035 scenario. It follows from several conversations held during the 2016 NATO Urbanisation Wargame on ways civilian stakeholders might expand or limit options for military courses of action during high intensity conflict.

The experiment was predicated on the following propositions:

• That governance significantly contributes to, if not establishes the basis for, the stability of a populated area (region, nation state, city).

• That governance is achieved through combinations of governmental offices, public institutions, and markets.

• That successful compositions of governance (that is, combinations of government, institutions, and markets) vary due to local social and cultural factors.

• That the relative importance of government offices, public institutions, and markets will change over time.

• That a stable social order can include illegitimate actors who wield power beyond the rule of law.

• That in times of acute stress related to unprecedented or little imagined situations, power within and among sectors of governance will be contested and may change abruptly.

• That fluid conditions of governance may reduce the bases for stability and will, therefore, be a critical factor in a dynamic military operating environment.

METHOD

The method of the experiment followed from the RAND Corporation Research Memorandum ‘Factional Debates and National Commitments: The Multidimensional Scenario’ (1967), which sought to game how governments within a region would respond to a crisis situation for which postures or positions had not been previously stated. It assumed that a given state’s official stance would emerge through interactions among various stakeholders in or near the national government.

Thirteen roles were developed for Archaria. This relatively large number reflected assumptions with regard to the fragility of the Archarian government, uncertainties about state and city government interactions in the provision of basic services, and the ability of non-governmental actors to exert influence. Each role has an assigned primary interest, a limited ability to act, and a set of connections to other roles. However, as a layer of complexity, the underlying personal values that motivate (or partially motivate) a given interest are made intentionally ambiguous through each actor’s biographical profile.

As such, while it is possible to read the profiles and have an initial understanding of what each character will pursue in the near term, participants must contribute their own interpretations of the background material to round-out or complete the portrayal of a role. Subsequent interactive gameplay requires that these added assumptions be declared and allows for a more nuanced assessment of negotiated decisions.

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The scenario (based on the Archaria 2035 scenario being used by NATO ACT to explore the effects of urbanization on military operations) involved growing militarized tensions between Positania and Catan:

The region spanning Yorbia to Central Landia is characterized by ongoing political upheaval and economic disruptions related to globalization, migration, climate change, cyber-attacks, and transnational crime. Centrium and North Yorbia pose global problems due to the rise of extremist groups that strike around the world. In the center of the region, relationships between Positania and Catan have significantly deteriorated over the last year due to: (1) Positania’s strengthening political ties with the Confederation of Northlandia Nations (CNN) and its efforts to join NATO, and (2) The increasing economic importance of the Port of Archaria, which is critical not only for Positania, but for global trade. These two issues are combined in escalating tensions over the control of the primary routes across the Sidonian Sea. Within Positania, people are divided over the short- and long-term bene ts of better relationships with CNN or Catan. The majority of middle- and upper-class Neapolitans see a more prosperous and independent future through partnerships with the North. Those living in crowded slums are distrustful of Catan and opposed to its aggressive posturing, but they also believe policies of the Northlandia Nations have worsened their standard of living. Ethnic Catans living in Archaria—some families for generations— feel they are not fully enfranchised citizens in Positania. Alongside state-level geopolitical maneuvers, factions and stakeholders operate at Archaria to influence the way the city functions and shape its relationships with other municipalities.

May 1, 2035: United Nations’ Security Resolution 12991 condemns the Government of Catan for its failure to abide by international law and authorizes the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to deploy a response force (known as the NATO Positania Force or NPF) for an initial period of twelve months. NPF is to support the efforts of the government of Positania to ensure sovereignty and integrity of its national borders and to safeguard the freedom of navigation in the Sidonian Sea. Further, NATO is to support the creation of a safe and secure environment for the civilian led delivery of humanitarian assistance and the voluntary return of internally displaced persons and refugees. The President of Positania has offered host nation facilities to a multinational NATO force that would deploy in support of peace and stability.

The NATO military instrument of power will be complemented by the political and economic instruments of power of the International Community and the significant role played by the Positania’s armed forces.

The response involves achieving three objectives: (1) Military threat to Positania posed by Catan is degraded and the territorial integrity of Positania is restored. (2) Freedom of movement in South Landia, and, in particular, the Sidonian Sea is maintained. (3) Safe and Secure Environment (SASE) for humanitarian assistance is supported.

TODAY—June 20, 2035: Catan forces are arrayed in defensive positions in a band along the north-south autostrada A1 from autostrada A3 in the south to highway 57 in the north. Catan forces have been unable to secure either the port or airport of Archaria; however, both are within indirect re range of Catan forces’ artillery, mortars, and air defense weapons. Catan forces have been actively patrolling and probing along their frontage and are in position to launch local attacks against lightly defended targets. Additionally, Catan is focusing its psychological warfare campaign and perception-shaping efforts against the citizens of Positania. It is maintaining that conflict in the region would not exist if it were not for the bullying and intimidation of the Confederation of Northlandia Nations and NATO allies. The message has been generally well received by governments across the region and it has inflamed the emotions of Archarian citizens of Catan descent.

You’ll find the full report here (pdf).

Simulation and gaming miscellany, International Tabletop Day 2017 edition

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Geek & Sundry has declared April 29 to be International Tabletop Day, and we at PAXsims are happy to celebrate the occasion with some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (or not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers.

PAXsims

How might Brexit negotiations go? Back in January 2016, Open Europe “wargamed” possible British-EU negotiations. According to the The Economist:

…the second part of the war games, a mock-up of how the EU would respond to a vote for Brexit, was worse. Lord Lamont, a former Tory chancellor of the exchequer representing Britain, argued that an “amicable divorce” was in everybody’s interests. Britain could negotiate a trade deal similar to Canada’s, liberating it from EU rules, including free movement of people. He even volunteered to pay something into the EU budget.

Yet other countries were unimpressed. John Bruton, a former prime minister representing Ireland, said Brexit would be seen as an “unfriendly act” and would threaten the peace process in Northern Ireland (Enda Kenny, Ireland’s real prime minister, made a similar point after meeting Mr Cameron on the same day). Steffen Kampeter, a former deputy finance minister representing Germany, said Britain would not be allowed to cherry-pick the benefits of membership without the costs. Mr de Gucht noted that a new trade deal would be negotiated by the European Commission and national governments with minimal British input. He and others added that they would try to shift Europe’s financial centre from London.

The starkest warning came from Leszek Balcerowicz, a former deputy prime minister representing Poland. He said the priority would be to deter populists in other countries who wanted to copy Brexit. For this reason Britain would be punished by its partners even if that seemed to be against their interests. Mr Cameron’s negotiations may be hard, but they are a picnic compared with what he would face were he to lose his referendum.

Earlier this year, students at the Blavatnik School of Government (University of Oxford) also conducted a Brexit simulation:

In our simulation, British negotiators successfully deployed “divide and conquer” tactics, particularly when individual member states became sympathetic to the UK’s domestic constraints and frustrated with the slow pace of talks. Michel Barnier and the European Commission were at their most effective when they framed issues through the indivisibility of the “four freedoms”. However, when it became apparent member states were willing to forgo freedom of movement, EU leverage was sharply diminished.

The participants in our simulation recognised the close economic relationship between the EU and the UK. On finance and the City, discussions centred on how to make “equivalence” work post-Brexit, with some creative proposals to sidestep the ECJ. However, in trade the UK quickly announced its decision to step out of both the Single Market and the Customs Union, leaving detailed negotiations for a future FTA until after Brexit.

Despite this mutual reliance, the Brexit talks might still shift to a game in which the two players seek to inflict pain on one another. In part this is because preserving the EU is seen to require a demonstration that leaving the club comes at a significant economic price, even though this would leave both worse off than under the status quo.

You can find additional discussion of classroom simulation of Brexit negotiations at the Active Learning in Political Science blog.

PAXsims

NASAGA (the North American Simulation and Gaming Association) has podcasts! The latest edition by Sonya and Nicholas Wolfram explores “designed and emergent narrative” in game design.

PAXsims

Following the US decision to respond to Syrian chemical weapon use at Khan Shaykhun with a punitive strike on April 7 against a Syrian air base, the always-interesting Red Team Journal used the event to highlight the importance of “Asking the Right Questions (Before and After).” In doing so, they noted the potential contribution of red teaming methodologies.

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You’ll find their full discussion here.

PAXsims

At Small Wars Journal, Spencer B. Meredith III recently discussed “Reclaiming Strategic Initiative in the Not-So-Gray Zone: Winning Big Conflicts Inside Small Ones.” In the article he has some very positive things to say about the value of wargames and other simulations:

The first example occurred during a recent US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Senior Leader Seminar looking at competition short of armed conflict. Framed as a wargame, this seminar simulated several scenarios where traditional power politics and violent extremism collided. Participants were asked to dig deeply into the underlying causes of threats, and how perceptions shape everything from core interests to immediate grievances. Yet the event did much more than explain why stability is so elusive, and peace even more so. It also raised several key areas where the United States and its partner nations can mutually support each other.

One centrally important area is in building responsive governance. The notion rests on several claims, foremost that nations and the governments that govern them need not homogenize their interests, to say nothing of values, in order to cooperate. This pragmatism stands in contrast to nearly three decades of idealistic foreign policy that claimed the universality of certain collective goods, but which really defined them along a US-centric vision of what they needed to look like, even when the substance was foreign to the nations being “helped”. This idealistic vision took many forms, from economic liberalization that forced developing markets open through IMF austerity measures; to military imposition of democracy in places that had neither centralized governance capacity, nor the social consensus to build it; to more recent social reengineering to fit a narrow vision of Western pluralism. All have run headlong into local values, competing national interests, and ultimately, contending visions of what the global order should look like and what leadership among peer and near-peer rivals can realistically be.

Responsive governance also requires that states establish and defend parameters for public debate. Yet like pragmatism, this does not have to mean democracy in any particular form. NATO partner nations have a range of electoral systems that speak to a variety of cultural, historical, and normative differences about who should govern, how, and under what constraints. By relying on the core concept of responsivity, rather than the vastly over-used “democracy”, the analytical frameworks expressed in the USSOCOM event have traction within solid scholarly research, and equally important, with buy-in from partner nations on whom the United States will continue to rely and give support.

There is particular praise for a series of simulations designed and run by the ICONS Project:

Administered for the Joint Staff SMA program, the University of Maryland runs a series of simulations designed to provide short, sharp scenarios that evolve over multiple iterations. Harnessing real-world events and massaging them into realistic near-term future situations, the ICONS project (International Communication & Negotiation Simulations) brings together subject matter experts to play various roles in real-time, web-based engagements. Several lessons emerge from the simulations. The most important are the complexity of the problems each party faces, and the battle for strategic initiative as more ebb and flow than a sole power defending against all comers. These perspectives provide vital reminders for both academia and practitioners with our respective checklists for analyzing the “facts on the ground”. In addition, the potency for non-state spoilers remains incredibly high, higher than a cursory glance of the configuration of forces would otherwise reveal. Much like small parties in coalition political systems that can swing the balance of power either way, non-state proxies can serve as force multipliers for larger states, as much as independent agents seeking their own highest good at the expense of others. The ICONS simulations highlight these challenges, while providing avenues for practical courses of action for the United States and its partners of concern.

I don’t doubt the value of ICONS simulations—they’re excellent. However I’ll admit to a certain degree of cynicism about the conceptual utility of “grey zones”—that messy area, short of full-scale armed conflict, where politics, diplomacy, social and economic economic forces, covert action, and violence interact. Specifically:

  1. It has always been thus. Pretty much the entire history of European colonial expansion involved all that stuff, for example. Supposed civil society actors (the Royal Geographical Society) working in hand with national governments! Foreign “volunteer” troops in local wars! Bribery! Subsidies for friendly potentates and warlords! Piracy! Local alliances! Powerful social and economic forces! Trade agreements as an instrument of national power! It’s all so new.
  2. The notion of grey zones risks becoming the self-licking ice cream cone of national security discourse, where people eagerly frame things as “grey zone” aggression when they actually have far more prosaic explanations. This was certainly one of the accidental findings of last year’s Atlantic Council simulation on conflict in the Gulf.
  3. The rest of us call this “political science.”
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Russian “little green men” caught in the act of gray/grey zone conflict Crimea? No, this is the British East India Company in Madras. Their British officers and advisors declined to be painted, citing operational security.

PAXsims

 

McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament 2017

One of the challenges with using a boardgame in the classroom is how to accommodate a large number of players. AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis game is no different in this respect. It is designed for 4 players, and if players double or triple up on each team, you can fit 8-12 in a game. However if your class is larger, you have to find another approach: for example, running multiple games in parallel (as we have done for the Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Programme), or running one game with a new group of students assuming the player roles each turn (as has been done at the University of New South Wales).

My own POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course at McGill has around one hundred students in it, and the approach I have used is to conduct an after-school AFTERSHOCK tournament, with players competing to secure the highest group (Relief Points) and individual team (Operations Points) scores for bonus marks. This is fairly easy to do in POLI 450, since 10% of the course grade is based on class participation, a requirement that students can fulfill by taking part in online discussions, attending relevant campus lectures, taking part in McMUN (McGill model UN)—or participating in games like AFTERSHOCK.

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Members of an NGO team, upon realizing that they had forgotten to assign staff to an important task.

 

This year the games ran in the evening, taking about 2.5 hours (15 minutes rules briefing, a 2 hour times game, and 15+ minutes of debrief/discussion). Within a matter of hours of me announcing the tournament, four teams of 8 students had formed, representing about a third of the class. Indeed, I would have had one or two more teams if I had been willing to run more than four games. It should be noted that 23 of the 32 players were female, further evidence—as if any were needed—that women are just as happy to play conflict,  policy, or crisis games if the environment is right.

In all four games the At-Risk cards in each district were placed in a pre-arranged order, as were the cards in the Event deck. While this did not eliminate all random variation across the games (since Coordination cards cannot be prearranged and must be randomly drawn), it eliminated much of it and assured a more-or-less level playing field whereby each group was facing a similar degree of challenge. It also allowed me to make certain that particular cards or effects would make an appearance in the game, so that they could be used as teachable moments.

The scores across the four games are shown below. The shade of green indicates how well each group or team did. In one of the games (#1) the players won quite comfortably, in one they lost fairly substantially (#4), and in two others they only just came out ahead in the closing stages of the game (#2, #3). This is a fairly typical distribution of outcomes. I probably could have made the games a little harder—although perhaps this means everyone had been listening to my class lectures on the importance of humanitarian coordination.

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The tournament format went well, and I will certainly be using a similar format again next year. The only possible drawback was spending four evenings on campus outside classroom hours, running games—but the participants were so enthusiastic and engaged that I frankly had a lot of fun doing it!

“Blue Mountain” Army ROTC conducts training at US Army War College

The following item has been contributed by Malcolm D. Parrish, FSR III/VBS3 – Warfighter FOCUS, Tapestry Solutions. Photos by SSG Joshua Balog.


 

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On 23 February 2017, the US Army War College hosted the “Blue Mountain” Army ROTC battalion for training using the Virtual Battlespace 3 (VBS3) simulation tool. The Blue Mountain Battalion is headquartered at Dickinson College in Carlisle Pennsylvania. The cadet trainees for this exercise were Junior (MS-3’s) students from Dickinson College, Gettysburg College, Millersville University, and Penn State Harrisburg. The coordination with the Blue Mountain Battalion began in December when LTC Joseph L. Wyszynski, the Dickinson Professor of Military Science, attended a demonstration of VBS3 in the Strategic Simulations Division (SSD) computer lab. After the demonstration, LTC Wyszynski agreed that the VBS3 simulation could enhance the training of the cadets and agreed on further collaboration with the Army War College.

BM2.pngThe SSD is part of the Center for Strategic Leadership (CSL) at the Army War College. The CSL and SSD normally focus on strategic-level wargames, educating senior military and civilian leaders. However, over a year ago SSD began to formulate new ways to incorporate simulations and wargames into classrooms at the Army War College. One of the ideas included using VBS3 as a tool to capture realistic video that would be included into scenarios for the students. An unseen benefit of this was the opportunity to partner with the Blue Mountain Battalion as VBS3 was originally developed, not for video creation, but as a flexible simulation training solution for tactical-level scenario training.

BM3.pngIn the 23 February training event, 13 cadets under the leadership of CPT Edward Park (Assistant Professor of Military Science) conducted squad-level training utilizing VBS3 to further develop skills required to complete the US Army Cadet Command’s Leader Development and Assessment Course (LDAC) this summer at Ft Knox, Kentucky. The LDAC training is the most important training event for an Army ROTC cadet or National Guard Officer Candidate according to Cadet Command.

The training began at 6:30 AM with a train-up session that allowed the Cadets to learn the “buttonology” of the VBS3 system before conducting their first virtual battle drill- “react to an ambush (near)”. During the rest of the morning training session, the Cadets were able to execute this battle drill twice – with marked improvement after each attempt.

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One of the benefits of training with VBS3 is the cadet’s ability to conduct training on the same simulated terrain that they will use during LDAC. Every aspect of the terrain, elevation, vegetation, man-made objects to include the sounds of birds and mosquitoes are replicated. “It’s the next best thing to live training” commented COL Bill Jones, Director of the SSD. Jones went on to say “… nothing will ever replace live training. What this type of exercise allows you to do, is enter a live training event at a higher level of proficiency”.

During live training, Cadre control most of the variables – friendly, neutral, and enemy. This includes adversaries’ reaction and casualty adjudication. In VBS3, artificial intelligence within the simulation replicates those controls. This includes the possibility of wounds and even death for a cadet. Just as in actual combat, in the VBS3 simulation, “the enemy gets a vote”.

Dwayne Parrish

Reflections on (another) McGill megagame

Last year (in)famous megagame designer Jim Wallman made a trip to frozen Montréal to run New World Order 2035 at McGill University, with some one hundred or so players taking part. It was a big success.

Last week Jim made a return visit for War in Binni, this year’s McGill megagame. Again, approximately one hundred persons participated in the day-long event, most of them McGill students. The event was cosponsored by PAXsims, the International Relations Students’ Association of McGill (IRSAM), and the McGill Political Science Students’ Association (PSSA).

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War in Binni has been run several times before elsewhere, notably at last year’s Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London. The theme of a civil war in a fictional country in West Africa was of particular interest to students, including those in my POLI 450 and POLI 650 peacebuilding courses. We’ll be running our own even larger, week-long Brynania civil war simulation later in the term. However, unlike the Connections/KCL version, the game at McGill included a significant “weird science” component, with a touch of both Lovecraft and Indiana Jones. The event was held in excellent space New Residence Hall, including a large ballroom, two conference rooms, a foyer (and cloakroom), an integrated audio and data projectors. The staff were helpful as ever.

I should also note that almost half (41%) of our our participants were women—and, moreover, they all paid to participate. This was similar to last year. Those who argue that women are somehow uninterested in political-military gaming clearly have no idea what they are talking about.


We started off with a basic orientation to the game from Jim. Rules and maps had been posted online before the game, and individual role briefings had been emailed to all players about a week beforehand.

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Action at the map table, as the Clewgists celebrate a victory.

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Map Control (me), pointing.

While the government, various rebel groups, and regional actors vied for territory and influence, shady international arms dealers sold weapons to the highest bidder, the UN Security Council met in emergency sessions, and humanitarian aid workers struggled to cope with a growing flood of refugees.

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The United Nations Security Council meets.

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Heavy fighting takes a heavy toll on civilians, forcing many to flee.

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The Clewgists mourn the destruction of their sacred grove by a rival militia.

Three archaeological digs were also at work in the war-torn country. These soon uncovered increasingly unusual findings. These included evidence of alien technology, and various occult items with mysterious powers.

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An archaeologist briefs the French ambassador.

Little did the players know that, hidden among the participants were a small group of secret cultists. This group managed to obtain key objects from the digs, perform a dark ritual, and summon an Elder God of unspeakable power. The huge creature appeared atop Mount Clewg, and began to rampage through the country, destroying everything in its path.

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An extradimensional creature appears atop Mount Clewg.

The international community responded with a barrage of cruise missile attacks and bombing strikes, but these did minimal damage. Researchers at McGill University utilized one of their archaeological finds to slow the thing’s progress. Regional powers revealed that they had all been secretly researching WMD, and unleashed chemical weapons and radiological missiles. However it was the Kingdom of Gao, in alliance with Christian and Muslim rebel groups and the local Clewgist tribal insurgents, that inflicted the most damage, severely damaging the creature with an alien death ray before a suicidal charge by the Clewgists destroyed the evil abomination.

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Militias (and Gao) unite to destroy the terror.

As all this was happening, the government of Binni—afflicted by plummeting domestic political support and the assassination of the President—finally agreed on peace terms with the main opposition alliance. Peace had come… but at what cost? And what does the future hold for Binni?


Overall I thought that Binni went even better than NWO 2035. There were, perhaps, several reasons for this.

First, everyone seemed to internalize their roles very quickly, and game play was generally credible and “realistic” (or as realistic as it can be in a game featuring alien technology and an Elder God).

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The Global (later, Galactic) News Network at work.

Second, our Global News Network team did a terrific job of getting information out to the players. The GNN website contained a few in-depth stories, most of which had been written in advance by the Control team to be released during the initial game turns.  Most news was carried on the GNN Twitter feed. Special “breaking news” announcements were made over the audio system, sometimes only a few seconds after the event had occurred. The GNN team also did an excellent job of investigative reporting, using covert reporters and in-country teams to considerable effect. They resisted the temptation to report rumours as facts, or believe or print everything they were told.

I know from previous large games how important the media role is. It also requires players who understand their importance in the game process (acting, in some senses, as an element of the Control team), and enjoy acting as journalists: verifying, investigating, uncover secrets, and breaking important stories.

Third, War in Binni had fewer rules than NWO 2035, and game systems were generally more simple and straight-forward. This allowed players to focus on role-playing and interaction rather than understanding rules, and facilitated the sort of creative, emergent gameplay that is at the heart of a successful megagame.

We’re already thinking ahead to next year’s game…

AFTERSHOCK at Pennsylvania State University

The following report on a recent game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game at Pennsylvania State University is provided by Nick LaLone.


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For the past two semesters, I have had the opportunity to run AFTERSHOCK for a crisis informatics course here at Pennsylvania State University’s Information Sciences and Technology program. The IST program is not international relations, political science, or social science focused in any way. Instead, this class focuses on the use of information and communication technologies and how those ICTs support crisis management. To that end, the use of AFTERSHOCK was meant to offer these students a glimpse at the various bottlenecks and pitfalls that crisis responders must deal with as a response evolves.

Through that lens, we gathered these 20 students in a conference room and sat them down to play – five students to a team. I began by explaining the goal of the game, the major players, their motivations, and ended with the sequence of a turn. Given that explanation, play began. In total, the room learned how to play the game in less than 30 minutes.

The following caveats should be noted:

  1. The players were told that if they were not participating in the cluster that they could not communicate with the other teams. This was done by placing them inside another room if they were not there. Sadly, no players actually did this.
  2. I stacked the deck for the first turn. The cards I chose were:
    • Landslides – a card that allowed me to talk about the Frontier.
    • Things Change – a card that allowed me to talk about Needs Assessments.
    • Infrastructure Breakdown, which allowed me to talk about the difference between supplies and infrastructure.
  3. The first turn ended with “Trying Times.” This card resolves the highest risk card on the board. I suggested throughout the first 3 turns that players try to meet needs according to the number of people listed on the card and the number of relief points that card represented. My hope was that this would generate some competition and the students would prioritize rescuing according to “big numbers.”

Over the course of 2 hours, we played through 4 turns or through 2 weeks of response efforts. While it was not a complete game, it was enough to see the game take shape and the players start to recognize their roles.

At the beginning of the game, the 4 representative teams – the host country, the humanitarian coalition (HADR-TF), the United Nations, and the Non-Government Organizations – were pretty much all at the same place in terms of the knowledge of the game and the knowledge of what they needed to do. This quickly changed as the first turn ended. By the second turn, the media played a significant role within the game. In AFTERSHOCK the media begin with their cameras pointed at the administrative district or District 1. However, the Infrastructure Breakdown card allowed the players to move the media. The United Nations decided to move the media to a place that benefited them and only them – to district 4 or the middle class areas. The media would remain here for the rest of the game. On their first turn, the United Nations players asked,

“So you get points if the media is watching but what happens if they aren’t there and you save all those people?”

To which we replied,

“You know that you did a fantastic job saving all those people! The response effort as a whole becomes more stable.”

To that answer, the UN and NGO player began to concentrate on “Media Outreach.” The UN did this by distributing teams and resources wherever the media was in addition to maintaining a presence within the Media Outreach portion of the cluster. The NGO player, who was stuck without any ability to import resources due to few infrastructure being placed at the airport or dock until turn 3, sat inside the “Media Outreach” box giving themselves points for the duration of the game. It was not until week 2 – 3 turns into the game – that the NGOs began to send resources out into the field. Instead, they concentrated on placing individuals inside the “Rescue” boxes on the districts. This way, the NGOs would be represented should the media move. This tactic worked well for them as at the end of the game, the NGO was well ahead of everyone else in terms of Operations Points.

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At the end of the game, we asked the room what they thought of the game. Overall, they liked what they played. They felt that the tensions were realistic even if the act of what they were doing was not. They felt a little distressed that they began to think about what they were doing in terms of points. The selfishness of what they were doing left them quite shocked. From my perspective as a facilitator, they were noticing that their role as leaders of a particular organization was clouding their ideas about what it was that they were doing. Along those lines, I didn’t start using the expansion cards until Week 2. I have a feeling if I had started using them at the beginning of the game, things would have been very different as the expansion cards concentrate on empathy and vulnerability instead of simply numbers.

Along with that selfishness, they also notice that they didn’t speak to other teams. Each turn, the active player would walk up to the game board to discuss their move. When each team was at the table discussing their possibilities, the other teams whispered among themselves what they’d like to do. Often, they ignored most of what the active player said.

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As facilitator, I tried to get them to work more together but it only really occurred once when the Carana player drew the Coordination Card that allowed them to resolve an event at the end of their turn. The Carana group fared the worst out of all of the players as they were the target of Locally Engaged Staff as well as inundated with mostly Shelter for the duration of the game. At one point, they stood at the front of the table looking at the UN and the NGOs in the Media Outreach box and said something to the effect of,

“You know, we should put someone there to force them to actually play the game.”

The role of the media in this game influenced what the players did far more than any game I have played, solo, team-based, or with my wife. That it came to matter for a room full of students in a technology-based course was not surprising.

PaxSims concentrates on wargame and simulation use within those disciplines that concern themselves with conflict, peacebuilding, and development. However, there is incredible opportunity outside those realms with AFTERSHOCK Rex’s game a unique opportunity for teaching and learning. The tensions, the randomized interaction between the groups, and multi-dimensional thought processes the game requires will loosen up that undergraduate fear of speaking aloud. AFTERSHOCK will help your students see unique perspectives that cannot be taught or learned in a book.

Nick LaLone 

Wikistrat: Turkey’s Intervention in the Syrian Civil War

In April 2016 Wikistrat completed two role-playing simulations that explored the dynamics of Turkish intervention in the Syrian civil war:

140 analysts from Wikistrat’s global community of 2,200 recently wargamed a scenario in which Turkey invades northern Syria to establish a buffer zone in the country’s Kurdish region.

The analysts were divided across two mirrored groups (Alpha and Bravo) which had seven teams of ten analysts each, playing Russia, Assad loyalists in Syria, Turkey, the Kurds, ISIS, anti-Damascus and Western-backed rebels, as well as Iran and its proxies.

The two groups progressed simultaneously from the same starting scenario. But the divergent courses they took revealed key insights into some of the main actors and dynamics in the Syrian Civil War.

Key Findings

  • In the event of a Turkish intervention in Syria, providing Turkish forces stayed within a ten-kilometer buffer zone and avoided direct confrontation with Russia, they would likely not face significant pressure to withdraw — and could even gain international support if they were able to stabilize the border and slow the flow of refugees to Europe.
  • Assad has an interest in encouraging Russian and Kurdish coordination in Kurdish-held areas in order to free resources to fight anti-Assad rebels in the north.
  • Anti-Assad rebels are likely to suffer greatly in the face of escalating tensions, as their backers (e.g., the U.S. and Turkey) will be hesitant to increase the risk of hostilities with Russia by providing them with significant support.
  • The potential for NATO involvement in Syria will likely constrain Turkish, U.S. and European actors far more than Russia.
  • If Russia manages to keep its focus on ISIS while checking Turkey, it could gain significant international public opinion support which could be leveraged on behalf of Assad.
  • ISIS aggression was a major determinant regarding the direction and intensity of both games. However, ISIS aggression was more likely to result in sustained victory if the focus was on insurgent warfare in Syria (e.g., an attack on Russian forces within Syria) rather than terrorist attacks abroad (e.g., an attack against Russia itself).

The findings are interesting to compare with actual developments since the analysis was undertaken, notably the launching of Operation Euphrates Shield in August against ISIS and even more so the PYD/YPG (Syrian Kurds, and their allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces), and recent Russian-Turkish-Iranian cooperation on a ceasefire and proposed Syrian peace negotiations.

You’ll find the full report at the Wikistrat website. For more on their role-play methodologies, see here.

h/t Shay Hershkovitz

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