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Category Archives: simulation and game reviews

Review: Hedgemony

Hedgemony: A Game of Strategic Choices (RAND, 2020). USD$250.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Annual resource allocation. Players gain new resources based on the scenario and developments within the game.
Some possible Russian investments: new military forces, investment in national research and development, and arms sales to third countries.

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.

Some EU/NATO events: interoperability problems, terrorism, refugees.

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.

Some international events: an earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia, Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, and growing tensions between India and Pakistan.
Some possible North Korean actions: a submarine-launched ballistic missile test, nuclear assistance to Iran, and an incursion in the DMZ. The Blue player must decide how to respond to these, and the outcome usually results in a gain or loss of influence points.

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.

The China display board, with two actions (Belt and Road initiative, economic cooperation in Africa) and one investment (building a permanent overseas base in another region) signalled.

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.

The game board and some of the (itsy-bitsy) force factors and dice for scale.

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.

“Survive COVID-19” browser game

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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.

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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.

h/t Sarah Jameel  

Review: Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design

BBTGDcover.jpgGeoffrey Engelstein and Isaac Shalev, Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2020). 491pp. USD$63.96 paperback.

 

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:

  1. Game structures
  2. Turn order and structure terminology
  3. Actions
  4. Resolution
  5. Game end and victory
  6. Uncertainty
  7. Economics
  8. Auctions
  9. Worker Placement
  10. Movement
  11. Area Control
  12. Set collection
  13. Card mechanisms

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.

Gaming the dirty side of politics

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

For a quick and simple introduction to gerrymandering, see this Washington Post video.

Review: Rebel Inc.

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Review of: Rebel Inc. Ndemic Creations, 2018. USD$1.99 on iTunes App Store (coming soon to Android)

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.

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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.

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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.

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Civilian projects include basic health, education, and water/sanitation projects, transportation and other infrastructure, and and various economic initiatives.

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The government can invest in aid facilitation, administration, information, political and legal reforms, and policing, among others.

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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.

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The game provides players with plenty of information on this page, on the main map, and in periodic news updates.

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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.

 

Playtesting Viva La Revolution

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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.

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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.

Judging from the title (revolution not revolución) the insurgents are a group of rebellious  anglophones.

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:

  1. construct/collapse drug lab (which funds insurgent mobilization)
  2. create two new insurgent units
  3. move two insurgent units (with possible combat)
  4. upgrade one insurgent unit to guerillas
  5. 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:

  1. deliver relief supplies (thereby counteracting effects of terrorism)
  2. move two police or two army units (with possible combat)
  3. train one new police unit
  4. upgrade one police unit to an army unit
  5. 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.

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Turn 1: 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.

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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.

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Turn 11. The rebel army continues to grow, although most of the rural population centres are still under government control.

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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.

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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:

Casualties:
  • Rebels: Insurgents x 8 Guerrillas x 8 Regulars x 2
  • Government: Police x 7 Army x 5
Other Stats:
  • 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.

 

Review: The Pentagon’s Urban COIN Wargame (1966)

John Curry, ed., The Pentagon’s Urban COIN Wargame (1966) (History of Wargaming Project, 2018). 100pp. £12.95pb.

pentagonurbancoincover.gifIn 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.

Review: GridlockED

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.

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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!).

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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.

 

 

Review: Chile ’73

Chile ’73. Tiny Battle Publishing, 2018. Game designer: Brian Train. USD$20.00 (print-and-play edition $10.00)

pic4026703.jpgBrian Train has long had a thing for a good military coup d’état—not so much carrying them out (as far as we know), but rather reading about them, playing them, and designing games about them. Indeed, he likes coups so much that he wrote a piece on the game design challenges involved several years ago for PAXsims.

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.

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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?

Review: Hostage Negotiator

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Price

Review of Islamic State: The Syria War

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

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

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Image credit: Javier Romero (via BGG).

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

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

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

GCAM2.0 “Comprehensive Approach” simulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Players look at their cards and hence various options.

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More discussions and planning.

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

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

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

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An investment in illegal drug production.

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

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

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

Review: Rise Up

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Confrontation Analysis Handbook

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

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

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

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

Review: Urban Operations

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

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

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

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Game components. Picture credit: Nuts! Publishing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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