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Category Archives: simulation and game reviews

Review: The Confrontation Analysis Handbook

Review of: John Curry and Mike Young, The Confrontation Analysis Handbook: How to Resolve Confrontations by Eliminating Dilemmas, Innovations in Wargaming series (History of Wargaming Project, 2017). 92pp. £14.95 pb.

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Confrontation analysis an approach to the study of conflict, and the conduct of (largely non-kinetic) operations, first developed by Nigel Howard. It treats such issues as a series of linked confrontations, and offers a structured methodology for understanding and resolving these. In this handy volume, Mike Young and John Curry offer an overview of the technique, and show its application to a range of issues: the Bosnian conflict (1995), the Iranian nuclear program (2000-15), the Eurozone crisis (2011), the Libyan Civil War (2011) and Arab Spring, and future tensions in the South China Sea.

Confrontation analysis appears to be a useful technique for enabling participants to identify differences and disputes between conflicting parties, map out their preference structures and key obstacles, and identify ways of resolving these dilemmas. In this sense it overlaps the categories of both “(war)game” and scenario analysis. A skilled facilitator would appear to be essential, one that not only understands confrontation analysis well, but who can also help participants frame their insights and perspectives in a way in way that fits with the requirements of the technique. Even if one does not fully adapt the approach, it is also easy to see how aspects of it might be used to clarify differences in BOGSAT discussions or as a sort of auxilliary non-kinetic dispute resolution/adjudication method in more kinetic games.

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The approach also be used in conjunction with a deck of MaGCK estimative probability cards when one wishes to quickly canvass a group for their assessment of how likely an action is to succeed.

Review: Urban Operations

Urban Operations. Nuts! Publishing, 2017. Designer: Sébastien de Peyret. €75.00.

urban-operations-nuts-publishing.jpgUrban Operations, as its name suggests, is a wargame that explores modern company-sized infantry and combined operations in urban terrain. While published by a commercial wargame publisher for the wargame hobby market, it is also rather more than this. The designer, Lieutenant-Colonel Sébastien de Peyret, has served at the French military academy at St. Cyr (École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr), at the French Army’s urban warfare training centre (Centre d’entrainement aux actions en zone urbaine) and the Centre for Force Employment Doctrine (Centre de doctrine d’emploi des forces). He designed Urban Operations to have a potential educational and training function too.

There is much to like in this game. The components are of extremely high quality. The two two-sided maps can be used to depict a variety of urban terrains, and the system of sight-lines and elevations used in the game system recreate those issues of cover, visibility, dead ground, and kill zones that are all so critical to urban combat. The game contains a large number of scenarios, which can be linked as campaigns: Fulda 1985 (a fictional Warsaw Pact invasion of Germany), Mogadishu 1993 (Operation Restore Hope, including the crash and rescue of Super 61/”Blackhawk Down”), and Four Aces (a collection of conflicts: Kolwezi 1978, Grozny 1999, Basrah 2003, and Fallujah 2004).

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Game components. Picture credit: Nuts! Publishing.

The game system uses blocks to provide for fog of war, whereby the opposing sides units cannot be identified until they fire or are spotted. Dummy blocks add to the uncertainty. Each block depicts a fire team, similar-sized support element, commander, or single vehicle. Information cards indicate the capabilities of various national units, including any special rules. Movement is determined by movement points and terrain values on a hybrid map, with hexes for most areas and zones/rooms for interior movement within buildings. Additional rules provide for higher elevations on roof tops, as well as subterranean movement and fighting in tunnels and sewers. Combat is conducted by comparing firepower factors, so that all firefights become duels of a sort, unless a unit chooses to withdraw. Dice provide some variability, as well as the possibility of critical hits.

The game system combines casualties, morale, and supply into a single system of operational effectiveness. Support units can recover lost operational strength levels (by providing ammunition, first aid, and so forth). Leaders matter, and the clever system of “effect points” used to measure ranges means that command distances are adversely affected by barriers such as walls.

Having played through Kolwezi 1978 scenario (with French paratroops of the 2e REP intervening to rescue European hostages and support Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko against Katangan rebels), I found game play to be smooth and fairly intuitive. The rules could perhaps be a little better written or organized in places. While this is only a medium complexity wargame, wargaming neophytes would find it a bit of a challenge to just pick up and play.

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Members of 3rd Company, 2e REP advance into contact with members of the Front National de Libération du Congo as a sniper provides overwatch from the rooftop. A possible hostage location (marked with a “?”) can be seen in the building across the street.

In terms of the design, it is clear a lot of effort has gone into representing the particular characteristics of modern warfare. Many anti-tank weapons, for example, have back-blast effects that make it impractical to use them within buildings. Mines and IEDs can be employed. Units can create breaches to enter buildings or to provide firing points, although only in certain pre-designated locations. There is even a rule for using the shelter of moving tanks or other armoured vehicles for temporary cover, or climbing onto the roof of a building via the top of a nearby vehicle.

Perhaps most significant at all, the rules address issues of friendly fire and collateral damage in detail. Friendlies in the line of fire stand a good chance of being hit, and you had best remember why short-ranged ambushes are usually L-shaped or linear if you don’t want to kill your own side. Civilians are present on the battlefield, and will respond to events—and die if caught up in the fighting.

The game includes rules for air and artillery support, as well as for anti-aircraft defences. You can even use your ZSU-23-4s in an anti-infantry role in the streets of Grozny, if you wish.

For me the jury is still out on the wisdom of combining so many components of combat performance (casualties, morale, supply) into a single operational effectiveness measure. This is especially true with regard to casualties, given the emphasis placed by many modern combatants on stabilizing the wounded and evacuating them to safety. The rules also create a gain in operational effectiveness each time a unit eliminates another—while this is intended to represent positive morale effects, it sometimes seems as if troops are essentially regenerating previous “damage” by killing stuff. On the plus side, combining these things into a single measure does speed game play, and also underscores that there is a great deal more to unit effectiveness than physical losses alone.

There are a few other tweaks I would have made to the system. For a start, units fight back with their full firepower factors no matter how many times they are attacked, and no matter from how many angles they are fired upon. It might be reasonable to apply a penalty to defensive/return fire when the same unit is attacked from a second or subsequent direction in the same turn—after all, not everyone can be facing everywhere at the same time.  Troop quality affects how easily you lose of operational effectiveness (reflecting the impact of quality on both morale and the use of cover), but has only modest effects on hitting them to begin with. The opportunity fire rules treat any exposed movement as similar, creating little incentive to dash across the street where it is narrow rather than stroll down the middle. I would have liked to have seen far more dummy counters used to simulate the fog of urban war.

There are no rules for multi-story buildings in the rules, nor for building quality (although buildings can be upgraded to fortified). Perhaps my biggest concern was the very limited fire arcs from most buildings. I suspect only a few “apertures” were provided per building to force players to think about line-of-sight and firing arcs, and to encourage them to choose their urban terrain and approaches carefully. On the other hand, in many places buildings typically have multiple windows on all sides. Perhaps this aspect of the design might have been intended to represent the vision-limiting effects of ground-level clutter: vehicles, signs, rubble, and so forth.

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Kolwezi today—and look at all those windows.  (Photo credit here.)

Overall, Urban Operations is a very solid effort at modelling a complex, three-dimensional form of combat in a playable way. The relative simplicity of the game system makes it relatively easy to modify, too—and the special rules for the various scenarios and campaigns demonstrate how this can be done.

Indeed, I’m considering using a modified version of the game to highlight the challenges of protecting urban religious and cultural properties during wartime at a workshop next year. If so, I’ll let you know how it goes!

[Revisions: earlier comment on ZSU-23-4s corrected.]

 

 

Review: Defence Wargaming Handbook

The following has been written for PAXsims by Dr. James Sterrett, Chief of Simulations & Education in the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College’s Directorate of Simulation Education. The review reflects his personal views only, not those of CGSC, the Army, or the United States government. 


 

Defence Wargaming Handbook (Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, UK Ministry of Defence, 2017). Free online.

The Wargaming Handbook intends “to provide context and guidance” and “introduce the topic” of wargaming, and succeeds admirably at these tasks.  It strikes a judicious balance between championing the value of wargaming, warning of the risks when it is done poorly, consistently guiding the reader towards good practice in order to avoid those risks. The Wargaming Handbook’s clarity and simplicity should ensure it an enduring place as a primer on the fundamentals of wargaming.

Successful wargames are a combination of science and art, as are successful operations. Wargames must not be designed to reinforce preconceived answers to a problem. [p. 21]

The Handbook opens with a brief history of wargaming before continuing on to define wargaming and explain its elements, applications, strengths—and, critically, its limitations.  Chapter 2, “Wargaming fundamentals”, provides guidance on setting up and running a wargame, from purposes to the roles of the directing staff and the participants.  Both carefully distinguish between the two different purposes to which wargames are put, training or analysis.

Chapter 3, “Wargaming types, variants and contexts”, succinctly covers definitions of various kinds of wargames and where they are best used, leading to Chapter 4, “Wargaming process”, which provides an overview of the life cycle of wargames.  Chapter 4 usefully distinguishes between the lifecycle of training wargames and analytical wargames, and manages to do this without either repetitious material or introducing confusion into the overall discussion.

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Nearly a third of the Handbook is devoted to nine case studies covering situations ranging from education to operational planning, ranging from two to four pages each.  Each provides context, activities conducted, and outcomes.  These concrete examples should help not only with thinking through the conduct of possible wargames, but also with understanding what a given type of wargame may be able to deliver. The Handbook also provides a glossary and some suggested further reading, from which springs perhaps the only criticism: that it references PAXSims without providing a URL.  In addition to the topics already mentioned, the Handbook is shot through with well-chosen illustrative examples and quotations to help drive home its points.

Knowing that they were facing an adversary at least as intelligent as they were, and one who had considered the tactical problem for as long as they had, almost inevitably resulted in a hasty revision to the students’ initial plans. The revised plans were usually more flexible and robust, which demonstrated the value of an intelligent enemy player in the planning process. [p. 86]

Readable and useful, the Handbook accomplishes its purpose admirably and should prove fit for purpose in the UK and beyond for many years.  Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it: I intend to to use it in the classes I teach on wargaming.

James Sterrett

 

 

Review: Modern Crises Scenarios for Matrix Wargames

John Curry and Tim Price, Modern Crises Scenarios for Matrix WargamesHistory of Wargaming Project, 2017. 126pp.  £13.95

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This volume—by the ever-prolific John Curry of the History of Wargaming Project, and the always-elusive “Tim Price,” international man of mystery—offers several modern-era scenarios suitable for matrix games. Following a brief introduction to the matrix game method, the scenarios included in the volume are:

  • Baltic Challenge (NATO-Russian posturing in the Baltic Sea)
  • Mare Nostrum (NATO-Russian posturing in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean)
  • Nine Dash Line (incidents in the South China Sea)
  • Election in Centralia (an election in a “fictional” developed country with a two-party democracy featuring a with a bicameral legislature, a presidential system with an electoral college, and subject to Russian cyber-meddling…)
  • DPRK (conflict on the Korean Peninsula)
  • De Valera’s War (Irish neutrality during WWII)

In each case a scenario overview and background is provided, together with briefings for each player. Sample counters (available for download) are also provided.

Altogether this is a useful example of the many ways that matrix games can be used to explore complex conflicts. The scenarios would also all work great with MaGCK: The Matrix Game Construction Kit, which will be formally unveiled at Connections UK 2017—just a week and a half from now!

AFTERSHOCK review at GrogHeads

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At GrogHeads, Brant Guillory takes a look at AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game.

The first tremors hit Carana around 415 in the morning, local time. The capital was just stirring as many laborers were hurrying through their pre-dawn meals before shuffling out of their small houses to arrive at work by sunrise. The full brunt of the earthquake arrive 20 minutes or so later, and the devastation was described by at least one news outlet as “biblical.” The nations tenuous infrastructure, barely a patchwork to begin with, had no chance against the fury unleashed by the Earth’s shifting tectonic plates as bridges crumbled, roads buckled, water pipes tore apart like paper, and the electrical grid shut down, ending any communication that was out of shouting distance.

Help was slow in arriving. Certainly the help wanted to arrive, but the routes into the country – the limited airport, the ramshackle seaport, and inland border – were never ideal under perfect circumstances, and these were not perfect circumstances. The local population certainly had a will to survive, but lacked critical supplies for medical care, safe water, and food & shelter. The world mobilized to help.

And the help began to arrive, a multi-headed hydra of organizations, services, expertise, and agendas. Usually cooperative, occasionally antagonistic, and always under the steady gaze of the worlds’ TV cameras, the various organizations rolled up their sleeves to start the long, hard slog of restoring the basic necessities of life to Carana….

You’ll find the full piece here.

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If you want to see the game in action, I’ll be running a game at Peace Direct (in London UK) on September 4,  and another at the Connections UK professional wargaming conference on September 5 (during the “informal games session” after dinner). AFTERSHOCK also be a featured game at the MORS Worgaming Workshop III.

A listing of forthcoming demonstration and participation games can be found here.

If the game is sold out at The Game Crafter, try again a few weeks later. They are a print-on-demand publisher, and occasionally run out of components.

Review: This War of Mine (board game)

This War of Mine. Awaken Realms/Galakta/11 Bit Studios, 2017. Designers: Michał Oracz, Jakub Wiśniewski.

Back in 2014, James Sterrett contributed to PAXsims a very positive review of the computer game This War of Mine, which had then just been published by 11-Bit Studios. I played it quite a bit too, and—while having some reservations about how it depicted civilian life during a civil war—also found it innovative, thoughtful, and haunting.

pic3315915_md.jpgIn 2016 a board game version was announced on Kickstarter, and was fully funded by enthusiastic supporters in a matter of hours. The game design was completed earlier this year, the game printed and shipped, and my eagerly-awaited copy arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago.

Thus it was, with a couple of friends and considerable anticipation, that we set off to try to survive in the ruins of an anonymous city devastated by civil war.

The game is designed so that it can be set up and played without reading a rule book in advance—indeed, there is no “rule book” as such, but rather a journal (which walks you through your choices in each phase) and various options outlined on the various cards and in the game script. This certainly makes the game easy to play, even with neophyte players. On the other hand, it can be easier to forget or overlook a rule, since they aren’t systematically collected in a single place.

The overall feel of game play is very similar to the digital original. In the morning, after a random event, you assign your characters to various tasks: exploring and fixing up your shelter, building new fixtures (such as beds, a stove, a workshop, or water collection system), and performing other daily menial tasks. Each character needs to get enough to eat and drink and sleep, and also keep his or her spirits up.  Too much hunger, wounds, illness, or misery will result in a character leaving the shelter, dying, or even committing suicide. Players cooperatively control all of the characters, with the role of lead player shifting at various points in the game sequence. Different characters have different degree of prowess (which largely affects combat) and empathy (which favourably affects interaction with non-player characters, but which might result in greater vulnerability to misery), as well as unique needs and capabilities.

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When dusk comes, characters can be assigned to scavenge in the city. Various locations become eligible to visit as the game progresses, and an ingenious system of exploration cards and a “choose your own adventure” -type script guarantees that every visit is both different and potentially dangerous. Often players face difficult moral choices, such as stealing whether to steal desperately-needed supplies from other survivors or help others at risk to themselves. Acting in an immoral way might secure more material resources, but can also exact a significant psychological toll. Players might have various encounters while out in the city, whether traders or those with more hostile intent.

Meanwhile, back at the shelter, the remaining characters can be assigned either to sleep (thereby ridding themselves of any fatigue) or stand guard duty against periodic night raids by bandits and others.

Finally, at dawn, the health of characters is adjusted (including the ravages of an increasingly cold winter), narrative and fate cards are drawn, and a new morning begins.

The full campaign game involves three chapters, each of which involves about 2 hours of play. We completed most of the first two chapters before time ran out and we had to call an end to the session.

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The game board.

Overall, the designers have done a good job at creating a narrative of a dark, grinding, struggle for survival. The excellent game art and high-quality components certainly contribute to the sense of devastation and desperation. I did find that gameplay became rather repetitious after a while, but this was probably in part result of playing for almost four hours continuously. Consequently, I suspect that the game is better played in a series of separate, single-chapter sessions. A pad of record-keeping sheets is supplied to make it easy to record where one partial game ends and the next chapter begins.

As with the digital original of the game, I did have some reservations about how the game depicts the human fabric of war-affected societies. In most civil wars, residents do not scavenge in ruins at night (a particularly dangerous time), nor in most cases are they faced with nightly bandit raids in major cities. Instead, makeshift markets and services do function, and neighbourhoods and extended families provide vital networks of support. Indeed, having worked in war zones and with refugees, I am usually struck not so much by a descent into Hobbesian social violence of all-against-all but rather by the remarkable power of altruism and social solidarity. In this sense, the game borrows a little too much from the post-apocalyptic fantasy genre—a sort of civil war version of The Walking Dead, minus the zombiesthan from the actual lived experience of civilians during wartime.

If the game is being played for its gaming value, this matters little. If it is being used in an instructional setting, the similarities and differences between the game’s depiction of civil war and other (autobiographical and historical) accounts could make for interesting material in a debriefing assignment or a post-game classroom discussion. Although designed for solo or cooperative play by up to six players, it could easily be adapted for much larger groups.

As to our playtest game, we continually teetered on the brink of disaster. Among our original group of characters, only Anton, the former professor of mathematics, had survived. Boris, a warehouse worker, had been unable to take it the pressure. Emilia, a lawyer, had died. Those who had joined the shelter later were no more lucky. Emira, who had suffered poverty and homelessness long before the war started, and whose ability to find food for the shelter had been invaluable, had been lost too. As for Arica, Anton had no idea what had happened to her. She had left one night to scavenge for supplies—and had never returned.

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Anton, alone in the house.

And so Anton remained. The last of his precious books had been burned to heat the shelter against the encroaching winter. He was low on supplies. He didn’t even have the energy clear the rubble from the back rooms or patch the holes in the building, through which both chill winds and looters entered.  If only this cursed war would end…


UPDATE: You’ll find a very good review of the game by Jasenko Pasic, who lived through the siege of Sarajevo as a child, at BoardGameGeek.

 

 

 

Review: Mission Zhobia

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Mission Zhobia is a free, online game developed to develop professional skills for those working on development projects in conflict-prone areas:

Practitioners who are being deployed to conflict-affected settings require strong peacebuilding competencies to navigate through complex socio-political environments, adapt to unforeseen peacebuilding challenges and adjust their strategies accordingly.

This game intends to strengthen these peacebuilding competencies:

1. Conducting context and conflict analysis on an on-going basis
2. Identify and analyse stakeholder perspectives, views and interests
3. Engage effectively in dialogue and build trust with stakeholders
4. Actively engage local stakeholders in finding solutions that fit the context
5. Use the analysis and insight gained to reflect on the implicit theory of change and adjust programming accordingly

It was developed by a consortium of international peacebuilding institutions that “came to together in August 2013 to think about an innovative approach to train essential peacebuilding competencies.” Participating groups include United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), and the PeaceNexus Foundation, in partnership with the game development company &RANJ and the Creative Industries Fund.

Zhobia-image-1.pngIn the game you are a newly-hired project manager being sent by a development contractor to develop and submit an implementation plan for a rule-of-law project in the fictitious, conflict-affected country of Zhobia. In developing your recommendations you will be expected to research the country, consult local stakeholders and earn their trust, and keep abreast of local developments.

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Ultimately you will need to make recommendations about the location of the project, the kind of legal mechanisms your project will support, and the training you will provide. Many of your Zhobian interlocutors favour different things, however—and all the time you are under pressure from your boss to get things moving.

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Once you’ve submitted your recommendations the game will score your proposed solution, as well as how well you understood the local context, engaged with key stakeholders, identified perspectives, built trust, and adjusted your proposals to fit local circumstances.

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The game mechanics are fairly straightforward, and it is playable in 30 minutes or so. More information becomes available to you as you play, whether in the form of background readings, phone messages, local media reports, or meetings. As you enter into dialogue with stakeholders you are periodically given a menu of possible statements or responses. Choose badly and you may damage trust and alienate your counterpart. Choose well and you will build trust and gain better understanding of the situation. You will also “unlock” new options or interlocutors.

Be warned, however: if you mess up, you can’t retrace your steps or set up a second meeting. If you fail to “unlock” certain stakeholders or initiatives, your options will remain limited.

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Overall, I thought Mission Zhobia was very well done. I wasn’t convinced in absolutely every case that the game’s preferred response was actually the best response, but they have done a good job of introducing some degree of challenge and not making every choice blindingly obvious. It can seeming a little “gamey” when you want to do something but need to find the stakeholder dialogue to unlock the possibility, but this only a minor quibble, and perhaps unavoidable given the designers’ emphasis on an intuitive interface and gameplay.

One major shortcoming is the absence of guidance on integrating gameplay into a broader pedagogy. The website could be enhanced by some suggestions on debriefing/discussion, which is often the single most important part of games-based learning. It would also have been useful if they had suggested resources for additional reading.

I will certainly be using Mission Zhobia in future in my own peacebuilding course at McGill University. I also look forward to seeing what other learning materials the consortium might produce.

Review: Bloc by Bloc

Bloc by Bloc: The Insurrection Game. Out of Order Games, 2016.

BbB.pngBloc-by-Bloc is a 2-4 person game in which players cooperate to overthrow state power in a fictional urban setting. Assuming the role of workers, students, prisoners, or neighbours, each player takes turn moving their units (blocs), barricading the streets, looting businesses, confronting the police, building occupations (assembly halls, people’s kitchens, hacker spaces, propaganda workshops, and molotov factories—among many others).

When all of the players have taken their actions, the police respond by drawing cards from the Police Ops deck, moving accordingly, and repressing the revolutionaries. If enough blocs survive in a district they might liberate it, granting bonuses to the revolutionaries. If the players can build occupations in all of the state districts before the end of eight days and nights, they win.

The rules for Bloc-by-Bloc are relatively simple, and player options and most other game rules are summarized on a two-sided reference card. Despite this, game strategy can be complex, and depends heavily on cooperation and planning. Defeating the police—and especially the fearsome riot vans—may take several players, and even after the forces of state repression are driven back it is important to follow up by constructing occupations and building barricades to protect hard-won gains. It’s all very abstracted from actual processes of revolution, but there is certainly enough genuine urban insurrection represented to make this more than simply just a stylish Eurogame with a trendy theme layered on top. Like a typical Eurogame, however, game boards, cards, and other materials are robust and very nicely produced indeed. Game play is listed as 120-180 minutes, but we’ve found it can be played more quickly than this, especially if you have less than four players.

While the beginners’ game is fully cooperative, the full game adds the twist of hidden agendas. Players can collectively win by fulfilling their collective goals, or win individually by meeting their secret goals. My personal favourite is the nihilist faction, who in fact have no collective goals, but instead favour fighting the riot police and burning down shopping centers to the exclusion of pretty much anything else. The game comes with ten scenarios. However, with 30 tiles that can be freely arranged into any 5×5 grid, the game is almost infinitely replayable.

As is doubtless clear from the comments above, I very much enjoyed the game. It could be used in an educational setting to explore some aspects of urban protest and uprising, although one would need to debrief games extensively to highlight where game play and real life diverge, and what aspects of revolution the game does not model. The game would also serve well to teach about cooperative and semi-cooperative game design, as well as the extent to which simple, elegant rules can generate interesting player choices and complex game dynamics.

At present, Bloc-by-Bloc is sold out. However, in keeping with the revolutionary anti-capitalist leanings of its designers, a print-and-play version is available for free from the Out or Order Games website.

Review: The Sandhurst Kriegsspiel

John Curry and Tim Price, The Sandhurst Kriegsspiel: Wargaming for the Modern Infantry Officer. Training for War: Volume I. History of Wargaming Project, 2016. 123pp. £14.95

 

sandhurstkriegcover.gifRecent years have seen an effort to (re)introduce a greater quantity and quality of wargaming into professional military education, notably in the United States and United Kingdom. This volume contains a number of British examples. It is written by two well-known experts in the field, John Curry (of the History of Wargaming Project) and the prolific but ever-elusive “Tim Price” (a currently-serving British military officer). Another British officer, Ed Farren, has also contributed to the collection. The book is amply illustrated with maps and pictures, and additional materials are available for download at the History of Wargaming Project website.

The book contains four wargames. The first, the Sandhurst Kriegsspiel, is a platoon- or company-level action meant to be played following a TEWT (tactical exercise without troops) earlier in the day. During the TEWT, officer cadets physically visit the nearby “battlefield” and ascertain how they might defend or assault a designated position. During the kriegsspiel, they then play this out against each other on a map using simple wargaming rules. The authors note one absolutely key point that underscores the value of wargames as an educational, training, and planning tool, namely what a fundamental difference it can make when one introduces an intelligent and adaptive adversary into the process:

Experience running these kriegsspiels shloes that BLUE often change their plan for the wargame from the one they have spent the majority of the day considering in the TEWT. When faced by an enemy played by their peers, who have spent the day considering the same situation, the players often realise that they have assumed that the enemy is stupid [and] incapable of thinking from the BLUE point of view. The RED team will know what the likely BLUE attack plan will be and have prepared for it.

The second game included in the collection is the Battlegroup Kriegsspiel, which introduces a simple map-based wargame involving multiple platoons and companies. The Modern Infantry Battle (or “Future UK Army Concepts”) wargame was developed to explore the implications of possible reorganization and reductions in the size of British infantry companies. This is somewhat more dependent on formal rules, and less dependent on umpire adjudication. Finally, Ed Farren’s Counter-IED Kriegsspiel has students play the role of a Blue force attempting to complete an assigned task—and a Red force placing IEDs and ambushes to try to prevent this and inflict casualties. All of these games are quite simple, but in many ways that is the point: even relatively quick and simple wargames can provide insight into military operations in a way that explores their inherently adversarial nature.

The many appendices to the volume include a summary of the UK military decision-making (or combat estimative) process; a (rather critical) British military assessment of the SPI commercial wargame Firefight (1977), notes on British Army weapons, and sample unit counters for the games.

The primary targets of this book are those engaged in tactical and operational military training. However those interested in teaching military operations in other contexts (including in university courses on modern warfare, which are often peculiarly devoid of any exploration of the tactical, operational, and strategic arts) will also find it useful. Hobby gamers may also derive from enjoyment in trying out the rules and scenarios with their opponents, in a “can you beat a Sandhurst officer cadet” sort of way.

Review: Priestly & Lambshead, Tabletop Wargames

Rick Priestly and John Lambshead, Tabletop Wargames: A Designers’ & Writers’ Handbook. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2016. 153pp. £14.99/$24.95 pb.

TabletopWargames.jpegThis slim but lively volume offers guidance to the hobbyist on designing and presenting rules for tabletop (miniature) wargames. The authors are certainly well-qualified to write on the subject. Rick Priestly is author or coauthor of such influential game rules as Warhammer Fantasy, Warhammer Ancients, Warhammer 40K, WarmasterLord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game (Games Workshop), as well as Black Powder, Hail Caesar, and Bolt Action (Warlord Games), while John Lambshead has designed a variety of computer games, was editor of Wargames News, and has authored books for both Osprey and Games Workshop.

The authors’ emphasis is on designing a playable game which also represents a reasonable depiction of the era or conflict being represented. This approach contrasts subtly, but significantly, with the approach taken by Philip Sabin in  Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games (2012), where the focus is in accurately modelling conflict in a manner that is also playable. The difference is hardly surprising—Priestly and Lambshead are aiming at hobbyists who want to enjoy themselves, while Sabin is interested in wargaming as pedagogical and research tool.

This difference is especially evidence in Chapter 2, on “A Question of Scale.” Priestly and Lambshead make it clear that tabletop wargaming rules need to be written in a way that accommodates the average size of a gaming table, the number of units a player can reasonably manage, and the number of turns that can be taken in the time that is likely to be available for play. If necessary, unit capabilities need to be adjusted to meet the needs of the hobby game.

Most of rest of the book is devoted to how to actually write rules in a way that makes them clear and useable to players. There is a great deal of useful insight on offer here into organization, logical flow, and language. This includes a useful list of “troublemakers”—words and phrases that tend to create confusion. A brief chapter discusses probability and chance. The final chapters explore army lists, scenarios, campaign rules, and other game expansions.

Hobby gamers who wish to design their own tabletop game rules will find this book very useful, especially if they are more interested in play experience than deep historical accuracy. The book’s value extends beyond this, however, to other (serious) gamers looking for advice on how to write rules for brevity and clarity, and in a manner that respects the centrality of the player (or umpire) as the reader, and user, of what is being written.

 

Last Turn Madness: Jim Wallman on megagames

ltmwallman

The latest edition of the podcast Last Turn Madness has an excellent interview with evil genius Jim Wallman of Megagame Makers on the history, design, and future of megagaming. Megagames are large mass-participation games on both historical and fictional topics that use minimalist rules and instead emphasize developing narrative, player interaction, and emergent game play. Jim designed and ran the New World Order 2035 megagame we held at McGill earlier this year.

Among the many interesting issues explored in the conversation are the changing demographics of megagame participation, and the ways in which this has influenced both game design and play. Jim also discusses the central importance of narrative engagement, his “less is more” game design philosophy, the role of the Control team, and how to encourage player creativity without allowing them to exploit loopholes or break a game’s basic assumptions and reality. His serious game work is addressed too, with mentions of both the Connections UK professional wargaming conference (where he ran a game on the civil war in Binni) and PAXsims.

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Jim Wallman at work at the New World Order 2035 megagame (McGill University).

Jim also mentions the the forthcoming “Wide-Area Megagame” that will be held in early July 2017. The scenario for this will be a massive crisis in a fictionalized United States, involving multiple simultaneous linked games played in cities across the UK. We’ll be participating in this from Montreal too, playing the role of neighbouring “Northland.” If you’re in the Montreal area, are interested in participating, and don’t mind getting up very, very early in the morning (we’ll be playing on UK time), drop me a line!

h/t Ben Moores

Matrix games at the US Army War College

USAWC.jpgThe following piece was contributed by Colonel Jerry Hall and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Chretien of the Strategic Simulations Division (SSD), Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College.


Dr. Rex Brynen of McGill University in Montreal, Canada recently delivered a presentation on “Conflict Simulation and Gaming in the Classroom” at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. During the workshop, Dr. Brynen introduced us to Matrix Games. He also moderated “ISIS Crisis,” a Matrix Game on the rise of ISIS set in the summer of 2014. Matrix Games have the potential to enhance experiential education in both wargaming and Professional Military Education (PME).

A Matrix Game is a low-overhead, facilitated, multi-player, argument-based game where players propose actions, weigh arguments and counter-arguments, and a die roll decides success or failure. Matrix Games typically last 2-3 hours and require a scenario with map and counters, a facilitator/umpire, a subject matter expert, and 4-6 players or teams of players. Matrix Games can be created on any topic, however the focus of this article is on strategic geopolitical crisis Matrix Games.

Chris Engle created Matrix Games in the late 1980s. He wanted to develop a game system in which it was possible for a player to role-play an entire country, but that did not have extensive rules, unit counters and combat results tables (like most wargames).[1] He based his system on roleplaying games, using a free-play framework where players propose actions, state their desired effect, and then posit arguments in support of why they believe the proposed action will succeed (other players may offer counter-arguments). Initially his games included a matrix of cue words, although over time the matrix was dropped, but the name stuck.[2] For additional information on Matrix Games, as well as free Matrix Games, see:

ISIScrisismap

Subsequently, the Strategic Simulations Division at the Army War College hosted its first Matrix Game demonstration session on December 10, 2015 for staff members of the Center for Strategic Leadership. The purpose of the demonstration was to provide an overview of Matrix Games and their potential for use as an additional wargaming method. The War College hosts several strategic wargames a year, using the two-sided seminar format. In ISIS Crisis, the participants represent one of six sides: the United States, Iran, Iraqi Government, Sunni minority, Iraqi Kurds, and ISIS. Prior to the game, each team was provided team-specific background information, objectives, and a special rules card explaining rules unique to each side.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The purpose of the ISIS Crisis demonstration described below was to inform staff members on the Matrix Game methodology, not to formulate policy or strategy. Player actions do not reflect official policy of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

The game began with a strategy and diplomacy phase, during which each team developed its strategy and conducted diplomatic negotiations with other the teams. For some teams, the negotiation session was instrumental in brokering deals that would significantly shape the subsequent gameplay. For others, the negotiation phase provided a sense of where they stood politically with other teams.

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The pre-game overview brief.

At the end of the strategy and diplomacy phase, each team announced the results of any negotiations (if they chose to). The United States team used the opportunity to announce a “four point” strategy for defeating ISIS. The final point of the strategy was support for a confederation system of government in Iraq, rather than continuing to support the Shia-dominated “unity” government. This announcement both surprised and immediately impacted the other players, especially the Iraqi, Iranian, Sunni minority and Kurdish teams.

The US team’s policy announcement set the tone for the game. The US built on its policy announcement by conducting a strategic information operations campaign to discredit ISIS and reduce its ability to recruit foreign fighters. Following a successful ISIS attack into Kurdish controlled Hasakah province and a successful Kurdish counter-offensive into Mosul, the US team deployed a significant aid package to the Kurds, in the form of air support, advisors, equipment and funding. Iraq interpreted the US policy statement and its direct support of the Kurds as destabilizing and sought to conduct reforms to increase minority representation in Parliament and its Ministries. The reform movement failed however, and the predominantly Shia Iraqi government faced the situation of a US-backed and resurgent Kurdish minority, combined with a now disenchanted Sunni minority leaning toward ISIS. The Iraqi Government responded by publicly appealing for military support. Iran responded to the call by announcing it would deploy ground forces into Iraq to help combat ISIS (the Iraqi and Iranian teams struck this secret deal during the diplomacy phase, unknown to the facilitator and the other players).

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Map orientation.

The US continued its diplomatic efforts to defeat ISIS by approaching the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and asking them for help in cutting off funding for ISIS, then announced their own version of the 2014 Iranian Nuclear Deal, with a caveat that allowed Iran to deploy into Iraq to help fight ISIS. This deal effectively divided Iraq into a three-party state by driving the Sunni minority toward ISIS and further reinforcing Kurdish autonomy. ISIS and the Sunni minority successfully took Tikrit, then Fallujah, while Iranian forces deployed into Najaf, Karbalah and Samarra. ISIS then successfully conducted a covert operation in Samarra, destroying several Sunni mosques with explosives, and blaming Iranian forces. This event further strengthened the fissures between the Iraqi Government, the Sunnis and the Kurds. The Iraqi government attempted to gloss over the situation by conducting a “One Iraq” strategic communication campaign, but it did not reflect reality on the ground and was ignored by the other players. The game ended with Iraq in control of its Shia regions with significant Iranian ground forces, ISIS in control of the Sunni regions, including Tikrit and Fallujah, and the US-backed Kurds firmly in control of the Kurdish region. The new US policy announcement and the clever Iranian deals with the US and Iraq effectively created a three party Iraq. A by turn summary of all player actions as recorded is at the end of this article.

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Iranian team deliberations.

The after action review with the players, who were a mix of wargaming and research analysis experts, yielded several insights. Collectively the players thought that Matrix Games could be most beneficial before or during (or even in place of) the prevalent two-sided seminar wargaming method. They felt that the Matrix Game method better promoted participation and engagement among the players. The analysts felt that Matrix Games provided more quantitative data to collect due to the increased interaction, as well as more qualitative data in the form of the supporting arguments and the die rolls. All players thought that Matrix Games would be best for current or future (potential) conflicts to avoid participant knowledge of historical scenarios. They did acknowledge that historical scenarios could be used for Matrix Games to gain insights and understanding into why actors behaved as they did in historical conflicts.

Finally, ISIS Crisis demonstrated the potential utility of Matrix Games in policy and strategy formulation. National Security practitioners could conduct multiple iterations of a Matrix Game, testing a different policy or strategy approach in each one, to gain insights into how the various parties may react. For example, had this game been a test of a “confederation Iraq” policy, the US team would likely discard that policy course of action due to the implications vis-à-vis Iran, the Sunnis and the Kurds.

Since this ISIS Crisis demonstration, we briefed the War College Commandant and began to design our own Matrix Games. We plan to provide the War College faculty training on the use of Matrix Games as another tool in their instructor “toolkit” and look forward to providing future strategic leaders an additional experiential education experience during their time here at Carlisle Barracks.

ISIS Crisis actions by turn summary:

Turns 0-1

  • Turn 0 (Diplomacy Round): US announced new “4 Point” Policy to defeat ISIS; final point was support for an Iraqi Confederation Government
  • US: Global IO Campaign to discredit ISIS (success)
  • Iran: Negotiate covert SOF advisors and equipment to Syria (success)
  • ISIS: Conquer Hasakah Province from Kurds (success; doubles*)
  • ISIS Free Move: Counter US IO Campaign based on taking Hasakah (success)
  • Iraq: Expand minority representation across minsitries (fail)
  • Sunni: Propose law for proportional minority representation in Parliament (fail)
  • Kurds: Conquer Mosul from ISIS (success)

*ISIS Crisis special rule: when any player rolls doubles on two six-sided dice, ISIS receives a bonus action related to the roll.

Turn 2

  • US: Deploy forces in support of Kurds (Drones, SOF, Air, Equipment) (success)
  • Iran: Move SOF (via air) and equipment (via sea) to Syria (fail; moved but detected and attributed to Iran)
  • ISIS: Retake Mosul from Kurds (fail)
  • Iraq: Open request for ground forces in support of fight against ISIS (no roll; Iran agrees to help)
  • Sunni: Conduct uprising in Tikrit: phase 1 build militia (success)
  • Kurds: Retake Hasakah Province from ISIS (fail; doubles)
  • ISIS Free Move: Provide support to Sunnis for Tikrit uprising (success)*

*Umpire mistake, not related to failed roll!

Turn 3

  • US: Soft diplomacy to GCC to stop flow of money to ISIS (success)
  • Iran: Deploy ground forces to Iraq: Najaf and Karbala (success)
  • ISIS: Conquer Tikrit with Sunni militia support (success)
  • Iraq: Conduct anti-ISIS IO campaign based on “one Iraq” (fail)
  • Sunni: Re-propose law for proportional minority representation in Parliament (success)
  • Kurds: Retake Hasakah Province from ISIS (success)

Turn 4

  • US: Announced Iranian nuclear deal in exchange for Iranian help against ISIS (success)
  • Iran: Deploy additional ground forces to Iraq: Samara (success; doubles)
  • ISIS Free Move: Blows up several mosques in Samara; Iran blamed (success)
  • ISIS: Regional recruiting campaign (success; doubles)
  • ISIS Free Move: Conquer Fallujah from Iraq (success)
  • Iraq: Coordinate for Combined Iraqi-Iranian assault to retake Fallujah from ISIS (fail; Iraq attacks alone)
  • Sunni: Appeal to US for support (no roll)
  • Kurds: Recuit/deploy additional Peshmerga into Kirkuk Provice (fail)

[1]Matrix Games: The Origins of Matrix Games,” Wargame Developments,  (accessed January 27, 2016).

[2] John Curry and Tim Price, Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming (Bristol, UK: The History of Wargaming Project, 2014), 7.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

COL Jerry Hall is an Army Simulations Officer and the Director of the Strategic Simulations Division, Center for Strategic Leadership, US Army War College. He can be reached at jerry.a.hall.mil@mail.mil

LTC Joseph Chretien is an Army Simulations Officer assigned to the Strategic Simulations Division. He can be reached at joseph.c.chretien.mil@mail.mil

Review: Healthy Heart Hospital

Healthy Heart Hospital. Victory Point Games, 2015. Game designers: Scott and Anna-Marie Nelson. Game developer: Nathan Hansen. USD $49.99.

rulescover_front_.jpgMost of the games we look at here at PAXsims are wargames or conflict simulations, of which there are a great many–indeed, far more than we can possibly review. Games that explore organizational processes and institutional change are much rarer, however. Yet such games can be of particular interest to those dealing with issues of peacebuilding, capacity-building, inter-agency cooperation, development aid, and humanitarian assistance. There is, after all, a reason why we made attending meetings such a significant part of our own AFTERSHOCK humanitarian game design. I’ll admit too that I have always liked medically-themed games—Pandemic is an all-time favourite, and I co-designed Zombiton NHS, a game about Zombies in a UK children’s hospital.

Healthy Heart Hospital is a cooperative game for 1-5 players that makes management and capacity-building issues central to game play. The game is designed for hobby play, and is not intended as simulation of contemporary American hospital management (despite quite a bit of implicit tongue-in-cheek commentary on for-profit medical care). However, several of the game mechanics could be easily adapted for more serious games on this and other topics. A game play takes 60-90 minutes.

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Image: Scott Nelson/BGG.

In the game, players are tasked with reviving the reputation and financial fortunes of Healthy Heart Hospital. To do so, they’ll need to assign staff actions to process and treat the patients arriving each turn in the waiting room. Healing patients generates revenue, while curing and discharging them raises the prestige of the hospital. Conversely, if patients die there is a financial and prestige cost.

pic2729768_md.pngThe hospital’s  doctors and the senior administrator all have special abilities, such as medical specializations, research expertise, or discounts on other actions. For example, Doctor Lucky—the staff pathologist—can hide a body to lessen the financial cost of death settlements. As the prestige of the hospital improves players can also hire more junior staff, such as technicians and nurses to improve the performance of wards, a human resource manager to reduce the cost of new hires, a lawyer to reduce the financial cost of malpractice, or a public relations specialist to reduce the prestige cost of patient deaths. The chaplain can even try to bring about miraculous cures.

In addition to investing in new staff, players can also invest in improved training, as well as expansions to the hospital itself. The latter might include an emergency room (handy for reducing patients deaths in the waiting room), operating rooms (which provide higher-quality care and increased revenue and prestige), a research lab, a morgue (for hiding even more bodies), a clinic for patients with minor ailments, and even a staff break room.

pic2800377_md.pngThe rules (downloadable here, via BGG) are clear and game play is straight forward. My only real quibble was that the headline text on the Ambulance Cards (which are used to generate new patients each turn) has nothing to do with game effects. It might have made sense, for example, for a card to indicate an accident and generate largely trauma patients, or for an epidemic to primarily generate new patients for the infectious disease ward. However, overall I found Healthy Heart Hospital to be a very enjoyable challenge, even as a solo game.

As noted earlier, there’s also much here—from workload and personnel management to strategic investment in staff training and physical infrastructure—that could be adapted or built upon for serious game designs. Although not intended for teaching purposes, it could be used in classroom setting for courses on health policy, public or private sector management, or public policy, with students asked to review the game or suggest game modifications that more closely model actual health care delivery challenges. While the rules are straight-forward, it might be best to play a partial game in class to teach the rules and then have students play in their own time as a course assignment.

Review: Gill, Inside the Box

Inside_the_Box-GillNatasha Gill, Inside the Box: Using Integrative Simulations to Teach Conflict, Negotiation and Mediation. Zurich: Center for Security Studies, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), 2015. Free to download.

Natasha Gill (Track4) has written an outstanding guide on how to use role-play negotiation simulations to explore issues of conflict and conflict resolution. What’s more, it’s free!

Gill’s “integrative simulations ” or “IN-simulations” ideally involve around 12-15 participants engaged role-playing negotiations of a real-life conflict over a period ranging from two days to several months. Participants are provided with substantial background material, and coaches with topic knowledge and negotiation experience help advise participants throughout the process. Her book provides an overview of organizing an IN-simulation, from preparation to implementation and aftermath; discusses what participants learn, and how and why they learn it; addresses some of the potential problems and criticisms of simulations as pedagogical tools; discusses how to handle potential problems that may arise; and offers a clear how-to manual and sample role packet/background material.

It is clear that the author strongly prefers her own IN-simulation model to others (p. 18):

The distinctive nature of an IN-simulation is best highlighted by contrasting it with:

  • Brief skill-building role play exercises that take place over the course of a few hours or one full day, are based on loosely structured or fictional scenarios, and include roles that are generalized or invented;
  • Modules that are longer and include detailed strategies and intricate gaming aspects, but are run with a large number of participants or moderated through the internet;
  • Modules that run on auto-pilot, with little feedback or monitoring from instructors.
  • Varieties of the above modules that include intensive input from instructors, but where supervision tends to focus on ensuring the game remains on track and participants are following the general rules, rather than on offering personal feedback to individual participants relating to their skills development, or their strengths/weaknesses in various areas.

While these and other types of simulations can be exciting for participants and offer a variety of insights and learning experiences, they often miss out on some of the most crucial learning experiences that emerge from being immersed in a structured, intimate and realistic negotiation.

She is critical of “war games” and crisis simulations (pp. 145-146) for generating an intense and chaotic decision-making environment in which players are unable to appropriately contemplate their positions. Fictional conflicts, Gill argues, cannot generate the appropriate degree of emotional commitment to roles. She very much favours teaching participants as the game unfolds. Her emphasis is generally on learning rather than policy analysis, and think-tank games come under particular criticism (pp. 51-21, 132).

Her commitment here to a single model provides the book with admirable coherence and clarity of focus. On the other hand, some may may feel that she pays inadequate attention to other ways of doing things. In my own work I am more inclined to take a “toolkit” rather than “model” approach, one that emphasizes that different simulation and gaming tools may work better in different contexts or to explore different aspects of conflict.

  • If you want to encourage deep reflective thinking and interchange, then integrative simulations clearly have a great deal  to commend them. However, they tend to also work best with small groups who can invest substantial time in the process.
  • Many role-play negotiations do not accurately model the disorganization, time pressures, and chaos of many real-life talks. The 2000 US-Israeli-Palestinian talks at Camp David are a case in point: despite their calm, bucolic setting, they were, in the words of one Israeli participant, “the worst organized negotiations I had attended in my professional life.” There was little pre-negotiation, technically knowledgable advisors kept at arms length, poor negotiation records were kept, and the parties were surprisingly ill-prepared.
  • In some cases, key parties never meet face-to-face, or stakeholders never get a seat at the table but rather make their views felt in other sorts of ways. In such cases other game mechanisms can be used to model this. In the Syrian refugee simulations I’ve conducted, for example, the refugees are engaged in a quite different (but interlinked) “survival” simulation while the higher-level refugee policy negotiations are underway.
  • If you can find the human resources to provide coaches, and you’re running very small simulations in which the facilitator can give everyone face-to-face time, that’s great—but it isn’t always possible. Moreover, in some cases there is value in letting participants make mistakes and learn from their consequences, rather than coaching too much.
  • Simulations may have wholly legitimate analytical purposes too, not just experiential ones. On the issue of think-tank games, a  previous PAxsims exchange between Gill and Devin Ellis (here and here) explores this issue in further detail.

In fairness to Gill, however, she is clear that the purpose of her book is not to survey the broad range of simulation approaches, but rather to discuss how her IN-simulation approach works. By all appearances it works very well when applied in the way she suggests to certain types of negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution issues. Moreover, in the course of discussing the approach she has much to offer more broadly on learning, integration onto curriculum, assigning players, dealing with difficulties, and a range of issues beside. The insights that she offers are substantial, and this book should be required reading for anyone working in this field or who wishes to use such techniques for conflict resolution training or in an academic classroom.

Quick little review of 7 Ronin

7 Ronin. Badger’s Nest. Game designers: Marek Mydel and Piotr Stankiewicz.

Great game!

Okay, the review is slightly longer than that. 7 Ronin is a new 2 player board game of simultaneous moves, fog of war and incomplete information by Piotr Stankiewicz and Marek Mydel. I managed to squeeze in a couple games in a long overdue gaming session with my buddy Aram a few days ago and he managed to pick up his rare stateside copy of the game in Seattle. The premise for the game is basically the film Seven Samurai. One player takes the role of seven “good guys” (tools of the authoritarian regime) who are protecting (extorting?) a community against up to 50 bandit/ninjas that are attacking (liberating?) the village. I won’t get into the mechanics of the game too much, except to say that each player assigns their units (ronin or ninjas) on a secret board and then reveals where their units are, there are a few tactical choices depending on where they’ve deployed and then the effects are tallied. The ronin try to run the clock out by either surviving 10 turns or killing all the ninjas. The ninjas win if they control five village spaces or kill all the ronin. For a more complete review of gameplay, take a look at this nice review from Space-Biff.

Rather than talk about the gameplay, I’d like to spend my rare blog post ink on the value the game could have to our community. As it is, the game is already an elegant, quickplaying (30 minutes), easy to learn and fun to play model of asymmetric warfare. I could see it being used as a quick introduction to the basic principles for a non-military professional audience. They would learn a lot about guerrilla tactics and the fog of war and have fun doing it. There is slightly more narrative and story to the game than the excellent but abstract Guerrilla Checkers from Brian Train and less complexity than the brilliant games like Andean Abyss or Labyrinth by Volke Ruhnko, which, though very good games for wargamers, may be too complex for a non-gaming audience to learn. See Rex’ excellent post on A Distant Plain and some reflections on some other recent asymmetric wargames. As a big fan of elegance in game design and simplicity in execution, this game won me over quickly.

But in writing this review, I can also see two more uses for this game in the classroom:

  1. Unpacking and exploring narratives in conflict. As I alluded to above, the stereotypes of “protector” vs. “bandit” found in Seven Samurai and perpetuated in its ilk in cinema and in other games like this one (see Stronghold, men defending against “creatures” and Shadows over Camelot, knights (men) taking “heroic actions” against the shadows), are based on narratives of, yes, men, protecting the vulnerable (usually women, but 7 Ronin has one (1) female ronin!), from the darkness and the other…. Unfortunately, the other defend games like Stronghold and SoC are too long to use in a classroom exercise. But I could see real value in constructing a quick rule set for two opposing players that describes their own side – depending on how the rules are written, the “ronin” could have been hired by the villagers to protect them or sent by the despot to conquer the village or simply there to extort their own rents. The “bandits” could be bandits, or liberators. Either side could be recast as men or women. Their relationship with the people of village could be written in a variety of ways. It would be fascinating to hear the narratives that would develop from the game play depending on the background briefs provided to each player. The game designers have already explored this narrative and viewpoint concept a little, by providing each player with a planning mat that reflects their position – the ronin have a nice silk-painted mat on which to plan, the bandits have a rudimentary mat sketched in sand and marked with stones.
  2. Modeling local development priorities with competing interests. The game is so simple and so elegant, it could easily be recast as a PRT in a complex environment game with 2 (or 3?) sides, demonstrating the complexity of development and meeting local needs in a fragile setting. One side could play the role of a PRT or other “comprehensive approach” development actor, attempting to “clear, hold, build” in a complex setting, while the other player takes on the role of insurgents (liberators?) attempting to interrupt development and stability, and/or create their own stability through local law or autonomy. A third player could be the village, trying to survive, perhaps leaning toward helping one side or the other as the promise of stability and safety becomes more meaningful. As it is, the game has a lot of these features – the ninjas can insinuate themselves among the community to increase the rate at which they can enter the village, targets for the insurgents are the well, the granary and the path which all have different effects on the effectiveness of the ronin and the bandits — modelling, perhaps, winning the hearts and minds of the host community. A student of Iraq or Afghanistan would already see much in the metaphor of the Seven Samurai – with a small amount of tweaking it could be a very instructional game.

7 Ronin isn’t a perfect game – I think it is really tough to get the bandits up and running and it takes a full play before the icons make any sense/are intuitive – but it is near perfect for what it is. I’ll pick up a copy when I get a chance and I hope to hear about it making into a classroom. Who knows, maybe I’d even design the PRT variant… stop laughing, Rex.

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