PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and game reports

Onward to Victory with Dstl!

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

Public release identifier DSTL/PUB103767

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

20170728_PAXsims Agenda

Monday: Presentations

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tuesday: Matrix Gaming and MaGCK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wednesday: More matrix gaming, and a dockyard tour

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday: Playtesting and game design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“One Belt, One Road” matrix game

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


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

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COL Jerry Hall discussing the rules of OBOR-MG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Playtesting the game.

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

Ryan Carragher

 

Gaming the apocalypse: Northland edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trustin Judeau at London Health Sciences Centre.

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

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

Mayor Mayhew tried to rally his troops:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grrrr, arghhh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reflections

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

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

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

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

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Federal and municipal officials discuss the recent crisis.

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

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

 

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WAMCOM Kevin Farnworth (left).

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

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

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The heroes of Northland.


Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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The Austin Archaria Experiment

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

PURPOSE

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

The experiment was predicated on the following propositions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

METHOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simulation and gaming miscellany, International Tabletop Day 2017 edition

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

PAXsims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PAXsims

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

PAXsims

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

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You’ll find their full discussion here.

PAXsims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PAXsims

 

McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament 2017

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dwayne Parrish

Reflections on (another) McGill megagame

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Map Control (me), pointing.

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

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The United Nations Security Council meets.

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

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

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

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An archaeologist briefs the French ambassador.

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

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An extradimensional creature appears atop Mount Clewg.

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

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Militias (and Gao) unite to destroy the terror.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re already thinking ahead to next year’s game, which will (in view of the player enthusiasm it generated) continue the “Binni” theme.

GTB Logo 01.jpgThe Republic of Binni has been through incredible times and is now is recovering from the traumatic events of the ‘War In Binni’ – the previous McGill Megagame.  The country’s civil war ended when the repressive government collapsed soon after the assassination of the hated President Ancongo.  Under a new constitution, semi-autonomous Christian, Muslim, and Clewgist provinces were established in the south, east, and west of the country, all led by a weak federal government headed by former members of the opposition alliance. The Hand of God insurgency has been suppressed—but its supporters lurk in the shadows, plotting acts of terror.

In addition to the major political changes it has experienced, Binni was also the nexus of a series of remarkable events that has challenged humanity’s understanding of the Universe.  Ancient alien structures have been uncovered, and a powerful transdimensional entity was brought into our world causing havoc and destruction before being destroyed itself. Shortly after the creature was vanquished, several rifts appeared in the time-space continuum in the surrounding area. These gateways seem to connect to alien worlds and other dimensions. There is no telling what remarkable discoveries are waiting to be made—or what terrible entities might use the portals to threaten Earth itself.

In ‘Gateway to Binni’ rival factions and the government must try to build a stable nation and find ways of addressing some deep-seated communal tensions.  Meanwhile the country has become of even greater interest to the international community, as regional and great powers consider the potential power and perils of the transdimensional gateways. Can the factions in Binni leverage that interest into direct benefit for themselves and their supporters? And just who ended up with all those mysterious alien artifacts dug up during the War in Binni—and what do they actually do?

AFTERSHOCK at Pennsylvania State University

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


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

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

The following caveats should be noted:

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

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

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

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

To which we replied,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick LaLone 

Wikistrat: Turkey’s Intervention in the Syrian Civil War

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

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

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

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

Key Findings

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

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

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

h/t Shay Hershkovitz

Matrix game construction kit update #2

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I was in the UK this past week for a conference and several meetings, and while I was there Tom Mouat and I took the opportunity to run a playtest of A Reckoning of Vultures. This, as I’ve noted before, will be one of the sample game scenarios included in the forthcoming matrix game construction kit that Tom Mouat, Tom Fisher, and I are putting together.

I thought it went very well, both in terms of the physical game components (map, counters) and the scenario and associated special rules. We also received some very useful feedback from the participants. In particular, John Mizon has put together an excellent playtest report at his South West Megagames website:

On Sunday I was invited to “A Reckoning of Vultures”: a Matrix game designed by Tom Mouat and Rex Brynen [1]. The game is set in the capital of the fictional Republic of Matrixia, where the President-for-Life is on his death bed, and various power-hungry factions are jostling to control important parts of the city so they can seize power upon his imminent demise.

His report includes a full account of the game, including pictures. His detailed assessment will certainly prove very useful as we tweak the scenario further—so, on both of both ourselves and the oppressed workers of Matrixia, thank you John!

I should start by saying that this isn’t the first matrix game I have played – I have previously run a matrix game called ‘Kazhdyy Gorod’ [7]. Kazhdyy Gorod is similar to Reckoning, in that it is set in a fictional city undergoing political turmoil and unpredictability of who will end up in charge. Players complete to win popularity and power, trying to improve their situation (and often try to win more potential votes if it is decided the game ends with an election). The players have a map and unit/resource counters, but other than that there is very little structure (aside from the standard matrix game turn order/arguments process).

 I think that A Reckoning of Vultures benefited greatly from additional rules. The separation into two distinct phases of the game improved the pacing and helped flesh out the narrative; the use of specific counters for money, units and influence allowed for more satisfying tactical thinking; effective rules for combat meant you could clearly anticipate the benefits of which units you have; and having key locations to control meant that players had clear objectives to plan around – whilst still allowing enough freedom in the space in between to encourage both player creativity and development of a flexible narrative.

I believe that the key locations also solved an issue that I had found in Kazhdyy Gorod. Namely that the rigid turn order structure and range of actions available caused problems as to how long each player’s turn lasted in the game’s time. For example, one player’s ambush would happen in the same round as another player’s political campaign, and things became messy and it was hard to gauge what was happening within the narrative. The key locations meant that most turns were players moving to and/or doing something important in one location – thus ensuring that the turn times felt uniform.

As someone pointed out in the post-game discussion, there’s a significant amount of random chance, especially in the final phase – but I think that’s fine considering that it’s a relatively short game. The random dice rolling at the end also means that the key locations are not the final decider – if that were the case then players would be incentivised to be doing constant mental arithmetic over key location control (and potential future control) in order to win at the end, which I believe would be stressful and tedious. Adding random chance at the end means you can just do your best when obtaining key locations, taking actions based on instinct and informed guessing.

As Rex pointed out afterwards, the final phase of the game is also meant to show how a matrix game, benefiting from its value as a simulation, can be used to provide starting points for other types of game, such as the dice rolling mechanics of the final phase.

I have three negative observations, though the first two apply to matrix games in general, so they’re more systemic weaknesses than fixable problems or mistakes.

Firstly, it’s clear that matrix games are not for everyone. This is true of any kind of game of course, but matrix games look like board games and sound slightly like RPGs, whilst actually lacking a large amount of structure compared to these. If you are intending to play a matrix game with board game or RPG players, be careful to manage expectations. Matrix games’ strengths are in their ability to simulate and to create freeform narratives, so they’re best suited to players who will be willing to engage with games in order to experience those. If your players are likely to enjoy games less when they lack a lot of structure, be careful with matrix games; relative to other games, there is a lot of doubt and uncertainty about actions’ mechanical effects, and players will need to be able to move their focus away from winning sometimes in order to allow the simulation and communal narrative to work.

Secondly, as I know from experience with Kazhdyy Gorod, matrix games need a Facilitator who is both good at managing their players and comfortable with their knowledge of the setting. The freedom allowed by matrix games can end up leading to long debates about what will work and what won’t, or about what certain aspects of the setting are or aren’t. A good Facilitator needs to be able to be both flexible and firm – allowing player creativity and taking in arguments, but also knowing when to finish things and move on to avoid further debate that slows and muddies the game. Thankfully, Rex was a great Facilitator for our game.

The third criticism is more about the game as an event than as a game. The two main phases are of unpredictable length – which I thought was very interesting in terms of decision making during the game, but if you were planning to run this game, it might cause problems, as you wouldn’t know whether it would take under an hour to play or possibly up to about 4 hours. Depending on what context you are trying to organise this game in, this may be an issue. In a way, this can be seen in our playthrough – where the first phase was only two rounds long (about as short as it can reasonably be without someone deliberately assassinating the president), so we didn’t get to experience much of it, and this meant that there was less feedback on how well the first phase worked.

MORS wargaming AAR

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On 17-20 October 2016 the Military Operations Research Society held a special meeting on wargaming. PAXsims’ very own Tom Mouat was there both to help facilitate the event and to bring us the report below.

Additional details from regular PAXsims reader Paul Vebber follow after Tom’s report.


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I was privileged to be invited, along with colleagues from the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), to the MORS Wargaming Special Meeting on 17 to 21 October 2016 in Alexandria, VA. Rex couldn’t make it, so again I was deputised to provide PAXSims readers with a report.

It was clear in the lead-up to the event that this was to be a more in-depth look at a few things, rather than the usual conference offering of a shallow look at a large number of things. This was unusual and I’m not entirely sure that it provided the best fit for the stated aims for the workshop:

  • How best incorporate rigorous and well-designed wargaming into the department’s larger analytical and acquisition focus.
  • As the demand for wargaming continues to grow we need to increase the pool of wargamers and wargame designers to meet those needs now and into the future.

If you were a beginner, unsure as to the role and range of wargame tools and techniques, you might have got lucky in choosing the workshop sessions that met your requirements; but if you weren’t it is perfectly possible you would get stuck in a session unsuitable for your needs. This wasn’t helped by the descriptions issued prior to the event being a little less than clear and a number of session being classified and NOFORN (no foreigners). This was exacerbated when there were a number of last minute changes to programme aims, the sessions and their classification.

I had originally intended to look at a number of the sessions and provide assistance to the “Project Cassandra, Envisioning Possible Futures” session. However one of the wargaming sessions (when I say “sessions” it was actually four half-day sessions spread over three days) had the organisation running it (US Army Training and Doctrine Command/TRADOC pull out. I was invited to stand in and run the session on matrix gaming instead—which I was delighted to do.

Travel and subsistence budgets being what they are, the cheapest flights from the UK are on a Saturday, giving us the bonus of recovering from jetlag as well as the opportunity to do some additional professional development in visiting the battlefield of Gettysburg. This is a quite outstanding battlefield, well preserved and with an excellent visitor centre. There are a large number of different lessons that can be gained from looking at details of the large battle, over the two days of the fighting. The Dstl staff, led by their own historian, took advantage of this. Sadly I was unable to participate as I was doing last minute preparation for the sessions.

The hotel recommended for the event was excellent and ideally placed for the subsequent events which were held in the hotel and at the nearby Institute for Defence Analysis (IDA).

Monday, 17 October 2016

The first day included a course, “Wargaming Introduction and Theory,” run by Dr Peter Perla and Dr Ed McGrady, which lasted all day. In addition, a shorter course, “Executive Overview of Military Wargaming,”  was run by Mike Garrambone. I attended the first of these because the UK Defence Academy is intending to run its own “Introduction to Wargaming” course, and watching how two of the foremost experts in the field do it was likely to be extremely educational.

Peter Perla started and covered wargaming history, from the earliest games and models used for training and education, through to the birth of modern wargaming. This included Kriegsspiel, Johann Hellwig’s wargame, the introduction of geomorphic maps, real topographic mapping and the use of experienced umpires in order to reduce complexity and include military common sense. He also covered the rise of the hobby game, sparked off by H G Wells’ Little Wars; the crossover from RAND’s use of hexagons to regularise movement; and the game company Avalon Hill and its success in publishing games for the hobby market.

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Peter Perla reviews the evolution of wargaming.

The course went on to cover the rise of wargaming as a fundamental part of the analytical process in the inter-war years, particularly in the US Navy War College. This is probably one of the most innovative periods of concept and doctrine development which helped shape the conflict to come, not just in the USA but also among the German General Staff.

I noted that from this period that there were two observations that emerged from these wargames:

  • Some people are dicks.
  • Innovation takes time.

Some of the participants in the wargaming process are unable to see the value of exploring a situation or problem through a game, fail to take it seriously and behave inappropriately. This is not helpful, but wargame facilitators need to be aware of this, and develop mitigating strategies to deal with it or valuable opportunities will be lost. (I would also offer that this phenomenon is not limited to manual wargaming – computer simulation is also afflicted with personnel who seem unable to grasp what the process is trying to achieve and are negative or disruptive, however well run the game.)

Innovation is not a simple process with a short timescale. It takes time to breed the open minded and intelligent organisational culture where ideas are valued from wherever they arise and where change is embraced. It is only from this basis that sustained advances can be generated and genuine advantage realised.

We then moved on to Dr Ed McGrady who covered the theory of games, how they work, what approaches work best and the human response to games. He started with a warning that, while efforts are improving, there is still no proper epistemology of wargaming and no coherent theoretical treatment—especially of manual games although there is a reasonable amount of work dealing with computer games.

Diversity in this area is a challenge and there is no simple one definition to cover all wargames.

He went on to cover the elements that make up a game, wargames vs peace games, what is not a wargame and some of the foundations of the concept of “play.” In many professional and analytical games the designers seem to want to eliminate the “play” aspects of the wargame. This is wrong, fails to get buy-in to the process, followed by a lack of understanding of the problem space and ultimately results in a bad game.He covered the elements of play, the role of making them enjoyable in a defence analytical context, their internal structure and most importantly the psychological and neurological concept of narrative (leading to engagement, and the “entre deux”, the in-between space where disbelief is suspended and insights are gained).

This included the significant observation: Lunch is important! If you are going to the time and effort in order to involve the participants in a game, where future possibilities are envisaged, disbelief suspended, and the players fully engaged, it is foolhardy to jeopardise the event by refusing to provide lunch—forcing participants to disperse, lose the game immersion and focus, and ultimately much of the value of the process.

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Some of my notes from “Wargaming: Theory and Introduction.”

I have made many pages of notes, including the dramaturgical aspects of games, the concept of “flow”, games vs simulations, hard vs soft assumptions, the big questions about the effect games have, sociological work, and theoretical principles. Indeed, it was all much too much to be able to present a coherent commentary here without significant additional thought and the risk of boring you!

Which brings me to a concern. This was not really an introduction to wargaming. Instead, it was a masterclass in the theoretical underpinnings of the art, that included some really deep stuff. I found the day incredibly useful (and I am anxiously awaiting copies of the slides because I’m afraid that my hurried notes may well have missed something), but I am also a wargaming practitioner of many years, including running and designing games used by defence as well as the wider community. I suspect that a novice, seeking an initial understanding, might well become lost and confused…

…until they decided to demonstrate what they meant, by the use of the matrix game “Lasgah Pol” dealing with peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan (available as part of Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming). Since I designed the game , and was asked to demonstrate an example move, they are obviously geniuses!.

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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

This was the start of the special event proper, and followed the more usual format of a plenary keynote and panel sessions until shortly after lunch.

Following introductions and the US national anthem, we started with a keynote from Andrew Marshall, former advisor to the Secretary of Defence for Net Assessment. At first glance it looked like the organisers were rolling out someone from an earlier era, but he quickly contradicted that impression, demonstrating sharp and timely insight. He gave a brief history of the Office of Net Assessment and pointed out that reading long papers on a subject can take time and are likely to only explore the subject from a single point of view. Games, in contrast, were very quick at distilling issues to their essential fundamentals, but he also underlined the importance of a proper opposition (the Red players).

An example he gave was dealing with the Strategic Bomber programme. This was during the Cold War—strategic bombers were expensive compared to ballistic missiles, and there were calls to make cuts in the bomber fleet. Looking at the problems through a series of wargames demonstrated that the bomber fleet forced the enemy to invest in large quantities of air defence weapons. Since the enemy was resource limited, this was advantageous to the US. On the other hand, cutting the bomber fleet would permit an enemy to switch in investment from weapon systems that were essentially of limited use, to areas that would present more of a threat. This lead to the conclusion that when thinking about a subject it is often essential to look widely at the problem to ensure a holistic solution

Marshall also pointed out, from his vast experience, that if you want innovation you should select the best players and if you want good games you should use the best facilitators. Choose the best for the most important problems.

This was followed by the Defense Wargaming Alignment Group (DWAG) Quad Chair panel. This covered the initiative resulting from DEPSECDEF Robert Work’s February 2015 memo to institute a repository for wargames and their reports. It currently includes some 550 high level games on a wide range of topics, as well as including funding for additional games and wargaming projects (including funding the US DOD and foreign government attendance at the MORS event). They issue a monthly report including a listing of upcoming games, highlighting previous games that are in the depository, the usual statistics about the depository, and other areas about DOD wargaming.

I was initially very cynical about the value of such a depository, but it appears to have access at the highest levels and is being managed effectively. I was particularly impressed by the definite focus on innovation, increasing the decision space for the leadership, and the particular emphasis on “so what?”—that is, proper explanation of the value of the work done and links to real change. Of course, the repository is a US-only classified capability, but it certainly sounds useful. I’m now jealous!

The panel also covered the intriguing idea of using wargames to educate members of Congress. This was, of course, difficult, and would probably have to focus on their direct staff, but it still looks like a really good idea. They also mentioned the lack of value gained from games that generated obvious conclusions: “Don’t tell me we have a lack of a particular resource —we already know that. Tell me what you did to compensate for it and did it work!” which is, of course, intrinsically more useful.

The Services Panel followed, with a number of useful observations:

  • An understanding that putting on more, smaller sized, games helps frame specific problems.
  • Wargames and quantitative analysis are not enemies – they are complimentary, depending on each other.
  • There needs to be robust cost modelling in games – stop inventing stuff with ridiculously cheap costs.
  • Wargames help frame a problem properly for greater understanding (a recurring theme across the ages).
  • Wargaming as a discipline encourages plagiarism – get the best ideas to work for you from anywhere.

I was interested to see the Department of Homeland Security present, happy to learn from the mistakes of others and present with a sense of humour. They hope to avoid the OODA loop problem where it ends up as “Observe, Overreact, Destroy, Apologize,” instead of what it is meant to be.

The Combatant Commands were next and I was impressed at the real efforts to reinvigorate wargaming after decades of decline. It was acknowledged that the efforts were a little patchy in places, but equally there seemed to be a real appreciation of the value to be gained.

This was followed by the Allies panel, with contributions from the UK, Holland, Sweden and Canada. These showed that wargaming efforts were in place in each nation, even if at a vastly different level of effort to the USA. The UK chose to highlight the essential work of Dstl and the Connections UK conference, and Canada mentioned publishing a wargaming doctrine publication, something the UK are also working on.

Lastly we had a panel on Red Teaming from specialists in that discipline. They were initially surprised to be invited and explained the aim of Red Teaming is to get “better decisions and better plans”, through knowing oneself, mitigating group think, fostering empathy and through applied critical thinking.

Working Groups, Courses and Wargames

At this point we broke up into smaller groups to spend the rest of Tuesday, all day Wednesday and Thursday morning in our respective session. Because of this I lost sight of what else was going on, although Paul Vebber provides some additional insight at the end of this report.

The sessions were:

  • Working Group 1: Analytic Process with Paul Davis and Matt Caffrey. Classified. NOFORN.
  • Working Group 2: Communication and Implementation, with Paul Vebber.
  • Working Group 3: Adjudication, with Tim Wilkie.
  • Course 2: Red Teaming, with Steven Rotkoff.
  • Course 3: Structured Analytic Techniques, with Joseph Cyrulik.
  • Wargame 1: Project Cassandra – Envisioning Possible Futures, with Yuna Wong.
  • Wargame 2: Phase Zero Baltic Operations with Scott Simpkins. Not Classified, but NOFORN.
  • Wargame 3. Matrix Gaming, with Tom Mouat.
  • Synthesis Group: This was an oversight group with Peter Perla looking for common themes and best practices.

 

Matrix Wargaming

Since I had 4 sessions of about 4 hours each, and one of the benefits of matrix gaming is that games are quick to design and play, we did a different game in each session.

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Matrix game materials ready for play.

We started the game with a presentation on matrix wargames looking at different approaches and the value of roleplay in predicting the outcome of conflict. This was followed with “Kazhdyy Gorod” a game about a city in a former Soviet state on the border with Russia.

The game started extremely well, with everything looking on track to being sorted out with the minimum of trouble or bloodshed. Well, that was until the Chief of Police acted against orders from the Mayor, who promptly assassinated her in a scene of the finest “Godfather” tradition in front of the rest of the city council. Chaos ensued (not least for the facilitator) but soon resolved itself with the Rebels kidnapping and murdering the Mayor, the Militia Commander sitting neatly on the fence and the Protest Leader ably supported by the power of international media (in the shape of the Press player) being elected the new Mayor of the city.

I was quite shocked and wondered if anyone was going to turn up for the following session after the adjudication difficulties, but with hindsight it was a good stress test of the system and showed the participants that the game can cope with wild play.

Wednesday, 19 September 2016

The following morning began with a short presentation on my guidance tips for facilitating Matrix Games, followed by the Cyber game “All Your Secrets Are Belong To Us“, a game about stealing the next generation stealth fighter plans.

This game went extremely well with very good participation all around and it was quite rewarding to see that the flow of the narrative was appreciated by the players. This meant the consequential requirement of detailed formal adjudication was much reduced, now that the players were more familiar with the game and gameplay.

That afternoon, after another short presentation, this time on some facilitator techniques that could be helpful for facilitators, we decided to design and run a complete matrix game on a subject chosen by the participants within the time available.

Baltic Challenge

The subject chosen was the current crisis in the Baltic States, especially as we had a Swedish and Dutch participant in the group. The game was entitled “Baltic Challenge” and the game design followed the following steps:

  • Define the game scope: modelling the current crisis in the Baltic States.
  • Define the “Actors” involved in the crisis and the order of play.
  • Define the Objectives for the Actors (simple bullet point objectives).
  • Design possible “triggers” as pre-conditions to possibly upset the current equilibrium.
  • Generate a suitable visualisation (map) for the area.
  • Allocate markers representing effects in the game (DIME/PMESII/FRIS).

We had a long discussion about who to represent as players (required to influence the game) as opposed to being mainly there to be influenced by others. In the end, we chose the following “Actors”:

  • Russian separatists in the Baltic States.
  • The Baltic State Governments as a single actor:
    • Estonia
    • Latvia
    • Lithuania
  • Poland as a separate actor.
  • The USA as a separate actor.
  • The Nordic States as a single actor:
    • Sweden
    • Finland
  • NATO

We generated the objectives for each party quickly and then commenced play. A number of possible “triggers” were also discussed:

  • Iskander deployment to Kaliningrad.
  • Russian troop movements on the border.
  • An economic report demonstrating ethnic disadvantages for Russian speakers in the Baltic States.
  • Airspace violations.
  • Soviet fleet manoeuvres in the Baltic.
  • Soviet ship breakdown on the way to Kaliningrad (assumed Iskander missiles and S-400 air defences on board).

The preferred option was a mix of an economic report indicating Russian speakers have a justified grievance and the Soviet resupply ship breaking down off Tallinn on the Estonian coast.

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A later version of the “Baltic Challenge” map.

The game worked very well, highlighting a large number of points to the participants that they were unaware of. The chief insights from the game were that the Baltic States may well try to “do the right thing” for the Russian speaking minority, but they were largely pawns in the game between Russia and the West. There were a number of treaties that affected the participants (the 1997 Founding Act, EU sanctions against Russia, and NATO relations with Sweden) that were important and needed to be understood. The fact that Poland has a right-wing government keen to demonstrate that it will not be bullied by Russia might not necessarily be a good thing as NATO depended on Poland to play a key role in the area and felt limited in the sort of pressure it could bring to bear.

It was also noted that the Inkander missiles, with a range of 500km, may violate the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty (missiles with a range of 500-5,500km) and there was speculation as to why the USA or NATO governments have not challenged Russia about them. The following morning, this was the subject of a Wall Street Journal article, neatly showing the game was on the right track highlighting this issue.

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Gaming the headlines!

We felt that the game would have benefitted (as would any game) from a specialist subject matter expert in the region to assist the facilitator with the briefings, objectives, consequence management, and adjudication but nevertheless we felt that three hours of work had demonstrated the value of the game and wider regional understanding.

The game is now available via a link at PAXsims.

Thursday, 20 September 2016

On the final day, we elected to have a game run by the participants as, given the level of experience they had achieved with the game process and mechanics, they should be able to run and facilitate their own game. The game chosen was “ISIS Crisis“, with updated briefing and dispositions to reflect the current situation.

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Playing ISIS Crisis.

The pre-game discussion indicated a strong feeling that if the game was to be wider than just Iraq, it needed the involvement of Turkish and Russian actors, even at risk of slowing down play, so these roles were included.

The game ran well, even if the most up to date developments were not reflected in the initial set up. The inclusion of Russian and Turkish actors, did change the balance of the game and showed just how far things had changed in the years since the game was designed. It was felt that it would benefit from updated quality briefings for these actors to match the other briefings.

Closing Plenary Sessions

Finally, there was a closing session in which back brief were given on the different workshops, courses and wargames as well as a keynote by DEPSECDEF Robert Work.

The Deputy Secretary of Defence commenced his remarks with the inevitable senior officer’s joke and seemed, at least initially, to be a straightforward explanation of what he was trying to achieve. After a few minutes though, when he had warmed to his subject, the presentation was transformed into an inspiring call to arms that was quite different to the usual rhetoric. Having your DEPSECDEF being quite so disarmingly clear that he wakes up every day thinking of ways that he can mess up the plans of potential adversaries was a breath of fresh air from someone who clearly knows his stuff. He gets my vote and I’m not even an American.

The final thing that stuck in my mind was the realisation that we are facing a new “inter-war period” with all the implications that this brings, and that we need to develop new ways and means to give decision makers strategic choices for the future.

I am looking forward to seeing the presentations being posted on the MORS website so that I can have an understanding of what went on in the other sessions.

Friday, 21 September 2016

The following day the UK delegation (Dstl and I) visited the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at John Hopkins University in order to take a look at the work of APL and the Collaborative Analysis Centre. This was an utterly inspiring visit, generating a raft of ideas and possibilities.

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Visiting JHU APL.

The MORS event continued with additional sessions about Research Design by Dr John Compton, but sadly we were unable to attend those.

Summary

Despite the minor administration problems, mainly affecting us foreigners, the trip was extremely worthwhile. Being able to practice my craft with experienced and knowledgeable participants at this level was very valuable for my personal development and a significant contribution to the UK Defence Academy plans for the future.

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I got a shiny MORS challenge coin too!

I still have reservations as to the value for an inexperienced beginner in this subject area, given the level at which many of the instructional participants were operating. This needs to be addressed if we are to generate replacements for the increasingly old expertise we have in the field (myself included).

Tom Mouat


 

Additional Details from Paul Vebber:

I was a co-chair for a working group looking at the issues of “Communication and Implementation” and the relationship of those issues with technology. First, what information needs to move within the “game world” and between the players? Second, what information needs to move between the game world and players and the adjudicators? Third, what what information needs to move out of the “game world” to the observers and analysts?

Ed McGrady and I sliced the group of about 30 we had into subgroups a couple different ways, and discussed these issues in the context of the sort of problems they typically used wargaming techniques to explore. We then focused on two different types of games—Ed the more POL-MIL type, and I a more high tactical/ low operational—and walked through a game design exercise considering where it made sense to use technologies of different levels of sophistication in this communication focused design approach.

Interestingly the team looking at the more qualitative POL-MIL type of game went “high order” on technology to address the “inside the game world” communication issues linking large numbers of players dealing with a high degree of “interactional complexity”.

The group dealing with a more operational problem (exploring the decision space associated with maintaining a long term—many weeks to a few months—naval presence in a location where an ambiguous adversary occasionally lobs missiles at you, or potentially threatens you by other means, AND you have to deal with other emergent operational requirements nearby) started with a “low tech” representation that developed into a card-driven board game.

Despite initial thoughts that some fairly sophisticated M&S tools may be required, it turned out the tech requirements were more about communicating between the game world of manual game play and observer/analysts to capture situational information about why decisions were made and the risk calculus was assessed. The “high fidelity M&S” tools were then used in analysis efforts fed by information from the game and did not have to integrated into the gameplay directly.

This provided a simpler, quicker playing game which feeds M&S efforts focused on digging into the “structural complexity” of weapon system interaction in a well understood operational context that is emergent from and traceable to player decision making.

There were two other working groups, three opportunities to play in different types of games, and five different classes. Check the MORS website for more info on those events—I’m not sure how much of the material and outbriefs will be made available, my understanding is at least some of it will be.

Paul Vebber

Noise in the gray zone: more findings from an Atlantic Council crisis simulation

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Today I made a presentation to members of a US Department of Defense Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment group that is exploring so-called “gray zone” conflict, drawing upon some insights generated by the June 2016 Atlantic Council crisis simulation on US engagement in the Middle East. According the working definition used by the SMA team, the “gray zone” can be understood in the following terms:

The Gray Zone is a conceptual space between peace and war, occurring when actors purposefully use multiple elements of power to achieve political- security objectives with activities that are ambiguous or cloud attribution and exceed the threshold of ordinary competition, yet fall below the level of large-scale direct military conflict, and threaten US and allied interests by challenging, undermining, or violating international customs, norms, or laws

The Atlantic Council game was intended to examine US policy and regional stability, not “gray zone” conflict per se. Nonetheless, the participants certainly made use of myriad methods-other-than-(open) war: terrorism, support for armed non-state groups, cyber attacks, weapons-smuggling, information and influence campaigns, and so forth.

After a brief summary of the Atlantic Council game design and outcomes, I made several key points:

  • The parties were prone to interpret background conflict “noise”—accidents, actions by third parties—as deliberate “gray zone” warfare by a regional adversary. In the case of the Atlantic Council game, a car-bomb attack against the Iranian Embassy in Beirut was widely seen by the Iranian team as Saudi-backed revenge for Iranian actions in Syria (in fact, the Saudis were not involved in the attack, which was conducted by Syrian jihadists), while a clash between Iranian and KSA naval forces in the Gulf was viewed by both sides as a deliberate provocation by the other (whereas it was simply the accidental result of aggressive maritime maneuvering in disputed waters by local naval commanders).
  • Although the parties sometimes used “gray zone” activities to intimidate, deter, or otherwise signal their adversaries, those signals were often poorly understood—in part because signalling is often misunderstood in contexts of tension and conflict, but also because of the very ambiguity of such actions.
  • Routine actions were often reinterpreted in light of other developments. In the Atlantic Council game, for example, rising Saudi-Iranian tensions led the former to view the latter as upping the stakes in Yemen, while the latter was largely continuing on a business-as-usual basis in terms of moderate levels of support for the Houthi rebels.
  • Third parties often sought to further muddy the waters through actions in the “gray zone” intended to manipulate the perceptions of key actors. In the Atlantic Council game, for example, the ISIS team was happy to escalate Sunni-Shiite tensions so as to encourage greater Saudi-Iranian confrontation.
  • The very moral and legal ambiguity of the “gray zone” contributes to problems of threat perception and assessment. The US and Gulf teams regarded stepped-up support for Syrian opposition forces as a legitimate way of countering aggressive Iranian ambitions. By contrast, the Iranian team considered themselves as a status quo power, supporting a longstanding Syrian ally threatened by illegal, externally-backed subversion and insurgency.

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I’m not a big fan of the “gray zone” concept, partly because I think it is so ambiguous, and partly because I think it simply describes a quite common aspect of statecraft and conflict rather than anything strikingly new. Viewing the Atlantic Council game through the “gray zone” lens generated another insight, however: the very real danger that paradigms create their own reality, and may serve to frame events in ways that distort their actual causes, intentions, and implications. Rather like looking for monsters under your bed at night, it is all too easy to misperceive the shadows of the so-called “gray zone”—all the more so because some of them actually are monsters.

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You’ll find the full set of slides from my presentation here.

2016 NATO urban wargame: first impressions

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Scott Kinner (Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group) recently returned from participating in the 2016 NATO Urban Operations Wargame that was held 28 September to 7 October at the NATO Defense College in Rome:

The wargame utilized personnel from 18 member countries, dividing them into four brigade teams, each of which worked a MEB-level problem set placed in a 2035, smart city, of 5.7 million people.

The wargame addressed offensive, defensive, stability, and expeditionary activities using three vignettes; joint forcible entry into an urban area, offensive and defensive actions to defeat an enemy in an urban area, and transition to host nation government. The brigade teams analyzed proposed 2035 capabilities, and discovered new ones, by fighting each vignette twice – first as today’s force against a 2035 enemy, and then again with 2035 capabilities.

While the wargame would have identified capability requirements and gaps, the presence of Marines proved instrumental in maximizing the event’s potential. This presence, to include a substantial number of practitioners from the Operating Forces, allowed the Marine Corps to fully exploit the game and develop a draft operating concept for the urban environment that will nest under the Marine Operating Concept and join the rest of the Marine Corps family of operating concepts….

You’ll find Scott’s full unclassified “first impressions” report here (pdf).

More information on the wargame can be found at the website of the NATO Modelling and Simulation Centre of Excellence, while broader background information on NATO’s current urbanization project can be found at the NATO ACT website.

h/t Scott Kinner 

RAND video on (wargaming) Russia and the Baltics

RAND has released a short, glossy video outlining the findings of the many wargames they have run examining a potential Russian invasion of the Baltic republics. You’ll find it on their Facebook page, as well as below.

Their original January 2016 report can be found on the RAND website here.

For the findings of a later CNAS crisis game on Baltic security (and some discussion of the differences between the two game approaches and their respective findings), see the discussion at PAXsims here.

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