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Category Archives: simulation and game reports

Clade X pandemic simulation

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In The New Yorker, Nicola Twilley reports on a pandemic simulation conducted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security last month:

I was in the ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, D.C., when the worst pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu broke out. On cable news, there were reports of four hundred confirmed cases, mostly clustered in Frankfurt, Germany, but with infected individuals reported as far afield as Tokyo, Kabul, and Caracas. Brow furrowed, eyes widened, the anchorwoman’s tone was urgent as she described the spread of a new type of parainfluenza virus, called Clade X. Transmitted through inhalation, it left the infected contagious but otherwise unaffected for up to week before killing more than ten per cent of its victims.

In the ballroom with me, seated around a U-shaped table under glittering chandeliers, were ten senior political figures, an ad-hoc working group convened at the President’s request. The situation looked bad. At Ramstein Air Base, in southwest Germany, three U.S. service members were critically ill, and three infected Venezuelans warned that the outbreak there was much worse than authorities were admitting. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vaccine would likely take more than a year to develop. Meanwhile, Australia, China, and South Africa had already imposed travel restrictions on flights from Germany and Venezuela. A bipartisan group of senators was calling for a similar travel ban; a recent poll had suggested that sixty-five per cent of the public supported them. “What should our priorities be?” the national-security adviser asked.

Clade X turned out to be an engineered bioweapon, combining the virulence of Nipah virus with parainfluenza’s ease of transmission. It had been intentionally released by A Brighter Dawn, a fictitious group modelled on the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out the sarin-gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system, in 1995. A Brighter Dawn’s stated goal was to reduce the world’s population to pre-industrial levels. By the end of the day, which represented twenty months in the simulation, they had managed to kill a perfectly respectable hundred and fifty million people….

Her account of the simulation highlights the way in which technocratic responses to the pandemic threat ran headlong into popular attitudes, social media rumours, and misconceptions, and the resulting politics of it all. She also notes some of the complications created by unclear lines of responsibility and leadership, a federal political system, and—in the US case—a private healthcare system that may emphasize profit margin over collective response to a major national and international health emergency. Finally, the simulation pointed to planning and preparations that could be undertaken now to lessen the impact of such an event in the future, were it ever to occur.

A much fuller account of the scenario is available at the John Hopkins School of Public Health’s Global Health Now website.

You can find additional reports on the Clade X simulation here too:

h/t Brian Philips

 

Matrix games for student learning at the US Army War College

The following article was contributed to PAXsims by Lieutenant Colonel Joe Chretien and Major Abe Goepfert of the Strategic Simulations Division (SSD), Center for Strategic Leadership, US Army War College. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.


 

Matrix Games at the US Army War College

At the US Army War College (USAWC), the use of matrix games falls into three categories. The first category is lesson reinforcement.  In this category, the goal is to reinforce the key concepts of historical, current, or future potential conflicts.  As an example, the USAWC resident course ran four simultaneous games for the European Region Study Program (RSP) to explore a future Baltic scenario based on a NATO isolation of Kaliningrad.

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Figure 1: DDE SCS poster.

The second category is games for familiarization.  Familiarization can include a region, actor, situation, or problem.  A great example of a familiarization game was conducted at the University of Richmond in April 2017.  The USAWC Strategic Simulations Division (SSD) ran a Syrian-based matrix game where five teams split into multiple factions. In the University of Richmond game, there were only four teams.  However, each team consisted of multiple nations, organizations, or factions (15 individual team entities).  Each student (15) received a role on a team and had to create their own narratives for their individual piece of the team.  The narrative had to include a summary of who they were, who they aligned with, who they could not align with, and their goals and objectives. Interestingly, one of the teams disassociated itself from one of its own factions (represented by a student) as a show of faith to one of the major powers in the area.

The last category of a USAWC matrix game is a capstone, or course-culminating, event.  The culminating matrix game takes the USAWC year-long program of study and uses a matrix-type game to evaluate the progress of each individual student.  This article will focus on the culminating game conducted for the Department of Distant Education (DDE), second-year resident course (SRC) Course in July 2017 (Figure 1, DDE SCS poster).

The Start of Something Big

A matrix game is a low-overhead (low cost/easy setup), facilitated, multi-player, role-playing game. Games are argument-based. Players weigh arguments and counter-arguments then propose an action. Success or failure of that action depends, primarily, on the strength of a player’s argument. The use of dice in the game introduces the elements of risk.

The material, time, and personnel required to run a matrix game is relatively low compared to a large, constructive simulation exercise. Matrix Games only require a written scenario with analog map and counters for execution. Play requires a facilitator, a subject matter expert, and 4-6 players or 4-6 teamsof players.  A play session typically lasts 2-3 hours, but playing time can be tailored to meet learning outcomes (LO).

Matrix-type games are easy to learn and quick to play. Of particular value to faculty, matrix-type games can be played without constraints and with an open-ended format.  Some constraints could include a scripted non-thinking opposition, limited actions for teams, or even preordained results.  An open-ended format allows players to explore any action if it can be tied to team objectives or goals.  It also allows the gameplay to dictate the scenario as it moves forward. Through two years of using the matrix model for experiential learning, SSD staff have observed that participants are always fully engaged and retain more information than through regular seminar-based instruction. The matrix game format forces participants to articulate actions or arguments orally while also having to make decisions more quickly than normal.

It was because of their proven value as an experiential learning tool that, in October of 2016, faculty from the (DDE), U.S. Army War College approached members of the college’s Strategic Simulation Division (SSD), with the idea of using a matrix game as a culminating exercise for the DDE second-year resident course (SRC), Class of 2017. The SRC consisted of 23 seminars comprised of over 250 senior US military officers, Department of Defense Civilians, and international military officers that spent two weeks of residency at Carlisle, PA prior to graduation.  The DDE faculty were looking for a capstone exercise that tied in all the lessons learned and had the students demonstrate knowledge of the elements of national power, synthesize information, and develop and deliver compelling oral arguments.  A matrix game is the perfect tool, and SSD took on the task of developing and delivering that learning event.

The Greatest Number of Matrix Games Played, at One Location, in a Single Day

The initial discussion, more of a “back of a napkin” analysis of requirements, included three initial courses of action (COA) for the exercise.  The three COAs were:

  1. Mega Game – One large matrix game that includes all 23 seminars in the same game.
  2. Discreet Game (A) – 23 seminars playing their own individual games on the same day.
  3. Discreet Game (B) – 12 seminars playing on day 1; the remaining 11 seminars playing on day 2.

A brief description and analysis of the COAs follow:

  • COA 1: The least resource intensive and the COA that provides the least amount of individual student interaction. Each student would be assigned a role within a select team (i.e. a student on the Chinese team could be assigned as the economic advisor) and would only provide arguments if the action required an argument from that specific role.  The danger in games this large is that some of the participants provide no input to the game.  As a result, those students would not have had the same learning experience as others and could receive a poor evaluation.
  • COA 2: The most resource intensive; would require twenty-three (23) facilitators in separate rooms, as well as twenty-three (23) copies of the game. During concept development and initial planning, SSD had two trained Matrix Game facilitators and DDE had none.  In retrospect, DDE would not be able to provide any facilitators for the game anyway because the faculty would be observing the student interactions. However, this COA had the potential to provide each seminar a discreet game that would keep the teams to 2-3 players each.  Therefore, each student could participate actively in the game while being monitored by their faculty instructor (FI).
  • COA 3: Moderately resource intensive and would require only twelve (12) facilitators and rooms, as well as twelve (12) copies of the game.For CSL, this was more advantageous because of limited resources available for the game.

DDE faculty selected COA 2 because they did not have the scheduling flexibility to break the exercise into two days.  To alleviate some resource concerns, Root Hall, the main academic building at Carlisle Barracks, opened 11 seminar rooms for the execution portion of the exercise.

Wargame Development

SSD’s formal role was to develop and execute a South China Sea (SCS) Wargame during the Second Resident Course (SRC) 21 July 2017 as a capstone event for the two-year Distance Education Program (DEP). The wargame’s purpose was to exercise and assess the students’ ability to take a strategic approach to solving complex problems in a South China Sea setting.  The standards were that the students use the South China Sea Matrix Game to articulate oral arguments for furthering the goals and objectives of their assigned country team. The students would also have to demonstrate knowledge and synthesize elements of national power and operational design learned during their 2-years of instruction. Finally, during this game, students would practice creative and critical thinking while demonstrating negotiation skills at the strategic level in accordance with national interests and goals.

Army simulations officers are trained to tease out requirements before concluding how a “game” should look and feel. Form will follow function – meaning that game design is based on desired learning outcomes.   The game, theoretically, will provide the tool for the faculty to evaluate the learning based on the LOs.

For the purposes of the SRC culminating exercise, three primary and one secondary LO were identified.  The first primary LO was to apply strategic and operational art to develop strategies and plans that employ the military instrument of power in pursuit of national policy aims.  The second primary LO was to think critically and creatively in addressing national security issues at the strategic level.  The last primary LO was to communicate clearly, persuasively, and candidly.  The secondary LO was to demonstrate as a proof of concept the viability for future DDE use of this wargame method. With the COA chosen and LOs well defined, SSD officially accepted the request and began formal planning.

Planning the Event

In the US Army, during a normal planning process, lead agencies/ organizations follow a standardized Joint Exercise Life Cycle (JELC) per TRADOC Regulation 71-20, Concept Development, Capabilities Determination, and Capabilities Integration that outlines an in-depth timeline that begins 180 days prior to the execution of a required event (Figure 2, DDE SCS JELC). For this event, SSD had the entire 180 days to conduct planning and coordination that included hosting multiple conferences, meeting critical milestones, conducting planning-team deep-dives with the DDE operations team, setting up the venue, conducting rehearsals, and executing the event. In this particular planning cycle, SSD conducted three planning conferences with their DDE counterparts and CSL support personnel, Additionally, multiple progress meetings were conducted with the U.S. Army War College Commandant, Deputy Commandant, and the director of CSL.

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Figure 2: DDE SCS JELC.

As with every planned event, there were critical milestones that enabled the planning to move forward.  The first milestone was to produce a South China Sea Matrix game that was capable of meeting each of the three primary learning outcomes.  The six main parts of a Matrix game are the scenario, teams, team narratives, map, special rules, and game pieces.   Slightly ahead of schedule, all elements of the matrix game were agreed upon and a copy of the game was created and used for playtesting.  The initial playtest, internal to SSD and DDE, met all three LOs and validated the matrix game as the proper tool.  The playtest also led to some minor changes to the scenario, map, gameplay, and counters. More playtesting was conducted, particularly with Harrisburg University and the National Defense University (NDU).

The second milestone was to train, at a minimum, twenty-three facilitators.  The facilitator training took place over two months at various locations.  The first training session was conducted at Harrisburg University (HU).  SSD trained three facilitators at the Harrisburg University main campus. Two of those three served as official facilitators during the wargame.  This training also served as a playtest event. All the game’s final changes resulted from finally playing the game with a mix of faculty (HU), students (HU), and trained facilitators (SSD).

The training at NDU provided the opportunity for wargame experts to play and to train on the game. Of the more than ten NDU players in the game, six trained as facilitators and subsequently supported the DDE event.

The final training session took place at the Army War College three days before the event. SSD set up a round robin training program and successfully trained sixteen more facilitators.  In total, SSD trained over 25 facilitators for the event to allow for the eventuality of someone not being able to participate on game day (which happened).

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Figure 3: DDE SCS map.

The third milestone was to create “How to Play Matrix Games” videos.  This task included writing scripts, getting actors (SSD interns), coordinating with the AWC audiovisual team, reserving a room, filming the videos, and providing assistance for the editing of the videos.  This task had to be completed in time for the DDE Class of 2017 to watch the videos before execution of the wargame.  The videos were completed ahead of schedule and were used for two other SSD supported events.

The fourth, and last, milestone was to build twenty-three South China Sea Matrix games.  This was very labor-intensive and took a full week to complete.  Without the help of four interns, this milestone could have required much more time from the SSD team and could have thrown the timeline off.  Each South China Sea matrix game consisted of the following:

  1. Large 35’x45’ map of the South China Sea (Figure 3, DDE SCS Map).
  2. Team folders (five player teams and a control team) that included scenario, individualized team narratives, matrix “how to” sheets, and mini-maps.
  3. Counters: Each packet included “chits” or “counters” that represented a national element of power (Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic).  The players used the counters to mark spots on the map where an action took place.
  4. Supplies:  Each team received a pen, note pad, and post it notes pads to capture notes, to plan actions, and to communicate with other teams.
  5. Other items:Each player received a country-team name tag to provide visual delineation of team composition.  Each facilitator and SME had nametags to differentiate themselves from the students.  Additionally, SSD created seminar tags that hung on individual game doors, Collins Hall and Root Hall room diagram posters, and agenda posters.

 

Rehearsal, Training, and Cross-coordinated Wargame Events 

The key to successful execution is nearly always dependent on the work put in prior to execution.  The week prior to execution was packed with walkthroughs, rehearsals, facilitation training, and wargame support for DDE SRC electives. Two SRC electives used board games/ Matrix games as the main tool to execute their lesson plans.  One of the electives used a South China Sea board game where students role-played one of six teams to meet goals or objectives based on a set scenario.  While this game did not have the same mechanics of a matrix game, it did introduce the students to the South China Sea region and forced them into negotiations. The second senior seminar used a matrix game and an SSD developed Kaliningrad scenario.

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Figure 4: Panel Discussion>

In addition to the above events, CSL sponsored a wargame panel featuring four highly experienced wargame professionals who discussed “innovative ways to include wargames in the classroom.”  At the end of the wargame panel, the experts led participants through some wargames currently used at their institutions. (Figure 4, Panel Discussion).

Conclusion

A matrix-type game is not a suitable tool to meet all learning outcomes.  Matrix game observations and outputs are qualitative versus quantitative, and that makes it hard to gauge results.  Matrix games are also highly dependent on the skill of the facilitator for success. It is not the tool, rather matrix-type games are tool for faculty to use to meet learning outcomes.

From a planning and execution standpoint, this event was very successful. At the end of the wargame, over 300 students had received more than six-hours of hands-on experiential training and evaluation.  The planning conducted between SSD and DDE was very detailed, but leadership was not swamped with minutia.  Wargame sponsors do not always provide enough time to plan for the event. DDE, however, came to SSD with enough lead time so that the full JELC timeline was available to plan, to prepare, and to execute the event. Additionally, AWC, CSL, and DDE fully supported the event and provided resources to ensure its success.  This included the funding of facilitators and subject matter experts from outside organization.  Of course, every wargame or large event has areas that are very successful and areas that need refinement.  As successful as this game was, lessons were learned and have been applied to games used in resident courses at the Army War College.

Lieutenant Colonel Joe Chretien
Major Abe Goepfert

 

Using MaGCK to evaluate tactical challenges

The following article was written for PAXsims by Paul Strong, Stuart Vagg, Richard Perkins, and Major Tom Mouat. It is published under public release identifier DSTL/PUB108778.


 

Since the release of MaGCK (including the Matrix Game Construction Kit and associated resources)it has been used to support a range of analytical games at the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, including the evaluation of strategic scenarios, tactical vignettes, and projects looking at thematic challenges.

The strength of  the MaGCK resource pack pack lies in the discussions created by the matrix game process. Unlike other approaches, disagreements during MaGCK games often unlock deeper insights and usually facilitate the overall narrative. On numerous occasions, we found that the process highlighted potential emergent trends far earlier than we would expect when using more conventional approaches. The process is also highly flexible and the associated materials can easily be adapted to fit a wide range of scenarios and challenges. A major selling point was that it only required limited time, resources, and space to design and set up a series of games. In all of the studies where the process was utilised, we have found that the narrative-based exploratory gameplay that MaGCK enables can be used to highlight the sort of contextualised evidence that is sometimes difficult to obtain in a conventional structured wargame or a purely discussion-based event.

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MaGCK in use at an earlier matrix game design session at Dstl.

Players in a matrix game make decisions as if they are in the roles specified in the scenario. This variant of ‘role-playing’ creates context-relevant dynamic interactions between both allies and adversaries and can be used to explore the wider implications of player decisions. The process rewards players who frame and articulate both arguments and counter-arguments to achieve their objectives (a combination of their proposed action and the intended result) in the context of the role they are playing. These arguments are then used as the basis for an adjudication process based upon the quality of the claims made by the players that contributed to the discussion. The process is a very effective approach for exploring human factors in political and strategic decision-making.

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Matrix gaming tactical challenges.

The basic matrix game process in a two faction game (each faction including several players) would be as follows: The Overall Mission Narrative sets the conditions for each Narrative Challenge. The Blue player outlines their Intent – i.e. how they will overcome or exploit the situation (outlining the general arguments that support their intent) and the Effect they hope to create. This is considered by the adjudicator and, if not countered by Red, may be approved without further consideration. If the adjudicator believes that these arguments need to be explored further (or Red claims they can be countered) the Matrix approach is used. If this occurs, the Blue Player sets out a number of concise Arguments that show that their approach will achieve the objectives set out in their intent. Red then sets out a number of counter-arguments (both using their own capabilities and by highlighting real-world problems that might emerge) that provide reasons why Blue’s intent will fail. All other attendees are also encouraged to suggest either positive or negative factors, and to note any contextual issues that may influence the outcome.

Blue is then allowed to suggest appropriate mitigations that might counter Red’s arguments. The adjudicator then considers and scores the arguments of both sides – either deciding an outcome immediately or rolling dice (with a bonus for the team that presented a superior argument) to derive a stochastic result. These assumptions are recorded and the narrative continues with the new situation establishing the starting conditions. Once the adjudication is complete, the next challenge in the narrative is described and the wargame continues (the challenges do not alternate between the players – the narrative may require one side to address a series of issues before initiative is passed to the other team).

A multi-faction game (as used in political scenarios) would follow a similar process but the player actions would go ‘around the table’ in a set order (as required by the scenario context).

Unlike a general seminar discussion, both the arguments presented in the earliest turns and the outcomes decided by the adjudicator can and will be exploited by adversaries! The key to the success of the process is the adversarial interaction between the players within the framework of an evolving narrative.

In contrast to a conventional structured wargame (such as “free” kriegsspiel), where there are tables defining probable outcomes for each encounter, the players provide the tactical and technical detail that enables adjudication to proceed. This is a vital factor when the purpose of the game is to elicit insight into a force structure or challenge.

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For example:

BLUE INTENTI will order Police Unit A to occupy the bridge

EFFECT OF INTENDED ACTION: A check point will be established that will block movement across the bridge.

BLUE ARGUMENTS (pros):

  1. Police are nearby.
  2. A checkpoint can easily be established and the bridge blocked with vehicles if necessary.
  3. (etc.)

RED ARGUMENTS (cons):

  1. Police unit A is known to be corrupt (smuggling will thrive).
  2. The police are unlikely to stand firm if attacked and the vehicles could be removed in minutes
  3. (etc.)

BLUE MITIGATIONS:

  1. Mentoring team attached to Police Unit A
  2. (etc.)

ADJUDICATION:

  1. Where the arguments (in the context of the scenario) clearly favour one faction, the adjudicator can opt to allow the narrative to continue.
  2. Where there is no clear winner or the advantage is marginal, dice can be rolled to decide the outcome.

Examples of analytical Matrix games at Dstl

Future force concepts

Dstl were asked to evaluate a potential future force concept intended for consideration by the UK military (the Royal Marines Lead Commando Group). The concept used a combination of emerging technologies to facilitate an innovative approach to warfighting across a range of scenarios.

While many force evaluation exercises have tended to select from a menu of technologies and then try to understand how they might be used at the broad scenario level, the approach used for the Lead Commando Group (LCG) tested the current force and an agreed future force against a series of illustrative tactical vignettes (each set within an approved scenario). The narrative of each vignette was designed to stress each force and highlight a series of plausible ‘left and right of arc’ challenges that the LCG might have to overcome.  Some were based upon the current threat while others looked at how potential adversaries might exploit similar technologies and systems.  These Matrix games were run with the intention of fully investigating the potential strengths and weaknesses of each force, as well as establishing a finalised Scheme of Manoeuvre for subsequent combat modelling. This would then allow Dstl to identify insights on which of the future concept’s key capabilities could and should be integrated into the current force.

The narrative only covered the general background and wider operational objectives of the Blue force and their adversaries (conventional and irregular). This enabled the decisions of both Red and Blue to influence the evolving narrative. The pro-argument / counter-argument / adjudication approach enabled the concept to continuously evolve as it faced new challenges. Thus strengthening the concept and identifying areas where more detailed analysis might need to be conducted.

The matrix game approach proved to be a powerful tool for exploring capability. The argument/counter-argument approach rapidly identified issues and opportunities that could be explored by more detailed simulations and the discussion enabled the players to review a number of specific requirements and capabilities that might need to be adapted or developed. We found that two Blue and two Red players, with 2 or 3 neutral (but appropriately qualified) observers, was about the right mix with both sides using the discussion to develop their ideas and consider the wider implications of their chosen force design. The only negative remark about the process is that the players always wanted more time for discussion!

Security case study

Dstl were also asked to review a security-based case study. We were asked to look at the planning challenges for an adversary intending to attack a known strategic target so that an appropriately detailed and plausible narrative could be run through more detailed simulations.

The huge benefit of the matrix game approach is that we could tailor the discussion to key issues and explore a range of options for representing various real-life security counter-measures. For example, the security threat level was assumed to constrain Red’s freedom of manoeuvre but that it could not be sustained for extended periods unless it was localised. Understandably, Red adjusted their strategy to minimise any increase in threat level (and quickly developed a healthy level of paranoia about Blue knowledge and capabilities) so this simple mechanism helped to heighten the realism of the game.

The narrative looked at each phase of Red’s plan, from smuggling in weapons and personnel, establishing a safe-house in the target city to setting the conditions for the final attack. The adjudicator used the arguments and counter-arguments to review each phase and to indicate to the Blue players their perception of the level of threat, and the probable targets they needed to watch or secure. The game process encouraged players to lay the foundations for future success by planning for contingencies and the discussions on how these options might develop enabled us to identify a number of useful indicators and warnings for real-life security scenarios.

Overall Insights

  • The matrix game approach is a powerful tool for eliciting subject matter expert insight on complex questions. The process is fast flowing and highly flexible; enabling the group to highlight emerging issues and exchange views on both scenario specific and general challenges, and to evaluate potential mitigations.
  • “Matrix Game Style Resolution” can easily be inserted into conventional games. Anything that isn’t explicitly covered by clear rules and verified tables can be handled by a matrix game style discussion/argument.
  • We recommend using between five and nine people (including subject matter experts). You need enough players for a wide-ranging discussion to emerge naturally as the narrative unfolds.
  • A decent sized room with a large map is vital. In addition, the importance of providing food and drink should not be underestimated – too many breaks (or discomfort) can undermine immersion and break the flow of information exchange.
  • The best way to learn how to adjudicate a game is to take part in a couple of matrix games and watch how an experienced adjudicator facilitates a narrative. The core challenges are subject matter awareness (expertise is useful but not essential) and the ability to maintain narrative momentum.
  • Players quickly recognise that strong arguments help them achieve objectives and the astute ones also realise they can cunningly lay the foundations for future success.
  • While more effort may be required to provide analytically rigorous quantitative data from a matrix game, it is an efficient and cost-effective process for generating qualitative output which can then be subjected to quantitative analysis. It can also be used to identify the key areas where the next phase of detailed analysis needs to be concentrated.
  • The concepts being tested need to be more than a single technology. We found that the capabilities of a coherent system (including basic tactics, techniques, and procedures) were easier to articulate and evaluate.
  • Each system needs a champion. The advantage of a champion is that they understand the system (often playing a key role in its development) and will thus be keen to explore its potential. We were extremely lucky with our concept champions as they were both enthused about their concepts and keen to debate their merits.
  • The champion needs to be open-minded and happy to hear counter-arguments. While you want someone who is keen to develop and then defend their concept, you don’t want someone who will become defensive or angry.
  • The Adversary (Red) team need to be highly experienced in the area you want to examine. The optimum is to have an established critical thinker (to play the adversary and to introduce plausible reasons for friction) and at least one subject matter expert (to ensure that the challenge of each vignette or mission is both appropriate and realistic).
  • It is best to test your new concept against a current threat first. This ensures that Red fully understands the concept being tested and they are therefore better equipped to develop a plausible version (or counter) for the mission adversary. This approach also enables the concept champion to identify and correct fundamental issues (the kind that would naturally emerge as the concept develops) before the more challenging scenarios are explored.
  • The process requires at least a day to review each vignette as most games will require at least six turns to establish a coherent narrative.

Matrix gaming is a powerful narrative-based analytical approach that we found both useful and engaging/immersive. Tactical challenges are often difficult to quantify in look-up tables and we found that these complex questions can be more fully explored through Matrix game-based discussion and argument in the context of a tailored scenario.

Gaming Terror: Some thoughts on designing Divided Land

The following piece has been written for PAXsims by Terry Martin.


 

09ps6ozbzucw-ybkxwd7zg.jpgDivided Land is a megagame set in Palestine during 1947, the turbulent last year of the British Mandate, just before the involvement of the United Nations, and the subsequent declaration of the State of Israel and the ensuing conflicts. The game has been played in Sweden and in the UK.

In this article I will examine the original development concept, the thoughts and dynamics of the design process as it developed, and some comments on how the game actually played out in both countries. Finally, I will give some personal conclusions on how it worked and on the implications of gaming a situation which still has a lot of relevance today, and which still arouses passion and partisan emotions.

Background

I have studied Middle East history and politics since my undergraduate days at Oxford and all the games I have written have been set in that part of the world, ranging from the Crusades up to the 1973 war. But 1945 to 1948 has always had a special fascination for me. It was a period that profoundly affected the world as we know it today. It saw the birth of the modern states of Israel and the beginning of what we see today as the ‘Palestinian problem’. It was the formative period for the Arab League as well as the United Nations – and in many ways it saw the birth of modern urban terrorism. It always seemed to me to be an ideal period for my sort of gaming – a complex and enjoyable game exploring one of the ‘what if….’ questions of history.

Back in the 1990’s I wrote a committee game on this subject, with six players and one control umpire. I wrote in the briefing:

this is primarily a game about politics, and about the search for a solution to the troubles of that region of the Middle East for which Great Britain had assumed responsibility since December 9th, 1917, when General Allenby’s troops received the surrender of Jerusalem from the defending Turkish forces.

The game consists of teams representing different interests in the region. It starts in March 1947. On February 14th Ernest Bevin has announced Great Britain’s intention of laying down the Mandate and referring the Palestine problem to the fledgling United Nations, who will have the theoretical power to impose a solution if one cannot be found beforehand.

In the months before the end of the Mandate there is a frantic jockeying for position and influence, in a final attempt to force a solution before the problem is thrown to the new and unknown international organisation.

The game had six players, representing the British Foreign Office, British Chiefs of Staff, Arab League, United States, Jewish Agency, and Jewish extremists.It was a very freeform game with all the players being given the same overall objectives:

  • a settlement of the Palestine problem that fulfils your own personal objectives and yet is accepted by all other parties. This would mean that the United Nations doesn’t have to get
  • if you can’t achieve a settlement then you must have the most persuasive plan to put to the United Nations. If this plan is to recommend partition, then you must include your proposals for partition on a map.
  • Players also need to plan on how they are going to handle (now and in future) the possibility/probability of no solution being found, even by the UN

There were 5 phases to that 1990’s game

  1. Reading your briefing and decidingwhat your ideal plan would be.
  2. Negotiations with other players and other actions as time progresses. Negotiation can be secret or open; only the British home team has the authority to call an official round-the-table conference, although they can’t enforce attendance
  3. Preparation of a presentation to the United Nations (represented by the Control Umpire) This can be by individual players or several players
  4. Adjudication by the United Nations and deciding on your reactions.
  5. Final actions/decisions depending on outcome of 4.

The game was moderately successful as a small committee game – but of course it oversimplified an intensely complicated situation and for years I toyed with the idea of expanding it to encompass not only the political complexities within all the various interested parties but also the effect of the terrorist (freedom fighters?) activities on the ground. So I decided to expand the idea into a multi-player megagame.

Design challenges: Political

My first design objective was to expand the political side of the game to reflect the fact that within all the involved parties (British, Jewish, Arab, and American) there was disagreement as to what the ideal solution to Palestine would be. In London the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office were involved in a turf war over who led the search for a solution, and even within the Ministries there were differing opinions as to what that solution should be.

In the US the State Department was at odds with the White House while lobbyists for both sides tried to apply pressure. The Arab League was riven by internal dissension, particularly the hereditary feud between the Hashemites of Transjordan and Iraq, and the House of Saud. Even the Jewish community within Palestine (the Yishuv) was split between the activists’ faction led by David Ben-Gurion and the moderates under Chaim Weizmann – not to mention the extremist terrorist organisations outside the normal political channels, Irgun,and Lehi (or the Stern Gang as the British called it).

My solution to this challenge was to have multi-player teams of around three players each but no team briefs. Instead all players represented actual historical figures and received individual briefs outlining their own personal feelings and objectives. In this way I hoped for sub games within each team that would reflect some of the internal disagreements and squabbles that made finding a solution so difficult in reality.

Design challenges: Operational

The second challenge I faced was that events on the ground often influenced political efforts to come up with agreements, so I needed teams to have an ability to take actions that would have effects, not just on the player teams but also on public opinion in their various communities.

The approach I took was to introduce an operational element into the game. Most teams would have a limited number of defined Action Cards of which they could play a limited number each turn. Some actions were distinctly political. As an example, the British High Commissioner’s cards allowed him to:

  • Declare Full Martial Law
  • Declare Partial Martial Law
  • Suspend Habeas Corpus
  • Suspend the Jewish Agency
  • Close the banks
  • Evacuate civilians

As another example, the Jewish Agency could play the following cards

  • “open” immigration (e.g. like Exodus)
  • Secret immigration
  • Civil disobedience
  • General strike
  • Denounce Terrorists
  • Suppress Terrorists
  • In extreme circumstances they could also play a “Declaration of State of Israel” card – in which case they also had to decide a policy on Forced Displacement (many thanks to Rex Brynen for that suggestion when he kindly reviewed the game design for me!)

Some of the other teams were issued with more military Action Cards. For example, the GOC Palestine had the following possible actions:

  • Aggressive arms searches against settlements or towns
  • Sweeps through an area, including objectives of arresting suspect individuals
  • Demolition of suspect properties
  • Aggressive Roadblocks
  • Aggressive Beach patrolling
  • Confining troops to barracks. (Sadly but understandably, sometimes discipline cracked under the constant stress of terrorist attacks and atrocities. If the GOC was concerned that one or more units are going to over react to provocation he had this option to confine it/them to barracks until they had calmed down.)

Military teams also had Force Counters representing the resources open to them. Their chances of success for an action would be affected by the resources they allocated to the actions. In the case of the British GOC Palestine, his brief stated:

Although you have around 100,000 men under your command, your resources are continually under strain. Men need to be rested, rotated, and trained; buildings and infrastructure need to be protected. So a lot of your forces are not usually available to you for field operations, and nor are your forces large enough for some of the operations others (especially the Chiefs of Staff) would like you to take on.

Once you have decided upon an operation, your Divisional Generals must allocate forces to that action. This means putting Force Counters with the Action Card and Pro Forma when your forces mount an action.

The Pro Formas referred to had to be filled in with specific objectives and location of the action proposed.

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Gaming terror (1)

DL2.pngProducing action cards for the more conventional forces was relatively easy but I had to consider actions for the irregular and terrorist teams involved. On the Jewish side this meant the underground paramilitary forces of the Haganah and Palmach, as well asthe terroristIrgun. (I had decided not to play Lehifor reasons I discuss later).  On the Arab side it meant the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and his so called Arab Army of Salvation. In the end I gave them Action Cards that reflected their differing philosophies and historical actions. For example, the Haganah could mount a Sabotage action or a reprisal Raid on an Arab village but would not act against any civilian targets. Irgun on the other hand could take any of the following actions:

  • Sabotage
  • Ambush/Mine
  • Kidnapping
  • Bombing
  • Bank robbery
  • Raid on Arabs
  • Assassination

 

Results of actions on the map and public opinion

The results of actions taken on the main map depended on forces committed and some simple rules on chances of success. Die rolls represented random factors and plain old luck. Map control umpires would also use their intelligence and common sense to determine likely real outcomes. But the real significance of the results of actions would be their effect on public opinion in the relative communities. This was to be reflected in Trackers for the British, Americans and Yishuv. I decided that Arab trackers would be less necessary since the Arab states involved were much more autocratic and rarely reacted to public opinion until there were riots in the streets!

The real purpose of the trackers was to make players consider what the reactions to their actions might be amongst other players and world opinion. Players would need to keep very aware of that tracker, since if it reached critical levels, there would be consequences, which they would only discover when such a level was reached.

For example, if Jewish Public opinion is moving against extremism and becoming more optimistic of a settlement, the tracker will reflect this. Support for Irgun in the community will diminish, and they will become more liable to betrayal to the British. Another example; if British public opinion becomes increasingly against Government policy, morale amongst British troops in Palestine will suffer and all their actions become less effective. (Excerpt from Game Handbook.)

Research and sources

Having resolved the basic design philosophy to my own satisfaction, I realised that I had committed myself to two things

  • A lot more knowledge of the issues as seen by less famous but still important people in 1947
  • Writing over 50 individual briefs including what I was calling my ‘fall backs’

Both realisations meant much more research, which raised a design issue of its own. There are three main research sources open to any investigator, all of which raised some issues.

The first source was official and semi-official documents and papers. The clear majority of these are straightforward records and cannot be challenged for bias (e.g. Cabinet Minutes of the British Government) but there were language problems with some Jewish and Arab sources, although the official papers of the Jewish Agency were available in English.

My second main source was the memoirs and papers of many of the participants in the events of the times. It was here that any student of the period – and myself as a game designer – had to be aware of, and be prepared to discount, the inevitable bias of people recounting events as they reflected their own views and self-interest. In some cases, this was actually helpful in fleshing out a person’s character and views, making it easier to digest them into a succinct briefing for the player who would be taking on that character in the game. For example, the memoirs of Viscount Montgomery, CIGS at the time. His attitude to the Jewish community and his belief in overt military solutions come through very clearly.

Where bias was not helpful at all was in examining the motives and actions of the Jewish and Arab terror groups and their effects upon the communities they lived in. For example, The Revolt by Menachem Begin is a justification of all Irgun’s actions, but has very little on the opposition to Irgun within the Yishuv.

My third area of research was secondary sources, the various books and articles on the period, both published and on the net. A student of the period is continually reminded that the Palestine problem is still very much a live issue, with many authors having diametrically opposed views and interpretations on not just why things happened, but on whether they happened at all. This is particularly – and not unexpectedly – true of material one finds on the Internet, although there also some real gems of discovery there as well. In the end I found myself using the Washington Post’s Watergate test of trusting nothing that I could not confirm from two other sources. I gravitated increasingly towards a small core of secondary material that I trusted for accuracy of narrative and the objectivity of the writer’s own assessments.

Final roles

In the end I decided on a final player list as follows

TEAM ROLE
 
BRITISH (London)  
Foreign Office  
Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin
Permanent Under Secretary Sir Orme Sargent
Mid-East Desk Harold Beeley
   
Colonial Office  
Sec. of State for the Colonies Arthur Creech Jones
Permanent Under Secretary Sir George Gater
Eastern Department Douglas Harris
   
Chiefs of Staff  
CIGS Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery
First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Cunningham
Air Air Chief Marshall Arthur Tedder
   
   
BRITISH (Palestine)  
High Commissioner General Alan Cunningham
Secretary Harold Gurney
Chief Justice Sir William Fitzgerald
   
GOC General Gordon Macmillan
6th Airborne Major general James Cassels
1st Inf Div. Lt. General Richard Gale
Intelligence Colonel C.R.W. Norman
   
JEWISH  
Jewish agency  
Activists  
Chairman David Ben Gurion
Head Political Dept Moshe Sharret
Histadrut Pinhas Lavon
Member Executive Golda Meir
   
Haganah Yaakov Dori
Palmach Yigal Allon
   
Moderates  
Leader Chaim Weizmann
Assistant Eliezer Kaplan
Diplomat Abba Eban
   
Irgun  
Leader Menachem Begin
Assistant Chaim Landau
 USA rep  Hillel Kook
   
ARAB  
Arab League  
Sec general Azzam Pasha
Assistant Musa Alami
   
Egypt  
King Farouk
PM Nokrashy Pasha
   
Saudi  
King Ibn Saud
Son Feisal
   
Mufti  
Mufti Amin al-Husseini
  Jamal al-Husseini
   
Transjordan  
King Abdullah
Adviser Awni Abd al-Hadi
Arab Legion Glubb Pasha
   
USA  
White House  
President Harry Truman
Counsellor Clark Clifford
   
State Department  
Sec State General George Marshall
Deputy for Mid-East George Kennon
   
Press 2 players

I chose this final cast list to reflect the varying individual views within each team, since I believed that a totally united USA team, for example, would not reflect the complexities of the time. I also reasoned that differing opinions within most of the teams would allow the development of interesting ‘sub-games’.

My approach in developing each individual brief was to impart enough information about the character to allow the player to immerse him/herself in the role but not so much that they were forced into slavishly replaying what their character had done in reality. I also thought that supplying pictures of the people involved could be helpful to players in identifying with their characters.

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I also had to consider how much information the players needed to make the game meaningful and successful. Obviously, a base knowledge of both background and the issues involved was essential, but at the same time I did not want to overwhelm the players with so much information that they would either be confused or simply not read the material!

The solution decided on was to keep the personal briefings to a minimum (about 3 pages), include the basic information in Appendices to the Game Handbook, and supply a further background document (Characters and Glossary) for those players who were minded to read it. I made sure that all briefing materials went out at least three weeks before the game, and I also supplied a limited bibliography to a couple of players who asked for more information.

What if….

During the final thinking through of the design process I needed to consider two matters that might impact on the playing of the game on the day.

What if players got killed?

At this time in the Middle East assassination was not as uncommon as we might hope and indeed both the Jewish and Arab terrorist teams had Assassination Action Cards that they could play.

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I had to acknowledge that player characters might indeed be killed – both Abdullah and Henry Gurney were in fact assassinated, although not during this year. I made the chances of assassinating a major figure quite slim, but possible. As designer I had to consider how to recycle those players into the game after their unfortunate demise. This meant writing several ‘fall back’ player briefs which would only be used if an assassination succeeded. As it happened, in both the Swedish and London games, attempts were made to assassinate the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. In one case he could not be found by the hit squad; in the other he was grievously wounded but survived to preach a fatwa against all Jews!

What if war broke out?

As mentioned above, if pushed into a corner, and provided that certain conditions were met, the Jewish Agency could in the game declare unilaterally the State of Israel. This would almost inevitably lead to open warfare between the Arab nations and the new Jewish state. Unlikely as I thought this might be, I had to be prepared for it. I decided I would need to produce a simple combat system, as well as forces counters. This was not actually too difficult as I used the actual Orders of Battle from 1948 when of course war did occur. In the event this never happened, although it came close in the London game, but as the game designer I felt rather reassured that I was ready for it if it did happen.


 

The actual games

This article is not intended to be an after-action report on either of the games, but perhaps some observations are of interest.

Sweden

I first tested the game with a small group of inexperienced but enthusiastic megagamers in Malmo. This helped me immensely with development and fine tuning of a lot of game elements, and the key players from there kindly consented to be my control team when I came to put on the full game in Stockholm.

I was faced with two issues in the Swedish games. The first was that virtually nobody had ever played a historical megagame before, although we did have some experienced LARP and boardgame players. The second I had half anticipated but was still slightly surprised by. Sweden is a culture in which compromise and consensus is deep rooted, and indeed emphasised in school Civics classes. As one player wrote to me after the game “The British have very different cultures from Swedes when it comes to turn taking. Today’s younger Swedes are brought up in a social system that ‘enforces and reinforces’ every person’s right to be heard, everyone’s right to be involved in a decision and the focus on group consensus is extremely strong.”  This resulted in a much greater search for compromise than I believe could ever have happened in reality. Having anticipated this to some extent, I had decided not to play Lehi (Stern gang) in the game, so that if Irgun turned out to be too compromising, or indeed peace seeking, Control could input into the game actual terrorist actions.

This seemed to achieve its objectives as perhaps the following extract from the Ben Gurion player’s AAR illustrates… “I had changed the subject to the question of the Mufti and had just held what I think was an effective little speech about the injustice of the Arabs, when Control opens the door and reads out a list of three atrocities, all committed by Jews. I was quite relieved when Moshe Sharett a moment later came, panic in his voice, and demanded that I go to the map, as all hell was breaking loose. I would have been humiliated, had the conference continued.”

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The Arab League in negotiations (picture credit: Richard Moreau).

The final result of the Swedish game was an agreed partition between the Jews and Arab states, with the Jewish Agency gaining British support by suppressing Irgun quite ruthlessly and successfully (three successive very lucky die rolls!). The Arab players were quite pleased with themselves until they heard of the rioting by mobs of fellahin on the streets of Damascus and Cairo.

UK

Putting on the UK game was made simpler in that the player pool had many more experienced megagamers, many of whom I knew, which made casting much easier. The game ran more smoothly with far less need for direct intervention by the Control team. The final result again was an agreed partition into two separate states in Palestine and a surprisingly generously sized Jewish state.

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The UK game (picture credit: Caroline Martin).

Jewish suspicion of the Arab generosity was quite justified, as there actually existed a secret treaty amongst the Arab states saying that as soon as the British had withdrawn, the Arab armies would immediately invade.

The resulting war would have been interesting to observe, since the Haganah/Palmach players had spent most of the game quietly and successfully transforming their forces from a semi organised paramilitary force into a regular army ready to mobilise at a moment’s notice. They even had a war plan ready to go.

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The partition agreement and Jewish war plan from the UK game.

 

Some final thoughts

Gaming live issues

You candesign a game about 1947 without being accused of bias but you need to be very careful. There were definitely some in Sweden who were uncomfortable with the thought of turning such a turbulent and still live issue into a ‘game’. From my point of view though, it worked. I think most players not only enjoyed Divided Land as a game, but some also were given cause to think.

Gaming in different countries

There are certainly cultural differences between Sweden and the UK in how they regard international relations and issues. Sweden has a long and mostly honourable tradition of neutrality and searching for ends to international disputes by negotiation and compromise. This was evident to me in the game, and indeed in their reactions to successful negotiations being derailed by seemingly irrational acts of terror on the ground.

Operational and political

Despite the extra work for a designer in adding an operational element to the game, with actions on a map, I am convinced that this worked, and made the game much more ‘real’. Having the operational game also led to 30-minute action turns, which helped to add structure to a long day’s play.

Gaming terror (2)

From the moment I conceived this game I had been concerned that finding players willing to commit acts of terror and even atrocities might be difficult. I was quite wrong. It seems (encouragingly to designers like myself) that with the right briefings players are quite willing to suspend their own moralities and try to play as their characters did in fact behave. I do wonder though whether time would affect this attitude. Could we find players to play IRA gunmen or Bosnian Serb warlords, or indeed in my own field of study could we find players able to play the Phalange militiamen entering the Shatila refugee camp in 1982. I do wonder…

Terry Martin

Ex SEA LION CADET at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is the home of the British Army Officer and the initial training ground for officers of the British Army, be they Regular or Reserve, Direct Entrant, Late Entrant or Professionally Qualified.  It is ranked as one of the best centres of leadership in the World.  Its famous motto is “Serve to Lead.”

Captain EC Farren was, until recently, an instructor at the Academy, overseeing the injured cadets of “Lucknow” Platoon.  His remit was to help the cadets under his charge recover as soon as practicable, so they could re-join the Regular Commissioning Course.  Much of his work is focused on the cadets’ physical state, but he must also try to keep their military skills and minds sharp in the process.  As a 2009 Masters graduate of King’s College London, Captain Farren studied under Prof. P Sabin (Simulating War) and has carried his experiences of Phil’s conflict simulation course with him into the Regular Army.  He appeared at Connections 2015 to discuss wargaming (link) in officer training and subsequently delivered an update (link) on examples used in his battalion in 2016.  Since June 2016 he has instructed at the prestigious British military academy in Camberley and has sought to utilise wargaming to enhance the education of young officers.  The extract below is from an article submitted to Sandhurst’s Wish Stream journal covering his platoon’s involvement in a Battlefield Study of Operation Sea Lion.  


 

Anyone who has participated in Ex NORMANDY SCHOLAR can attest to the innate value of a battlefield study to an aspiring Army officer. There is something about standing on the battlefield that concentrates the mind and gives one an appreciation from the combatant’s perspective that no amount of book study can mirror.  In previous years Lucknow platoon has been able to tag along with the Reg CC on Ex NORMANDY SCHOLAR, but sadly this was discontinued due to funding restrictions.  Undeterred, it was with a sense of optimism and trepidation that I approached Faraday Hall back at the end of 2017 to discuss running a bespoke battlefield study for Lucknow Platoon.

Knowing that I had minimal resources (in the end one War Studies Lecturer, one weapons expert and a minibus) I hit upon the idea of using the planned September 1940 German invasion of BritainUnternehmen Seelöwe  or Operation SEALION— as the subject for the battlefield study.  Geographically confined to the Kentish/Sussex coast, the stands would be within easy striking distance from Sandhurst.  It also offered a variety of tactical actions for study; air landing, seaborne assault, combined arms manoeuvre, opposed obstacle crossings and urban warfare.  Also, because the operation did not progress beyond the planning stage, it gave the staff and cadets greater freedom to offer their opinions and arguments rather than being constrained by ‘what actually happened’.  The study would run over two days, the first being classroom-based and the second being centred around three stands in Kent.

Day 1

Starting in Faraday Hall (a nice break from Lucknow lines) Dr Klaus Schmider started by covering the strategic context of Operation SEALION, and state of the two belligerent’s militaries in the summer of 1940.  QMSI Lawson kindly provided a variety of WW2 small arms from the Central Armoury and gave the cadets an excellent hands on feel for the weapons of the period.  The cadets learnt about the weapon mix of light machine guns, sub machine guns and rifles that comprised the infantry sections of both armies. The cadets then divided into two groups representing the German and British High Commands. They had around two hours to research and then formulate a back brief of 15 minutes covering the following key themes:

  1. What are the strategic and operational objectives for your side?
  2. What forces were assembled/available by your side and their relative strengths and weaknesses?
  3. What are the terrain/environmental factors that will/may influence the operation?
  4. What do you believe the operational main effort is, why and is it sufficiently resourced?
  5. What amendments would you make to the plan and why?

The highlight of the afternoon was a tabletop wargame—one with a nostalgic nod to the 1974 wargame run by senior war studies lecturers at the Academy. Thankfully for the cadets, our variant was much simpler and could be completed in the space of around two hours rather than the week it took for the 1974 wargame to run its course. Two wargames were run by splitting the OKW and GHQ teams in half and assigning them to separate rooms. Cadets role played various Army Group, Luftwaffe/RAF and CinC commanders to add a team dynamic.

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The 1974 Operation SEALION game at Sandhurst.

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Staff and cadets pose for a reconstruction of the 1974 picture. (Image obscured for privacy).

 

In both wargames the Germans were able to consolidate their initial landing zones after overcoming the British forces stationed on the south coast.  However, as German reinforcements dried up and British reserves poured onto the map the Wehrmacht teams struggled to push further inland.  The key cities of Dover and Brighton became contested battlegrounds in both wargames.  In wargame one the Germans achieved a ‘victory’ as defined by the rules of the wargame by seizing Dover and Brighton – with significant British forces arrayed between them and the next objective, London.  In wargame two the British managed to launch a sizeable counterattack into Brighton before the Germans took Dover, thus denying them a victory. In this wargame though, the British had nothing left to throw at the Germans should they go for London.  The cadets found the wargame was an excellent way to illustrate the research they had conducted during the day and gave them a wider, strategic overview of the operation before they went into the detail of stands on the second day.  The day concluded with the cadets breaking down into their respective groups for the three stands and conducting research and preparation for the field element on the Saturday.

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SEALION wargame 1 (left) showing a German victory, and wargame 2 (right) showing a British victory.

Day 2

An early start saw the cadets and staff head off to Kent for the first stand at Hawkinge.

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We were fortunate enough to be able to stand within the original airfield’s perimeter, albeit now largely parcelled up into various private estates. The teams did an excellent job of discussing the importance of Hawkinge to both the RAF and Luftwaffe and the problems inherent with air landings.

 

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Stand 1 Hawkinge on the original airfield site (now just a field). The cadets managed to find the original defence plans (right). (Image obscured for privacy.)

Next we moved to St Mary’s Bay, now doused in glorious sunshine, to discuss a potential sea landing.  The sea wall has been significantly heightened since 1940, and the towns of St Mary’s and Dymchurch have sprawled but the groynes and sands were much alike to the era of study.  The teams discussed the problems of fighting inshore through obstacle belts and having to clear the two urban areas of defending territorial and regular battalions.

Stand 3 at Bilsington covered opposed obstacle crossings over the Royal Military Canal.  The cadets researched and discovered a 1940s era pillbox that made the stand come to life.  After much discussion there emerged consensus that the Germans would struggle to cross the canal and therefore the Romney Marsh area would become a giant kill sack for British artillery.

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Stand 2 (left) at Dymchurch St. Mary’s Bay and Stand 3 (right) at Bilsington on the Royal Military Canal. The cadest researched and found a genuine WWII-era pillbox in the background. (Image obscured for privacy.)

Feedback from the cadets was broadly positive, despite having to work on a sacred Saturday!  They really enjoyed being given the responsibility for running the stands themselves which they all agreed kept them more engaged than if it had been entirely staff led.  The Faraday Hall element was judged at being concise and to the point, and covering the most important subjects rather than a huge series of lectures.  Naturally the cadets wanted more time to plan the stands, and would have liked to study at the lower tactical level (Coy-) rather than the divisional level.  Hopefully the exercise has reinforced the benefits of battlefield studies to the cadets of Lucknow platoon and generated support for a successive exercise next term (maybe even outside of the UK!)

McGill gaming seminar: three projects

This week the students submitted their game projects for my POLI 490 game design seminar, finally bringing the term to an end. One lesson I learned this year is the need to force students into building a prototype earlier, and therefore allowing more time for play-testing. Constant exhortations weren’t enough, and I think all three teams were surprised to discover how long the play-test/revise/play-test/revise cycle can be, and how many bugs there can be to work out.

Still, I was very happy with the results. The conceptual foundations and core game mechanics of all three games were excellent—indeed, there are some potential commercial designs in here. All three teams want to continue to development over the summer and beyond, and possibly show them off at Connections US and/or Connections UK. What’s more, Brian Train has offered to assist with game development—pretty much a dream come true for neophyte political-military game designers.

 

One Belt One Road

One Belt One Road is a semi-cooperative game that examines Chinese grand strategy, focusing on its current efforts to deepen trade and investment ties in Asia, Africa, and onwards to Europe. Players represent the Ministry of Finance and Commerce, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the People’s Liberation Army.  Using financial, diplomatic, and military resources they seek to improve China’s bilateral relations, develop trade agreements, secure military facilities, and—most important of all—secure trade and investment opportunities. An events deck constantly generates new challenges to be overcome, however. Moreover, the three players have slightly different interests, which can impede cooperation.

 

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OBOR Game materials.

 

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Players have a menu of game actions they may take each turn, plus they may also support projects and respond to event cards.

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A game underway.  Eligible projects can be seen at the bottom, current events in the top right. The country displays show current relations with China. India doesn’t seem to be very happy!

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Sample event cards. 

 

 

The Logic of Atrocities: The War in Darfur

This is a mixed area/point-to-point wargame with a twist: the game is designed to show how and why governments and insurgent groups might engage in war crimes, and what might constrain them from doing so. In the game, atrocities can aid military operations, or impede rebel recruitment and resource generation through terror and forced displacement. However atrocities can backfire too. Refugees might themselves become a new source of rebel recruits. Moreover, there is a risk that they could provoke international condemnations, sanctions, or worse. Certain event cards, if triggered, are moved to the “Warn” and “Action” boxes, and if these fill up international action becomes possible. The intended audience here is those interested in mass atrocity prevention. the current version of the game is for two players (Sudan and Darfuri rebel groups), but a planned three player variation will introduce a United Nations player too.

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Game materials for The Logic of Atrocities.

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Sudanese Army (green) and pro-regime Janjaweed irregulars (white) commit atrocities as they advance towards rebel JEM forces that have just seized the town of el-Geneina.

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Sudanese war crimes have provoked condemnation from the United States and African Union—but no real international action action (yet).

 

We Are Coming, Nineveh

The third game is a tactical/operational wargame of the battle for West Mosul in February-July 2017, pitting the Iraqi security forces (and coalition support) against the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS). It too uses a mix of zonal and point-to point movement. Before the game starts, each player invests in capabilities and defensive preparations. On the ISIS side these include such things as tunnel networks, human shields, makeshift drones, primitive chemical weapons, IEDs and VBIEDS, bomb factories, weapons stockpiles, enhanced media capability, spy networks, improved training, human shields, and so forth. Units are depicted by blocks, thus providing for some fog of war, and blocks are rotated to show losses and reduced combat capability. Iraqi headquarters units enable loss recovery, additional movement, or combat bonuses. The terrain is both shaped and coded for urban density, which affects stacking and combat: armoured units, for example, are very effective in open areas, but cannot penetrate the narrow alleyways of the Old City. Major roads provide for faster movement—but only if you’ve cleared the neighbouring areas.

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Game materials for We Are Coming, Nineveh. The Iraqi government offensive has just begun.

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ISIS preparations for this game include human shields, tunnels, improved training, and simple chemical weapons.

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The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (Golden Division) advances towards the Old City while elements of the 9th Armoured Division try to clear the major roads and flank ISIS positions to the west.

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Amnesty International raises concerns that coalition drone strikes are causing excessive civilian casualties.

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Meanwhile, advancing Iraqi forces are harassed by makeshift ISIS drones.

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Iraqi forces begin to break into the Old City along the southern bank of the Tigris River (right), while the 9th Armoured Division continues its flanking operations to secure the major roads and cut off ISIS supplies (left). ISIS fighters continue to appear in Iraqi rear areas (bottom), where they are engaged by troops and police.

Sea Dragon wargaming competition at Marine Corps University

The following article has been contributed to PAXsims by Major Cole Petersen. Major Petersen is an infantry officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.  He is currently a student at the United States Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting.


Training for conflict and developing professional expertise does not have to be exquisite, costly affairs.  Using a commercial, off-the-shelf wargame, Marine Corps University was able to create an engaging challenge that was both entertaining and instructive to the participants.

The Marine Corps University runs an annual planning/wargaming competition called Sea Dragon between teams fielded by its Schools – the Expeditionary Warfare School, Command and Staff College, School of Advanced Warfighting, and Marine Corps War College.  This year, for the third iteration, the University tried a different approach. The exercise director, Dr. Ben Jensen, used an off-the-shelf computer wargame, Flashpoint Campaigns, which was modified for modern day scenarios.  Using the wargame, the University ran a “bracket challenge” featuring eight teams from the schools.  Four of the teams were Blue (US Marines) while the other four were Red (Russians).

The scenario examined a flashpoint in the Baltics, with Latvia devolving into another Ukraine-like problem, and both NATO and Russia coming to conflict as the situation escalated.  These scenarios were developed by Colonel Tim Barrick and Dr. Jensen and looked at current capabilities as well as anticipated in the 2025 timeframe.  What follows is a synopsis of one of the bracket rounds to provide readers with an understanding of how using the computer wargame was useful as a training tool.

The scenario featured the Marines putting a Regimental Landing Team ashore and air assaulting an augmented battalion in ahead of time to hold a river crossing that leads to their beachhead.  Our team played the lead elements of the Russian Brigade Group.  We had a Motorized Infantry Battalion that was making its way to the battle area and was set to arrive two hours after the scenario started.  Our principle force until this time was a “Spetsnaz Battalion” – 10 platoons of volunteers operating in the area.  This represented a capability Russia has used in many of its recent conflicts.  Also present on our side were a dozen T-80 tanks manned by volunteers that had infiltrated the area, along with a few short range anti-aircraft systems.

A key asset for our side was the rocket forces attached to the Brigade.  Our forces had access to a battalion of BM-27 Uragan (220mm rockets) and a battery of 2S7 203mm howitzers.  These range 40+ kilometers, and were outside of the range of any of Blue’s systems.

Attached below is a screenshot of the area of operations.  The red boxes represented our starting “deployment areas,” with the box at the top centre of the map being the assembly area for the Motorized Battalion when it arrived.  The little hexes are 500m each, so the AO is about 25km x 25km.  Our task was to hold the bridges for the main body of the Brigade coming down from the north so it can attack into the Marine beachhead.

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Prior to the simulation, student teams were responsible to provide a concept of operations.  This was the primary method of inputting actions that the computer would play.  The challenging part was framing the opponent’s possible/probable courses of action, as all we were told was “he can land in this area and bring about a battalion’s worth of stuff.”  We assessed his three possible courses of action were to (1) land in the middle and try to “box out” the area between the forest in the north and the bridges in the south (this we saw as his most likely) (2) land in the north and own the defiles between us and the bridges (this we saw as his most dangerous), or (3) land in the south and try to concentrate on a single crossing site.

We planned for the first possibility but had backup plans to deal with the other two.  Our operational approach was to have the Spetsnaz teams hold key terrain, identify enemy units, and call in fires.  The tanks would mass in the west and lead a deception effort to draw the enemy there so the Motorized Battalion could push south through the defile and smash whatever was left and take the crossing sites.  Our bid for success, as described, was the Motorized Battalion as the hammer to the Spetsnaz anvil.

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Of note, we were given 2 “Decision Points”.  The first one was identified on the map.  If that point was triggered, we were allowed to tell the umpires to change our plan if we so choose.  The second Decision Point was the “Commander’s Moment” and we could use at any time to redirect our forces.  This was a creative way of forcing teams to plan and anticipate when their course of action would need adjustment within the game play.

Our first round “bracket” was played out over a couple of hours.  Our team did quite well, beating our opponent in Victory Points by a score of 6500 to 2500.  The tipping point was our “Spetsnaz Battalion”, which we positioned well off the start.  They were not expecting these teams to be so deep, and as a result, we shot up much of the Blue team’s depth elements in the first part of the battle.  The Blue team put almost its entire battalion along the wooded ridgeline in the north, focused on the outer defiles.  They covered the highway to the north with a UAV and aviation.  As a result, our Tank Company died a quick death, and the motorized battalion got hit hard coming out of its assembly area and was only able to get about a third of its forces into the eastern defiles, and no farther.  But, in the end, the mission for both sides was the bridges – the other team ignored the bridges and focused on fighting in the defiles, so our Spetsnaz teams never really had to fight to retain them and we got maximum victory points for achieving our assigned task of holding the crossing sites.

Some observations from the simulation became apparent:

  1. A force moving on a road or in the open is likely going to get hit. AH-1 and F/A-18 strikes wrecked us.  The one time Blue sallied out on the road, we smashed a company with a BM-27 MLRS strike.  The better we can get forces hunkered down to observe, the better off we are.  The tank company is better hunkered down, hitting from a city zone.  The game demonstrated how vulnerable modern combatants are to a capable sensor-shooter system.
  2. Our deception effort worked somewhat by the fact that the smoke and the wrecked tank company meant his AH-1s were floating around the west too long. While not cost effective, our team figured out how to take advantage of this circumstance on the battlefield to aid with success.  The adversarial nature of the wargame gave teams battlefield circumstances to anticipate and manage.
  3. Our killer was our fires, which is kind of a no brainer. When we picked up the adversary’s HQ and 120mm mortars in a forest, we smashed them with rockets.  When we ran into ambushes trying to clear the defiles, we smashed them with rockets.  When he made a last grab for the bridge, we fired a dispersed minefield to slow him up, and then followed up with rockets, destroying a company in the open.  There is a reason the Russians are going from a ratio of 3 gun units:1 rocket unit to 1 gun unit:3 rocket units – they appear to be highly effective and the wargame was a poignant reminder.

This approach to understanding modern conflict was both instructional and entertaining.  The use of a commercial, off-the-shelf platform, when combined with a well-structured competition, provided a useful model for participants to develop their professional abilities and understanding of modern conflict.  The adversarial nature of the game, along with the free-play aspect of each scenario, provided an engaging environment at low-cost in time, money, and manpower.

Cole Petersen

Matrix gaming chaos: the Syria conflict

The following report was contributed by Anja van der Hulst (TNO) and Shai Ginsberg (Duke), with photos by Leo Ching (Duke). None of the opinions expressed here necessarily reflect those of TNO or Duke University.


 

ISIS was expelled from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa and for now has failed to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, but has it been defeated? Will the struggle for the Afrin region open up opportunities for ISIS to re-emerge?

For the second time in five months, we have designed and played a matrix game, exploring the conflict in Syria, at the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University.

Time and again, we are amazed by how powerful the matrix game format is.  The game format is surprisingly easy to explain, which allows us to get right into strategizing and debating outcomes. Also, the Syria conflict is fought with hybrid means: it is as much a war of narratives as of military combats; there is deception, diplomacy, political and economic means, and more.  Besides matrix games, there are very few formats that are both so easy to play and that enable the use of so diverse means, taking advantage of the full spectrum of DIMEFIL (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic, Financial, Intelligence and Law Enforcement).

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This is where the easy part ends. In preparation for the version of last week, we realized how much has changed. In October 2017, we named the game the “ISIS aftermath,” as ISIS was just expelled from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa and we wanted to explore the consequences of its recent defeats. The main question to be answered from this game was how would the parties engaged in the civil war in Syria respond to this development: Would ISIS rise again? Would it attempt to organize a terrorist campaign in Europe? Would there be a major power struggle with Al Qaida? And what about the Kurds, who had played such a major role in the defeat of ISIS? At the time, they just held their referendum for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, and we wondered whether a century-long quest for an independent Kurdistan might finally succeed. We also felt the civil war was winding down somewhat, and thus, our final question was whether there could be a stabilisation of the situation in Syria.

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So much has changed in just five months, and the set of questions we posed last week was entirely different; we even had to rename of the game: we chose the unimaginative name, “the Syria conflict.” In the past 5 months, we have seen twists that have produced more complexity and even more chaos in the region. The Syria conflict was already a proxy war between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia but it is turning more and more into a major power struggle. The U.S.- and Russia backed forces had a common enemy is ISIS, but with ISIS losing ground those actors appear to turn ever more against each other. Interestingly, the US-led coalition started training of a 30,000-strong, Kurdish-led border force in Syria, a move which Turkey said “it could never accept.” Conveniently, Russia removed its forces from the west Syrian Province of Afrin and thus allowed Turkey to attack the Kurds in Afrin. With Turkish forces gaining ground, the Kurds in East Syria and Iraq that were holding positions previously captured from ISIS are now moving to Afrin to support their fellow Kurds. As a result, the US-backed coalition will now be fighting fellow NATO member Turkey and now, as I write this, news comes in that ISIS gangs have began to reappear around many villages in east Syria.

But that wasn’t all, between Oct 2017 and March 2018, Iran became more assertive. Israel, which until now has before a rather low profile in this war (in the October version it was not even a playable actor), now had carried out a ‘major aerial attack’ in Syria, targeting 12 military sites, four of which were said to be Iranian. And just this past week, it finally took responsibility for the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, sending a clear message to Iran, Syria (and possibly Saudi Arabia) about its red lines. Neither side can be expected to back down.

Gaming Syria Oct 2017

Our starting point in the October version was that Assad was winning over rebel forces and ISIS had been marginalised. Back then, there seemed to be open roads that might lead to stabilisation of the current situation. However, our brilliant ISIS-playing syndicate managed to enhance chaos both in the Damascus region and along the Israeli-Syrian border: they kidnapped and murdered an Assad family member and attacked Israeli targets; an Israeli harsh response forced Assad’s counter-measures. In the game, Assad actually attacked Israel and became entangled in a new front, which gave ISIS some opportunities to rise again.

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Our ISIS player on Skype on her way to New York to cheerlead the Duke Blue Devils.

 

Gaming Syria March 2018

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Turkey trying to convince the US, all in vain.

In the March version, as said, we had a totally different starting point. In game, our Russia players worked hard to marginalize the US and EU presence and influence in the region and, ultimately had great success in asserting Russia’s position in its place as the key superpower and powerbroker between the warring parties. The US and the EU’s hesitant manoeuvring and reluctance to use military force—for instance, they backed down on the US support of Kurdish forces in Syria—played into Russia’s hand and made its task easier. In response Turkey, who initially tried to work with the US and the EU, switched its alliance and established much tighter relationship with Russia. Assad, Iran and Hizbollah likewise benefitted from the growing Russian presence in the region (though not to the extent one would imagine), while ISIS attempts to reassert itself all felt flat: its attempts to initiate a terrorist campaign, targeting both Assad and Iranian forces fell short. Ultimately, Russia and Turkey engineered a cease fire to be enforced by, among others, Russian forces on the ground and would formal and internationally legitimate continued Russian presence in Syria. Interestingly, the game made it patently clear to our students how complicated the position of the US-led coalition in Syria is. The Russian success in striking a ceasefire agreement, made US military intervention in Afrin unnecessary (and unwelcomed), solving the dicey issue of pitting US forces against their NATO ally Turkey. It also relieved Kurdish forces in Afrin; Kurdish forces in the East of Syria might now stay put, buttressing their positions against a re-emergent ISIS. Still, condoning an enlarged Russian presence in Syria might create a severe strategic disadvantage to the US in the Middle East.

Insights on learning

How well does gaming contribute to learning? If we wish to make students truly understand the dynamics in the Middle East, a number of insights on learning from such gaming sessions emerge. Students were engaged: it was obvious that they studied hard to master their own role as well as the interests of other players in a regional conflict so complex.  Given its complexity, we’re still amazed how well students manage to strategically act in the shoes of regional actors after just a couple of hours of going through background materials. The resulting debates were fierce and lively, and misconceptions were usually corrected by the group. There were also a lot of laughter, serving as yet another proof that they were both engaged and thoroughly enjoyed participating in such games.  As one of them remarked, “This is so cool, we get to play the real version of dungeons and dragons in class.”

 

Two aspects of the game demand additional consideration. First is that the more introvert students have a hard time participating fully. Roleplay and arguing relies partly on debating skills and here we see large differences in participation. One should remember, however, that matrix games is not only about debates: it also involves havey strategizing, which relies in turn on a deep understanding of the domain and the conflict. Besides improving debating skills, we might work on a division of labour where some students mostly strategize while others debate more. In the comprehensive approach game we played at McGill, syndicates had 4-5 people, and there such division of labour usually emerged.

Second is that the students who played the US and EU found it impossible to pursue tactics and strategies they deemed immoral. Whereas they were well aware of the history of the US military, political and economic engagement with the rest of the world (and in the case of these particular students, in Asia in particular), they still could not bring themselves to take actions that would cast a negative light on the US and its allies. Players who played other parties found it much easier to identify interest and pursue them with all means at their possession, questions of morality and ethics notwithstanding. It seems, then, that matrix games pose a particular problem if the players truly identify with the party they are playing.

Some final words: our own experience shows that games form one of the best tools we have in developing an understanding of the current regional dynamic. To do so requires good materials that expounds the interests of actors in the region, their historical ties and traumas. Still, the more one delves into the issue and the more one learns about the participant actors, the more difficult it is to actually comprehend the situation in general. The history of the region is made up of so many traumas, conflicting interests, shifting alliances, and radical changes in leadership. In particular, we (and players) are overwhelmed by the intensity of emotions and entrenchment in beliefs and ideologies. Next time, we’ll just game the tensions in the Korean region…

Insights on analytical value

Then, are such matrix games useful for analytical purposes? Does the game play have any predictive value?  First of all, we noticed many time that the argumentation within matrix games for analytical purposes improves substantially with true regional experts playing the roles.

In these sessions, I assume that the future courses of action we created at Duke were of little value for forecasting. Evidently, in the October version we hadn’t foreseen many of the events that happened in the past five months. Likewise, we do not hold our breath for the events played in the March version to ultimately unfold.

Two observations here:

  1. Lack of malice: We noticed a bias towards mostly “nice” actions on the part of students, such as negotiating ceasefires and alliances. They made this explicit: our students basically did not wish to risk killing people, which cannot be said for most of the current actors in the Middle East.  Although our students seemed to understand the actors and their interests, they refrained from turning truly Machiavellian. This made the courses of action insufficiently realistic for analytical purposes.  For conflict games to have realistic outcomes, we need the will to act against morality and received norms. We have there considered brainwashing our players…
  2. Lack of true future forward thinking: It is a feeling that in roleplaying into the future, we tend to stay very close to the present situation and the dynamics as we understand them, probably far too close. We are sort of linearly thinking into the future. For example, our experiences being that when e.g. gaming, 15 years into the future, one notices that our players tend to look e.g. at Russia as governed by a centralised autocratic regime. As illustrated by all those twists in Syria, in 15 years, a lot can (and will) happen. In 15 years, Russia may fall into utter chaos, disintegrate locally, or be divided between neighbouring countries, but no-one really envisions that in long term strategy-wargames.  We tend to work too much on the basis of our assumptions from today- and assume they will still hold true in the future. It requires a more advanced systems thinking approach to step back from the current situation and to identify and understand the sources of tensions, the polarities existent, and to work from there.  How to get there? We don’t know, but are convinced that we will have to work on improving the predictive value of the less kinetic conflict-games to support meaningful strategizing.

Still, the matrix games we played helped tremendously in educating students about the conflict, and in relatively short time.

To end this report, let us hope that in the next 6 months things take some turns for the better, and that we will not have to rename the next version of our Syria matrix game into “The Middle East War”.

Anja van der Hulst and Shai Ginsberg

 

DIRE STRAITS at McGill University

On Sunday, some one hundred participants took part in DIRE STRAITS, a megagame exploring crisis stability in East and Southeast Asia.

McGill University’s third annual megagame, DIRE STRAITS, is set in the year 2020. It explores crisis stability in East and Southeast Asia in the context of an unpredictable Trump Administration, growing Chinese strategic power, and multiple regional crises.

How will the region and the world deal with the challenge of North Korean nuclear weapons? Will China consolidate its hold over the South China Sea? How might relations between Beijing and Taiwan develop if the latter decides to adopt a more independent path? And how will the White House—beset by scandal, factional infighting, and an angry, unpredictable President—respond?

This is the second time Jim Wallman and I have run the game—the first time was at the Connections UK wargaming conference at King’s College London back in September, which prompted this BBC News report. So, how did it go this time around? Very well, I think.

In contrast to the KCL game, at McGill the various ASEAN countries started to push back quite hard against Chinese territorial claims and illegal fishing in the South China Sea. Vietnam at one point dropped practice depth charges to warn of a Chinese sub, and Indonesia and the Phillipines both arrested Chinese fishing vessels or tangled with Chinese naval and coast guard vessels—with aggressive maneuvering by both sides causing several collisions.

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Military forces in and around the Korean peninsula.

North Korea tested a multiple reentry-vehicle (MRV) warhead on its Hwasong-15 ICBM, lobbing it over Japan to a splash-down in the Pacific. (A Japanese effort to intercept the test with an Aegis BMD was unsuccessful.) Thereafter, however, diplomacy prevailed, with the two Koreas and Japan signing an agreement that called for advance warning of tests and military exercises, and which also resolved a number of outstanding fishing issues. Hedging their bets, both South Korea and Japan took some preliminary steps that would facilitate the launch of a future nuclear weapons programme.

Part of the reason for this was the unpredictability of US policy, which seemed to oscillate wildly as different factions in the White House fought for influence. (Such was the level of political turmoil in Washington DC that at one point the White House Chief of Staff sought to have the Secretary of State fired—only for the maneuver to backfire, and the Chief of Staff be fired by President Trump instead.) Ultimately the US did fire on one North Korean sub that was shadowing a US carrier too closely, but fortunately this did not spark North Korean retaliation.

India proved very successful at advancing it’s interest in disputed border regions, using covert information operations and diplomacy to deepen defence cooperation with both Bhutan and Nepal. In this they were aided by the other demnds on China’s attentions, with Beijing facing multiple crises.

The most important of these was Taiwan, where revelations of Chinese election hacking had caused a massive backlash against Beijing. China continued to conduct cyberwarfare against Taiwan, and even funded some opposition groups, but this only seemed to increase Taiwan’s resolve to seek greater independence from the mainland. The extent to which ASEAN countries were pushing back against China was undoubtedly a factor in China’s growing strategic frustration too.

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Nationalist fervour in Taiwan. Shortly thereafter sirens would sound, indicating incoming PLA missiles and aircraft.

Finally, as the crisis grew, aggressive maneuvering by the two sides in the Strait of Taiwan escalated into open military clashes. Ships and aircraft from a US carrier task force supported Taiwan. This led the Chinese to mount a full-scale invasion of the island—and to put their nuclear forces on full alert to deter any more outside intervention as they sought to repress their “rebellious province.”

The game thus ended with Chinese troops having secured a bloody foothold on the island, as the outnumbered and outgunned Taiwanese armed forces fought back resolutely.

The game was essentially the same as the KCK version, with only a few small tweaks: less form-filling, a system of intelligence cards, and a simplified system for indicating commitment and military orders.  Once again, our media team did a terrific job of keeping everyone informed of what was happening.

We’ll be doing another McGill megagame in February 2019, so watch this space!

MORS: Validity and utility of wargaming

 

Stephen Downes-Martin (organizer and chair of Working Group 2 at the October 2017 Military Operations Research Society special meeting on wargaming) has passed on to PAXsims the group’s extensive (173 page) report on the Validity and Utility of Wargaming  (pdf). It is an outstanding piece of work, and should be essential reading for anyone working in the field. I’ll certainly be assigning it as required reading in my small conflict simulation design seminar next term.MORS Wargaming Meeting 2017 Working Group 2 Final Report 20171208 (dragged).jpg

In part because of the structure of the MORS working groups, the report tends to devote more attention to game design and execution than it does to game analysis and interpretation. One of the interesting issues to arise out of the DIRE STRAITS experiment in September, however, was that different groups of analysts can both assess the validity/utility of a game differently, and draw different sets of lessons from the same wargame event.
Building on the excellent work of Stephen and his WG2 team, this is a challenge that I hope to explore more fully at the Connections US wargaming conference in July 2018—conditional, of course, on acceptance of my presentation proposal!

Game design challenges in building a megagame simulation of the Iran-Iraq War

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 This discussion of the recent Undeniable Victory megagame is provided by Ben Moores. Ben is a Senior Analyst at IHSMarkit Janes information group responsible for tracking and forecasting military requirements with an expertise in global defence industry, military exports and regional security. He is a sought after defence media commentator and has a BA and MA in War Studies and Defence Analysis respectively.


 

Undeniable Victory was a recently-run 70 player megagame that explored the military, political and international elements of the Iran-Iraq war over the course of a full day. This article will look at the design considerations and challenges of making a game about a relatively obscure, prolonged, multi-theatre conflict driven by domestic political conflicts and dominated by static warfare.

The base game structure was two teams broken into three core functions and three individual factions. The first function was the council game, the players representing the inner circle of the supreme leader. The second was the HQ game in which players would define strategy for each of their areas of operation. The third function was the operational level wargame. The core game design challenge was to ensure that decision at any one level had a meaningful repercussion at another level. This meant linking together a series of different mechanics and player structures.

This article is going to examine the following challenges and design considerations:

  • Relating Council mechanics to a wider game
  • Making a factional system relevant
  • Integrating domestic politics and morale
  • Building a foreign affairs model
  • Scaling a procurement model
  • Scoping out HQ backseat driving
  • Providing operational decisions in a static military environment
  • Restricting intelligence for improved decision making process plausibility
  • Implementing the evolution of military doctrine and capability
  • Connecting an air model to a wider game
  • Building a naval game for any eventuality
  • Sources and material considerations
  • Post game analysis
  • What happened on the day

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Supreme Leader’s Henchmen: Relating Council Mechanics to a Wider Game

The first challenge was how to represent an imperfect political system led by a leader whose personal goals don’t always match the team goals. The solution was to implement a “Hitlers henchman” structure. This is a game in which the leader is played by control and the team have a sub game to influence the leader to adopt their particular idea via set agenda tokens. The leader gave top level advice and guidance but was quite happy for the various players to get on with their ministerial roles. Each minister role had a “station”, a mechanic that allowed them to make actual decisions.

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Rather than having players  try to convince the control played supreme leader to adopt their ideas the agenda token system allowed some debate backed up with a mechanical structure. Agendas  allowed council players to overrule others, adjust war goals and strategy, replace other players and change the structure of government. This was effectively determined by a bluffing card play mechanic, in which the factions had to figure out how to allocate their hand of cards to which agenda in order to achieve their goals and block others.

Factional Drivers: Making a Factional System Relevant

Another significant challenge was representing the internal politics and the significant changes that occurred during the war. The Tikriti faction replaced the Ba’ath structure in Iraq and the Conservatives pushed  out the other ideological wings in Iran. The solution was to group all players into one of three team factions each representing the various political wings of each team. The factions could attempt to change the type of government, control the government branches and change the players within those elements. Furthermore the military structure was also split between various military types; such as the Regular, Popular and Republican Guard for Iraq. Council and HQ players could try to back their particular military wing and ensure that it got the best reinforcements and wasn’t held responsible for battlefield failings. This created significant pressure on the operational level players throughout the day and led to a series of tensions and imperfect strategic decisions that occasionally led to players or a policy being changed.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman.

Who Do We Blame This Time? Integrating Domestic Politics and Morale

In both Iran and Iraq there were significant domestic challenges during the era with a number of political groups forming to oppose both sides. Representing this with players or control would have been difficult. Many of these groups would never be able to find common discussion ground with the radical government structures and were too different to fit into the core game structure. The approach I took was to abstract this by having the interior minister choose a major domestic faction (Kurds, political minorities or economic elites) to blame every year, adding resentment chips that could eventually spill over into an incident. Players could reduce the chances of an incident by allocating resources to alleviate the pressure or instead allocate chips to the opposing team to to increase the pressure on them. Each of the domestic factions would have to pass a test at the end of each turn to see if there had been a major incident by rolling a number greater than the resentment chip number. These incidents could either lead to Kurdish forces appearing on the operational level map, Political minorities disrupting various parts of the game by random card draw and economic elites would reduce the long term economic income.

The only alternative to placing domestic resentment chips was to galvanize the country in a “Grand Offensive”, publically announcing an enemy target that they would take and hold or suffer morale damage.

No One Likes Us And We Don’t Care: Building a Foreign Affairs Model

The challenge for foreign powers with a stake in the war was that there wasn’t enough of a game for players to play the various other countries that were associated with the war without seriously increasing the scope of an already complicated game. It was decided that external countries would be played by dedicated control; we were fortunate in that we had a number of regional and subject matter experts who were available to support this. I had considered running a parallel club level discussion game covering all the other countries to provide material and a decision tree but recent publications had closely examined the international considerations and provided in-depth material to draw from.

Foreign relations were tracked by a chart that showed the relative relations for both Iran and Iraq with each of the nations the game tracked. A significant design decision was selecting the countries. Firstly all the major potential arms suppliers with an international interest in the region were represented and divided into two groups; imperialists (USA, USSR) and colonialists (UK, France, Italy and Germany). Then the immediate regional countries with a direct interest in the conflict were represented and grouped together (Syria, Saudi, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Turkey). Finally, Israel was also included.

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The status of each relationship gave a particular benefit or disadvantage. For example; Turkish relations impacted Kurdish stability, USSR could supply equipment and Saudi Arabia could lend money. Furthermore relative relations with each group allowed both Iran and Iraq to claim leadership in opposing Imperialism, Colonialism, Zionism and wider regional support which gave a benefit to domestic morale. The mechanic was that there was a trade-off between morale and various political advantages/disadvantages and arms procurement.

Having control generate each and every country relationship wasn’t possible due to time, player and information pressures. Instead approximately 80 pre-prepared events were introduced into the council game with various optional responses that impacted relations, morale and domestic resentment. Whilst these were resolved by the council teams on an annual basis the plan was that the foreign affairs control would interject as the narrative evolved. So there was a structure from which emerging narratives would emerge that the foreign control could handle in more depth such as the hostage crisis, arms deals with Israel or Lebanon complexities.

 Drinking the Cup of Poison: End Game Considerations

The end game was challenging as planning for the unknown in a particularly mechanical fashion wasn’t possible. Therefore the driver for peace was a collapse in domestic morale. As the game progressed the oil price fell dramatically which creates a guns versus butter decision. Once one team’s morale hit rock bottom they could suffer desertions, reach accommodation with the enemy or appeal for international intervention to end the conflict. Using the metrics we had of morale, international relations and the military situation we were able to use experienced control facilitators to start to place pressure on the teams to bring the conflict to a ceasefire. It wasn’t possible to fully explore a negotiated settlement as it would have included only a  small number of players.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman.

Arms Dealers Paradise: Scaling a Procurement Model

The challenge for procurement was capturing a level of arms sourcing granularity that interfaced with the operational level game but was simple enough to keep track of with limited control to oversee it. The game had to be able to capture procurement and the impact that foreign policy had on this. Whilst radical foreign policy led to increased domestic morale it increasingly cut players off from advanced arms supplies and, crucially, spare parts. Advanced weapons and specialist capabilities could only be acquired from Europe, USA or the USSR. As relations degraded countries would be reluctant to sell arms and then increasingly spare parts for existing weapons degrading their capability further.  China and North Korea would sell to either country regardless of the political situation and, although their equipment tended to be of very poor quality, this meant that neither team was ever entirely cut off from arms supply.

Another problem I initially had was trying to connect the right amount of money for procurement. To make the council financial game manageable within the time limits I made the cubes USD3 billion a piece but this was a large sum for the procurement system so they broke that money down into units of USD100 million which worked well when buying equipment at a brigade and squadron level.

There were 107 different types of procurement choices in the game ranging from chemical weapons, T-72s, MANPADS, improved shipyards, MiG-19s and hovercraft and this tied in with the squadron/ brigade/ ship level operational level game. Each piece of equipment or capability could only be sourced from a particular country and some elements only in limited numbers. Each piece was tracked for initial purchase cost, a generic spares cost and a specific origin source. This was manageable at a player level and worked well.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

The structure meant that the dedicated procurement player arguably had too much power, the council minister who was jointly responsible was often too busy with factional matters. This meant that there was often too little oversight which led to some unexpected but interesting procurements, including some very interesting back room arms deals as the game progressed resulting force structures and arms sources changing in fascinating and plausible ways. Maybe involving the wider HQ player base in the decision making process would have been useful.

 Implementing The Unimplementable: Scoping out HQ Backseat Driving

The HQ game challenge was not having them as back seat drivers for the operational level game but as strategic goal setters. I addressed this by having them unable to visit the operational maps for most of the game and issuing geographic maps without the movement areas on them. This meant that the orders they gave and the information they received were not always perfect. This was compounded as air support worked through a slightly different HQ channel. The downside was that the HQ players were reliant on the operational players providing them with information and if that information was not provided they had a limited game.

If I were to run it again then I would need to look at involving the HQ players in the procurement game or having a simple logistics game that they could resolve between themselves that impacted the operational level and perhaps the opposing HQ.  This could impact the operational level players in such a way that the players were keen to come to the HQ. Although part of the problem was the success of the factional system, operational players were very reluctant to share any bad news for fear of being demoted or removed by the council as part of a factional dispute.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

Delusions of Manoeuvre: Providing Operational Decisions in a Static Military Environment

There were a number of challenges in creating an operational level wargame that was dominated by static warfare, with imperfect, evolving military capabilities over an extended time frame.

I decided very early on that I would not capture exact formation nomenclature as over the course of the war there was a huge amount of change and the effort required to capture the exact nature of each formation nomenclature wouldn’t provide any increase in plausibility (the audience not being experts) or realism (due to the protracted nature of the conflict).

In regards to time relative to action I had to consider that there multiple game domains in each team including; a council game (seven players representing the inner trusted circle), a joint military headquarters game (seven players representing the various theatre commanders, procurement team) and the joint chief of staff. The three military games (land, sea and air) had to be on a similar timeline but the HQ game and the Council game could run on looser timelines that coincided at certain points.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

It is neither realistic nor engaging that military stalemate and lack of operational manoeuvre options in a game design mean there is nothing for players to do or plan for. This is a particular challenge in a strategic trench warfare environment. So when it came to handling time I wanted to create a design that kept players engaged in a decision making process even when there were no options for manoeuvre or attack.

For the military games I initially decided that I didn’t want fixed turns I wanted activations determined by logistics driven at an HQ level. The concept being that the various front players would be at various stages of “readiness” and that the long periods of historic inaction could be skipped through until a particular front was able to activate because the logistic resources were in place to enable them to do so. The problem was I couldn’t mesh that idea with the opening stages of the conflict or with the air game. It also meant that I still had to have some sort of turn system at an HQ level to determine when logistics became available. This still left me with the time challenge so I reverted to a proven process of drawing random player activation chits. This worked very well on the day because it provides definitive clarity on who can act and when but I will continue to investigate the initial idea.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

Dancing In the Dark: Restricting Intelligence for Improved Decision-making Process Plausibility

When it came to the operational design in a static trench warfare situation it was important that intelligence was very limited. Traditional closed map games create a much more realistic military intelligence challenge but they also tend to require lots of control, can be slow and can create confusion for player options. So the challenge was to capture imperfect intelligence information that could be managed by the players in an easy manner.

The solution was to hide force structures. Each operational player controlled a small corps, with divisions represented on the table but with the brigades (the smallest game element captured) within stacked on player’s individual command sheet. These were hidden behind a foam board that was on the map table. This allowed control and players to quickly reveal information when requested, resolve missions in short order and worked enormously well on the day with lots of imperfect decisions being made.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

Learning Lessons The Hard Way: Implementing the Evolution of Military Doctrine and Capability

Addressing evolving military doctrinal capabilities, as opposed to technical or force capabilities, over an extended conflict was another challenge. The solution I adopted was to implement a learning curve system called combat lessons. Combat lessons were effectively rules exceptions that were awarded primarily for failing in a combat. To avoid unnecessary complexity the control would give out a sticker that that would adhere to the command sheet. Combat lessons didn’t give bonuses but evolved the rules giving players new capabilities; changing how the various types of forces performed in different periods of the game. Players were only aware of the type of lessons as they learnt them, creating an evolving dynamic.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

Finally, ensuring that players had actions even when they couldn’t manoeuvre was critically important to both realism and player enjoyment. Doing nothing couldn’t be an option. So each player had a list of various missions and postures that they could adopt on a divisional basis that would give them combat and intelligence advantages relative to the opposition in the short and long term.

 The Air Blame Game: Connecting an Air Model to a Wider Game

The air war had to be fairly abstract considering the duration of the conflict. I wanted to capture strategic operations, ground support, air defence, air superiority and maritime operations. As the turns (called seasons) were effectively six months each this meant that the air war had to represent a series of engagements and support missions.

Representing air fields in the game was difficult, there were many of them and it added a level of detail and complexity to the maps that related to range. The problem with range is that it’s not a fixed amount; it’s relative to the mission and load out. However, air field attacks did play a notable element during the war so eventually I introduced them as a holding box in which air defences could be placed.

I also made the air force responsible for air defence in all rear areas for two reasons. Firstly, whilst not entirely accurate it did mean that the game had someone who was responsible for allocating air and ground based assets to defend infrastructure. This also meant that players were largely distracted by the operational air war and repeated the historic errors of the conflict in failing to allocate resources to strategic assets.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

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Image credit: John Mizon

Carrier Death Ride: Building a Naval game for any Eventuality

The naval game challenge was to capture operations over an extended period that meshed with air power and created interesting decisions. In addition it had to capture the internationalization of the war if one side were to start successfully blockading the enemy and disrupting regional trade. Finally the system had to be detailed enough to represent combat between individual missile boats, evolving maritime air power and a potential death ride against modern carrier groups. It also had to represent hidden movement and imperfect force structures.

I resolved the imperfect force structure requirement by having a refit system that meant that a certain fraction of the previously deployed ships had to be put aside at the end of each season. Furthermore deploying forces into an area didn’t always guarantee that they were able to enter combat, they had to roll to enter combat reflecting what forces might have been available in a particular battle.

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The naval part of the game arguably failed to be engaging enough, whilst it functioned and provided a very realistic result it didn’t provide enough player decisions, rather just a lot of dice rolling. Fundamentally the map needed to be bigger to allow more areas for manoeuvre.

Books and Games: Sources and Material Considerations

The Iran-Iraq war has been relatively well covered by a number of books in recent years after an absence of much published material over the past twenty years. We now have a much better understanding of the internal dynamics of the Iraqi military command (thanks to Kevin Woods) and the Iranian political infighting (thanks to Pierre Razoux). However, there are only two commercially available games on the era; Ignorant Armies, an old school hex game and the very recent Bloody Dawns, a more modern abstracted card driven game written by Pierre Razoux. Neither game was suitable for adaption or inspiration for a megagame. This game was a culmination of a twenty year interest in the war and trips to the region to understand more. Unfortunately political tensions and sensitivities continue to make it challenging to access and understand the conflict in more depth.

Post Game Analysis

The game was largely successful with players being engaged enough to be arguing about who had won two days later and what if things had been done differently. The game was run with 68 people who didn’t know anything about the conflict but the war but the briefing materials and the game chrome (provided by control roleplaying and the events) meant that the participants made era appropriate decisions and considerations. Many of the players were megagmers, not war gamers, and some of them, including me, don’t enjoy traditional wargames. So part of the game consideration and design process was to figure out how to make a wargame interesting to someone who isn’t interested in traditional wargames. Part of that was relatively easy as we cast people according to their interest as we knew it but providing interesting, stressful, time pressurized dilemmas is harder.

Over the past decade I’ve increasingly drifted away from most commercial wargames because I don’t believe that actually resemble or simulate conflict in any meaningful manner. In part the design of this game incorporated the core ingredients that I believe are missing from games that claim to be about war, primarily imperfect intelligence and strategic directives that conflict with operational necessities.

I’ve been ribbed for observing that both sides made major strategic errors but in reflection I’m now very pleased about this because the game was designed to induce imperfect strategic decision making and in that I clearly succeeded without forcing poor decisions making upon players.

The History Of A Ball? What Happened on the Day

The game followed a plausibly historical pattern with Iraq striking out to take the Southern Iranian oil infrastructure and central and northern border regions. Caution left the Iraqi’s fairly short of their objectives but failing to guard the Iraqi Al Faw area almost trapped the navy and led to a series of extremely costly counter attack to regain it from Revolutionary Guard forces. By 1983 Iran had gone on the offensive in the Northern and central regions and a series of battle of attrition slowly pushed back Iraqi forces. Meanwhile in the South, after the initial confusion and repeated leadership changes, Iraqi forces had captured the key border cities of Khorramshahr and Abadan and even briefly took the key oil hub city of Ahwaz.

The Iranians initially got the better of things at sea damaging Iraqi off shore terminals but Iraqi procurements of Airborne ASuW assets in the form of Mirage’s, Super Frelons and Exocets wreaked havoc amongst Iranian platforms. An unapproved Iranian blockade of the Hormuz Straits dramatically escalated the international presence in the region drawing in large US naval forces that formed a critical end game component. Iran naval forces were building “kamikaze” speed boat forces by the end whilst the Iraqi navy had effectively ceased to exist as a fighting force.

By 1982 the Iranians had largely established air superiority and began to attack prestige targets in Iraq including Saddam’s Dam in Mosul and Saddam’s Palace which caused political chaos as an increasingly enraged Saddam lashed out at his council who in turn sought scape goats in the form of the air ministry which increasingly resembled a revolving door. However, large scale procurements in an extremely wide range of air platforms meant the air war continued unabated right until the end when a large successful Iraqi raid on the main Iranian exporting terminal at Kharg was a decisive moment in pushing the Iranians to consider a cease fire.

Both sides had focused on high end procurements over social subsidies which by 1986 began to draw both sides into a morale end game. Furthermore Kurdish forces were able to establish themselves on the Turkish border and around Mosul and caused significant disruption to Iraqi forces and oil fields.

By 1987 the Iranians had been able to break out of the mountains to the outskirts of the Northern Iraqi oil towns of Kirkuk and Mosul, had an armoured division within a season of Baghdad and had stabilized, but not recaptured the Southern border areas. (although they had no immediate chance of retaking them). However, by this point the Iraqi council had realized that they were not able to stabilize the front or domestic morale and had made major political concessions in exchange for US political patronage and around USD21 billion to keep them in the war.

A successful US strike on Kharg followed by the dramatic second Iraqi air strike and a general decline in Iranian morale led to Iran reluctantly accepting the unacceptable in a ceasefire at the end of 1987. Immediate stabbed in-the-back theories began to circulate amongst front line commanders.

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Slightly stunned Iranian players hear that Iraq has taken US patronage. Image credit: Becky Ladley

Ben Moores

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?

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