The current COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the value of serious gaming for supporting health sector preparedness and government policy response. Indeed, in my own case, during the past year I have found myself designing games on pandemic-related food security issues, working with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Department of National Defence in red teaming Canada’s national vaccine roll-out plans (including a major national tabletop exercise), and I’m currently working with the READY Initiative on digital games-based training for epidemic disease preparedness and response in the humanitarian sector.
All of that is to say that I wish Roll to Save: Gaming Disease Response had been published a year ago, because it is a very useful resource indeed for anyone working in this area. Some of the chapters address general design issues, including the value of serious games; gaming at the strategic (policy), operational, and “tactical” levels of disease response; and important considerations in professional game design. Other chapters discuss particular game designs, addressing topics as wide-ranging as vaccination/prophylaxis; bioterrorism (anthrax, melioidosis); particular epidemic outbreak scenarios (ebola); mental health support; and pandemic recovery (COVID-X). It also contains brief chapters discussing some of the basics of infectious diseases, epidemiology, public health planning, outbreak investigation, and the importance of information, politics, and the media. My only disappointment was the bibliography, which lists some of the sources cited in the book but which doesn’t provide a wider reference to the substantial literature on medical and emergency preparedness gaming.
Above and beyond the very considerable value of this publication for those designing disease response games, it also stands as an excellent example of how serious gaming should be undertaken. McGrady not only has extensive experience in designing and implementing serious games on a wide range of national security and policy issues, but also has keen insight into what works in what context. He thus underscores the importance of designing a game around not only the topic, but equally the game objectives, available resources, participants, and client/sponsors.
The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist.You can read Parts 1 and 2 hereand here.
One of the first impressions was that we were rather overwhelmed by the experience, which is one of the reasons this blog post, long overdue and way too long, did not materialize until at least one academic period had transpired after the main CCM event. However, now that we have gathered our thoughts a bit, we realized that we have probably learned a great number of things so far. For instance:
1. Reasons for creating a megagame on climate change and social transformation
In the literature on learning for a sustainable development, engagement and various pedagogical forms is stressed as key to ensure that learners experience first-hand the dilemmas and difficulties they need to overcome. Furthermore, we noticed that when we pitched the idea of a “Climate Change Megagame”, it immediately piqued people’s interest in a way that acted as an icebreaker and helped us to engage rather diverse groups in conversations. Even though there were practical issues with every single version of the game we have tried, the concept itself has been intriguing enough to make people joining as players or contribute as control team and even contributing to game development. However, to understand exactly which difficulties to subject players, and what type of realistic situations to simulate, has proved to be almost as elusive as real societal transformation.
2. The eternal challenge of playable realism
Serious games always needs to balance between relevance and playability. The activities players engage in, and the type of experience they have, must be of relevance whether it is “realistic” or not. We learned that some types of realism, such as players getting bogged down by managing their daily lives, may not be helpful in ensuring that the resulting experience is relevant to the end goal of understanding dilemmas and options for societal transformation. We wanted the game to offer interesting challenges without directing players too much with respect to what they would want to do. As designers, we can include mechanisms that reflect aspects of reality such as economic capital being vital for investments in infrastructure, say, without going so far as to say that without a growing economy, people would starve to death. We wanted to provide enough context and feedback mechanisms to stimulate discussions and make different visions apparent, without constricting players in such a way that their room for creative discussions and maneuvering would be artificially restricted.
A golden rule for how to ensure players understand the rules well enough to be comfortable about breaking them and understanding just how much freedom they have to negotiate freely probably don’t exist but we understand much better now than before what would count as interesting and relevant challenges compared to “realistic” ones. In our experience minimalism of game mechanics is desirable in order to let participants focus on the content.
3. Recruiting and maintaining a committed and diverse design team
Including more people from the early playtests in game design and discussions made it apparent that it was difficult to ensure equal commitment among all when the game concept changed quite a lot, partly as a result of feedback. Also, we wanted to be open to suggestions about how different groups could contribute to the project, which placed high demands on participants to express clearly what they wanted to contribute to and what they expected. Some of the early contributors who provided invaluable feedback on the game and made it much better in the end still did not feel comfortable joining at the end as the game changed quite a lot between playtests. Though it was necessary to make the changes, it became difficult for all members of the design team to keep up with the ideas for changes that the core group brought forward, especially as we became limited to digital meetings during the pandemic. The take home lesson is the value of a clear aim, participants roles and modes of decision making and communication is increasingly important in a dynamic, explorative project.
4. Going digital
Going digital opened up new opportunities for players from around the world to join and it greatly simplified our ability to collect data on how the game progressed, but also introduced a whole host of new issues. We spent quite some time even after the core game mechanics and graphical elements had been decided to ensure that the digital platform (Miro) could handle all graphical components and the 50 players with decent latency. Therefore, some graphical optimizations were required before the main event took place. For instance, components were merged into bitmaps instead of hundreds of separate graphics components. The communications channel (Discord) was set up very professionally by our Megagame colleague Darren Green from Crisis Games in the UK and that enabled players to have both private and public spaces for communications. Even with such a setup though, some players felt lost between all the channels and the Miro board. Having a technical setup and preparation before the main event, just focusing on the technical aspects of the game would probably have helped some participants who were struggling.
The main event was hosted at a venue where we broadcast everything live from a studio over Vimeo. This worked rather well as a compromise between having only an internal event and only having a studio with professional talking heads but having dual roles as hosts for both the game and the “show” was hard to manage. It would have been better to have studio hosts who could have focused on being hosts. Then again, a digital event that plays out through discussions on Discord and board changes on Miro might not offer enough continuous action for a continuous live show.
5. The importance of good debriefing
The main event was intended to let people experience and reason about the needs for mitigation and adaptation, as in the needs for making changes to our societies that will reduce emissions versus the needs to adapt to climate change we cannot avoid. The primary aim of the debriefing was to capture the perceptions of these potentially conflicting needs, but it became apparent that the participants were mostly preoccupied with thoughts about the game mechanics, graphical elements and direct experiences. A debriefing is very important for a proper learning experience, and for us, the fact that people became preoccupied with the mechanics and graphical elements indicated that these were in fact the objects they thought mostly in terms of directly afterwards. Maybe the game was too heavy on mechanics since it became hard to talk about abstract things such as mitigation and adaptation in direct connection to having played. It would probably have been easier to first address game-specific issues and then later broaden the horizon to comprise the real world.
6. Future development
The project had until this point been run exclusively on a small amount of seed money for a pedagogical project and a lot of personal commitment. We realized that continued work with this require us to leverage our initial experiences and gain access to proper funding for work that could significantly expand on what we have been doing. The game itself is not a goal, it is not even a product that may be finished but at best a way to help us think better, as designers and players, about what a sustainable society may be like. With some luck, we may have a chance to build on all we have learned and enable others to learn as we have about how to move constructively towards a societal transformation to sustainability.
Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.
Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games.
Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change.
A few weeks ago, a number of us at PAXsims had a opportunity to see a demonstration of WarPaths—an online, browser-based application for managing distributed, asynchronous matrix games. WarPaths is the brainchild of Dr. Tom Nagle, a retired US Army strategist and former armor officer.
I think we were all very impressed. The application offers a lot of functionality, from mapping and icons to tools for communications, matrix arguments, and adjudication. Moreover, Tom was also enormously responsive to comments and suggestions. Since recording the walk-through above he has added support for probability polling of participants as well as percentage dice resolution (in addition to the traditional d6s).
Despite the military theming, warPaths has utility well beyond military or POL-MIL wargames—it could be used in any serious game setting where a matrix games might be useful. To this end he now also plans to develop a non-military version on the same principles, but politically/humanitarian oriented.
For more information on WarPaths, contact Tom at the weblink above.
This edited volume provides a vitally important basis that will enable colleagues and students to understand the role of simulations in their teaching and learning. I identify three central contributions of this book:
First, it tackles the transdisciplinary opportunities of using simulations in teaching and learning. The book is divided into three sections: social sciences, natural sciences, and health sciences. Each section explores approaches to how simulations can contribute to the teaching in these areas, however, readers can gain a lot of insights from reading the sections that they may consider to be outside ‘their’ disciplinary home. The accessible writing style makes doing this possible.
Second, the book is honest about what simulations can and cannot achieve in educational contexts and the need for effective management, incorporation and evaluation of their contribution to achieving intended learning outcomes.
Third, the book carefully considers that not all students are the same, all will react to and engage with experiential learning differently. As a result, there are many moving parts to getting the simulation type, the design, the objectives and the outcomes, right.
The book itself promises a lot, especially in terms of its objective to cross-disciplinary lines and to fill a gap (p.2) identified by Ellett, Esperanza, and Phan (2014). From my reading this book makes an exceptional contribution to achieving this objective. Overall, the book treads a delicate line here between presenting the challenges but also the payoffs for teachers and students. I think a particular strength of this book is that the authors haven’t ‘advocated’ but instead adopted a highly practical and pragmatic approach to using simulations in the classroom.
As I am developing a training course on simulations as tools for assessments. To do this effectively, I need to engage with a range of disciplines and demonstrate the utility of simulations to them, rather than inviting them into my research space and asking them to adapt and apply the tools for themselves. This book provides me with a language to be able to start that conversation. The accessible and jargon free writing style is particularly helpful as it will enable me to assign this text as reading for the course participants especially those who have never used simulations before.
A particularly well-considered element of the book is that it clearly acknowledges that games and simulations are not a “silver bullet” (p.32) and it is possible to identify unintended insights. Throughout the book I think there is a considered view that games and simulations are reflective activities, they require the teacher, student, observers and any teaching evaluators to reflect on how the game was designed, run, played, adjudicated and evaluated. I would argue that games reveal to teachers the gaps in their knowledge and show the ability of the decision-making and the adeptness of thinking, in a way that other forms of teaching do not. As a result, like all learning tools and opportunities they need to be well run and selected to match the intended learning outcome (p.89). This binding of the simulation within the course or module is also effectives demonstrated in other chapters. For example, chapter eight by Gentry (pp.135-6; and 138) clearly maps how the simulation activity combines with other homework to enable the students to achieve the intended outcomes.
In considering how to build-in simulations into teaching chapters of the book fairly consider constraints and offer practical and pragmatic methods to manage these challenges. For example, in chapter three, Donohue and Forcese discuss “liberating 40 hours of teaching time” (p.52) and utilising the tools available more effectively. This requires teachers to identify what learning is passive and can be done away from the tutor and what learning is active and needs or is enhanced by tutor-student and student-student interaction. This in itself is demanding and requires more time from teachers, not only in terms of preparation of the simulation materials, but also the jiggling of other course contents to fit.
In other sections of the book (for example by Chamberlain in chapter 7) authors also highlights the physical constraints and potential barriers to running simulations for students of chemistry. The chapter then clearly expresses the requirements for running a simulation for these students (p.117). Again, as in other chapters this exploration of the challenges is then matched with an articulation of potential solutions including some free resources (p.118).
The chapters also consider and highlight how simulations and their assessment can augment and add-value to different programmes. For example, in the chapter on social work the author identifies a limitation in how students are observed in practice and how simulations can contribute to the assessment process, enabling a more holistic approach to evaluating the student’s performance. A central message throughout the book is to provide an awareness of challenges in building simulations into teaching and learning spaces and programmes but matching this with practical and pragmatic solutions to overcome any problems. From this approach, the reader is therefore prepared, and well equipped, to start to incorporate these ideas into their own work.
The book should not be read as being solely a ‘how to guide’, nor a piece of advocacy to convert teachers and lecturers to add-in simulations wholesale to their course. The authors do highlight the strengths and problems of simulations, but they also tackle head-on some of the potential problems of whether the performance in a simulation affects the practice that follows (chapter 14 by Picketts and MacLeod, in particular p.238). The findings of the research indicate that in the simulation the students acted in a ritualised way but when applying the same methods in practice they flexibly adapted to the situation (p.240).
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone considering how to add simulations to their learning environment, but I think it is always very useful for people who have used simulations for years as there are nuggets of gold within each chapter that may enable a different way to reflect on your own practice. The book has certainly given me some new approaches and ideas.
Or, how screwing up as Control can teach you moral lessons.
[Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this game for free in exchange for a review.]
We Come In Peace is a free-form RPG about first contact between two alien species with no prior knowledge of each other’s existance, language, or culture. To enforce that understanding barrier, the game is played without face-to-face communication between the teams. Control acts as a go-between relaying non-verbal messages, redacting anything with too much shared understanding between humans (numerals, icons, facial expressions, and gestures like thumbs up).
In person it’s played with the two teams in separate rooms, passing notes. We played over zoom, using a separate breakout room for each team, Control hopping between the two, and a shared slide deck so the teams could go full-Arrival with their attempts at communication.
The game is an allegory for a hidden scenario that only Control is aware of (until the debrief at the end), cloaked in enjoyable sci-fi buffoonery to keep the players and teams from bringing too much cultural hindsight and understanding to the table.
That means it’s Control’s job to take everything the players say, translate it into the hidden scenario to determine the outcome, and then back into the sci-fi allegory to communicate the effect to the players. Which is hard.
This is a game I learnt to play by screwing up as Control and seeing all my mistakes—and what would have made for better gameplay—in hindsight.
How did we do?
My intrepid space explorers did not start a global thermo-nuclear war, in fact the two sides ended having established a tentative trade agreement and cultural exchange…though one side thought they’d sent a hostage into orbit for four days and the other side planned to abandon their scientist planet-side indefinitely, effectively kidnapping the local…I think it’s safe to say we stored up a bunch of slower-time cultural collision consequences that would have ended badly for one side.
The teams did pretty well at establishing peaceful intentions, starting out sending mathematical sequences and sharing their words for basic chemical elements. We had a brief exchange of charades “we’re going to land our shuttle craft now, on that spot there…” before an historic meeting of both peoples and exchange of gifts. The subsequent trade negotiations almost caused an Incident when the message, “we’re sending two shuttles to harvest resources now, on these spots here and here…” was briefly misinterpreted as “they want us to leave our planet?!!” but cool heads prevailed.
It was interesting to watch the thought-process behind the communications with one team, and then hop across to the other team with the image and see their thought-process trying to unravel the message. The planetary civilisation were keen not to lose their new friends too quickly, so sent a message asking them to stay at least four days. The explorers got the days and the four, but didn’t know what to make of the rest so planned to do a midnight-flit on the third day to be sure of avoiding any unfortunate consequences of over-staying their welcome. That was the biggest misunderstanding we had.
Peace in our time, then?
Secretly we were all a little disappointed we hadn’t at least come to the brink of war.
My first thought was is this what happens when you put women in charge? Instead of establishing dominance, both sides tried extremely hard to understand the other side and understand how they might come across to the other side—gasp, leaders doing the emotional labour for a change…
My second thought was wow, this game is hard to be Control at. I was prepared for thinking on my feet, trying to relate the player actions to the hidden scenario. In doing that, I failed to communicate to both teams the sense of fear and isolation about their situation that should have been motivating a lot of their actions. The stakes of our game were we’ll make friends? when it should have been you face death and/or cultural extinction. The scenario is set up to pivot to that fear if one side opens fire (spoilers: the teams are wildly asymmetric) but neither side came close to aggression, and I really struggled to know if or when I should let on you can basically do what you want with impunity here. In hindsight I should have—but it’s also not that simple.
I don’t think it’s too spoilery to say the allegory is about racism—literally every alien encounter in science fiction is about how we treat people who are different to us.
But the game wouldn’t work with me just saying “haha you guys have all the power here,” because white supremacy and colonialism (and misogynism, and homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc) is fear-based: a fear that the oppressed group would do all the same bad things if the tables were reversed—that slaves would enslave the slave-owners if they were granted freedom instead of just, you know, living free. That women would treat men like chattle and unpaid household/caregiving labour if the patriarchy were dismantled, instead of just, you know, being equals. Supremacy feels precarious.
I didn’t want to dictate how the teams felt about each other. I thought that would be me influencing the game too much. I was trying to let the players decide how to react emotionally—and that was a huge mistake. I failed to communicate xenophobia to the teams: I was too focused on presenting the information neutrally within the allegory—what the equipment translated to—and I failed to account for the system and assumptions present in the hidden scenario that my players simply didn’t bring to the table because of politeness, decent-human-being-ness, Derby House Principles, or the game being majority-women and women being socialised to perform the emotional labour of any encounter.
In effect I ran a game of I don’t see colour.
By not manipulating the teams, our invented worlds didn’t include the seeds of racism to spontaneously generate cultural misunderstanding: both sides were too open to the other side being actual human beings like them, not less-than.
Racism doesn’t happen in a vacuum: people are indoctrinated into assumptions they don’t even perceive as racist. I don’t see colour only works in a world lacking existing injustice.
The default of the current system is the reproduction of racial inequality. To continue reproducing racial inequality, the system only needs for white people to be really nice and carry on – to smile at people of color, to go to lunch with them on occasion. To be clear, being nice is generally a better policy than being mean. But niceness does not bring racism to the table and will not keep it on the table when so many of us who are white want it off. Niceness does not break with white solidarity and white silence. In fact, naming racism is often seen as not nice, triggering white fragility.
We can begin by acknowledging ourselves as racial beings with a particular and limited perspective on race. We can attempt to understand the racial realities of people of color through authentic interaction rather than through the media or through unequal relationships. We can insist that racism be discussed in our workplaces and a professed commitment to racial equity be demonstrated by actual outcomes. We can get involved in organizations working for racial justice. These efforts require that we continually challenge our own socialization and investments in racism and put what we profess to value into the actual practice of our lives.
This takes courage, and niceness without strategic and intentional anti-racist action is not courageous.
I had a conversation at work with a guy who was adamant that he treated everyone equally, and therefore was not discriminating against anyone. In fact he was quite insistant that actively making space for women and minorities in any opportunity was wrong and unfair and though he didn’t say the words, underpinning his argument was the assumption that making room for women and minorities would mean better-qualified men missing out. Underpinning his argument was the assumption that women and minorities could not possibly be as qualified as the men currently taking up all the space.
“Treating everyone equally”—not seeing colour, not seeing gender (or gender identity), not seeing sexuality, not seeing disability—is to deny the lived experience of being black, a woman, LGBT, or disabled: their culture, their value, and the real and tangible obstacles they have faced to get here. The reality is the women and minorities who make it to the wargaming table are very often more qualified and more able than the straight-white-non-disabled-men, because it’s been so much harder for them to get there.
So what can I do about that, as a white person, and someone who supports the Derby House Principles?
People whose careers center on examining and repairing racial inequality tend to say that being willing to see color, and talking about what it means, is one part of how white people can turn their black friendships into something that broadens their horizons on race.
We Come In Peace is a good game. It works well over zoom. We had a real mix of experienced professional to never-wargamed-before players and everybody got into it. The puzzle of how do we even communicate that intention was enjoyable to watch.
The explorer team have some great dynamics going on: it was relatively easy to establish this team’s mentality based on the breifing and sci-fi touchstones. The team breifing’s humour provided excellent direction for the players’ motivation without it feeling heavy-handed.
The planetary civilisation felt less developed in their breifing. I took this to be a reflection of them being somewhat at-the-mercy of the situation, but the fact that they didn’t clearly have a goal to pursue beyond reacting to the demands of the other side made for less interesting game play, or relied on the team to spontaneously come up with a goal in response to the arrival of this alien speicies. I suspect this is why we had a relatively peaceful exchange: our planetary team spontaneously chose the goal of mutual cultural exchange, ie of co-operation. In reality—and in keeping with the hidden scenario—they needed an overriding desire to preserve a clearly-defined way of life to create friction. Even something as simple as the aliens have shown up on a national holiday and we’re busy would have set that train in motion.
The Control guide instructions on the hidden scenario were a little vague: read up on the real-life situation on Wikipedia, and here’s a glossary for translation into sci-fi which is focused on the physical—what sending a shuttle-craft or using sensors really means in the hidden scenario. If the players invoked combat the cultural collision would be obvious. Beyond that it was lacking guidance on how to be the cultural misunderstanding. My best suggestion for how to play Control in this game is to think of yourself as the rogue unit in Arrival delivering the explosives.
This is a game I’ve learnt to play by doing it wrong the first time, and realising that my job as Control is to manipulate the hell out of both sides, to out-right lie to them about the other side’s actions and perceived intentions—because ultimately this is a game about the clash of two different cultures, and when both teams are actually made of humans with the same culture, that clash and wild misunderstanding is not created by pictionary alone; both sides are operating from the same concept of what good intentions look like.
I thought my job was to be a neutral party and see if they do or don’t start a war by accident. I see now my job is to do my best to cause friction at every turn and see if both sides can tell cultural collision (my manipulation) apart from hostile intent.
First of all, let us be clear that there is no typo here: RAND’s recently-published game of strategic resource management really is called “hedgemony” and not “hegemony.” There’s a good reason for that, too. In Hedgemony, the Blue side is preoccupied with allocating scarce resources, investments, and actions to counter challenges from Red. Much of this involves what international relations scholars call hedging: that is, using a mix of military and economic resources to both balance and engage, while trying to avoid costly large-scale conflict.
Hedgemony is a designed to be played with up to six players (or teams of players) divided into two sides. Blue consists of the United States and its EU/NATO allies. The Red side consists of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. The game also requires a White cell (game control, adjudication, and facilitation) of 2-4 persons. A game would typically take a half or full day. You can see RAND’s nice promotional video below
The game sequence functions like this:
Red signalling. Each Red player chooses up to three investment or action cards that they might play this turn. They then brief these possible actions to the Blue side.
Blue investment and actions. Have been briefed on possible threats, the Blue players decide what actions and investments they will make. Although they too have cards, they are not limited to these and may propose other actions and investments (to be adjudicated by the controller). The US will also have to spend resources to sustain its desired level of readiness.
Red investment and actions. Red may now to choose to play any or all of the cards that they signalled at the start of the turn, provided they have adequate resources for this.
Annual resource allocation. Players gain new resources based on the scenario and developments within the game.
In any phase, the White cell may inject international and domestic events, selected from an event deck or crafted for the scenario and current situation. Finally, they summarize the state of the world based on the most recent gameplay, thus setting the stage for the next turn.
Key to the game is the struggle for “influence points,” which largely define success or failure. Various actions (or responses to events and actions) tend to increase or decrease each players influence.
The board is divided into theatre zones, conforming to the US system of combatant commands. Because this is a strategic game focused on national resource allocations and theatre-level capabilities, military assets are abstracted to “force factors.” There is no differentiation of land, air, maritime, cyber, or space assets. However, forces do have a modernization level, which shapes their effectiveness for military operations. The game also tracks national technology levels, as well as certain critical capabilities (such as C4ISR, special operations forces, long-range fires, nuclear capabilities, integrated air and missile defence). There are also special rules for proxy forces.
Hedgemony comes with an extensive rulebook, player’s guide, and glossary, all of which are available as free downloads from the RAND website. There is also a game board/map (27’x36″), markers for forces, indicators for national displays, information displays and place tags for each actor, quick reference charts, and dice. The game materials are generally of very high quality. The force markers are rather small (and with very small printing on them), however. They are also laser-cut and rather sooty—I had to frequently wipe my hands when using them to avoid transferring black carbon smudges to other game materials. If I was using Hedgemony regularly I would probably invest in some plastic chips and laser-printed round labels to make them all a bit more substantial.
At the time of writing, the pandemic precludes a proper playtest: to do the game full justice you really need a dozen people in a room for a few hours discussing resource allocation and strategic options. However, I had the good fortune to take part in a few moves of the game via a Zoom call with the RAND designers and others. I liked what I saw.
Hedgemony is very much a serious game intended to spark thoughtful discussion on strategic issues, rather than a game designed for hobby play. The game strikes a good balance between the structure of a rigid, written ruleset and opportunities for more freeform adjudicated improvisation. If I were running a session I could even see switching to a quick round of matrix game-style argumentation to resolve actions outside the written rules and cards.
You do, however, need controllers and facilitators who know what they are doing. While the action and investment cards are clear enough, some of the resource bookkeeping could get a bit confusing for players, and they probably need to be talked through how the combat adjudication charts works if they have never seen a CRT (combat results table) before, especially given the need to take force modernization levels into consideration. It might be useful if RAND were to post a a “how to” video showing a full turn of game play to help those who are thinking of using it.
For my part, I will certainly be using it in my conflict simulation course at McGill University when we return to regular teaching next academic year.
I’ve seen a few online educational and awareness games about the current COVID-19 pandemic, but Survive COVID-19 is the best so far. Developed by Yein Udaan and XR Labs in India, it presents a series of choices about how to spend dwindling savings to keep your family well, while at the same time minimizing exposure.
Unlike some less-well designed games of this genre, there are no easy or obvious options. The scenario is all too real for hundreds of millions in South Asia and around the world. The presentation is appropriately minimalist, and the music and sound effects contribute to the appropriate mood without being distracting. As one recent research report has found, keeping things focused and simple can really pay off in educational games.
Engelstein and Isaac Shalev have put together what is, in essence, a very useful encyclopedia of the main mechanisms in tabletop game design. The volume outlines no fewer than 194 different approaches, broken down into thirteen different categories:
Turn order and structure terminology
Game end and victory
For each they provide a description and graphic representation of the mechanism and a summary of its strengths, weakness, and game consequences. They also discuss some representative games in which the mechanism is used. Entries are typically 2-3 pages long each, as shown below.
The descriptions are clear and readily comprehensible, even for gaming neophytes, while the discussions offer insight that more experienced game designers will also find useful.
Were this excellent volume a little cheaper I would certainly use it as a supplementary text for my conflict simulation design course at McGill University. I will, however, certainly be using it as a course resource. It is also available as a much cheaper e-book rental format.
On Friday, PAXsims associate editor Tom Fisher and I got together with regular gaming buddy Vince Carpini to try out a few new-ish games that had been sitting on our shelves. Two of these—Planet (2018) and Maximum Apocalypse(2018)—were both excellent, but don’t really have any direct serious game applicability. The other two, however—Construction and Corruption (2017) and Mapmaker: The Gerrymandering Game (2019)—address an array of issues that we have sometimes explored at PAXsims, namely politics, elections, and public sector corruption.
Construction and Corruption
In Construction and Corruption, three to seven players assume the role of rival contractors undertaking various road repairs in the city of Montréal. Each player seeks to maximize revenue by doing repairs as slowly as possible, but thereby also faces a growing risk of being indicted for corruption. Each turn one player is also elected Mayor, with special powers—or an outsider is elected, triggering investigations. The simple game mechanics don’t really mirror how corruption actually works in public sector tendering, and so I wouldn’t use it to teach about the real thing. However as a trio of Montrealers we had a lot of fun playing it. The ideal group size is probably five.
Pointing is a key part of any game.
Mapmaker is a very simple but very clever game whereby players take turn placing election district boundaries until the electoral map is drawn. The trick is, of course, to build the distracts in a way that will assure your party of victory. The usual gerrymandering techniques—”cracking” districts by spreading out opposition votes to deny rivals a victory and “packing” them by creating a rival-held district with a large number of surplus, wasted votes—both work well in the game, and are indeed the key to victory. Mapmaker works brilliantly as an educational game, which is perhaps why the designers sent free copies to all nine Supreme Court judges in the United States.
Mapmaker underway (those familiar with the game will see we’ve made a slight mistake with the set-up, but it didn’t affect game play).
Rebel Inc. is a nifty little insurgency and stabilization simulator, set in a fictionalized version of Afghanistan. Playing as a provincial governor, one must balance kinetic military operations with a variety of aid, development, administrative, and political initiatives. If all goes well and the insurgents are stalemated they will eventually enter into peace talks. If those talks are then successful and the country is stabilized, the player wins. If the government’s reputation falls too low, however, external commitment wavers and stabilization ultimately fails.
The game starts with the most important thing in any stabilization operation: choosing an inspiring name.
There is much that can go wrong. To start with, the insurgents—much like the real thing—are elusive and cunning. Attacking them may have little lasting effect, unless proper cordon-and search operations are used to prevent them from melting away into surrounding districts. Military outposts, local militias, police, and checkpoints may slow their spread. UAVs (drones) are very useful for collecting intelligence, while air strikes are a powerful tool that can backfire if heavy civilian casualties result. Foreign troops are most effective, but their commitment is not unlimited and they might also annoy the local population. Local forces take longer to train and deploy, but are essential in the long term.
The rebels expand the area under their control.
Aid projects first require stakeholder consultations, and basic projects tend to unlock other, more complex ones in the same sector. Improving transportation infrastructure may assist in speeding the roll-out of new projects. Rule of law initiatives and democratic reforms can be useful too. However, aid projects are limited by available resources. Try to implement too much, too fast and inflation will increase—and with it the price of future projects. Increased spending also creates growing opportunities for corruption, which in turn can weaken political support. Anti-corruption measures are essential to avoid a vicious cycle of an increasingly corrupt and failing state.
Civilian projects include basic health, education, and water/sanitation projects, transportation and other infrastructure, and and various economic initiatives.
The government can invest in aid facilitation, administration, information, political and legal reforms, and policing, among others.
A variety of additional military capabilities can be obtained for host nation forces (green) and their foreign allies (blue).
Different maps present different challenges. There are also several different possible governors, each with different strengths and weaknesses. The Warlord’s militia may seem a cheap and easy way to go after the insurgents, for example—but they often demand more money or start abusing the local population.
The game provides players with plenty of information on this page, on the main map, and in periodic news updates.
Development efforts are paying off!
While there are a number of things one could quibble about regarding the representation of insurgency here, Rebel Inc. is a surprisingly sophisticated treatment, superior to many commercial board games and even better than some of the stabilization training software I have seen in government use. The interface is clean, the controls are intuitive, and players are provided with substantial feedback on how they are doing and why. Plus it currently has an impressive 4.8/5 rating on iTunes, only costs $1.99, and can be played on your phone! What’s not to like? Indeed, I’m impressed enough that I’ll be assigning it in my Peacebuilding class next year.
Today I had an opportunity to playtest a beta version of Viva la Revolution, a simple but enjoyable and effective counterinsurgency board game being developed by Ed Farren. As the screenshots will reveal, the game was played via Table Top Simulator (Steam)—necessary since I’m in Montreal, while Ed is currently deployed to Kabul.
The game depicts a fictional Latin American country, pitting the government against rebel forces. The map depicts one central capital city, and eight outlying regions. The territory of the latter consists of small towns, farmland, and dense jungle. The game metrics track four strategic objectives: control of regions, support in rural population centres, legitimacy (based on a variety of factors, including the number of various types of units, as well as the political effects of air strikes, terrorism, and drug labs), and finally control of the capital. The rebels need to win in all four categories before the game ends. The government is just trying to hang on.
The game turn starts with a random event. These are not entirely random, in that players have some choice as to which event occurs.
Next, the rebel player takes two actions from a menu of five choices:
construct/collapse drug lab (which funds insurgent mobilization)
create two new insurgent units
move two insurgent units (with possible combat)
upgrade one insurgent unit to guerillas
move one guerrilla or regular unit (with possible combat)
In addition, they may undertake an optional act of terrorism.
The government then takes one action from their own menu of possible actions:
deliver relief supplies (thereby counteracting effects of terrorism)
move two police or two army units (with possible combat)
train one new police unit
upgrade one police unit to an army unit
upgrade one army unit to a guards unit
The government may also undertake an optional airstrike, if they wish.
Units have different combat ratings for jungle, rural (farmland and towns), and urban terrain. Police and insurgent units may not leave their own region.
The rules include extensive design notes. Ed credits David Kershaw’s Irish Freedom and Brian Train’s Guerilla Checkers for inspiration.
Turn1: All looks relatively quiet, but insurgents are lurking in the distant jungle. This is the classic first stage of a Maoist-type insurgency.
Playing as the government, my primary strategy was to mobilize as many police units as possible to hold rural areas, and then upgrading police in the capital to better quality army units. Ed’s insurgents sprouted like revolutionary mushrooms in the jungle, where he also hid a drug lab or two. The insurgents were then upgraded and began to take on my police units in the more populated rural areas, sometimes being driven back, but other times overrunning my positions. Since victory in combat gives the rebels a free unit upgrade, the gradual effect of these victories was to improve the quality of the revolutionary army through captured weapons and battlefield experience.
Turn 5. I’ve already lost control of Santiago, Rio Nochas, Esturia, Chi Machura, and Los Ablos. However the rural towns (and hence the roads into the capital) are still held by police garrisons. We’re on to the second stage of the insurgency, as the guerrillas expand the territory under their control.
Turn 11. The rebel army continues to grow, although most of the rural population centres are still under government control.
Turn 16. Caring little for political legitimacy, the government militarizes the capital and conducts frequent airstrikes. More and more of the rebel units have been upgraded to guerrilla or regular status—preparing for the third stage of an insurgency, engaging in semi-regular combat against government forces and major urban areas.
It was all very Maoist, as more and more of the countryside gradually came under the rebel control, slowly surrounding the capital. Airstrikes sometimes slowed the rebel advance, but at the cost of government legitimacy. However, my mobilization in the capital (aided by a well-timed event card) made it a difficult nut to crack. I managed to hold on to the end, and squeak a narrow victory—but only just.
Turn 20: While the government has had some success with a counter-offensive to the south, army units sent to New Spain and Santa Maria have been destroyed. Although this has left the defences of the capital severely weakened, it is the last turn—so the government wins (barely).
Ed provided some end-of-game statistics:
Rebels: Insurgents x 8 Guerrillas x 8 Regulars x 2
Government: Police x 7 Army x 5
Acts of Terrorism x 5 (3 thwarted by security forces)
Air Strikes x 10 (around 60% successful)
Drug Labs constructed x 2
Relief supplies delivered x 0
US intervention/aid to Govt = none
State assistance to rebels = none
Natural disasters = 1
Regions abandoned = 0
Elections held = 0
Coups = 0
Desertions = 0
Defections = 1
Riots = 0
Peace Talks = 1
Rebel attacks on capital = 1
Maximum Govt Army strength = 5
Maximum Govt Police strength = 12
Maximum Govt Guards strength = 0
Maximum Rebel Regulars strength = 3
Maximum Rebel Guerrilla strength = 6
Maximum Rebel Insurgent strength = 10
I thought it all played intuitively and smoothly, and the progression of the insurgency certainly fitted the classic model. We discussed a few tweaks, for example introducing a “planning” action that would enable a player to take an extra action in the next term. This would enable more organized offensive and counter-offensives, better matching the battle rhythm of most military campaigns.
Much of our discussion focus on the event cards. In my view, such cards should never be so powerful as to decisively shift the balance of the game, which would lead players to attribute a game outcome to blind luck. (In Viva la Revolution, event cards are only semi-random, in that players have often have a choice as to which of two cards is triggered.) In a game of this sort, five major types of card effects are possible:
Minor unexpected events. These can enhance narrative engagement, spice up game play with unforeseen twists, or include other fun little elements.
Consequences, whereby players are punished or rewarded for having undertaken certain types of actions. Heavy use of air strikes or terrorism might spawn a reaction from international human rights groups, for example.
Interesting choices. For example, a random natural disaster might present both players with the option of reassigning some units to humanitarian assistance—losing them for combat purposes, but gaining legitimacy.
Investments—these are “tech tree” type cards, whereby the play of one card might trigger or increase the effect of another later card. “Foreign diplomacy,” for example, might enable later play of “foreign aid,” or investment in “human intelligence” might help one side spring an “ambush” later on.
Catch-up mechanisms—that is, cards that reward the losing player. Such mechanisms are common in hobby/entertainment games, where you don’t want one player pulling so far ahead early on that their opponent is doomed to turn after turn of futile play.
Snowball mechanisms—that is, cards that reward success. These should be used sparingly in games designed for entertainment purposes, since they contribute to the problem of insurmountable leads described above. However, real world insurgency and counterinsurgency is heavily shaped by cascading effects. Insurgent victories, for example, can intimidate government supporters, sway fence-sitters, and attract new recruits. Similarly, major government victories can deter support for the opposition.
In a game like this, moreover, one could reconfigure the event card deck depending on the audience and purpose of the game. Playing Viva la Revolution for fun? Then you want more catch-up cards and fewer snowball cards, and quite a few amusing minor events. Using it for training purposes? Then you want more snowball cards (because that’s the way the insurgency works), more investment cards (because these allow players to strategize more), and appropriate consequence cards (to highlight the costs of doing things wrong, violating the laws of armed conflict, and so forth). In the latter case, it is especially important that the game design incentivize the kind of behaviours and choices that you are trying to teach.
If you’re interested, you can see the game at the Steam link above. Ed has also set up a BoardGame Geek page, to which he will be uploading game rules and print-and-play files.
In this volume John Curry has republished the rules of URB-COIN, an urban counter-insurgency game designed by Abt Associates for the Advanced Research Projects Agency (US Department of Defense) in the mid-1960s—and a very quirky game it is too. Set in a generic city in a generic country, it combines find-the-secret-players mechanics (such as found in games like Werewolf or Secret Hitler) with the large-scale interaction of a megagame. Players represent government officials, police, and ordinary citizens (upper class bankers and lawyers; middle class managers and shopkeepers; and lower class clerks, waiters, utility workers, railway employees, and the unemployed). Some of the government employees and ordinary citizens are secret insurgents as well, while others are secret police agents. Each player has a certain amount of money and white (population) chips, and some players also have blue (police) chips or red (arms and bombs) chips. Play is continuous, with every 20 minutes representing a “day,”
URB-COIN was one of a series of POL-MIL wargames developed for ARPA at this time, including AGILE-COIN (a rural insurgency game) and POLITICA. These games had some value for training and encouraging critical reflection on issues of insurgency/counter-insurgency, but cannot really be thought of as sophisticated analytical tools, and never saw widespread use. In a January 1966 playtest of URB-COIN at the US Air Force Academy, 60% of participants rated it “better” than other training techniques, with the greatest value being the exploration “alternative tactical and strategic approaches.”
The Abt Associates report on URB-COIN can be found (for free) here, via the Defense Technical Information Center. The History of Wargaming Project publication is essentially a reprint of that same report, together with a foreword, a brief discussion of other counterinsurgency games, and a bibliography.
GridlockED. The Game Crafter, 2018. Project leader: Teresa Chan. $89.99.
Back in 2016 PAXsims reviewed Healthy Heart Hospital, a rather tongue-in-cheek hobby boardgame about managing staff and treating patients in a for-profit hospital. GridlockED is also about patient management in a busy hospital, but with a rather more serious purpose. Developed by a team of faculty members, researchers, and students at the Division of Emergency Medicine at McMaster University, it is designed to teach medical students and others serious lessons about triage, patient flow, and treatment. This article from the journal Academic Medicine explains the thinking behind the game.
The goal of the game is to survive 8 turns and accumulate 500 points (from admitting and discharging patients) without suffering more than two patient safety adverse events. A number of patient cards are drawn randomly each turn. Each present a patient’s symptoms, and the medical steps necessary to address these so that they can be sent home or admitted for ongoing treatment. CTAS (Canadian Triage and Acuity Scale) Category 1 and 2 patients must be stabilized quickly before additional examination or treatment can occur. CTAS 3-5 patients can wait in the Waiting Room until staff and appropriate beds are available. The patient descriptions are excellent—we certainly learned a great deal about emergency room procedures.
The players start with a four nurses, a doctor, resident, radiologist, and consultant. Points can be expended on additional staff or beds as ward upgrades. Random events in the patient deck through unexpected challenges (for example, a needle-stick injury to a staff member) and the occasional bonus (such as a grateful former patient bringing treats!).
The game includes the main game board and waiting room; patient, event, and staff cards; dry erase markers; and staff pawns—all very nicely produced. A brief quickstart guide explains some key game procedures, and an online video (below) provides a longer introduction.
The absence of a comprehensive rule set was our only major quibble with the game. The printed guide omits some key information, and it is awkward to advance through the video in search of a rule explanation which may or may not be there. We had a few specific questions:
Must a staff member complete all their actions before another staff member may act? Or can you switch back and forth between staff until all staff actions have been expended? (They may swap back and forth.)
When rolling for additional patients on some turns, do you simply add d6 patients to the base number indicated? (Yes, just add the score of the die.)
When spending an action to move a patient, must the nurse token move with the patient? (No, just move the patient.)
Card E15 mentions a “Observation Zone,” which doesn’t exist on the game board. (This should read “Intermediate Zone.”)
The video seems to show the players with 300 points on Turn 1. Do they start with some points? (No they don’t—the video is a little ambiguous.)
However, as you can see from the answers above, Teresa and the GridlockED team were quick in responding to our email queries—clearly they are used to dealing with emergencies. Revised rules are in the works, and will appear in a future version of the game.
All-in-all, GridlockED has much to offer as a pedagogical tool for medical training. It also nicely illustrates how a relatively simple board game can be used to explore practical real-world challenges.
His latest game, Chile ’73, is on exactly that subject. This low complexity game is playable in around one hour, by two to four (or more) players.
Coup d’etats are a messy business. Far from carefully orchestrated military precision, when various factions of a populace overthrow a government (especially when they did so before the age of internet), operations are strung together in secrecy, with limited communication between even likeminded factions. Veteran game designer Brian Train’s brand new thriller of a game, Chile ’73, brings the secrecy, the suspense, and then the all-out battle of the coup to your game table. In the first portion of the game, two to four players plot secretly to carry out their own plans to gain or maintain rule of Chile, plotting and scrambling to position their forces to best advantage. Once the coup begins, the entire game shifts to open warfare. Loyalties are revealed, and players battle to the finish.
Civilian and paramilitary units face off against military ground forces, aided by tactical air units and transport aircraft. Do you have what it takes to elevate your cause to supremacy?
The game first involves a pre-coup phase (during which players try to bring various military, paramilitary, and civilian assets under their control) of several turns, and then a coup phase (when loyalists and opposition battle to control key locations around the city). During the pre-coup period, players aren’t entirely sure who is who (that is, whether others represent military, police, or civilian leaders), what their agenda is (seeking soft power, hard power, or a coalition), who is on which side, and what the loyalties of most units are. Each may recruit new assets, investigate the loyalties of other units, neutralize a rival player’s influence over a unit, block a rival player’s action, or move units. During the coup phase, units may move and fight. Some locations on the map yield particular bonuses or other game effects.
Picture via BGG (Beck Snyder), because we were too busy plotting to take one.
The rules are straight-forward and clear, and game-play is smooth and elegant. There is a great deal of fun to be had in plotting, building shaky alliances, and trying to work out what others are up to—especially with more than two players. Indeed, we were having so much fun that I forgot to take pictures, and instead we all watched President Salvador Allende be quickly overthrown as military units moved against him.
Chile ’73 is not intended as a high-fidelity simulation of the bloody events of September 1973. Although played on a zonal map of Santiago with units drawn from those that were present in real life, there’s no attempt to simulate the actual leaders and factions that shaped events. In this sense it might be thought of more as a Chile-themed coup game. I’m not sure I would ever use it to teach about Latin American history. It is, however, a terrific design with very different pre- and post-phase phases, and it does get at the uncertainties and strategic considerations characteristics of successful and unsuccessful military takeovers.
Indeed, I would quite happy to see it as the first of a series. Turkey ’16, anyone?
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.
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.
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.