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Category Archives: simulation and game reviews

Review: Hostage Negotiator

The following review was contributed by the ever-mysterious Tim Price.


Hostage Negotiator. Game designer: A. J. Porfirio. Don’t Panic Games/Last Level/Van Ryder Games, 2015. USD $24.99

Hostage Negotiator is a single-player game involving cards and dice. The player plays the role of the Hostage Negotiator in a scenario where someone has taken hostages and is threatening to kill them unless their demands are met.

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The basic game mechanic is that you have a “Hostage Negotiator Tableau” on which there is a track representing the mental state of the Hostage Taker. This represents the threat level and, if the threat level is low, you get more opportunities to influence the Hostage Taker and perhaps get hostages released; or if the threat level is high, your chances of influencing the Hostage Taker reduce and the chances that he will kill a hostage increases. There are random “Terror” cards and “Pivotal Events” to add flavour and increase uncertainty.

The principal tactics are to select “Conversation Cards”, each of which has a cost in “Conversation Points” and a risk/reward payoff with regard to the threat level. The aim is to get at least half of the hostages out alive and capture/kill the Hostage Taker, or to rescue all the hostages, in order to win.

The game is well made with very high-quality components, the rules booklet is clear and well-illustrated and the scenarios are well balanced. The box is small with no wasted space and the time to play is 15 to 30 minutes.

I’m really not a fan of solo games, but the idea of someone making a game about hostage negotiation really intrigued me. There are some minor niggles with the rules (exceptions to existing rules at different times in the game), but they are generally clear and easy to follow.

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The game was tense and developed a credible narrative following the cards played. I became engrossed and, after messing things up horribly (with most of the hostages getting killed), I immediately played again – which is always a good sign. I then introduce the game to someone who really isn’t a game player but was also intrigued by the subject and it was just as much fun, if not more so, working together to decide on the best negotiating strategy.

The reason that I’m writing a review here for PAXsims is that the game struck me as a possible model for social media influence, or other “hearts and minds” effects base influence operations. The threat track could easily be modified to represent “Social Media Sentiment” or “Support for the NATO Peacekeepers” with measurable effects occurring at the points where a hostage would have been released or killed. Modifying the conversation cards into a range of different “effects” gambits would be a very useful exercise, along with working out appropriate alternatives to the random “Terror” cards.

There is a lot of interest in “social media” simulation and emulation at the moment in Defence. A number of large simulation companies are offering to replicate various social media demographic groups by the use of “AI and machine learning”. The aim is to generate a social media feed that is supposed to replicate the target demographic to such an extent that the users can try out influence strategies for the purposes of training.

My personal view is that you might be able to use “AI and machine learning” to some extent to identify useful information from a mass of background noise, but this is several orders of magnitude away from being able to replicate those feeds to a level of fidelity for training purposes. These approaches are also likely to be hugely expensive and take some years before they could possibly be effective. In the meantime, we need to train people in “hearts and minds” and “effects” on people’s beliefs and attitudes, right now. Current training consists of scripted injects into exercises that are either trivial “box-ticking” exercises or at best short-term interventions that are deliberately limited in their effects so as to avoid upsetting the normal flow of training.

I think that the process of looking at a simple and inexpensive, off-the-shelf, little game like this; with a view to modifying it to produce a manual game system for effects and influence, may have a much greater payoff than putting one’s hope in a large multi-national company’s promise of “AI and machine learning”…

I intend to try this idea out and hope to be able to report back shortly.

Tim Price

Review of Islamic State: The Syria War

Islamic State: The Syria War. Game designer: Javier Romero. Game developer: Ty Bomba. One Small Step/CounterFact magazine, 2017. USD$32.00 (including magazine).

Islamic State is a two-player game included as part of CounterFact magazine #7. It examines the struggle against Daesh (also known as ISIS or the Islamic State) in Syria. Game play is semi-cooperative, in that the Syrian/Russian/Iranian side and the US/Coalition/SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, including the Syrian Kurds/YPG) side are both fighting against non-player Daesh, and neither can win unless the Islamic State is defeated. However, if Daesh is sufficiently weakened, the game reverts to being full competitive, in that only one of the two players can ultimately triumph. The game is similar in general design to Islamic State: Libya War, published in 2016. The rules can be downloaded for free here.

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Image credit: Javier Romero (via BGG).

Islamic State: Syria War uses point-to-point movement, which is appropriate given the geography, population distribution, and transportation network found in Syria. Indeed, a very similar system was used in the Countering ISIL game designed by the rapid prototyping working group at the 2015 MORS special meeting on wargaming. That game was later developed by RAND for use in professional settings.

Players have a number of combat options to choose from each turn, ranging from movement/ground combat to reconnaissance, air/artillery strikes, snatch-and-grab operations, and targeted killings, The actions of Daesh are largely determined by chit draw, and might include military offensives, infiltration, subversion, kidnappings, and smuggling. From time to time, other Syrian rebel factions or Turkey might also take action through a similar mechanism. When combat occurs, Daesh forces are randomly drawn, with some units having particular characteristics such as limited anti-tank or anti-air capability, or use of IEDs and human shields.

Islamic State: The Syria War has some rough edges. Some game mechanisms could be a little more elegant, and the rules have some gaps or areas where they could be clearer. It also very much focuses on Syria through the prism of Daesh, and rather than the struggle between the Syrian opposition and the Asad regime. Nevertheless, for a small magazine game it features some interesting elements, and it nicely captures many key aspects of the conflict. I particularly liked the portrayal of special operations forces, the role that intelligence collection plays in the game, and the way in which Daesh activity can be slowed by eliminating leaders or sealing the northern (Turkish) border.

GCAM2.0 “Comprehensive Approach” simulation

Last week, Dr. Anja van der Hulst (TNO and University of Amsterdam) was kind enough to run a game of the (somewhat-awkwardly-named) “Go4it Comprehensive Approach simulation Model” (or GCAM2.0) for 18 student volunteers from my POLI 450 course on peacebuilding. It went very well indeed.

GCAM2.0 was developed in cooperation with the NATO Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) Centre of Excellence, and is now regularly used in both Dutch and NATO military training. The “comprehensive approach” itself is NATO jargon intended to underscore the need to engage a variety of means and tools and a multiplicity of actors in stabilization operations:

NATO’s new Strategic Concept, adopted at the Lisbon Summit in November 2010, underlines that lessons learned from NATO operations show that effective crisis management calls for a comprehensive approach involving political, civilian and military instruments. Military means, although essential, are not enough on their own to meet the many complex challenges to Euro-Atlantic and international security. Allied leaders agreed at Lisbon to enhance NATO’s contribution to a comprehensive approach to crisis management as part of the international community’s effort and to improve NATO’s ability to contribute to stabilzation and reconstruction.

GCAM2.0 is a card-driven game with computer-assisted adjudication, in which four sets of players—the local government in a fragile and conflict-affected country, a (UN or NATO) foreign task force, NGOs, and opposition forces (OPFOR)—allocate limited resources each turn to a range of possible assessments and interventions.

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When the interventions are entered into the computer, it immediately updates a range of political, security, and socio-economic indicators, which are displayed to players as a series of bar graphs. The effectiveness of interventions may be affected by contextual conditions, such as security; by what other cards have or have not yet been played; and by how many teams have allocated resources to support any given initiative.

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Teams discuss what actions to take, while the projector indicates the current situation.

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Players look at their cards and hence various options.

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More discussions and planning.

In our game, OPFOR decided early on to not pick a fight with the Task Force, but rather try to appear cooperative—while at the same time laying the groundwork for its own de facto administration in the conflict area. They did this by supporting their own clinics, schools, and other projects (often securing NGO or Task Force support), while always finding some excuse not to support government initiatives. The Local Government grew ever more frustrated that no one was listening to their legitimate authority.

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Players wait to see the results of their latest actions as Anja enters the details into her computer.

As their local popularity grew, so too did OPFOR resources. In the end they even branched out into drug production —and, what’s more, somehow managed to convince the NGO team to fund it under the guise of being “an alternative agricultural project”.

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An investment in illegal drug production.

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Anja and OPFOR (locally known as “Team Evil”) thank an NGO representative for her unwitting contribution to the local drug trade.

The game lasted about 2 and a half hours, and everyone seemed to both enjoy themselves and learn from the experience —including the importance of not blindly supporting projects suggested by nefarious local rebel factions!

You’ll find a fuller academic paper on GCAM2.0 here.

Review: Rise Up

Rise Up: The Game of People & Power. TESA Collective, 2017. Designer: Brian Van Slyke. USD$37.00

Rise Up is a game of social activism for 2-5 players, in which the participants collectively seek to achieve a goal in the face of resistance from “the System.” Each player represents an activist with distinct skills, who must mobilize supporters and use card play to advance the cause of the Movement. Watch out, however–the System fights back. If the players secure victories in five of ten sectors (Neighborhoods, Workplaces, Government, Media, Farms, Environment, Culture, Internet, Faith-Based Communities, Campuses), they win. If the System achieves victories in any four of these first, they lose. The various Movement cards depict an array of possible actions, ranging from court challenges, research, community action, and press conferences, through to strikes, viral videos, and flash mobs. Each card has a cost associated with play, and yields different effects.

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The game can be played within 90 minutes or less. There is a set of simplified rules included, but the core game itself is so straight-forward and easy to learn that it will rarely be required. The game components are satisfactory, although the various markers are a bit small and thin, and will be prone to being knocked or blown aside by a clumsy activist or a gust of dystopian wind. In my set I have replaced these with wooden meeples and cubes for a little more weight.

The simple game mechanics aren’t especially innovative, but they work well enough. The real learning is to be had from the narrative that the players construct, and the various discussions that the game can generate. The game lacks the detail or nuance to make it a genuine simulation of social mobilization. There is, for example, but a single resource in the game—popular support—and the financial and other elements of successful organization aren’t represented.

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This really isn’t a problem, however. Rise Up is well-designed as an ice-breaker and discussion-starter. easily played in a short period of time by players from any background and those with no substantial gaming experience. Indeed, the game’s unavoidably simple representation of complex reality itself provides teachable moments, since players can be challenged to design new cards or game modifications to address these. Three print-and-play expansion packs are already available ($10) each), as is an education resource package.

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

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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

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