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Beyond Solitaire: Gaming the US elections

Liz Davidson at the Beyond Solitaire podcast recent interviewed me on the New Yorker US election simulation. We discuss the Zenobia Award too!

You can listen to the podcast here.

Fully remote and virtual SIMULEX keeps 47-year streak alive at Fletcher

The following report was prepared for PAXsims by Brandon Daigle, Paul Pawluk, and David Kaczmarek (full biographies below), with the support of PAXsims research associate Maggie Snyder.


With only 2 months of deliberate planning amidst a global pandemic and navigating the seas of uncertainty, the first ever Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) SIMULEX wargaming experience is complete. This year’s group of Military Fellows and over 80 Fletcher School graduate students, in close partnership with the Army War College, Air War College and local area institutions, ensured the 47-year continuous chain of SIMULEX experiences remained unbroken under the leadership and guidance of Professor Robert Pfaltzgraff, who garnered resounding participant and cadre feedback as “hands down, the most immersive, fully remote, virtual learning experience I’ve participated in.”

What is SIMULEX?

Each year, The Fletcher School at Tufts University conducts SIMULEX, a major crisis management exercise where participants assume the roles of national policy makers in an international scenario. Over three days, SIMULEX exposes participants to the constraints and opportunities facing policy makers in a highly realistic, near-future quest to make the best possible decisions and associated actions. As representatives of various national and international teams, participants are charged with developing strategy and tactics necessary to achieve their country-specific goals, while driving efforts to bring the global crisis to a preferred end state ranging from world peace to all-out nuclear war. In an atmosphere of conflict escalation, graduate students from a variety of departments within The Fletcher School work alongside resident military fellows representing each service component, Boston area universities, Department of Defense, The Naval Postgraduate School and other partner agencies to learn leadership in uncertainty, crisis management, team building, adaptability, and policy negotiation skills, walking away more equipped to appreciate each component.

SIMULEX2020 Structure

While the past 46 offerings of SIMULEX were held on campus and in-person, this year, the first Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) SIMULEX2020 was conducted on Zoom, SLACK, and a closed loop communication system that fed real world injects into the simulation from real media outlets. No E-mail used throughout the exercise.  The “no-email” option was chosen deliberately, serving as a forcing function to drive players to “newer” tech solutions more representative of how peers communicate, and to streamline an innovative information flow. Additionally, in a crisis environment, communication breakdown through email overload is a real threat. A critical message can be lost in a sea of emails and there is no way to display an inbox worth of information for multiple users coherently in a single interface. Innovations such as SLACK and Zoom overcome that challenge.  In the case of SIMULEX2020, SLACK provided a real-time data picture (at the speed of a text) organizing information by topic in a searchable format. Zoom allowed the face-to-face communication required to mitigate misperceptions and confusion. Combined, both tools become invaluable in managing a fast-paced crisis.

Brandon, Paul and Dave established in a makeshift SIMULEX2020 Operations Center, (utilizing a basement on Hanscom AFB MA., Military Family Housing)

This initial communications framework was a key piece to establish at D-60 (where “D” represents the start date of the exercise and “-60” represents 60 days prior to startex). The participants were aligned to one of six country teams (~10 pax per team) representing India, Japan, United States, Taiwan, South Korea, and China. The control team, media team, closed-loop communication system, non-attribution environment, and three orchestrated moves would stimulate dynamic interaction between individuals, respective participant teams and the overall plenary session participants. One Fletcher School military fellow was directly aligned to each country team serving as advisor to help formulate strategies and provide recommendations on the role of force and the potential use of military capabilities throughout the event.

Near view is a representation of what a single participant/controller sees.   Far view is a much larger monitor designed to project key events, meetings, media releases, additional Common Intelligence/Operating Picture elements across the participants to level information flow.

A Complex and Compounding Scenario in 2023

This year, the setup of SIMULEX2020 was centered around a crisis in the Indo-Pacific region in 2023. The COVID-19 global pandemic has grown even deadlier, appearing to shape the geopolitical environment and introducing a new concept of “Vaccine Diplomacy” to actors on the global stage. The following paragraphs describe the actions that players encountered and drove their necessary strategies throughout the scenario.

Russia and China have aligned more closely, though there is collective recognition that China remains dominant. Throughout the game play and across a series of three critical moves, flashpoints occur in the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea and along the India-China border. Each inflection point occurs within the 2023 timeline and as the United States has continued to strengthen its existing political and military relationships with her Indo-Pacific allies and, in 2023, leads an aggressive formation of a global counter pandemic organization. 

Paul representing a key Russian figurehead in both persona and in language involved in a negotiation meeting with 2ndyear Fletcher graduate student Cameron Fels, who represented China.

Simultaneously, the implementation of the Hong Kong security law has ended its special “one country, two systems” status while Pro-independence forces gain power and boost widespread support in and throughout Taiwan. As these developments unfold at speed, there is an accelerated buildup of China’s military forces on the mainland, opposite Taiwan.  

Enter North Korea.  North Korea and reveals they continue to accelerate the growth of their nuclear weapons capability as a client-state of China and Russia. The situation becomes more complex when India faces a two-pronged threat from China, on its Himalayan frontier and in the Indian Ocean. The escalations and tensions rise across all fronts and support for nuclear weapons increase in Japan even as Tokyo and the United States strengthen their own security links.

SIMULEX Objectives

SIMULEX2020 was designed to intentionally extrapolate current events into plausible near-future scenarios within given time constraints throughout the exercise. The realistic stress associated with making decisions under pressure forces the participants to think on their feet creatively and with a sense of urgency. Learning is the fundamental goal, not necessarily winning. Participant decisions made throughout the game are assessed based on their articulated strategy, alignment of Ends-Ways-Means, methods of communication, and diplomatic feasibility.

SIMULEX2020 participans:

  1. Gained practical experience in developing written national strategies and policies
  2. Experienced a wide range of obstacles and opportunities confronting real-world international decision-makers
  3. Applied classroom foundational knowledge in translating national goals into specific policies with proven workable courses of action across the international system through “living” written strategy papers and practical negotiations in dedicated “virtual” rooms
  4. Encountered internal & external pressures, relationships, & proved ability to adapt to the operational and strategic environment during crisis decision-making
  5. Developed and implemented best practices for crisis communication for real-world application without the use of E-mail.
  6. Understood the benefits and limitations of simulations, virtual exercises, and wargames
  7. Focused more on “how” to think versus “what” to think

SIMULEX2020 participants met or exceeded all objectives in this Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) environment that allowed the opportunity to make mistakes, encouraged opportunities for ideas to compete and fostered an academic space that delivered a high stress yet enjoyable experience for everyone involved, regardless of role.

Six Key Takeaways From the 1st Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) Event

1) Slash cost and maximize efficiencies through available/familiar technologies

Utilizing technology (Zoom, Google Docs, Slack) allows participants to be more creative and much faster improving overall team efficiencies. By using the video teleconference capability through Zoom, each participant was able to adopt a persona (on screen personality, background screen, name, etc.) aligned with their country and position which increased aggregate participation. Additionally, this help game officials ensure the right participants were in the right rooms and conversely, there was no “spying” in on others breakout meetings although in the future, there could be a built in mechanism by which other countries can exercise the influence of their intelligence networks. By having the ability to rapidly schedule multiple events and move from one to another eased increased involvement and provided new opportunities for bi- and multi-lateral diplomatic engagement across multiple levels.  

A simulated social media feed via Slack proved extremely realistic. Incorporating participants’ personal electronic devices into the simulation provided the realism one would face in a real crisis like with the use of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. 

Zoom allowed more oversight and evaluation of the exercise with members of the Fletcher School Faculty, fellows, or advisors to easily bounce from event to event with little to no disruption to the exercise, and without having to record and save “feedback” for a final close-out session.

Developing a 1 min SIMULEX2020 video trailer early on and releasing it at D-45 across all available platforms was pivotal to generating the buzz and fostered the bulk of registrations, despite revealing few details. ****SHOW TRAILER #2**** The key is a rapid investment here early on with the dates, times, general theme, and a lot of graphics. Do not wait to have it all figured out as this is a quick litmus test in gauging the level of interest or becoming aware of other scheduling conflicts competing for the same populous.

Given more planning time, there would be value in exploring software that produces a Common Operating Picture (COP) at the conclusion of each move to display the results of their actions and tasks, associated decision and how it shapes the overall outcome of the game. If software is not possible, a recommendation would be to have the Intel/Control Team brief a situation update at the starting phase of each move.

2) Build the virtual network/framework and set up a weekly battle rhythm event

Consistent over-communication was key across the exercise design and development team. Structuring an early cross-functional Zoom planning session at D-60 set the stage for the knowns, unknowns and revealed the unknown-unknowns. A warm start rehearsal at D-02 with all involved parties served as a first meet and greet and set the stage for the following day’s full technology rehearsal at D-01. These synchronized efforts ensured players and controllers alike were equipped to begin immediately at STARTEX and kept the game on track through its entirety.  Taking lessons learned from experts in the field across many Boston based and Silicon Valley companies, the integration of SLACK rapidly helped to dismantle silos while flattening and improving every command and control (C2) aspect of the simulation.

3) Equip and establish teams to organize for purpose – get better before getting bigger

To allow participants to better understand and experience the emerging environment of great-power competition AND to maximize, optimize, and adopt US, Allied, and Partnered options (ways & means) and their limits in dealing with very plausible crises, it is critical to establish the Team to do so. Establishing a general framework to posture the teams for success should include the minimum:

  • President/Prime Minister/Dictator (can be team lead).
    • Defense Lead – responsible for Requests for Forces (RFF) generation and submission to controller.
    • Diplomatic Lead – responsible for generating any request for action related to the Diplomatic Instrument of Power and submission to controller.
    • Economic Lead – responsible for generating any request for action related to the Economic Instrument of Power and submission to controller.
    • Public Affairs Lead – responsible for developing and issuing unofficial statements.
    • Request for Information Lead – responsible for questions/answers needed to promote a given country’s strategy.
    • Communications Lead – responsible for operating Player Team Slack Channel messaging for Player Team communications. All things comms related conduit to control.

4) Design the game flexibly to absorb dynamic changes at speed and scale

 By incorporating the impact of the global pandemic, the participants were exposed to an added dilemma to consider as they developed their strategy for engagement. This variable was easily understood since each student has first-hand experience of the COVID-19 impacts and as such have seen it play out globally from a personal perspective, especially in cases where it was handled well (New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany). With other pandemic-style variables participants may only rely on historical knowledge and readings which could downplay the scale of its complexity. With respect to a three-move game, consider altering the Move 2 / Move 3 pre-determined outcomes to a free-flowing real time “develop the move on the fly” construct to allow a more dynamic experience that will simultaneously meet goals and satisfy the efforts of individual country teams. Information will flow much faster than the participants, controllers and adjudicators will be able to keep up with. This is okay, it provides another element of realism, an opportunity for exercising patience and making decisions with minimal or unclear information available.

5) Manage the crisis as it unfolds

As SIMULEX2020 played out, other global stakeholders were brought into the scenario. In cases such as these, members of control and staff teams quickly took on the role and entered negotiations with the participant countries. The learning point here is that members of the staff or control team should not play direct roles of actors that are not explicitly written into the exercise UNLESS that is their sole responsibility. For example, in SIMULEX2020, if Russia were played by 3-4 experts that negotiated with each team during the moves, it would offer a new level of realism and uncertainty to resemble real-word diplomacy dynamics. A recommendation would be to have a handful of reserve Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in reserve for potential and expected wildcards that could occur during the game.

6) Prioritize feedback throughout – Incorporate a During Action Report (DAR)

The virtual environment enhances the frequency for real time feedback and interaction across the range of participants and staff. In this role, senior leaders, mentors, fellows, and cadre had the ability to directly inject at the time and place of their choosing to deliver advice on strategy papers critiquing End-Ways-Means approaches in conjunction with how well a team was aligned with the Risk Strategy Framework. The criticality of feedback both in the written and real time negotiation aspects of the simulation ensured participants remained sharp in their strategic thinking and prioritized clearly throughout the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment.

The establishment of a During Action Report (DAR) channel within Slack, allowed for all participants to drop quick points of feedback along the way that could be expounded on later if needed. Writing the DAR comment during game play in as little or many words as desired, ensures the proper context is articulated, actions may be resolved before the game transitions to the next phase and most importantly, the comment is not forgotten at the formal call for feedback and critique.

Closing Remarks

SIMULEX2020 has proven to be a trailblazing event and has established the new standard of Fully Remote and Virtual (FRV) simulations and wargaming experience. This exercise evolution has taught that this model is rapidly scalable, fosters integration and teamwork, streamlines communication, inspires decisive action, minimizes overhead cost, and affords the environment necessary to thrive while valuing real time feedback, both positively and negatively.  

Additionally, the exercise would not be possible without the involvement of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and National Defense University wargaming communities. These communities include the Center for Strategic Leadership, Army War College; Air Force Wargaming Center, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama; Wargaming Department, Naval War College; Wargaming and Combat Simulation Center, Marine Corps Combat Development Command; Wargaming and Simulation Center, National Defense University.  The speed and dynamic nature of the simulation is a direct testament to the involvement of the parties listed. 


For more information or further SIMULEX2020 details please contact the author directly at  brandon.daigle@tufts.edu.  


Lt Col Brandon Daigle is an Intelligence Officer in the United States Air Force and has held a variety of in-garrison and deployed leadership positions.  He most recently served as the Commander of a Joint Unit at Ft Bragg, North Carolina. He holds a M.S. in Defense Analysis/Special Operations and Irregular Warfare, Naval Postgraduate School, where he led multiple wargames associated with the Arctic Environment and published his thesis on the Strategic Utility of the High North in December, 2016 using Senturion modeling and spatial bargaining theory.  He holds an M.S. in Organizational Leadership and Design from Amridge University and a B.S. in Religion from Southern Christian University.  He is currently a Military Fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Lt Col Paul Pawluk is a National Defense Fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Previously, he commanded the 22d Airlift Squadron flying the C-5M Super Galaxy. He is a command pilot and EUCOM Foreign Area Officer with fluency in Ukrainian and Russian. He has a MA – NPS,  Security Studies in Europe and Eurasia (with distinction), MA – Norwich, Diplomacy with a Concentration in International Conflict, and a BA-Wisc, Political Science, International Relations, and Russian 

Lieutenant Colonel David Kaczmarek is a Civil Affairs officer in the U.S. Army with several overseas deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa.  He has held various command and staff assignments within NATO, 18th Airborne Corps, 101st Airborne Division, and the U.S. Special Operations Command (Airborne).  He has a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Virginia Military Institute, and a Master’s Degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.  He is currently a Military Fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Gaming a contentious American election

Not a real headline—one of the slides from the game.

Back in mid-October, I co-designed and ran a “contested US election” matrix game for The New Yorker Radio Hour in which we examined what could go wrong after election night. Due to an unexpected problem the segment never aired, but it was a terrific game. So, with polls starting to close and as everyone waits for the actual American election results to come in, I thought I would say a little about it.

At the time the game was held, fears of a US election running off the rails were very real. Indeed, the highly regarded Crisis Group—which usually reports on places like Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, or Nagorno-Karabakh– even put out a report on managing the risks of US election violence:

As the 3 November U.S. presidential election approaches, the country faces an unfamiliar danger. While Americans have grown used to a certain level of rancour in these quadrennial campaigns, they have not in living memory faced the realistic prospect that the incumbent may reject the outcome or that armed violence may result. That has changed in 2020 because of the emergence of risk factors that would spell trouble in any country: political polarisation bound up with issues of race and identity; the rise of armed groups with political agendas; the higher-than-usual chances of a contested outcome; and most importantly President Donald Trump, whose toxic rhetoric and willingness to court conflict to advance his personal interests have no precedent in modern U.S. history. The risk of unrest may ebb and flow as the final days of the campaign unfold, but it is almost certain to remain, and it will increase if either side forms the impression that the vote has been rigged.

Our scenario envisaged a tight race in which much depends on the counting of mail-in ballots—something that advisors to the Trump campaign acknowledged to the New York Times was a distinct possibility:

Trump advisers  said their best hope was if the president wins Ohio and Florida is too close to call early in the night, depriving Mr. Biden a swift victory and giving Mr. Trump the room to undermine the validity of uncounted mail-in ballots in the days after.

Another report added:

In his last days of campaigning, Mr. Trump has essentially admitted that he does not expect to win without going to court. “As soon as that election is over,” he told reporters over the weekend, “we’re going in with our lawyers.”

Trailing consistently in the polls, Mr. Trump in that moment said out loud what other Republicans have preferred to say quietly, which is that his best chance of holding onto power at this point may rest in a scorched-earth campaign to disqualify as many votes as possible for his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

If there is a clear-cut outcome on Tuesday night that could not plausibly be challenged via legal action, all of the planning on both sides could become moot. But if there is no decisive result, the following days would likely see an intensifying multifront battle fought in a variety of states.

After months of claiming that any election outcome other than a victory for him would have to have been “rigged,” the president used his final days on the campaign trail to cast doubt on the very process of tabulating the count, suggesting without any evidence that any votes counted after Tuesday, no matter how legal, must be suspect.

We weren’t the only ones to game out what could go wrong in the election, of course. The earlier work of the Transition Integrity Project has already been discussed at PAXsims.

Methodology

The game ran over two days. On each day there were two matrix turns planned, for a total of four (November 4, November 9, November 16, and mid-December). In practice we abandoned matrix game procedures for the last turn, and free-styled it in a lively series of moves, countermoves, and open discussion.

There were six main sets of actors:

  • Donald Trump (including the Trump Administration, Mike Pence, and the Trump/Pence campaign)
  • Joe Biden (including Kamala Harris and Biden/Harris campaign)
  • The Republican Establishment (Republican Members of Congress, Republican Governors, Republican state legislators, former Republican elected officials)
  • The Democratic Establishment (Democratic Members of Congress, Democratic Governors, Democratic state legislators, former Democratic Elected Officials)
  • The Extra-Establishment Right (QAnon conspiracy theorists, militia members, Proud Boys, right-wing social media trolls, OAN, InfoWars, police unions, etc.)
  • The Extra-Establishment Left (Black Lives Matter activists, Antifa activists, left-leaning celebrities, progressive social media, etc.)

In addition, two other actors could take actions when called upon or otherwise appropriate, as well as contribute to the broader discussion:

  • The Courts (Supreme Court of the United States, other federal and state courts)
  • The Military (Joint Chiefs of Staff, State Adjutants General, senior military commanders, intelligence community)

All were played by New Yorker writers or others with appropriate expertise. Adjudication used the assessed probabilities, whereby after an action had been proposed by a player and discussed, we polled participants (via a Zoom poll) for their view of the likelihood the action would be successful. We used this to establish a probability against which we then rolled percentage dice. Since all of our participants could reasonably claim to be subject matter expertise on the game topic, it worked very well.

The scenario described a very close election, in which everything hinged on the outcome in Pennsylvania.

The early count had Trump ahead, but mail-in ballots were still being counted and these were breaking two-to-one for the Biden campaign. It seemed likely—unless something happened—that the Democrats would eventually come out on top.

This is, of course, the worst possible scenario, which is exactly why it was the one we gamed. A unambiguous Biden or Trump victory wouldn’t pose the same risks to political stability.

The voting graphs here were dynamically linked to a Google spreadsheet, so they could be easily changed during the game.

The briefing sheets all outlined essentially the same situation, but were very much tailored to the world-view of the actors. The Biden briefing, for example, noted:

Once again, polls underestimated public support for President Trump. In late October, moreover, the President announced a successful  COVID-19 vaccine—though the medical establishment is divided on whether the vaccine in question is efficacious enough for widespread distribution. In several states, voter suppression tactics by Republican-led administrations may have cost the campaign tens of thousands of votes. As a result of all this, the Presidential election has proven to be much closer than expected. 

On election night the Biden/Harris campaign lost in both Arizona and Florida, and won only narrowly in Wisconsin and Michigan. 

Pennsylvania has emerged as an electoral battleground. 

In Pennsylvania, the President is currently ahead. However, according to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, mail-in ballots can still arrive for three more days (until Nov. 6th). Between COVID safety precautions and teams of lawyers challenging every ballot, a long count awaits.

Pennsylvania’s election was beset with irregularities. On election day and during the counting, groups of (often heavily-armed) Trump “poll watchers” have intimidated voters and officials alike. We’ve heard unsubstantiated reports about missing mail trucks, which some on the right have fixated on as proof that mail-in voting was somehow rigged.

A legal challenge about whether these ballots (which are expected to strongly favor Biden) can be counted is on its way to the US Supreme Court. 

The Republican-controlled Legislature in Pennsylvania has said that unless a winner is declared by December 1st, it will award the state’s electors to Trump (one full week ahead of the deadline to name electors). State Democratic legislators have threatened to relocate to West Virginia to prevent a quorum. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf (D) has vowed that Pennsylvania will not name electors until the full election results are certified by Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar (D). 

President Trump is  ahead in the national vote by a small fraction. However that lead will certainty be reversed as mail-in ballots in places like California get counted. 

Democrats seem to have narrowly captured the Senate, but three races are essentially too close to call. The new majority will not be seated until January 3rd. Democrats have kept control of the House.

Amy Coney Barrett has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. Barrett has cleared her hearings in a party line vote. Mitch McConnell has vowed that she will be confirmed by the Senate. 

Encouraged by the President, right-wing activists and militias have mobilized, with some arguing that force might be used to prevent a peaceful transfer of power. Several liberal justices have requested enhanced security measures in view of this growing threat. 

The number of COVID-19 cases is sharply on the rise once more. Some 300,000 Americans are projected to die by February, a total which could rise to half a million if the President and some Republican governors are successful in further easing restrictions, mask mandates, and other public health measures. Expert consensus is that, despite the premature President’s vaccine announcement, widespread vaccination will not be possible until the late summer.

Conversely, the Trump briefing spun the situation as a Trump victory that would be stolen away through absentee ballots. For its part, the Extra-Establishment Right briefing warned:

America now faces perhaps its greatest DANGER since the Revolution. The Deep State and communist agitators are CONSPIRING to overturn the election results. The President has signalled that he needs OUR HELP to defeat this conspiracy. #WWG1WGAWe have information that the Democrats plan to flood the count  fraudulent Biden mail-in ballots, previously harvested by their activists. Before the election, Antifa anarchists stole several mail-trucks containing blank ballots. Local officials in some Democratic-controlled districts also rebuffed poll-watching and ballot security measures undertaken by patriotic groups of Americans freely exercising their 2nd amendment rights. Clearly they had something to hide.

As previously noted, we ran this as as a matrix game over Zoom, with a deck of Google slides used to update the players with the current vote count, news stories, legal deadlines, and other information. Using Google slides in this way it was possible for me to share them with the players, while other members of support team modified future slides behind the scenes to reflect new developments. You can see them here:

In the past, I’ve found matrix games a bit ponderous online—people simply just aren’t as efficient at online discussion and you lose the ability to easily have multiple side conversations during game play. I must say, however, that the team put together by The New Yorker were outstanding. I think this had a lot to do with most of them being journalists, and most having substantial television or radio experience—a setting in which you rarely have more than a minute to answer any one question and only six or seven minutes in the entire segment to get your broader analysis across.

Game Summary

The game started with President Trump complaining vociferously about mail-in ballot “fraud,” a narrative that was much amplifed by the Extra Establishment Right (including faked videos of supposed wrong-doing). The courts were not very responsive to such complaints, however, seeing no evidence of widespread or systematic abuse and preferring to leave the status quo intact in the midst of vote-counting.

The White House escalated by ending federal law enforcement to (federal) post offices and mail sorting centres in Pennsylvania for “security” purposes and seize ballots and look for evidence of the alleged fraud. It was a bit late, however—but this point almost all the ballots were at (state/county) counting centres. Moreover, the (Democratic) Governor of Pennsylvania responded by deploying Pennsylvania State Police to vote-counting locations. As tensions rose the Extra-Establishment Left organized peaceful candlelight vigils. These soon grew to a national campaign.

As the vote started to shift decisively to the Biden campaign, Pennsylvania Republicans considered assigning their own set of electors for the Electoral College. That initiative was unsuccessful, however, with too many members of their own party finding it a step too far. Had they been successful, the Democratic establishment was thinking of responding in kind in other states.

Biden has pulled ahead.

Given the failure of efforts in the Courts to stop the counting and with Pennsylvania Republicans unwilling to override voters, President Trump’s Twitter feed became even hotter and more voluminous. Police resources were increasingly overstretched by the need to safeguard vote counting centres and keeping an eye on vigils. There was some low-level violence and arson attacks, but the risk of something more serious couldn’t be discounted. As a result, Pennsylvania decided to call up some National Guard units to assist the police.

There was growing concern in the Pentagon about how this might all play out. Indeed, efforts had made to assure any military response would be slow and deliberate, stalling for time if necessary and trying to stay out of the political fray. Concerns grew further when the President started to tweet about federalizing the National Guard too, putting soldiers in the position of having their Commander-in-Chief seemingly at odds with their Governor. Pennsylvania National Guard commanders were careful in which units were called up and where they were sent, focusing on those that were known to have good discipline and calm, level-headed commanders—a tacit acknowledgement that some in the military might handle a fraught situation worse than others.

At this point, Russia dramatically stepped-up social media and other digital activities with the intention of further escalating tensions and possibly provoking more widespread violence. In response, the Pentagon took the decision to retaliate with limited offensive cyber attacks against certain Russian internet capabilities. The White House was not consulted in advance on this, with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs arguing this was an immediate defensive response by United States Cyber Command that required no prior approval.

As tensions grew, the stock market started to tank. It also became apparent that the Supreme Court—even with the addition of Amy Coney Barrett—was not going to intervene in the election tally in the absence of actual evidence of fraud. With this, many key Republicans (including many major Republican donors) became concerned at the growing potential for violence, political chaos, and economic crisis . Some reached out to the Democrats to see whether Biden campaign might offer political inducements (such as a promise of no “court packing”) to secure Republican endorsement of the election process and outcome. Biden was under pressure from the left of his party not to agree, but he was inclined to hold firm anyway. He had very much stayed the course throughout, counting on the process to work while the Democratic Establishment mobilized legal and other resources to fight for every vote cast.

And so the game ended, with President Trump still tweeting angrily from his bunker beneath the White House, National Guard, federal law enforcement, and State Police deployed across Pennsylvania, sporadic acts of limited violence—but a transition to a new Biden presidency seeming largely assured.

Whether the political divisions and fractures caused by the process might afflict the United States in the coming years remained to be seen.

Final Thoughts

After it was all over, some participants said they felt reassured that the process and institutions had indeed worked. To me, however, it rather felt like careening down the hairpin turns of a steep and narrow mountain road in a car with no brakes. Sure, it’s great to arrive intact at the bottom of the mountain at the end, but it is also worth remembering how close you came to careening over the edge of cliff. There were several points in the game where things could easily become much worse.

In practical terms, it was one of the best matrix games I’ve taken part in: thoughtful participants, great discussions, and useful insight. At the time of writing this, I have no idea how prescient it might be—but let’s hope the actual days following November 3 are rather less contentious.

Atlantic Council: Competitive strategy insights from wargames

The Atlantic Council has just released a new report on “Competitive strategy insights from wargames,” which summarizes the results of a series of recent games.

How the US military prioritizes future force-modernization investments has the potential to shape long-term geopolitical and military competition. Beyond increasing lethality, new capabilities also affect how rival great powers like China and Russia conduct strategic planning and make decisions on the types of forces best suited to challenge the United States.

To assess this dynamic, the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its Forward Defense practice area hosted a series of competitive strategy games to evaluate: how US national security professionals allocated resource investments across Army Futures Command (AFC) moderniza- tion priorities (Long-Range Precision Fires, Future Vertical Lift, etc.) in order to advance US strategy; and the extent to which these investments altered military strategy and defense-modernization programs in China and Russia, both played by subject-matter experts (SMEs).

Two unexpected outcomes emerged. First, a new stability-instability paradox defined the competitive investment cycle. Within the games, the United States focused on bolstering its conventional deterrent and warfighting capabilities through technology, but both China and Russia players responded to new US technology by funding proxy clients, the Belt and Road Initiative, cyber operations, and propaganda…. The results produce counterintuitive findings for future force-modernization and force-design initiatives. Based on these insights, the United States should counter its competitors’ asymmetric advantages by exploring low-cost ways to bolster US and allied forces operating in the contact layer and supporting gray-zone activities….

Second, new capabilities create new escalation risks. Russia players voiced concerns about inadvertent escalation. They assumed that the extended ranges associated with modernized US long-range precision strike could be used against Moscow’s strategic (i.e., nuclear) forces. Accordingly, they sought to attack these long-range fires early in a crisis or conflict, which could produce dangerous escalation spirals….

The games were modified matrix games. By establishing several different US teams, variations in US strategy and technology investment could be explored.

You can download the full report at the link above.

Brooks: What’s the worst that could happen?

In today’s Washington Post, Rosa Brooks (Georgetown University) further discusses the findings and implications of four recent crisis games examining potential challenges arising from the 2020 US presedential election:

We wanted to know: What’s the worst thing that could happen to our country during the presidential election? President Trump has broken countless norms and ignored countless laws during his time in office, and while my colleagues and I at the Transition Integrity Project didn’t want to lie awake at night contemplating the ways the American experiment could fail, we realized that identifying the most serious risks to our democracy might be the best way to avert a November disaster. So we built a series of war games, sought out some of the most accomplished Republicans, Democrats, civil servants, media experts, pollsters and strategists around, and asked them to imagine what they’d do in a range of election and transition scenarios.

With the exception of the “big Biden win” scenario, each of our exercises reached the brink of catastrophe, with massive disinformation campaigns, violence in the streets and a constitutional impasse. In two scenarios (“Trump win” and “extended uncertainty”) there was still no agreement on the winner by Inauguration Day, and no consensus on which candidate should be assumed to have the ability to issue binding commands to the military or receive the nuclear codes. In the “narrow Biden win” scenario, Trump refused to leave office and was ultimately escorted out by the Secret Service — but only after pardoning himself and his family and burning incriminating documents.

For obvious reasons, we couldn’t ask Trump or Biden — or their campaign aides — to play themselves in these exercises, so we did the next best thing: We recruited participants with similar backgrounds. On the GOP side, our “players” included former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, conservative commentator Bill Kristol and former Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson. On the Democratic side, participants included John Podesta, chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and a top White House adviser to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; Donna Brazile, the campaign chair for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run; and Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan. Other participants included political strategists, journalists, polling experts, tech and social media experts, and former career officials from the intelligence community, the Justice Department, the military and the Department of Homeland Security.

It is all rather dire stuff, although Brooks ends on a hopdeful note:

But there’s some good news: This kind of exercise doesn’t predict the future. In fact, war-gaming seeks to forecast all the things that could go wrong — precisely to prevent them from happening in real life. And if the Transition Integrity Project’s exercises highlighted various bleak possibilities, they also suggested some ways we might, as a nation, avoid democratic collapse.

For more on the games, see the full Transitions Integrity Project report archived here.


For current poll aggregation and modelling of the US presidential campaign, PAXsims readers may find the following resources useful.

FiveThirtyEight

Current (3 September) election prediction from FiveThirtyEight. For the the most recent version, go here.

The Economist

Current (3 September) election prediction from The Economist. For the the most recent version, go here.

Nature: Two decades of pandemic war games failed to account for Donald Trump

Before the current COVID-19 pandemic, American pandemic preparedness had been the subject of numerous serious policy games. At Nature this month, Amy Maxmen and Jeff Tollefson ask why the US response has been much worse than those games anticipated.

Event 201 was one of dozens of simulations and evaluations over the past two decades that have highlighted the risks of a pandemic and identified gaps in the ability of governments and organizations around the world to respond.

The exercises anticipated several failures that have played out in the management of COVID-19, including leaky travel bans, medical-equipment shortages, massive disorganization, misinformation and a scramble for vaccines. But the scenarios didn’t anticipate some of the problems that have plagued the pandemic response, such as a shortfall of diagnostic tests, and world leaders who reject the advice of public-health specialists.

Most strikingly, biosecurity researchers didn’t predict that the United States would be among the hardest-hit countries. On the contrary, last year, leaders in the field ranked the United States top in the Global Health Security Index, which graded 195 countries in terms of how well prepared they were to fight outbreaks, on the basis of more than 100 factors. President Donald Trump even held up a copy of the report during a White House briefing on 27 February, declaring: “We’re rated number one.” As he spoke, SARS-CoV-2 was already spreading undetected across the country.

Now, as COVID-19 cases in the United States surpass 4 million, with more than 150,000 deaths, the country has proved itself to be one of the most dysfunctional. Morhard and other biosecurity specialists are asking what went wrong — why did dozens of simulations, evaluations and white papers fail to predict or defend against the colossal missteps taken in the world’s wealthiest nation? By contrast, some countries that hadn’t ranked nearly so high in evaluations, such as Vietnam, executed swift, cohesive responses.

The scenarios still hold lessons for how to curb this pandemic, and for how to respond better next time. Deadly pandemics are inevitable, says Tom Frieden, a former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “What’s not inevitable is that we will continue to be so underprepared.”

Part of the answer, as the title of their article suggests, is Donald Trump:

Confusion emerged in most pandemic simulations, but none explored the consequences of a White House sidelining its own public-health agency. Perhaps they should have, suggests a scientist who has worked in the US public-health system for decades and asked to remain anonymous because they did not have permission to speak to the press. “You need gas in the engine and the brakes to work, but if the driver doesn’t want to use the car, you’re not going anywhere,” the scientist says.

However, they also note that—regardless of who occupies the presidency—institutions also failed to respond to insights and warnings that emerged from many of these games.

Perhaps the biggest limitation of simulation exercises was that they didn’t actually drive policymakers to prioritize and fund improvements to the public-health system. Morrison now questions whether it’s even possible to do that through simulations alone, or whether people must experience an epidemic at first hand.

The vulnerability of games (and, by extension, policy response) to idiosyncratic player/policymaker effects, and the difficult of translating game results into real world consequences, is something that was debated in a classic 1964 internal RAND discussion between Robert Levine, Thomas Schelling, and William Jones—which every policy gamer should read. I’ve also addressed the challenge of gaming unpredictable and unreliable decision-makers in the specific context of the Trump Administration, while Devin Ellis has commented on the problems that arise when game insights are not translated into policy or preparedness.

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

Transition Integrity Project: Preventing a disrupted presidential election and transition

As previously mentioned at PAXsims, the Transitions Integrity Project has conducted a series of matrix games on what could go wrong in the 2020 US election and a subsequent presidential transition. The games have been covered by the Washington Post, Boston Globe, NPR, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.

In June 2020 the Transition Integrity Project (TIP) convened a bipartisan group of over 100 current and former senior government and campaign leaders and other experts in a series of 2020 election crisis sce- nario planning exercises. The results of all four table-top exercises were alarming. We assess with a high degree of likelihood that November’s elections will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape. We also assess that the President Trump is likely to contest the result by both legal and extra-legal means, in an attempt to hold onto power. Recent events, including the President’s own unwillingness to commit to abiding by the results of the election, the Attorney General’s embrace of the President’s groundless electoral fraud claims, and the unprecedented deployment of federal agents to put down leftwing protests, underscore the extreme lengths to which President Trump may be willing to go in order to stay in office.

In this report, TIP explains the basis for our assessment. Our findings are bolstered by the historical expe- rience of Bush v. Gore (2000) and other U.S. electoral dysfunctions. The closest analogy may be the elec- tion of 1876, a time of extreme partisanship and rampant disenfranchisement, where multiple states proffered competing slates of electors, and the election was only resolved through a grand political bargain days before Inauguration—one that traded an end to Reconstruction for electoral peace and resulted in a century of Jim Crow, leaving deep wounds that are far from healed today.

The full report from those games is now available (pdf):

UPDATE: If you are interested in the Transition Integrity Project, you’ll also be interested in The New Yorker election simulation—the scenario for which has turned out to be very close to the actual 2020 election, with much depending on the outcome in Pennsylvania.

[Comments have been disabled.]

CNAS: A deadly game in the East China Sea

The Center for a New American Security has posted the video of their recent wargame of a future militarized crisis in the East China Sea. Each turn, members of the audience chose from among the options presented by CNAS experts, who then gamed the results.

The post-game session included not only the scenario and East Asia security issues, but there also a discussion (at 1:46:35) on the value of diversity in serious gaming.

Practical lessons from teaching online with wargames at CGSC

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


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

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

We ran wargames for 3 different courses:

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

Key Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease of use beats flashy presentation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything takes longer online.  

Your game is hostage to hardware issues beyond your control.

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

Ideally, each participant should have least 2 large monitors.

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

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

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

Technology in More Detail

Communications

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

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

Wargame Engines

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

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

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

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

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

Two key workarounds we used with VASSAL:

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

Tabletopia (https://tabletopia.com/)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roll20.net (https://roll20.net/)

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

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

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

No Computer Games – Why?

We avoided computer games for several reasons:

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

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

Teaching the Games

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching the Courses

Bitter Woods for the Art of War Scholars Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aftershock for the Homeland Security Planner’s Elective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History in Action Elective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Takeaways

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

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

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

After the Apex: A game of exit strategies from COVID-19

The following article was written for PAXsims by Ben Taylor (Defence Research and Development Canada) and Benjamin Williams (Professeur des Universités, IAE & CleRMa, Université Clermont Auvergne). The views expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.

For more on gaming the impact and aftermath of the pandemic, see the PAXsims COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.


The authors met through a workshop on Wargaming the Pandemic hosted by the King’s Wargaming Network that was held 1-2 April 2020. BW gave a presentation in which he set out an idea for a matrix game on the COVID-19 crisis that could be supported by quantitative epidemiological and economic models. BT had previous experience with matrix games and offered to collaborate on the idea. This project is therefore itself a product of the COVID-19 crisis as the authors are unlikely to have met or to have found a common project to work on without it.

We decided from the outset that we wanted to design a game that tackled the COVID-19 crisis in a country from the point after the initial lock-down measures had flattened the curve. This phase would require a balancing act by political leaders as they face challenges on three axes: economic, social and healthcare. We termed these the three frontlines of the battle against COVID-19. Our aim was for a game that would sensitise decision-makers to issues that they might face and one in which choices would be constrained by the cross-coupling between the frontlines; for example that returning people to work in offices would likely increase the rate of infection, or that a renewed lock-down would lead to public discontent. We also wanted to introduce some quantitative models to help elaborate upon the consequences of player actions.

We also decided that we did not want to build a detailed game around a specific country. Rather we wanted a tool that could be customised to any country. That required the game to have a generic framework to which national specific details could be added. For development purposes we settled upon the fictitious country of Bretonia which has a government structure like Canada and the economy of France. Our generic framework envisaged four players to represent key elements of the country; the national government, the lower tier governments, the business sector and the public health system. A fifth player, termed “The Crisis”, represents all other domestic groups, external actors and anything else that could happen to challenge the other players’ efforts. An example of the customisation necessary comes from different national approaches to healthcare funding. In Canada healthcare is a provincial responsibility, whereas in France it is mainly funded by the national government through the social security system. This difference would have to be represented in the roles and responsibilities of the two government players.

One of the first steps in designing the game was to develop an influence diagram that showed how various parts of the economy, business, government finances, social attitudes, the healthcare system and the pandemic itself are connected.  This provided the reassurance that everything that we wanted to be in scope was captured. The model also provided insight to where knock-on effects (positive or negative) might be felt, which would provide for consistent adjudication.  

We also built a dashboard that displays selected metrics grouped across the three front lines, a macroeconomic model, a model of the infection and fatalities and a slide deck for displaying new stories each turn. This latter part of the game was developed to provide some humour, some cultural flavour and to allow attention to be drawn to specific sectors of the economy. We also prepared a number of bad news stories to be injected if any of the economic or social metrics approached worrying levels.

Many design issues common to matrix games apply equally to this game. Among those that we encountered are:

  • The advantages of having players who have played matrix games before.
  • The need for subject matter experts to support adjudication if the results are to be realistic.
  • The challenges for players to switch between role-playing and becoming engaged participants in adjudicating arguments.
  • Whether the players should be left to solve the basic problem of opening the economy without triggering a spike in infections, or to subject them to additional external challenges, and in the latter whether it is best to script the injects or to have them occur randomly (the answer of course is “it depends”). 
  • The balancing act between allowing players to discuss the proposed actions in detail and curtailing discussion in order to speed up the game.

The game has been run twice with participants from Europe and Canada using a video conference link with supporting text chat facility, a Google slides deck to share news stories, and Google sheets to share the dashboard of metrics and to provide an online tool to capture the participants’ assessments of the likelihood of success of proposed actions. This setup worked very well and participants felt that they could communicate with each other and access the information that was required. There was agreement that the game largely felt right, but that play was slow. The supporting quantitative models were not used extensively. In particular the epidemiological model implemented according to formulation drawn from the literature produced counter-intuitive results and proved impossible to fit to the observed progress of the outbreak in Canada. This placed a particular burden upon the adjudicator to determine how to adjust the dashboard in response to player actions. 

Our next objective will be to design a discussion-based game without the matrix structure in order to compare the utility of the two gaming techniques in addressing the management of the COVID-19 crisis. 

The past as prelude: urban protest edition

In March 2018 I ran an three day urban protest crisis game in support of an academic conference on urban conflict.

During that game, the hardline Minister of the Interior ordered protesters cleared and activists arrested from outside a historic church in the center of the capital. Outside policing experts (in the game, a UN CIVPOL advisor played a real life senior Italian Carabinieri officer) advised against this, warning it would only inflame tensions. The Mayor of the capital opposed the move too. The national government nevertheless mobilized military forces and cleared the square in front of the church. Local authorities and many religious leaders condemned the move and sought to have the troops withdrawn.

Who knew it would turn out to be Washington DC in 2020.

A report on the game (from this book) can be found here:

And, on a much, much more serious note—and like 16th Avenue now says—Black Lives Matter.

WotR: Gordon, Joyner and Benitez on “Competitive wargaming in a pandemic”

At War on the Rocks, Thomas J. Gordon IV, James Joyner, and Jorge Benitez address “May Madness: Competitive Wargaming In A Pandemic.”

What starts with the enemy sinking three of your amphibious assault ships, and ends with a toddler interrupting the outbrief to a three-star general? A successful wargame in the age of COVID-19.

When the Marine Corps Command and Staff College was forced to shift from in-person instruction to a distance-learning model in response to the outbreak, the faculty and staff were confident that we could make our seminars work. We were not so sanguine about the execution of our capstone exercise, Pacific Challenge X. The scale and complexity of running a 250-odd person wargame, remotely, seemed daunting, indeed.

The results exceeded even our highest expectations. What was thought to be a threat to execution turned out to be an incredible opportunity. The distributed virtual medium actually increased participation from a host of different agencies and stakeholders, who otherwise would not have been able to support the event. And the natural friction created by the distributed online format, to our pleasant surprise, increased realism.

Given the realization that disaggregation is not only possible but, in many ways, better, future exercises will capitalize on the insights of this event.

The article makes several interesting points, including this one:

The natural friction created by the distributed online format, to our pleasant surprise, increased realism. Students playing the role of headquarters staff officers could not simply walk next door to discuss targeting or collection with colleagues. The framework forced the students to communicate via various digital media to collaborate and produce products.

I made much the same point to a major humanitarian organization recently, in a discussion on how to shift some of their simulation-based training to a distributed, online environment.

“Flattening the Curve” matrix game report

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Tim Price has been kind enough to pass on this report from a recent play of the Flattening the Curve matrix game.


 

Last night I managed to get 11 volunteers together to play a distributed version of the Flattening the Curve matrix game over Zoom. It was an interesting and frustrating experience, but I thought it might be worthwhile sharing it with you.

Technology

We used Zoom for the video chat. We felt it was very important to be able to speak and see each other and Zoom has a simple and intuitive mosaic screen setup that is particularly useful for the Facilitator. The surround to the image is highlighted to show the current speaker, interrupters are shown with a highlighted line under them, and their names appear under their faces (really very useful indeed). Of particular interest for running a Matrix Game, it is possible to sent private messages to named individuals using the chat function in the application. It was also stable for the 3hrs we played.

We used Google Slides for the game map (see here). With the map itself as the background image and a number of counters imported as images onto the map (and left outside the slide boundary), so everyone could see and collaboratively move the counters if necessary. It is useful to duplicate the last slide for every turn, so you have a record of the map after each turn, and that also allows a run through at the end as an After Action Review.

Finally, we used Mentimeter  to be able to carry out the “Estimative Probability” method of adjudication.FTC1.png

When using Estimative Probability players or teams are asked to assess the chances of success of an argument, and these are aggregated to reveal the “Crowd Sourced” chance of success. In analytical games, this provides potentially valuable insight into how participants rate the chances of a particular course of action. Following discussion, players select the option on the Mentimeter slide which, in their view, best represents the probability of the argument’s success. These are displayed immediately to the Facilitator, but not to the players, so it is using hidden voting. It is generally felt that this is a more accurate method to leverage the work on Crowd Sourcing, as well as making the resulting probability more accessible and acceptable to the participants. The terms on the slide also reflected those commonly used in the intelligence community.

The advantage with Mentimeter over other poll and voting systems is that it is free, feedback is instant, and you can use a single slide for all the Matrix Arguments, because you can re-set the results each time. Of course, if you want to have a record of the results, you will have to buy the upgraded version, or save a screenshot each turn (which is a pain).

Running the Game

As is normally the case with video conferences, we had the usual difficulties getting everyone onto the Zoom, with sensible names displayed instead of “Owner’s iPad”, so the start was a little delayed. I had put out a Loom video with a short introduction about Matrix Games, but inevitably a few of the players hadn’t been able to view it, so we were delayed starting as I had to explain how the game would play.

As the game went on, I modified the map (based on some helpful collaboration with TNO in the Netherlands), to make it easier to follow. The revised map is here:

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The game played perfectly well, but at a slower pace that if it had been face to face, and it was certainly more tiring for me as the Facilitator. The inter-turn negotiation between team members and other teams was carried out using Whatsapp:  and Whatsapp Web so was private to the other players.

Results

We were time limited and were only able to have 11 participants in the end – but it was mainly a trial to see if running a Matrix Game remotely is at all possible. We got a few insights from the game, one of which I will share – as we all go into working from home full-time and are switching to remote working, we end up downloading all sorts of software and applications that we would never have normally dealt with. This increases the threat surface for cyber-attacks by an order of magnitude, so correct digital hygiene is going to be as important as washing your hands.

Post-Game Predictions

Following the game, we quickly did a couple of polls, hopefully better informed by the experience of the game:

  • Each participant was asked to give me their MOST IMPORTANT thing that would happen over the next month (please note the definition of “thing” was left deliberately vague so the players could decide for themselves what it meant).
  • They were then asked to vote on which of these was the MOST LIKELY thing to happen.

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  • Next, each participant was asked to give me their MOST IMPORTANT long-term consequence of Coronavirus.
  • They were then asked to vote on which of these was the MOST LIKELY thing to happen.

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Conclusion

It is possible to run a Matrix Game remotely, but it is very tiring for the Facilitator and takes much longer than you thought it would.

The right choice of technology can make a real difference – so mandated standards and corporate choices may well have an impact on the experience. This means that practicing, as I was, while waiting for the corporate roll out of their platform of choice might end up especially frustrating, when I am unable to do something that I know a free app on the internet will let me. But downloading all those free apps and trying them out could be dangerous, because the bad guys are definitely out to get you…


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

Facing the apocalypse

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Arriving in the morning to set up.

Last week, (simulated) federal and provincial officials and members of the PAXsims team met in a top secret nuclear bunker outside Ottawa to respond to the grave threat of global pandemic. This wasn’t COVID-19, however, or even African Swine Fever. This was the zombie apocalypse.

The occasion was the decidedly not-serious Apocalypse 2 North megagame and the location was the “Diefenbunker”—Canada’s former Cold War government command centre in Carp (about 20 minutes west of Ottawa), now a museum. The game was organized by the Ottawa Megagames group, many of whom had helped us run Apocalypse North at McGill University last year. This time there were 56 participants.

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Mobilization Control arrives with a plentiful supply of coffee.

Let me start by saying that the Diefenbunker Museum may well be the most awesome place on the entire planet to run a game. The bunker is big—with four underground floors and three hundred rooms, it was designed to withstand a 5 megaton nuclear detonation 1.1 miles away and thereafter support 535 civilian and military personnel for a month or more. The place is also remarkably intact, filled with 1960s-80s decor and equipment from its days as CFB (Canadian Forces Base) Carp. The Prime Minister’s bed, for example, is the original. If you are ever in the Ottawa area, make sure you visit!

 

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We even had a red telephone.

We utilized large parts of the 300 level, including the War Cabinet Room, the Emergency Government Situation Centre, the Military Information Centre, the Prime Minister’s Office and Suite, the CBC studios, and various other offices. The staff were extremely helpful and even let us use the bunker’s PA system to make game announcements. Players also had access to other areas of the complex and ate lunch in the cafeteria there.

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Briefing the players.

The game started with a briefing—appropriately enough, in the Military Information Centre. There had been a strange rash of unexplained attacks in Atlanta, home to the Centers for Disease Control. These soon started to spread across the United States. As violence grew, thousands of fearful Americans sought refuge in Canada.

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Players consult the national map. Picture credit: Madeline Johnson.

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The Windsor (left) and Niagara (right) maps. Picture credit: Matt Stevens.

Some of those refugees were infected, however. Other zombies crossed the border or washed ashore. Very soon, southern Ontario found itself under attack from growing hordes of undead.

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Things begin to deteriorate in the Niagara area. Picture credit: Madeline Johnson.

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The Windsor map. Several Tim Hortons doughnut stores in the Windsor area have been closed, underscoring the severity of the crisis. Picture credit: Madeline Johnson.

The federal government quickly declared a national state of emergency. Military units were mobilized, as were additional civilian resources. The US Embassy offered what help it could, and some American police and military units fled to Canada and joined the fight.

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Federal officials meet.

No Canadian crisis would be complete with constitutional complications, of course. However, federal-provincial cooperation was generally excellent.

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The Prime Minister and Premier of Ontario meet, as a CBC reporter lurks in the background.

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Military mobilization underway. Picture credit: Matt Stevens.

Unfortunately, at one key point Ottawa was left undefended. It was soon infected, forcing the cabinet to go into lockdown.

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Ottawa under siege! Picture credit: Madeline Johnson.

The Prime Minister, who had been making a speech to the nation, was trapped at the Ottawa CBC studios until evacuated by RCMP helicopter. Shortly thereafter, RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police teams liberated the capital.

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The Prime Minister communicates with the cabinet by walkie talkie while awaiting rescue.

Things looked bad in Québec too, with much of the province overrun.

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Zombies enter Montreal. Picture credit: Madeline Johnson.

Fortunately the situation there was soon addressed by units from the 2e Division du Canada out of CFB Valcartier. Later, some of these units travelled south to assist Vermont and New York National Guard units in establishing a safe zone around Burlington.

In Ontario, much of initial burden of dealing withe the zombie hordes fell on police. Those in Windsor were especially effective. Later they were reinforced by local Canadian Armed Forces reservists and regular units from CFB Petawawa.

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Federal, provincial, and local officials consult.

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The Prime Minister discusses the crisis with Canada’s First Nations.

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Casualties mount. Hospitals like these would soon find themselves overstretched.

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Medical and scientific professionals were key to fighting the zombie virus pandemic.

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Much of southwest Ontario is being overrun. Picture credit: Madeline Johnson.

Rumours swirled that the Tim Hortons doughnut chain was somehow responsible for the  apocalypse, and their headquarters was raided in a joint RCMP-OPP operation. It turned out, however, that they were a secret zombie-fighting organization.

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Tim Hortons is raided by police. Picture credit: Matt Stevens.

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All of our map controllers and zombiemeisters possessed first-class pointing skills.

First Nations leaders provided another critical part of the puzzle, revealing that the zombie virus was endemic to North America, and had been responsible for past outbreaks in pre-colonial times. This information, together with technical assistance from the World Health Organization, allowed the Public Health Agency of Canada to first develop more effective treatment protocols and later a vaccine. With this, the tide began to turn. Canada would be saved!

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Scientists and health ministers and others celebrate the discovery of a vaccine.

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The Prime Minister holds a press conference announcing the discovery of the vaccine.

It was a terrific day—perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had at a megagame. We look forward to holding additional events there once the (current, real world) pandemic is under control.


To contribute to global efforts against the COVOD-19 pandemic, please consider making a contribution to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. For each comment left below PAXsims will make an additional contribution.

Reflections from an infectious disease outbreak matrix game

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The latest issue of the open-access Journal of Globalization and Health 16 (2020) features an article by Julia Smith, Nathan Sears, Ben Taylor, and Madeline Johnson on “Serious games for serious crises: reflections from an infectious disease outbreak matrix game.” This is the same pandemic response game featured in a previous PAXsims report last year.

Background

While there is widespread recognition of global health failures when it comes to infectious disease outbreaks, there is little discussion on how policy-makers and global health organizations can learn to better prepare and respond. Serious games provide an underutilized tool to promote learning and innovation around global health crises. In order to explore the potential of Serious Games as a policy learning tool, Global Affairs Canada, in collaboration with the Department of National Defense and academic partners, developed and implemented a matrix game aimed at prompting critical reflection and gender-based analysis on infectious disease outbreak preparedness and response. This commentary, written by the core development team, reflects on the process and outcomes of the gaming exercise, which we believe will be of interest to others hoping to promote innovative thinking and learning around global health policy and crisis response, as well as the application of serious games more broadly.

Main body

Participants reported, through discussions and a post-game survey, that they felt the game was reflective of real-world decision-making and priority-setting challenges during a crisis. They reflected on the challenges that emerge around global health co-operation and outbreak preparedness, particularly noting the importance of learning to work with private actors. While participants only sporadically applied gender-based analysis or considered the social determinants of health during the game, post-game discussions led to reflection on the ways in which equity concerns are put aside during a crisis scenario and on why this happens, offering critical learning opportunities.

Conclusion

Matrix games provide opportunities for policy-makers and health professionals to experience the challenges of global health co-operation, test ideas and explore how biases, such as those around gender, influence policy-making and implementation. Due to their flexibility, adaptability and accessibility, serious games offer a potentially powerful learning tool for global health policy-makers and practitioners.

A post-game survey indicated that participants were generally impressed by the utility of matrix games in foreign policy planning and development in general, and for thinking about how Global Affairs Canada might respond to a global pandemic in particular.

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By playing the game, participants felt they better understood the issues and challenges involved, with regard to both global health and security issues and gender-based analysis.

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For another recent game on the value of matrix games in exploring pandemic preparedness, see our report on Gaming African Swine Fever.

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