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Category Archives: simulation and game reviews

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

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.

AWCbriefing

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).

maporientation

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.

Iranteam

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.

Review: This War of Mine

PAXsims asked Dr. James Sterrett, Deputy Chief of the Digital Leader Development Center’s Simulations Division at the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College, to review the recent digital game This War of Mine. The review reflects his personal views only, not those of CGSC, the Army, or the United States government.

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Hungry, tired, and depressed, Pavle reloads the rat traps in the hopes of catching a meal.

Perhaps we should have expected this game from 11 Bit Studios, a Polish game company previously best known for inverting the conventions of the tower defense genre in Anomaly: Warzone Earth. In This War of Mine, 11 Bit again turns convention on its head. Instead of controlling combatants, This War of Mine puts you in control of a small group of civilians trying to survive in the besieged city of Pogoren. In place of pretty explosions and adrenaline, This War of Mine delivers a bleak, somber that game may not be fun in the traditional sense, nor is it perfect; but it is an outstanding effort at using a game to make players experience and reflect on a (hopefully) unfamiliar situation.

Your task is to survive the siege, assigning each person in your group various tasks – generally maintenance and preparation by day, and sleeping, guarding your shelter, or scavenging by night. Survival demands maintaining a teetering balance between the need to eat, the need to stay warm, the need to stay safe, the need to stay sane – and the need to gather more materials to enable the other tasks. Whomever is scavenging or guarding at night will be tired the next day, but if you don’t scavenge you won’t be able to get food. Hungry, tired, cold people get sick more easily. Sick, tired, hungry, cold, and/or depressed people are less effective at their tasks – and if left too long, the sickness, hunger, cold, or depression will lead to death. Food, medicine, fuel, and comfort items such as books or cigarettes, are difficult to come by. In This War of Mine, gaining the ability to trap rats for food can mean the difference between survival and death, and you may come to deeply resent your caffeine and nicotine addicts as they consume valuable trade items to slake their chemical dependencies.

No one is feeling very well, but someone has to go out and scavenge more supplies tonight...

No one is feeling very well, but someone has to go out and scavenge for more supplies tonight…

The daylight hours spent in the shelter are generally slow and contemplative, interspersed by occasional events as people come to your door. Some seek to trade, some want to join your group, some want help with their problems – asking for you to give some of your tiny store of food or medicine to help them survive. At night, you control the one scavenger, in the place you chose to go. Depending on the location and its inhabitants, you may be able to scavenge freely, trade, or you may wind up in a fight. Combat is simple, fast-paced, and unforgiving, yet understated enough that even victories feel like survival, not empowerment. You may choose to initiate combat, trying to beat or murder your way through the other civilians or even the soldiers, bandits, and militiamen. However, not only is death sudden and final, it also costs you whatever stuff that person was carrying, including their extraordinarily scarce weaponry. In addition, while successful violence will get you access to more stuff and thus enable your survival, most characters become depressed by murder, especially of other civilians. Depressed, they are less effective, and may eventually commit suicide. Moreover, the game appears to react to your actions. Your violence seems to make the nighttime raids on your shelter (played offscreen) more violent, and can render vital peaceful people, such as the traders in the Central Square, hostile. Likewise, those dilemmas during the daytime can come back to you as well; people whom you helped with food or medicine are likely to return the favor, randomly, when they have a surplus. In This War of Mine, violence is an answer, but it has its costs.

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The house has been raided by looters!

I am not an expert on societies in cities under siege (including the game’s clear inspirations, Sarajevo and Warsaw), but This War of Mine seems initially to imply a complete societal breakdown, with bandits everywhere and the player potentially joining their ranks as people comb the city for resources. However, in a long game, scavenging meets its limits, when all the sites have either been picked over or are too heavily defended to attack. At that point, continued survival depends on a social network, fragile though it may be. Neighbors you helped may still help you. People whom you have established trading relations with will still be there, and the time I succeeded in surviving the game, it was trading that got me through. In this subtle way, This War of Mine reinforces the importance of cooperation with groups outside your own, and mingles a slight note of hope into its overall tone of desperation.

Some are kids at the door, asking for help. Can you spare some precious medical supplies for them?

Kids at the door, asking for help. Would you spare some precious medical supplies for them?

Even its apparent flaws seem deliberate and work to its advantage. The daytime ticks by too slowly, yet that reinforces the boredom of being cooped up, hiding from snipers. The game has no tutorial, yet the player’s initial confusion reflects the confusion most of us would feel if we were suddenly plunged into such a situation.

Overall, This War of Mine is remarkably successful at being an engrossing game that involves violence yet avoids making the situation seem remotely appealing.

This War of Mine is my current pick for the best game of 2014.

I doubt I will be able to forget the games I’ve played in it.

I don’t know if I will ever want to play it again after finishing this review.

That paradoxical combination is 11 Bit Studios’ triumph.

Trading moonshine and jewelry for much-needed supplies.

Trading moonshine and jewelry for much-needed supplies.

Classroom Use

Turning away from playing the game as a game, could it be useful in a classroom? Leaving specific questions of its fidelity to real sieges to others more versed in the topic….

Yes: This War of Mine could certainly serve as a spark for political science or history discussions on the experience of civilians in wartime; it has done so with both my wife and my son. Having students compare their decisions could also help drive discussions in ethics, leadership, and the laws of war. Students are unlikely to forget the game or the subsequent discussion.

Maybe: While it would be a powerful concrete experience, This War of Mine is not a fast game to play. Surviving a 42-day siege took me around 6 hours. Some of the subtleties in the interactions between player’s choices and the game won’t necessarily come out in a single playthrough, not least because I suspect most people’s first playthrough ends in disaster before those interactions can fully come to light. As a result, This War of Mine is not a game that could be used during class time. Whether the time spent in homework creates sufficient overall benefit, through driving discussion, will depend on the specific learning objectives of the program of instruction.

James Sterrett

CounterFact magazine

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The first issue of CounterFact magazine is now available, published by One Small Step Games.

CounterFact magazine is a journal of professional and commercial wargaming. It is published approximately four times per year on an “as ready” basis. Each issue contains articles on professional and commercial wargaming to include game analysis, commentary, polemology, and provocative pieces on conflict and design theory. Also included in each issue is a manual wargame, usually consisting of a tabloid map-sheet, a sheet of playing pieces, and a rules booklet.

The first issue includes a critical analysis by Jon Compton of Breaking the Chains (Compass Games, 2014), in which he assesses the insight the game offers into future Sino-American conflict in the South China Sea. Game designer John Gorkowski then offers a rebuttal.

Cover01The issue also contains a very nitpicky, negative review of At Nueve Chapelle (White Dog Games, 2012) by the game’s own graphic artist. There’s a piece on “Wargaming by the Rules of War,” that offers a satirical take on the Red Cross movement’s efforts to have video games more accurately reflect the role of international humanitarian law in modern warfare. (Personally, I didn’t find it that funny or on-target, given what the ICRC and American Red Cross are actually trying to do. However, I’m a bit of an IHL nerd.)

A preview is offered of the forthcoming American Civil War game Huzzah! (One Small Step 2014). Finally, the issue contains a  game (120 counter, 11″x17″ map) of the fighting at the Mule Shoe Salient during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse (1864) during the American Civil War. This uses also Huzzah’s “Rebel Yell Light” rules. Since I haven’t played it yet, I can’t really comment on the game or rules.

Overall, I thought CounterFact was a worthy initiative, but one with uneven content that is still very much in search of its niche, voice, and identity. I very much like the idea of well-informed debates over game design and game philosophy that draw on both game reviews and informed assessment of historical or future conflict. Despite its title, there is no consistent focus on games as a rigorous method of counterfactual analysis in CounterFact, other than in the very general sense that all historical conflict simulations embody this to a greater or lesser degree.

Big Board Gaming had somewhat similar impressions of the first issue—for that review, see below.

Review: Fire in the Lake

 Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam. GMT Games, 2014. Game designers: Mark Herman and Volko Ruhnke. $85.00.

pic2083738_mdLast night the PAXsims review crew got together to play Fire in the Lake, the fourth and latest in GMT Games’ COIN series. The game covers the Vietnam war from 1964 through to 1972, with players representing the United States (US), North Vietnamese forces (NVA), the Republic of Vietnam forces (ARVN), or the Viet Cong (VC). Rules for play with less than four players (including solitaire play) are included. It plays more easily with two players than others in the series.

The card- and map-based game system is very similar to that used in the previous games in the series, Andean Abyss (insurgency in Colombia), Cuba Libre, and A Distant Plain (contemporary Afghanistan). Given that we’ve already discussed that system extensively in past reviews I won’t say much more about it here, other than to highlight some of the ways in which it has been customized for the Vietnamese case:

  • Some players have access to more troops types. In Andean Abyss there were five (government troops and police, and FARC, AUC, and cartel guerrillas) plus bases, whereas in Fire in the Lake that number increases to eight (ARVN troops, police, and rangers; US troops and irregulars; NVA troops and guerrillas; VC guerrillas), plus two types of bases (regular and tunnelled).
  • The cards are periodized, for more historic play.
  • The Ho Chi Minh Trail and operations in Cambodia and Laos play a key role, especially for the NVA.
  • The player actions differ slightly in this game (as they do for all games in the series). The US “advise” special operation role is quite different from anything in A Distant Plain. US air strikes are powerful, and can degrade the Ho Chi Minh Trail—but also can damage local popular support if used in South Vietnam. Some of the operations seemed to be slightly more complex than in previous games.
  • The US has much less flexibility in adding or removing troops from the theatre compared to A Distant Plain.
  • The map has slightly more areas (30 provinces or cities, plus lines of communication) than does Andean Abyss (27+LOCs) or A Distant Plain (25+LOCs), and significantly more options than Cuba Libre (13).
  • Scoring takes place when a coup card becomes active, similar to the propaganda card in the other games in the series. This may change the current leader of South Vietnam, with ongoing effects, or weaken ARVN forces through infighting.
  • Each player has a special “pivotal event” card that they may play, essentially replacing the current event card. These can be quite powerful.
  • Accurately reflecting its subject matter, this is the first game in which you can’t play criminal cartels or warlords. No more drug smuggling or casinos for you!

pic1959464_lgAs with all of the games in the series, I had some relatively minor quibbles with how some of the operations are constructed. Air strikes seemed somewhat overpowered, especially in urban and jungle terrain. Our NVA player was not a fan of how his “infiltrate” operation worked. I’ve never liked the way in which pacification and the building of domestic support is a derivative of the “training” operation, both in this game and other in the series. I did, however, very much like the idea of pivotal events, allowing players to both “bury” an unwanted event card and launch a major, possibly game-changing, initiative.

Game Play

We played the medium-length, 1968-72 scenario. The first coup card came early before many operations had been undertaken, allowing the ARVN to set aside quite a large war-chest of resources and pacify much of the country.

The NVA built up large forces in Cambodia in preparation for a cross-border incursion, but ARVN forces slipped across the border to identify their locations for a series of devastating US air strikes. Given our habit of always playing games to a thematically-appropriate soundtrack, such raids were accompanied by either Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride (1968) or, of course, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.

Meanwhile the Viet Cong struggled to expand their underground guerrilla network. They had some success in subverting government troops and police and weakening the local patronage system, although they heavily suffered from periodic ARVN sweeps and raids. ARVN and US pacification made the regime surprisingly popular in large parts of the country. Despite differing victory conditions (and the fact that only one player can ultimately win), NVA-VC and US-ARVN cooperation was very good. This was especially true of the latter, with ARVN sweeps often setting the stage for US air strikes, and some US capabilities enhancing ARVN forces too.

Later in the game the NVA again built up large forces in Cambodia, taking advantage of a US Bombing Pause (event card). When the US then followed a failed coup attempt (coup card) with a substantial draw-down of American forces, the NVA unleashed its Easter Offensive (pivotal event). North Vietnamese troops poured across the border from Cambodia, advancing upon and ultimately capturing Saigon. The Viet Cong followed up with the Tet Offensive (pivotal event). This was rather less successful at inflicting serious damage, although it did augment VC guerrilla strength.

Stretched on the ground and having taken significant casualties, the US unleashed another series of air raids against the NVA, devastating their forces in many areas. ARVN troops and rangers poured into Saigon, attempting to regain control of the capital amid bitter street fighting.

At this point, the game came to an end. Despite the heavy fighting still underway in Saigon, the US managed to secure a narrow victory, largely due it its earlier withdrawal of forces and the significant pro-regime support that still remained in much of the country. The NVA and ARVN were close behind in their points total, however.

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Impressions

This game has a lot to commend it. I very much liked the way in which geography made itself felt in the game, something I felt rather less in Andean Abyss and A Distant Plain. In our game the Mekong Delta was very much its own sub-theatre, compared to the central highlands. The threat of NVA covert and overt intervention from along the length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail also has enormous strategic effect on game play.

On the other hand, our game suffered from significantly more “analysis paralysis” than any of our previous experiences with the GMT COIN series. There is no single obvious reason for this—the rules, operations, and events are only a tiny bit more complex, the types of forces available are somewhat more diverse, and the map has only slightly more playable areas. Three of our players had played several games in the COIN series before too.

Nevertheless, things slowed down considerably, to the point that we introduced an informal Stairway to Heaven rule whereby players were asked to finish their turn before the iconic 1971 Led Zepplin song was finished playing.

Perhaps we were tired, or too full of pizza. After all, war is hell.

At the time of writing Fire in the Lake is currently the highest rated of the four games in the COIN series on Board Game Geek, ranked an impressive 74th best wargame of all time. Among our group we all still preferred A Distant Plain, with two ranking Fire in the Lake in the middle of the series and the third ranking it his least favourite of the four. (In fairness it should probably be noted that I was the only person old enough to remember the Vietnam War, whereas the majority of the group work on contemporary conflict issues.)

Although our game ran more slowly than I would have hoped, I am certainly looking forward to a rematch!

Review: Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming

matrixgamesReview of: John Curry and Tim Price, Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, Developments in Professional and Educational Wargames (History of Wargaming Project, 2014). 56pp. £12.95 pb.

“Matrix games” were first invented by Chris Engle in the early 1990s as a free-form, umpired alternative to more rigid, rules-based games. In a matrix game players typically take turns making an argument about what they wish to do, why they believe they would be successful, and what effects they expect this to have. Other players may be invited to identify counter-arguments. The outcome is then adjudicated by the umpire, with or without the use of dice.

PAXsims was recently involved in running a matrix game on the situation in northern Iraq, accounts of which you’ll find here and (via John Curry) here. You’ll also find some published games available at Hamster Press, and a large collection put together by Tom Mouat here.

Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming is a slim volume by John Curry and Tim Price that outlines how to play such a game. It introduces the topic, including a brief history of the approach and examples of how it has been used within the UK defence sector and elsewhere. The booklet includes a concise discussion of the rules and procedures used, different options for resolving player arguments, as well as a simple system for determining the outcome of battles between military forces. In addition,  the authors have useful suggestions for how to deal with arguments that players wish to keep secret from others, when outcomes should require multiple sequential successful arguments, dealing with ongoing effects, and how to finish and review such games. More than half the booklet consists of five ready-to-play games, complete with scenarios, briefings, objectives, maps, and (for most of these) copy-and-cut game counters too: The Falklands  War (1982); Chaoslavia (set in the Bosnia c1993); Lasgah-Pol (a fictional tactical scenario set in Afghanistan c2008); Red Line: Civil War in Syria (chemical weapons use in Syria, 2013); and Crisis in Crimea (March 2014, but easily modified and updated for subsequent or future developments). A version of the latter is also available via an earlier PAXsims article on contemporary Ukraine-themed wargames).

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Map for Crisis in Crimea

Certainly the volume contains everything one needs to design, facilitate, and play such a game. I would have liked to have seen a somewhat longer discussion of game techniques, strengths, weaknesses, and challenges, as well as possible modifications and alternative approaches. It would have been useful to examine how matrix games can be linked to other gaming methods (for example, providing the strategic backdrop for a series of operational- or tactical-level games), and how such games could be run by email or otherwise used in a “distributed” approach with players in different locations or playing asynchronously. Indeed, as I write this review I’m struck how easily and effectively an online role-playing game platform like Roll20 (which allows multiple players to share and manipulate an online game board while linked by video, voice and text communications) could be used to host a matrix game.

Not surprisingly for a guide published by the History of Wargaming Project, the volume places most of its emphasis on the gaming of war and warfare. However, as the authors note, matrix games can be used to game pretty much anything in which there are multiple actors with differing or overlapping objectives. It would be very easy to imagine running a matrix game of the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa, for example.

Finally, while I found the booklet clear and straight-forward in its presentation, I do think it would have been useful to have extended at least one of the brief examples to a longer narrative of a few rounds of play in order to give neophyte players or umpires a better sense of how a game might unfold.

That being said, Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming is the most useful publication yet available on how to use such games for serious analytical purposes. I certainly recommend it for anyone wanting to learn about the method, and how to use it for serious and not-so-serious wargaming alike.

Playing a matrix game (picture via History of Wargaming Project).

Playing a matrix game (picture via History of Wargaming Project).

ISIL matrix game AAR

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Matrix games are a type of free-form game in which each player, in turn, makes an argument about a particular course of action and the effects they expect that action would have if successful. Additional arguments for and against this are then made by other players. The success of the proposed action is then either adjudicated by the umpire, or resolved by a dice roll and a series of modifiers reflecting the arguments for and against. The next player then takes his/her action on the basis of this new situation, and the game thus continues. Game play may take place around a map and pieces/counters/units as game aids, or may be entirely abstract. Because events unfold according to a series of successful actions, arguments, and effects, it unfolds very much as a narrative of the scenario being explored.

Main MapYesterday I had an opportunity to play a game a matrix game of the situation in northern Iraq, ably facilitated by Tom Mouat. Our ten players assumed the roles of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS, Da’ish, or the “Islamic State”), the Iraqi central government led by Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abidi, the Sunni opposition, the Kurdish Regional Government, Iran, and the United States. In addition I played the “spirit of inshallah,” who each turn could argue for a likely action or effect that other players had not proposed.

We used a pair of dice for adjudication, with 7+ required for success, with the dice modified by +/-1 for every plausible argument or counter-argument generated by players.

Each team was provided with a one page briefing that outlined their situation and major goals. One of the innovations in the game was that each also started with an “initial condition” that affected their play. Thus the Iraqi central government suffered penalties to its dice rolls to reflect the poor performance of its military forces as well as the absence of an agreed government/cabinet; the Kurds suffered a penalty to reflect PUK-KDP political rivalries; ISIL was able to take the occasional bonus move to reflect its political momentum; and so forth.

The game was intended solely for the purposes of giving players an opportunity to experience the methodology, not for any official or policy purposes. Nevertheless it was conducted under Chatham House rules. The players included a couple of scholars of Middle East politics, a foreign ministry official, some current or former intelligence or defence analysts, and quite a few experienced wargamers—an opportunity group of friends and colleagues, but a quite skilled and well-informed one. Gameplay itself took a little over two hours. The game map and generic pieces used in the game are reproduced at left and below (click images to expand).

The ISIL (or ISIS) Crisis

The game started off with Washington contemplating airstrikes in support of Iraqi troops fighting against the self-styled “Islamic State” near Tikrit, but ultimately choosing not to go ahead with these. Throughout the US team was cautious about becoming too deeply involved in an Iraqi quagmire. Later some US Special Forces were sent to the country, and—after some extended discussions with the Iraqi government—ended up conducting cautious reconnaissance of ISIL positions. A terrorist attack struck the US Navy in the Persian Gulf (for which ISIL claimed responsibility), but this has little impact on American policy.

ISIL itself decided to launch an offensive towards Karbala through the sparsely populated areas to the northwest and west. This was intended largely as a feint and diversion, but it caught the Iraqi Army by surprise, which quickly routed. Much to everyone’s surprise, ISIL then defeated the Shiite militias in the city, causing a massive out-flow of terrified refugees.

IMG_2290Prime Minister Abidi oscillated between efforts to form a national unity government and building up troops for a counter-offensive. Iran sent arms, advisors, humanitarian aid. At the request of the Kurds, some Iranian combat units also entered Iraqi Kurdistan. Secretly the Kurds had cut side deals with both Iran and ISIL which enabled the Peshmerga to recapture Mosul but also saw most ISIL units leave the city to battle elsewhere.

The Iraqi Prime Minister’s effort to broaden the base of the Iraqi government bore some fruit when the Sunni opposition—attracted by the offer of future political decentralization and an equitable share of oil resources—abandoned their erstwhile jihadist allies. Heavy fighting soon followed as local Sunni tribal militias and ISIL militants fought for control of the border crossings into Syria. US airstrikes and a covert supply of US weapons to the anti-ISIL tribal fights tipped the fighting slightly towards the latter, although ISIL reinforcements continued to arrive from Syria to keep the fighting going.

At the same time, Baghdad launched two major offensives, Operation Heavenly Sword and Son of Heavenly Sword. The first bogged down amid poor planning and logistics (ie, a poor dice roll). The latter, however, eliminated most of the ISIL fighters in Karbala amid widespread destruction and atrocities on both sides.

The game ended with ISIL weaker but still a significant threat. The Sunni opposition, although now allied with the Iraqi central government, remained deeply suspicious of Baghdad. The Iranians had gained greater influence in the country, and were stalling on a Kurdish request that they withdraw their forces from Kurdistan. The US had become more deeply involved in military action, but had remained cautious, had not deployed major ground forces, and had exerted only limited influence on events.

For its part, the Iraqi government called for major talks between all parties—including, indirectly, ISIL—on national reconciliation. This received a lukewarm response from some. It also split the Shiite community, with many Iraqi militia leaders arguing that it was pointless to talk with extremists and favouring instead stepped up military action against their Sunni jihadist foes.

Methodological Impressions

Although I had watched and dabbled with matrix games a few times, this was the first one I had fully participated in and played through until the end.

  • The methodology is very flexible, and games can be quickly designed and conducted. Effective game play is highly dependent on a skilled facilitator, however. (Tom, fortunately, is very good.) It also needs players who are willing to accept the lack of formal rules. As one observer noted, it probably would have helped to have had a trial turn before the proper game started.
  • Like most games—and, indeed, history itself—there is a significant degree of built-in path dependency. This can be a problem if players don’t roleplay well, try to get too clever, or manage to pull off an unrealistic or implausible action early in the game (possibly through a lucky dice roll if that system of adjudication is used), thereby skewing the game in a particular direction. In our game, I didn’t think that the ISIL conquest of Karbala—a large, religiously symbolic, and very, very Shiite city—was at all realistic. I also thought that the government strategy of allowing ISIL attacks of Karbala as a way of mobilizing Shi’ite outrage was too risky to be feasible.
  • Of course, an umpire can rule against actions that are thought to be too unrealistic. However, if the game is too directed it merely ends up reproducing the views and possible biases of the adjudicator. Moreover, it also risks excluding interesting “black swans” and other low probability/high impact events. After all, few if any analysts had predicted that (Sunni) Mosul would fall so easily to ISIL earlier this year.
  • I think it helped to have a neutral, subject matter expert player to periodically nudge the game back to a more “realistic” course or to try to make sure that various important consequences of actions are represented in the game. It would also be useful to have a discussion and consequence management phase at the end of each turn to address what had happened and what additional second and third order effects actions might have.
  • The physical layout of the game matters. In our case the map and proliferation of military unit markers may have predisposed some players to think in military rather than political terms.  On the other hand, the game did nicely illustrate the difficulty of undertaking political initiatives and reforms amid an ongoing security crisis.
  • The choice of roles and players matters a lot. We had deliberately chosen tow knowledgeable (and devious) participants to play ISIL. Had others been playing the role it might have all turned out rather differently. We had also limited the number of roles to six for practical reasons. The absence of the Syrian government and various Syrian opposition groups from the game had the clear consequence of biasing us towards an Iraq-centric focus on ISIL. The absence of a Turkish player may have also given the Kurds greater free rein than in real life.
  • Even where game play diverged from the most likely course of events in Iraq, it provided considerable material for discussion. Tocite just a few of the issues that arose during our two hours of play:
    • How decentralized is ISIL? How vulnerable is it to leadership casualties? Have its recent successes been part of an central campaign plan, or rather rapid exploitation of local successes by local commanders?
    • How cohesive and fanatical is ISIL? Could parts of the organization be lured away with promises of political decentralization in Iraq? (I think not, but in our game Baghdad clearly hoped to do so.)
    • How easily can ISIL mask major troop movements from allied ISR, or otherwise complicate targeting? To what extent can it support operations away from its Sunni population base?
    • What domestic constraints exist on US policy? Would an ISIL-linked act of terrorism deter greater American involvement, encourage it, or (as in the game) have little effect?

A critical question, of course, is whether two+ hours of matrix gaming provided more insight into these and other issues than would have been derived from a BOGSAT (“bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table”) of similar duration. I am not convinced that the game was better—indeed, having recently participated in an official/classified meeting on the topic, I thought the latter discussion was more productive. The game did, however, provide a different, and perhaps more enjoyable, perspective. Consequently, matrix gaming does have some value as a sort of alternative analysis exercise intended to shift analysts out of traditional and more comfortable thought processes. It can also serve to break up the monotony of a long seminar-type discussion, and encourage participants to interact and network in different ways.

Finally, the approach can easily be replicated and repeated. By doing so, more of the possible problem space be mapped. If key actions or questions repeatedly occur in games drawing upon different participants this would also suggest key questions, indicators, and potential courses of action worthy of additional analytical attention.

* * *

For more on this approach, see Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, a newly-published booklet by John Curry and Tim Price. We’ll be reviewing it soon here at PAXsims. You also find a much more detailed write-uo of the game at John’s History of Wargaming Project website, and a very useful set of reflections by Ben Taylor elsewhere at PAXsims.

A recent version of the ISIS Crisis materials can be found on Tom Mouat’s website.

Review: Target Iran

modern_war_9_target_iran-388841374220723dTarget: Iran. Decision Games/Modern War magazine/Strategy & Tactics Press, 2014. Designer: Joe Miranda. $30.00 (including magazine).

Unfortunately, this year has seen a growing backlog of games sitting on my shelf that I have not yet had an opportunity to play. Recently, however, I did try out Target: Iran, a solitaire game of near-future US/coalition war against Iran that was included in Modern War magazine in March/April of this year. The game comes with one 22″ x 34″ map depicting Iran and the Persian Gulf, together with 228 counters representing US, Iranian, Iranian rebel, GCC, Israeli, and NATO units. An electronic version of the rules be found here.

The game starts with a random distribution of face-down distribution of both Iranian  military units and sensitive targets, such as WMD sites, Command and Control (C2) facilities, arms depots, missile sites, and training camps. Each strategic turn the Coalition mobilizes military forces and conducts “hyperwar” operations. The latter includes such things as ISR assets, special forces missions, and cyberwarfare. The player rolls a die to determine Iran’s response, and the target of any Iranian hyperwar attacks.

At some point in the game, either random events or the Coalition player may cause the game to shift from strategic to operational turns. At this point, the Coalition player can then use his or her mobilized military units to attack previously-identified Iranian targets. Additional hyperwar assets (cruise missiles) also become available. For the Coalition, it is essential not to trigger the operational phase of the game until the necessary military resources are in place, and intelligence has been collected on the identity of Iranian units and targets. However, there us always a risk of the war starting prematurely, an eventuality one must be prepared for. During the operational phase the actions of Iran are again determined by a die roll, These might include attacks on neutral shipping or even blockading the Straits of Hormuz.

Throughout the game, “oil points” (representing the price of oil) are used to generate military assets. Certain hyperwar actions and military outcomes can affect oil points, as can the destruction or capture of key targets or blockage of the Straits. At the end of the game, the price of oil determines the outcome: anything below $81 a barrel represents a Coalition victory of varying degrees, while Iran wins if the price exceeds $100. If at any point the price goes over $150/barrel, play ends immediately in a global economic meltdown and a humiliating Coalition defeat.

The rules are generally clear, although it would have helped to have had the move sequence printed on the map. There has been some discussion online as to whether the scenario is fully balanced, but this is easily tweaked by adjusting the starting price of oil (indeed, the rules give one the option of using the actual price of oil as a starting point). Random placement of Iranian units and random generation of Iranian strategic and operational actions increases the replayability of the game.

The Coalition begins to mobilize forces, starting with the 5th Fleet and GCC.

Turn 1: The Coalition begins to mobilize forces, starting with the US 5th Fleet and allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

In my own playtest game, the Coalition spent six strategic turns activating forces, mobilizing bases,  identifying Iranian targets and units using ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets, and launching some covert attacks with special forces. As tensions grew, oil prices began to rise to over $100/barrel.

I then shifted to the operational phase. Cruise missile attacks destroyed most of the highest value (WMD) targets and several C2 nodes. These early victories reassured the oil market, and also limited Iranian hyperwar capabilities. In a few cities Iranian rebel units (encouraged by my own special forces) rose up to challenge the regime.

US Marines and a NEST team seize Bandar Abbas and the secret WMD facility there. By this time, most targets in southern Iran have been destroyed by Coalition airpower. However, the 5th Fleet is reluctant to press further into the elf due to the threat of Iranian mines, missiles, and small boat swarms.

It is late in the game, and US Marines and a NEST team have seizes Bandar Abbas and the secret WMD facility there. By this time, most targets in southern Iran have been destroyed by Coalition airpower. However, the 5th Fleet is reluctant to press further into the Gulf due to the threat of Iranian mines, missiles, and IRGC small boat swarms.

US, GCC, and Israeli aircraft struck the remaining targets as a US naval task force pushed its way into the Gulf.  US Marines and a NEST (Nuclear Emergency Support Team) contingent were landed to seize control of the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, where a critical Iranian WMD facility was secretly located.

A dense array of mines and anti-ship missiles deterred the US fleet from progressing further into the Gulf, however. The Iranians even temporarily blocked the Straits of Hormuz twice—thereby spiking the price of oil up—but on each occasion US minesweepers were able to deal with the problem.

In the end, most targets in Iran had been destroyed, and the price of oil had settled down to a comfortable $62/barrel. The Coalition had achieved its goals.

Instructional Potential

Target Iran is not a particularly granular or accurate simulation—nor does it claim to be. There is very little in the way of a scenario or politics, and the oil price track is more a composite way of limiting unit mobilization and tracking victory points than an actual representation of oil price dynamics. Military units are abstractions rather than actual units, and the random placement of Iranian forces can result in some very odd deployments. Similarly, the random placement of WMD targets does not necessarily follow their real-world locations. The impact of cyberwarfare is certainly overblown. While it is reasonable to expect that cyberwarfare might degrade air defences or incapacitate command and control capabilities, it certainly would never place an entire US Navy carrier task force or Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps division out of action. One of the random actions that Iran can undertake is setting its own oilfields alight, requiring that Colation petroleum engineers be deployed to bring the fires under control—something that was certainly done by Iraq in 1991 and (to a much lesser extent) in 2003, but which makes little sense in the context of a limited Coalition strike on Iran.

Quite a bit has changed in the real world since the game was first designed too, although that is hardly anything the designer can be blamed for: the US and Iran are in negotiations over the latter’s nuclear capabilities, Iraq is no longer available as a jumping-off point for US attacks (indeed, it is an Iranian quasi-ally), and the US will soon be drawing down its forces in Afghanistan. Because of all this I wouldn’t want to use the game directly for teaching purposes.

Concluding Thoughts

Even if I wouldn’t use it to explore the real-world challenges of a Coalition strike on Iran, I very much enjoyed playing Target Iran. I certainly recommend it to those who want a relatively low complexity modern warfare game designed for solitaire play in under 2 hours or so.

The game is very easy to modify too. Indeed, I’m tempted to develop a variant that better models some of the current strategic realities in the Gulf—if and when I do, I’ll post the results to PAXsims.

Review of Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2012)

Freedom: The Underground Railway. Academy Games, 2012. Game designer: Brian Mayer. $70.00.

It has been awhile since I could game and I was looking forward to trying this cooperative experience, so when Aram suggested we get together for dinner and some Freedom, and Julie agreed to suffer through it and Deb was on board, I was delighted we’d get a chance to play “Freedom: The Underground Railroad“. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a cooperative game, for 1 to 4 players, about the abolitionist movement in the antebellum American South. Players take on roles in the Underground Railroad, trying to move slaves from plantations in the South to freedom in Canada. If you’re not familiar with the actors, Aram is my gaming buddy, conveniently located around the corner and always up for a good game. Julie and Deb tolerate us both, Julie spends most of her time tolerating me and Deb is tasked with tolerating Aram. We started the game a little late, so the review below might be affected by how tired we all were, though it was no doubt positively influenced by the great Indian food, the good hospitality from Deb and Aram and the great soundtrack that Aram put together for the event.

Basically, the game revolves around moving slaves (wooden cubes) along four or five waypoints on a dozen paths, while slavecatchers move semi-autonomously across the paths, around the border between North and South. In the easy game, for four players, you try to save 22 slaves without losing 20 (and there are some other particularly pernicious victory conditions). If the slavecatchers end in a city with a slave, they send them back to the slave market. Meanwhile, every turn, tragically, a new shipment of slaves floods the markets in the south. You see, if you can’t move slaves out of the plantations fast enough, the supply outstrips the demand and slaves are “lost”. The poignancy of calamitous waves of “excess supply” of humans and the subsequent losses weren’t lost on the group, three lawyers, three of us with economics degrees. It is a tough subject to model in a game and kudos to the game designers for making it playable and interesting with such a difficult subject matter. In any event, with cooperative planning, players attempt to fundraise and gather support for the abolitionist movement (what better place than Capitol Hill to lobby and fundraise?), while using precious few actions to move slaves up the paths, all the while avoiding the slavecatchers. Each of the players has a role and commensurate strengths (a la Pandemic), I was the shepherd and it was cheaper for me to take the tokens that could move slaves, Julie was the station manager and could stop the slavecatchers from moving, Aram was the financier and rallied most of our support, Deb’s power was buying cards cheaper.

I’m going to cut to the chase – we lost. It is a really tough game, we seemingly made only a few minor mistakes early on and we ended up getting completely overwhelmed by the slave markets and the constant flow of slaves into the plantations in the south, to the point that we had to choose at the end between rallying support for the cause or getting people out of the plantations to make room for the next slave shipment. We needed both to win, but it wasn’t clear we could accomplish either. No doubt once the group knows better, they can do better (just happen to be listening to this while writing that line). But, I don’t want to spend a lot of this post on the play by play and I want to be clear, as a game, I think it is a good one, there are lots of interesting choices and it has a nice design (if you want a nice review of it is a board game, look here). But I want to focus on what I think is most interesting to our audience here at Paxsims: the educational merits and how that affects the link between theme and game design.

So, to me, Freedom is a game about building a movement, building support and fundraising to accomplish a collective goal. It delivers some of that. The tension between getting slaves actually moving to safety and “using” slaves in northern cities to rally support for the cause through financial support is strong, it reminds us that good intentions alone are insufficient to accomplish the noblest of goals (yes, you get more money for the cause bringing a slave through New York than you get routing them through Detroit). It also delivers lots of historical information through the cards. So would I recommend it as an educational tool for a classroom or family trying to better understand slavery?

Probably not.

Again, I think it is a great game, as a boardgame. If you are tired of Pandemic and want to play a challenging co-op, this is a great alternative. But I found the physics of the game, interesting as they were (basically careful strategizing about how to move slaves to pull slavecatchers and avoid capture), distracting from the theme. Players spend much more time thinking about how to move slaves like checkers to maximize fundraising and control the slavecatchers then they spend celebrating freed slaves or worrying about who might get caught (from a random die roll). Yet, the story of the Underground Railroad is so powerful – it wasn’t a calculated, centrally controlled logistics challenge of how to move people, it was real people taking real risks, deciding whether they could trust strangers to lead them to safety, or whether they wanted to risk their own lives to help others. It was subterfuge and conspiracy and concealment and hiding in barns and grasping for a few hours of refuge after walking 20 miles a day to safety. I felt very little of these tensions while playing.

Meanwhile, in the real world, there were real people, slavers and plantation owners and “decent folks” engaged on the other side, publishing notices in newspapers and sending bounty hunters and packs of dogs to reclaim their property. Maybe I’ve been a social scientist for too long, but I flinch at efforts to reduce adversarial human behavior to predictable response paths and random action (insert joke about economists here, Rex). I’d prefer to see an adversarial game where slavecatchers are working against the Railroad and both “sides” are trying to outsmart each other.

Maybe my critique is just because it is a cooperative game, built against difficult odds and a stacked deck as cooperative games have to be. I’ll definitely try the game again, but I don’t think it will ever be as satisfying as it would be knowing there were people on a red team in the next room playing “Oppression: Preserving our Way of Life”, deciding how they were going to move their bounty hunters on rumors of my slave on the run and whether they were going to use their profits as plantation owners to lobby Congress to pass the Fugitive Slave Act. In a classroom, I’d rather see students taking on these roles, choosing when to run, when to pursue, trying to sustain a plantation, investing in a risky movement. Maybe that subject matter is too difficult for a game, but maybe a game isn’t the right vehicle, then, for that subject matter?

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