PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and gaming ideas

Pellegrino: Modelling and games

Pete Pellegrino is a retired USN commander and former Naval Flight Officer, currently employed by Valiant Integrated Services supporting the US Naval War College’s War Gaming Department as lead for game design and adjudication and lecturing on game related topics for the department’s war gaming courses.  In addition to his work at the college since 2004, Pete has also conducted business games for Fortune 500 companies and consulted for major toy and game companies. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.

The various Excel tools mentioned in the lecture can be found here.

Others in this series can be viewed at the PAXsims YouTube channel.

Schechter: Wargaming Cyber Security

The latest issue of War on the Rocks features a piece by Benjamin Schechter (US Naval War College) on wargaming cyber security.

“Wargames can save lives” is axiomatic in the wargame community. But can they save your network? As modern conflict has become increasingly digital, cyber wargaming has emerged as an increasingly distinct and significant activity. Moreover, it’s doing double duty. In addition to its application to national defense, it’s also helping protect the economy and critical infrastructure. Wargaming is a military tool used to gain an advantage on the battlefield. However, it has also found a home beyond national security, frequently used in the private sector. Cyber security straddles the battlefield and the boardroom. As a result, it is not surprising that cyber wargaming is increasingly common across both the public and private sectors. As cyber security concerns intensify, so too does the attention given to cyber wargaming.

Designed well and used appropriately, cyber wargames are a powerful tool for cyber research and education. However, misconceptions about what cyber wargames are, their uses, and potential abuses pose challenges to the development of cyber wargaming.

He offers some useful insight into how to do this well—and some equally useful comments on what to avoid:

Cottage industries have emerged that cater to every type of cyber security need. A variety of contractors, consultants, and specialists offer bespoke cyber wargames, support services, and wargaming tools. Often, they provide valuable services during a time when people are grasping for insights and solutions. Yet there are also potentially troubling challenges and conflicts of interest. Wargame sponsors and participants sometimes lack the social and technical ability to assess the wargame product they receive critically. Alternatively, the need for immediate, easy answers for hard cyber problems encourages problematic cyber wargames. Whatever the source, and there can be many, the potential problems and pathologies with cyber wargames go beyond the purely technical or conceptual.

In a world of new tech, vaporware, and buzzwords, cyber wargames can be used to sell other products, services, or ideas. The marketplace for cyber security may encourage using wargames as a sales pitch, leveraging the emotional and intellectual intensity of wargames for influence. One example is using cyber wargames to create anxiety or fear with “cyber doom scenarios.” While this may be appropriate in some specific instances, more often than not, it’s threat inflation to advance a program, advocate for an idea, or sell a product. This is not a new problem, nor is it limited to cyber or wargaming. Bureaucratic politics and defense procurement raise the specter of ulterior motives in wargames for the Department of Defense. The risks are significant for Fortune 500 companies as well as government agencies.

There’s also the problem of cyber wargames that don’t produce anything of value, either by design or by error. The most meaningless and infamous wargames are BOGSATs (a bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table). Cyber BOGSATs are common. These games may appear promising, with distinguished participants and institutions. But they lack clear objectives or game design leading to no substantial finding or benefit. BOGSATs occur when a wargame is not the best tool for the problem, is window dressing for something else, or is just poorly designed.

Particularly egregious are cyber wargames that actively cause harm by teaching the wrong lessons or creating false knowledge. Unfortunately, this is not a new or uncommon phenomenon. Common causes are ill-designed or unrealistic cyber elements and gameplay, poorly specified cyber objectives, and poor communication. A cyber wargame about a high-intensity conflict where cyberspace operations are consistently and catastrophically effective might lead to some skewed perspectives on cyberspace operations. Alternatively, poorly abstracted networks and computer systems may artificially limit player creativity or instill a false sense of security. Finally, and most fundamentally, they might fail to articulate how cyberspace has been abstracted or will be used within the game. Because cyberspace is synthetic, its representation can vary significantly and in different ways from other domains. In any case, poor design will result in games that fail to meet their objectives. Worse yet, they teach the wrong lessons, skew analysis, or stifle new or innovative ideas. My colleague, Dr. Nina Kollars, and I discuss these and related cyber wargaming challenges and pathologies in an upcoming Atlantic Council article.

You can read the full article link at the link above.

Successful professional wargames: The Movie

Graham Longley-Brown had the foresight to record his recent presentation at the Connections Global conference, in which he highlighted some of the key points from his book Successful Professional Wargames: A Practitioners Guide (2019). Here it is, via YouTube, for those who might have missed it.

CNA Talks: Diversity and inclusion in wargaming

Episode 67 of the CNA Talks podcast addresses the topic of diversity and inclusion in wargaming.

On this episode of CNA Talks, Dr. Chris Ma discusses the Derby House Principles on Diversity and Inclusion in Professional Wargamming with their creators: Dr. Yuna Wong of the Institute for Defense Analyses, Professor Rex Brynen of McGill University, and Sally Davis of the UK Ministry of Defence.

Biographies

Chris Ma Ph.D directs CNA’s Gaming and Integration Team.

Yuna Huh Wong Ph.D is a defense analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). She is a frequent organizer for the Connections Wargaming Conference series, and co-chaired the 2016 and 2017 Military Operations Research Society (MORS) special meetings on wargaming.

Sally Davis is a senior analyst at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, part of the UK Ministry of Defence. She writes software in support of analysis, simulation, and wargaming.

Rex Brynen is professor of political science at McGill University, where he specializes Middle East politics, complex peace and humanitarian operations, and serious games. He is senior editor of the conflict simulation website PAXsims (http://www.paxsims.org).

CNA is a cosponsor of the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming.

Mentioned in Dispatches: The Derby House Principles

This week, the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast at Armchair Dragoons is all about diversity and inclusion in wargaming and the intent behind the Derby House Principles.

There’s been many facets of public life that have been touched lately by discussions of diversity and representation in different spheres of public life, and gaming has been no different.  From the cancelation of Origins Online to the Twitter mob stalking designer Eric Lang to GAMA’s comms director quitting to the Diana Jones Awards at GenCon, there’s been a non-stop list of game-industry headlines all summer long.

Enter, The Derby House Principles, promoting diversity & inclusion in professional wargaming. Focused on the practitioner community that designs, executes, evaluates, and teaches the art & science of wargaming in the realms of defense & security policy, national defense, emergency preparedness, and the intelligence communities, the Derby House Principles have been endorsed by a wide array of government and government-adjacent organizations.

While the professional wargaming community is not our focus, it is still an area of interest for much of our audience.  Some of The Dragoons have worked in both the hobby and professional communities, and some professionals will look to hobby sites like us for information on the current practices of the hobby community, or creative approaches to wargaming events.

With that in mind, we reached out to some folks in the professional wargaming world who were well-positioned to discuss and describe not only their own experiences as under-represented minorities in professional wargaming, but also their thoughts on the operationalization of the Derby House Principles.  While neither were officially representing any agency or organization, both Yuna Wong and Sally Davis were have long resumes of experience in the professional wargaming world and their insights made for a fascinating podcast.  Rex Brynen also stops by at the start of the episode to discuss the genesis of the principles and their initial spread among the professional community.

This is a pretty long episode folks – well over an hour – but we didn’t want to cut the discussion short.

You can listen to it at the link at the top. Our thanks go out to Brant Guillory for recording and facilitating the discussion, and his strong support for a more diverse and inclusive hobby and profession.

derbyHouse

NWC Wargaming: Go Big or Go Home

The following piece was written for PAXsims by Thomas Barnett and Lea Culver.

Thomas P.M. Barnett, Director of Research at Creek Technologies, is a NYT/WAPO bestselling author of multiple books on global affairs and US global leadership (e.g., Pentagon’s New Map). He has served in the Office of Secretary of Defense following 9/11, at the U.S. Naval War College as a Senior Strategic Researcher/Professor, and at Oak Ridge National Lab as a Visiting Strategist.

Lea Culver is the Founder/President/CEO of Creek Technologies, a former Army Intelligence Officer, and a doctoral candidate with Franklin University. Creek Technologies specializes in Information Technology and Education Support Services across the government.

Comments are welcome below.


On May 1st, the nation’s war colleges received a brutal – if pre-emptive – failing grade from the Joint Chiefs, who declared that Joint Professional Military Education schools are not producing military commanders “who can achieve intellectual overmatch against adversaries.” Because China increasingly matches our “mass” and “best technology,” the Joint Chiefs argue that America will prevail in future conflicts primarily by having more capable officers. As for those “emerging requirements” that “have not been the focus of our current leadership development enterprise” (e.g., integrating national instruments, critical thinking, creative approaches to joint warfighting, understanding disruptive technologies), please raise your hand when you hear something new. 

Brutal and timely.  

China’s rising naval power compelled the Joint Chiefs to identify the leadership margin between defeating, or yielding to, the People’s Liberation Army, and they judged the Defense Department’s educational institutions as presently not providing it

So where does Joint Professional Military Education go from here? The Joint Chiefs of Staff were very clear: comprehensively integrate wargaming into a “talent management system” that produces officers who can “apply our capabilities better and more creatively” than our peer competitors. How comprehensively?  Enough for future commanders to hone these skills for “thousands of hours of deliberate practice, pushing cognitive limits and intellectual performance.” 

The Chief of Naval Operations’ response? Slot the Naval War College under a new Warfighting Development Directorate established within his office – specifically in Warfighting Development (N7), moving it from its traditional spot in Manpower, Personnel, Training, and Education (N1). The institutional signal here is clear:  Forge a far more direct link between education and warfighting – a bridge best captured by wargaming. 

True, we have witnessed some bureaucratic waffling since then, most notably in the announced “Education for Seapower” program review by the new Secretary of Navy, but that sort of institutional pushback is to be expected during a tectonic shift. Serious money remains slated for future naval education efforts ($350M annually), and, while that probably will not be enough to stand up the proposed U.S. Naval Community College,  it is more than enough for the College to upgrade its wargaming program in response to the Joint Chiefs’ urgent mandate.

The Naval War College annually conducts 50-plus wargames, which is impressive, but these simulations are decidedly platform/network-centric, resulting in “quick-look” reports of high immediate interest only to Office of the Chief of Naval Operations’ sponsors. That is not Newport’s fault: it was simply responding to enduring market demand and the Chiefs just radically redefined that. The good news? The tools, technologies, and techniques that the College now needs to recast wargaming as a learner-centric enterprise are readily available – and at reasonably modest cost. 

Since the birth of Network-Centric Warfare in the mid-1990s, defense firms have amassed an impressive array of capabilities under the human performance engineering rubric (oftentimes called human-centric engineering), which addresses the third dimension of modern warfare (see  below) – namely, the interface between commanders and that “best technology” (systems) controlling our military “mass” (platforms). While traditional wargaming has amply explored strategy (officer-platform interface) and modern simulations plumb the depths of networked warfare (system-platform interface), human performance engineering truly completes that operational triad by rebalancing attention on the officer/system interface, in turn enhancing individual/team cognitive skills while optimizing command architectures. This is exactly what the Joint Chiefs want: systemic overmatch in cognitive skills and decision-making structures.

This vision mirrors the predominant logic coming out of Silicon Valley on the future of machine learning and artificial intelligence: both are best employed in combination with human decision-making in the so-called centaur model. So, again, China eventually matches us on platforms and systems, but we stay ahead thanks to our officers’ superior command skills augmented by cognitive computing. This is how the Joint Chiefs see Joint Professional Military Education becoming a true “strategic asset” – i.e., our winning edge in future warfare.

Such ambition compels the Naval War College to rebalance its wargaming – long skewed toward problem-centric designs – with a learner-centric emphasis on decision-making competencies. This begins by introducing advanced human performance engineering capabilities to assess officer development. 

Yes, the War College has longed structured its wargames to test out competing command-and-control structures. But it has done so to ensure that students know how to use those systems as designed within a single domain context (e.g., surface, sub-surface, air), when what the Joint Chiefs now desire are commanders capable of routinely achieving combined effects across domains (air, land, sea, subsea, cyber, space) – suggesting a “multiverse” of possible command-and-control structures appliedly fluidly across the conflict spectrum. In effect, the Joint Chiefs seek the equivalent of “multilingual” officers capable of creatively commanding across domains. Ambitious yet achievable, this goal requires a sophisticated, orchestrated application of assets and technologies from multiple domains to effect an outcome that would otherwise be impossible within a single domain.

In sum, it is not enough to train officers on how to effectively communicate and coordinate actions in a joint command-and-control environment where the primary decisions involve choosing which tasks (and where and when) to hand off to other services. They need to be able to adeptly select combinations of resource from across all services to achieve those desired effects across all domains

Instilling this sort of cross-domain ingenuity starts with more effectively data-mining joint exercises. These complex wargames generate troves of human-learning data available for capture and systematic analysis. However, the live and post-game analytic tools currently employed at Newport do not come close to comprehensively processing all available data, resulting in final reports that arrive too late to allow for a rapid and robust game-sequencing that builds upon – and integrates – previous learning and outcomes.

By promising systematic feedback on systemic performance across all three wargaming dimensions (officers, platforms, systems), human performance engineering incentivizes schools to pervasively instrument simulation environments with innovative measurement technologies (right down to player-worn sensors) of sufficient sophistication to decode cognitive processes (i.e., decision making) – applying artificial intelligence not so much to the play as to the players, because that is where “talent management” naturally applies.

In capturing and exploiting wargaming’s big data “exhaust,” Joint Professional Military Education faculty, wargamers, and research staff can “incorporate active and experiential learning to develop the practical and critical thinking skills our warfighters require.” Since human performance engineering expertise is not presently resident at military schools, there must be an infusion of private-sector talent to continuously refresh staff skills, knowledge, and innovation. 

For the “Navy’s Home of Thought,” it is time to go big or go home

The Joint Chiefs’ guidance mirrors what Naval War College researchers have argued for years: namely, the utility of teaching integrated with gaming. The most cogent expression of this was put forth by the 2015 cohort of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Strategic Studies Group, whose work on talent management accurately presaged the Joint Chief’s May mandate to finally move ahead. Now, the addition of subject-matter experts steeped in human performance engineering starts that ball rolling by asking: Which new data can be captured in a wargame? Wargaming professionals can then answer the question: What do we learn from that data? Finally, and in a reach-out to research and teaching faculty, the Naval War College as a whole asks: What should we now teach based on this new understanding?

And yes, this is yet again one of those instances where innovation within the defense community can and should spill over into similar advances across the commercial sector, where the globalization of technologies and capital have largely eliminated the West’s historical advantages over the “Rising Rest.” We either field more creative executives who can tilt that now-level playing field back to our advantage or we learn to consistently lose market shares across an emerging global middle class hungry for consumption. Gamifying our educational systems to instill cross-domain creativity is the way ahead, particularly in processing generational cohorts (e.g., Millennials, GenZs) who have grown up with gaming as a way of life.

By systematically introducing human performance engineering to wargaming, the Naval War College establishes itself as a central repository to shape and ultimately drive future joint exercises across the Defense Department’s Joint Professional Military Education enterprise. America employed similar institutional dynamics to leave the Soviets behind in the Information Age, and this is how we do the same to China in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: moving the goal posts on command performance.

The Naval War College knows how to go big on wargaming, having done so in the past to global effect. It is time to do so again.

Serious games for humanitarian training: The Movie

Yesterday, Tom Fisher (PAXsims and Imaginetics) and Matt Stevens (Lessons Learned Simulation and Training) spoke about their work on serious game for humanitarian training. If you missed it, the Georgetown University Wargaming Society has posted the video of the event to their YouTube channel.

Practical lessons from teaching online with wargames at CGSC

The following was written for PAXsims by Dr. James Sterrett, Directorate of Simulation Education (DSE), U. S. Army University.


The Directorate of Simulation Education (DSE) at the Command and General Staff College (CGSC), U.S. Army University spent mid-March through early June 2020 to prepare for, and then to conduct or support, three elective courses online using commercial wargames.  This article outlines our key lessons learned, and then discusses some details of what we did.

In total, the class events we ran totaled 10 different games, each running from 2.5 to 8 hours, each preceded by at least one 3 hour preparation session.  In addition, many of these involved numerous internal trainup sessions with each game, plus many trial runs of many games to assess their suitability for use, or in testing VASSAL modules we built for some of these games.  For around 9 weeks, from 30 March through 2 June, we averaged one 3-hour online wargame session a day, for testing, preparation, or classes.

We ran wargames for 3 different courses:

  • Bitter Woods for the Art of War Scholars Program (2x 4 hour classes)
  • Aftershock for the Defense Support to Civil Authorities elective (1x 3 hour class)
  • Eight games for History in Action, which we teach in collaboration with the Department of Military History.  (8x 3 hour classes)

Key Lessons

Top lesson 1: Online wargaming works, but it’s harder than live. Compared to running wargames live, it requires more manpower, time, effort, and technology from both students and faculty.

Top lesson 2: Success requires scaffolding.  Don’t assume students are ready with their technology or that they understand the online engine.  Plan for on-call tech support during every class. Plan to explicitly teach both the online engine, and the game itself in that engine.

VASSAL (http://www.vassalengine.org/is our tool of choice.

This is the most surprising outcome to us.  Several of us had prior experience with VASSAL and were not very fond of it; we are now converts.  VASSAL proved to be simple, reliable, effective, and made lower demands on computing horsepower and networks – and it is free.  In addition, it was an easier and more powerful tool to make new game modules for. 

(Read the detailed section for a more nuanced view of some of the other options.)

Test your tools in online classroom settings before committing to them.

Our initial impressions of tools were frequently overturned after gaining more extensive experience with them in testing.

Ease of use beats flashy presentation.

The more you can minimize the friction of using the online game tool, the more effort you can put elsewhere.  This is why VASSAL became, unexpectedly, our favorite application.

Running a wargame online needs more manpower than running the same game live.

Running wargames live, a skilled facilitator can sometimes run 2 or 3 games.  Online, you must have one facilitator per game.  When teaching the game, you must have one person doing the instruction while another monitors a chat window for questions and puts them to the instructor at appropriate moments.

In addition, we found we needed to have a separate person as dedicated on-call tech support, every time.  Although a few classes did not turn out to need tech support, most did, and dedicated tech support meant that the game facilitators could keep the games running while the students with tech problems got helped.

Running a wargame online requires a higher level of skill across the facilitators than running the same games live in one room.

Running wargames live in one room, one person can be the expert whom the others can rapidly turn to for help.  Running online, everyone is necessarily in separate rooms, and even with side-channel communications, the question and answer interchange is much slower.  Each facilitator needs to be an expert.

Keeping the game moving is harder online due to the limited communications.

Live, you can see what students are doing.  You usually know who is thinking, who is confused and needs help, who is done making a move.  Online, you usually have no idea.  Is the student silent because they are thinking?  Confused and lost? Conferring with their partner? Done but forgot to announce it?  Done, and announced it, but failed to activate their microphone or had some technical issue?  When do you break in to ask, possibly breaking their concentration and creating more friction?

Everything takes longer online.  

Your game is hostage to hardware issues beyond your control.

A bad internet day makes for a bad class day.  Students come with widely varying degrees of computer savvy.  They also come with widely varying quality of equipment.  We had one student whose computer was a low-powered laptop around a decade old, which created frequent technical issues.  Another used a Surface tablet, which had no direct technical issues, but the small screen caused usability problems.

Ideally, each participant should have least 2 large monitors.

A reasonably modern computer, preferably with at least one large monitor, and, ideally, with two or more large monitors, definitely worked best.  Multiple monitors enabled placing documentation and chat windows on one screen while placing the main game map on the other.

Those with only one monitor, especially if on a small screen, found themselves constantly paging between windows and struggling to manage limited screen space.

Some students and faculty took to using a high definition TV as a second monitor, which worked well.

Technology in More Detail

Communications

Ideally, we would have done extensive R&D into both a wargame engine and into a communications solution.  However, we rapidly determined that Blackboard, which the Army already had on contract, provided a communications system that was both sufficient for our purposes and that students already knew how to use.  While not perfect  (the interface for splitting students into small groups can be a pain to use), Blackboard worked well for us. Specific features we came to rely on:

  • The ability to break students into breakout groups, and to have instructors move easily between breakout groups.  Each breakout group was one game.  Also, we could easily recall all the breakout groups into one room when it came time to return to group discussion.
  • Screen sharing to assist in teaching the games.  While the shared screens were sometimes very fuzzy (which we worked around by zooming in when details were important), the shared screen allowed us to direct people’s attention to the item currently under discussion.  In a perfect world, the game engine itself would provide a means of directing attention.
  • Multiple chat lines: Direct 1 to 1 chat, alongside breakout room chat, alongside group discussion chat, all at the same time.  The major feature we wanted, and did not have, was a direct chat line between any subset of people without creating a new breakout room – so that 3 or 4 people on the same side could coordinate their strategy and tactics, for example.  We worked around this by having students use their cell phones.

Wargame Engines

We spent several weeks testing online game engines, both for running games and our ability to modify or create new games.

 VASSAL (http://www.vassalengine.org/)

As noted above, several of us had prior experience with VASSAL and did not have a high opinion of it.  However, those opinions were based on the state of VASSAL in the later 1990s, when it was relatively new.  VASSAL has improved a lot in the last 20 years, and those improvements are a great credit to its volunteer coding team.

VASSAL is not the prettiest or slickest engine out there.  However, it had several decisive advantages:

  • Highly reliable, it worked on all the equipment students brought into the classes.
  • Free, while every other solution required either the instructors, or everyone, to buy software.
  • Easier for students to learn than other systems.
  • It was significantly easier for our team to make new or modified modules in VASSAL than in other systems.  
  • Presented the widest variety of ready-to-go games relevant to our courses.
  • Because it is built from the ground up to support wargames, VASSAL’s standard interaction set is tailored to supporting wargames.  The other engines seemed, to us, to have standard interactions best suited to running Euro games or role-playing games (which those other engines chase because those are much larger markets!)
  • VASSAL doesn’t enforce the rules.  We thought this would be a weakness, but when the computer enforces the rules, it prevents the facilitator from fixing mistakes – and with first-time players, it’s very handy to let the facilitator see and do anything they want.

Two key workarounds we used with VASSAL:

  1. Normally only one player can join a specific role.  However, if everyone who is going to join that role does so simultaneously, you can pack many players into one role,  permitting a small team of students to play the same side while maintaining fog of war.  Note that this feature is not officially supported.
  2. Most modules that had fog of war also included a “Solo” player who could see everything, so we used this as a facilitator role.  We modified the Triumph & Tragedy module to include this as well.  Without the ability to see through the fog of war, the facilitator cannot effectively answer questions and solve problems.

Tabletopia (https://tabletopia.com/)

Tabletopia was our initial favorite, with a slick interface and great presentation.  Our favorite feature is the ability to see the “hands” of the other players, which makes it really easy to direct attention – “Look at the Blue Hand”.  Tabletopia is browser-driven and thus is platform independent, which is a great plus.  It is also the only way to play 1944: Race to the Rhine online, which we very much wanted to include in our history course.

However, Tabletopia also had some problems.  Running a multiplayer game requires that at least one player has a paid account ($9.99/month), and the Terms of Service for game creation included language that we were wary of.  In testing, it was much more difficult to make a new game in Tabletopia than in VASSAL, and essentially impossible to modify an existing game we had not made.  We could not figure out how to enforce fog of war in a blocks game in Tabletopia.

The great surprise came when we used it in class.  We expected students would find the interface simple.  However, students found Tabletopia confusing to use and said they preferred VASSAL.  Students with weaker computer hardware or slower internet connections found Tabletopia crashed or refused to start.

While we may use Tabletopia again in order to use the excellent Race to the Rhine, we also know we need to figure out how to work through its issues first.

Tabletop Simulator (https://www.tabletopsimulator.com/)

Tabletop Simulator (TTS) has a very large following, but we wound up bouncing off it.  The large number of possible interactions means it also has a large number of controls and possible customizations.  We found it confusing, and the physics model got in the way of ease of use as pieces bumped into each other.  A friend who likes it admitted it takes at least 10 hours to get comfortable with TTS, which is longer than we can afford to spend for classes.  In addition to these issues, TTS is a $20 purchase.

Roll20.net (https://roll20.net/)

Roll20 is built to support role-playing games.  Unlike the other options mentioned here, Roll20 includes fairly robust voice and chat communications.  It’s reasonably simple to set up a new game in Roll20 as well.   

Roll20 fared well in initial testing, and thus became a strong candidate for running Matrix games.  However, in full testing, its communications fell apart under the load of around a dozen people.  In addition, we ran into significant issues with allocating permissions to move pieces; as far as we could tell, players needed to join so they were known to the game room, then leave, so the GM could make permissions changes, then rejoin, which seemed like an overly complex dance to go through under time pressure in a class with students.

We suspect that our inexperience with the tool is key in some of these problems and intend to retest Roll20 in the summer.  In addition, we know of others who have used Microsoft Teams and Google Sheets to run Matrix games.

No Computer Games – Why?

We avoided computer games for several reasons:

  1. Students would need to buy them, and potentially need to buy many games for one class.
  2. Many games of interest run on only a subset of student computers (only Windows, or only high-end Windows computers, for example).
  3. Each computer game has its own interface to learn, on top of learning the game system, increasing the training overhead needed to get to the learning for the class; this is particularly an issue for our history class.
  4. In many cases, understanding the games’ models is an essential component to learning the wider lessons of the class. In our experience, this is harder to do with computer games, whose models are obscured in comparison to manual games.  (This is the price paid for the computer doing the heavy lifting of the model; the payoff of the computer is that it does that work.)

We are not adamantly opposed to computer wargames; we use them in our Simulations Lab during live instruction, and are investigating using them in some courses this fall in DL.  However, in the short timeframe we had, the above complications were sufficient to rule them out.

Teaching the Games

In all cases, we learned that it works best to:

  1. Provide a 15 minute introduction to the game at the end of the prior class.  Students won’t learn the game from this but the overview helps them learn better from the rules and videos in step 2.
  2. Provide the rules and tutorials as homework.  YouTube tutorials were very popular with students, when they existed. Students will not learn the game from these but they will come armed to steps 3 and 4 with a better framework.
  3. Provide a practice session.  We routinely ran a practice session the afternoon before class.  These lasted 3 hours (the same duration as the class) and included the full teaching script plus playing the game.  We warned students that this was partly internal trainup, so they knew to be patient with periodic digressions as we worked out unexpected wrinkles.  Because they actually play the game, students learn the game in these.  If you control the groups, distribute the students who came to the Practice session across the class day student groups. As time went on, we learned to have internal trainup sessions before the official Practice session, so that our people were ready to run a game on their own in the Practice session.
  4. Teach the game at the beginning of class.  We find it always helps to begin by identifying the sides and their victory conditions, because you can tie all the game mechanics in the game back to them.

We establish up front that we will not teach all the details of the game, and thus many of these will pop up as they become relevant.  We try to warn people if they are going to hit a special case, and if somebody winds up in a bad position because of a rule not previously explained, we will try to come to a reasonably fair adjustment so they are not unfairly punished by an unknown rule.

Doing all this requires facilitators who are experts on the game, as noted earlier. 

We find that putting students into pairs on a given side works well in most cases.  Two will tend to plan together, each can compensate for the places where the other finds things confusing, and provide moral support where one sometimes feels confused and alone.  Three on a team, however, sometimes means one gets left out.

Teaching the Courses

Bitter Woods for the Art of War Scholars Program

The Art of War Scholars Program is a highly select group of CGSC students who engage in a wider-ranging and academically more rigorous course of study, focused on studying the art of warfighting through a combination of seminars and research focused on the operational and strategic military history of the past century.  Each student must write a thesis in the CGSC Master’s of Military Art and Science program.

Dr. Dean A. Nowowiejski, the instructor for the Art of War Scholars Program, wanted the wargame to do three things: introduce the students to wargaming, introduce the terrain of the Battle of the Bulge to students for a follow-on virtual staff ride, and to examine the dilemmas facing the Allied forces in reducing the Bulge.

To support this, we need a game simple enough for new wargamers to play effectively, that covered the Bulge in enough detail to gain an appreciation for the terrain and forces involved, and that could be made to start later in the battle in order to cover the reduction of the Bulge.

We selected Bitter Woods for having the best balance of both a simple system (using only the basic rules) and the ability to run the Battle of the Bulge into January 1945.  The runners-up were GMT’s Ardennes ‘44 and MMP’s Ardennes.  Ardennes ’44 is more complex and Ardennes is out of print, the latter being a key criterion when we made the selection in January 2020 and expected to run the event live.

In order to highlight the dilemmas in reducing the Bulge, we created a scenario that began on 27 December 1944, and also modified the existing Bitter Woods 22 December ’44 start point to cover the entire map, both accomplished with assistance from LTC William Nance, PhD, of the CGSC Department of Military History.   After testing both of these, we concluded that the dilemmas showed up best on 22 December, as Patton’s forces begin to arrive.  This start point also made a better set of dilemmas for the Germans, as their offensive is not out of steam on 22 December, leaving them with difficult choices about how to protect their flanks while aiming for victory.  We divided the twelve students into three separate game groups that executed simultaneously.  We had teams of 2 on each side in each game, and each team was split between a northern and a southern command.

Dr. Nowowiejski told us that the Art of War Scholars students would be prepared, and he proved correct.  This group of top-flight students, all very comfortable with technology, had no technical issues.  In addition, while we ran the game, LTC William Nance moved through the 3 game rooms, offering both historical commentary and acting as the high command for both sides to ping students with questions about their plans in order to ground those in the wider concerns of their historical counterparts.  This left Dr. Nowowiejski free to circulate through the groups, observe the students, and discuss wider points with them.

Dr. Nowowiejski had students discuss their plans and operational assessments with the entire class at the end of each of the two 4 hour classes, for a mid-point and final AAR.  As the students in the various Allied and German teams uncorked radically different plans, this provided a chance to compare possible courses of action and outcomes for both sides.  Students did find they had more units than they could easily control, but this produced useful discussions on the difficulty of integrating tactics into operations.  Overall, Dr. Nowowiejski judged the event “very successful” and hopes to have us run it, live or on VASSAL, next year.

Aftershock for the Homeland Security Planner’s Elective

We have run Aftershock in person several times in the past for Clay Easterling and Joseph Krebs’ Department of Joint & Multinational Operations Homeland Security Planner elective course. Much of the course examines higher level legal and policy issues.  Playing Aftershock in the middle breaks this up, and also serves as a reminder of the practical impact of the plans and policies they are discussing.  Students regularly name it their favorite part of the course.  Now we needed to run it electronically…!

No computer version of Aftershock existed.  The designers, Dr. Rex Brynen and Thomas Fisher, readily granted us permission to create a version in VASSAL, and Curt Pangracs of DSE spent around two weeks creating and testing the module in time for the course.

There were 33 students in this elective, divided into pairs for each of the 4 teams in the game, making a total of 4 games run in parallel.  Four of us from DSE ran the games, while a fifth stood by for technical support, ensuring the two instructors could circulate between the three sessions to observe and discuss.

We knew that this course tended to have a solid proportion of officers with low levels of experience with computers. Because of this, we set the Aftershock module up with two participant roles:  the Facilitator, who controlled everything on the board; and the Observers, who could not change anything, but could see everything and call up the supporting documentation.  This matched the way we often run the game in person, where the facilitator can keep the game moving by running the board and presenting the players with the next decision. We figured that with some of the students being less technical, making the students Observers would allow them to concentrate on making decisions instead of trying to puzzle out how to make the game execute their intended course of action.

We had far more technical issues than we expected, possibly because the larger number of students – nearly three times the number in any of our other groups – meant there were more opportunities for problems.  As a result, in each of the four games, the facilitators wound up using the backup plan of streaming their VASSAL screen of Aftershock out to some of the students who could not otherwise see the VASSAL screen. This is far from ideal, as those students reliant on the stream could not control the view, and the Blackboard shared screen is often fuzzy, but it was better than not seeing the screen at all.

Despite the technical issues, students found the exercise very useful, and the instructors named it “a highlight of the course”.  As one student wrote in their AAR, “Finally a time at CGSC where we are truly talking with one another to get something done and seeing the results of our decision”.

However, a key lesson here is that the event would have gone a lot more smoothly if we had conducted a readiness check at the end of the prior class session, just to make sure that everybody had VASSAL installed, could load the Aftershock module, and could join the online session – and then to help those who could not, so their troubles were fixed before the main event.

Note that Dr. Brynen’s notes on facilitating Aftershock are extremely helpful!  

History in Action Elective

History in Action is a joint elective taught by DSE and the Department of Military History, run with the aim of teaching military history through wargaming, and also teaching a better understanding of wargaming through learning the history.  Knowledge of history should inform both playing and assessing the game.  Equally, playing the game should help better understand the history; while wargaming can’t let you walk a mile in someone’s shoes, it can let you walk ten feet in their socks.  In prior years, DSE’s partner in this class was Dr. Greg Hospodor, but he moved away and we now partner with Dr. Jonathan Abel, and were also assisted by LTC William Nance, PhD, when he was available.

To be selected for this course, a game has to pass all of these tests:

  1. It has to be a good game – fun is the hook, though it isn’t the point.
  2. It has to be available for our use (some that pass the other criteria are out of print, or, for online, have no online implementation).
  3. We have to be able to teach and run it within the 3 hour class time while leaving time for discussion.
  4. It must be dripping with history.  It has to highlight unique aspects of the historical event it covers, so it both helps teach that history directly, and further helps teach when compared to the other games in the course.  This tends to rule out many less complex games because they wind up being functionally generic.  For example, if the game system doesn’t help drive home the difference between commanding World War 2 armor divisions and Napoleonic cavalry divisions, or treats the employment of the Roman manipular legion as little different from that of the Macedonian phalanx, then it doesn’t drive the learning we are looking for.

While in past years we tried to sequence the games according to a theme or timeline or the scale of the actions, our test sessions in early April convinced us that we should sequence the games in order of probable complexity to students.  While we began with the list of games we use when teaching the course live, but some of them were not available online, while others we would like to use were.   We used, in order:

  • Battle for Moscow (The 1941 drive on Moscow)
  • Napoleon 1806 (The Jena/Auerstadt campaign)
  • 1944: Race to the Rhine  (The Allied drive across France, with a logistics focus)
  • Drive on Paris  (Schlieffen Plan and Plan XVII in 1914)
  • Strike of the Eagle  (1920 Soviet-Polish War)
  • Triumph & Tragedy  (The struggle for Europe, 1936-1945)
  • Fire in the Lake  (Vietnam War)
  • Nevsky  (Teutonic Knights vs Novogord Rus in 1240-1242)

In each 3 hour class, we began by teaching the game, then we ran it in parallel student groups until there were 45 minutes remaining.  The next 30 minutes or so were spent in discussions, and the final 15 minutes or so were spent introducing the next game in the class.  Between classes, students were assigned material on the history behind the next game, rulebooks and tutorials to learn the next game, and a graded AAR sheet to fill out on the game just played.  The AAR sheet asks for paragraph-length answers to these questions:

  • What was your plan/COA going into the game?
  • How did your plan/COA work?
  • How did the game illustrate the specific contextual elements of the period?
  • Was the game effective in conveying these contextual elements? How or how not?
  • What did you learn about warfare in the game’s time period? What surprised you?
  • What specific lessons can you draw from this game to apply to the future?

We were very pleased with student learning in the class.  Student AAR papers were full of observations on things they had learned about history, about wargaming, and that they could carry forward to future assignments.  As one student wrote in their end-of-course feedback, “more than anything the course provided context and examples that I can use in the future when explaining the challenges at the operational level of warfare”.  Success!  However, we did have to overcome various issues along the way.

We intentionally began with Battle for Moscow, the simplest game, to ensure we could also teach VASSAL in the same class.  This generally paid off, as subsequent games utilized, at most, a few more features of VASSAL each time, and thus the learning curve was well controlled and students seemed comfortable with VASSAL most of the time.  This process worked poorly when we jumped to Tabletopia for Race to the Rhine in class session 3, and then back to VASSAL for session 4 and beyond.  Some of our issues with Tabletopia likely stem from our assumption that its interface was easy enough to need little direct training, and to the ways in which it is different from VASSAL.  Equally, we had a slight uptick in trouble with the VASSAL interface in class session 4, perhaps because the students had been out of touch with it for a time.

We began inviting students to our internal prep sessions once we realized they might be able to attend.  Students who had the time to attend these were normally much better versed in the game than their peers.  We, in turn, had to recall that those unable to attend the optional prep session should be assumed to have a good reason!  We also learned to spread the students who attended the prep sessions across the student groups.  Arranging the student teams ahead of time, and publishing them for students, also helped, as some student teams would strategize ahead of the class.

This course charted the middle ground in the level of technical issues.  All the students were comfortable with technology, but some had poor internet connections or weak computers, including the roughly ten year old laptop mentioned earlier.  This led to those students losing connection to VASSAL or Blackboard.  When using Tabletopia, weaker internet connections and weaker computers completely failed.  Just as we all have learned that internet meetings go better when everybody turns off their video feed, opting for systems, such as VASSAL, that made less intensive use of network and computing power proved better in practice.

Key Takeaways

Online wargaming works, but it is more effort than live, because:           

  1. Test your technology thoroughly and ensure you have support on hand to run it.
  2. Running wargames online will require a higher level of expertise from all of your facilitators, of technology and the games.
  3. Running wargames online will require more preparation from students, both in learning the game and ensuring their technology is ready.

BoardGameGeek (description) and VASSAL (module) links for all the games mentioned:

Play with us, however you roll

You might be sat there thinking, the Derby House Principles look great, but in all honesty our organisation is a bunch of guys and nobody but guys apply to work with us, it would feel hypocritical to sign-up. Here’s a different way to think about it:

By putting out inclusive content—not just the characters and story, but the interface as well—a whole generation of diverse gamers and game-makers will come knocking at your door wanting a peice of the action.

Change begins with making content that says everyone is welcome here.

It’s the simple things, like allowing users to remap the controls in your game, that can make a huge difference

Microsoft’s approach to disability access is really interesting: There are (approximately) 100,000 people in America with an upper limb deficiency. That’s not a commercially viable market. But six million people break their arm every year in the US, putting them temporarily in the same category. And parents are juggling children and laptops every other second in lockdown, putting them situationally in the same category. When you frame it like that, something that allows you to drive Windows and your Xbox one-handed is a mainstream need.

Disability is mismatched human interactions. That’s all.

So here’s a public service announcement ahead of the Connections 2020 games fair:

The MacOS screen-reader can’t get hold of content in Google docs in safari, so all the distributed wargaming I’ve been doing in the pandemic has been with rules and player stats and shared intent slides that I can’t read.

It can’t be that hard, surely? You have a degree and everything!

Modern Armour Wargame mission briefing with the words broken in all the wrong places.
It’s English, I promise. Look harder.

Too easy? How about this:

Instructions for how the game will run, with the words broken in all the wrong places and not sitting neatly on the line.
(and I didn’t even jumble up the p/b/d/q like I usually do with this game…)

Sure, you can pick your way through it eventually, but do you remember anything you just read? How much gameplay will you miss wading through the mud to check a rule here and there? Could you even decipher that text while you have other players talking in your ear on Zoom?

Pop quiz: what’s provided in the slide deck…?

If you are running a distributed game at Connections please consider including a very simple statement on your sign-up sheet:

Please let us know if you have any accessibility needs so we can figure out what will work for you.

Simples.

The personalities of miniature wargame players

Robert Körner, Jana Kammerhoff, and Astrid Schütz (Otto-Friedrich-University of Bamberg) have just published a fascinating article in the Journal of Individual Differences (2020) entitled “Who Commands the Little Soldiers? A Comparison of the Personality Traits of Miniature Wargame Players With Other Gamers and Non-Gamers.” The article is pay-walled, so you will need an individual or institutional subscription to access the full text.

The popularity of miniature wargames (MWGs) has recently been on the rise. We aimed to identify the personality characteristics of people who play MWGs. Whereas the popular media have suspected that fantasy role-playing and war-related games cause antisocial behavior, past research on tabletop role-playing has shown that gamers are creative and empathetic individuals. Previous studies have investigated pen-and-paper tabletop games, which require imagination and cooperation between players. Tabletop MWGs are somewhat different because players compete against each other, and there is a strong focus on war-related actions. Thus, people have voiced the suspicion that players of this type of game may be rather aggressive. In the present study, 250 male MWG players completed questionnaires on the Big Five, authoritarianism, risk-orientation, and motives as well as an intelligence test. The same measures were administered to non-gamers, tabletop role-playing gamers, and first-person shooter gamers.

Their findings? Tabletop wargamers are a lot like other gamers* and don’t fit the anti-social stereotype very well:

In the present study, we analyzed differences in intelligence, risk-orientation, authoritarianism, as well as other motives and personality traits between players of MWGs and comparison samples comprised of people who played other types of games and the general population. When compared with the GP, MWG players reported higher openness, higher extraversion, and lower conscientiousness. The same pattern was found when comparing tabletop RPG players with the GP, suggesting that MWG players and RPG players resemble each other. Both types of gamers also reported more openness than FPS gamers. MWG players and RPG players also reported lower conscientiousness than the GP, which may be surprising as painting little soldiers or familiarizing oneself with complex rule-sets are activities that require exactness and a focus on detail. It is possible that the gamers do not view themselves as conscientious in everyday life, but when they engage in gaming activities, they may be rather thorough. Hence, follow-up studies could compare how gamers describe themselves with respect to their everyday activities and their gaming behavior.

No differences between the groups were found for neuroticism and agreeableness. Thus, gamers cannot be regarded as emotionally unstable or disagreeable

individuals – as some stereotypes claim. With regard to rea- soning ability, all players scored higher than participants from the GP. Results also indicated significant differences with respect to conventionalism, authoritarian submission, and authoritarian aggression such that all three groups of gamers described themselves as less authoritarian than participants from the GP did. Of the groups of gamers, RPG players reported the least authoritarian attitude.

With respect to everyday risk-orientation, MWG players’ self-reports were similar to those of RPG players, and both types of gamers reported less risk-orientation than non- gamers. FPS gamers reported a similar risk-orientation as the GP. Interestingly, MWG (and RPG and FPS) players described themselves as acting in a significantly more risk-oriented way during gaming than in their everyday lives. Apparently, gaming behavior does not transfer to everyday behavior. Alternatively, gaming could actually compensate for everyday behavior (i.e., cautious people might like to take risks in a context where no real danger exists).

Regarding motives, MWG players had higher affiliation values than individuals from the GP and the RPG sample. No differences between MWG players and others were found on the power, achievement, and fear motives. With respect to intimacy motives, MWG players scored higher than RPG players did. Apparently, MWG players appreciate close interpersonal relationships.

To summarize, in line with our second hypothesis, MWG players may be seen as open-minded, empathetic, non authoritarian individuals. The competing hypothesis that described MWG players as war-loving, power-oriented, and irreconcilable was not supported by players’ self- reports.

Further, people will only engage in these games during their leisure time if they experience MWG activities as pleasant. The sample of MWG players was high in openness, intelligence, and affiliation. This suggests that the ludological concept of enjoying a pastime may well describe the background of MWGs. Only people who perceive these complex and sociable games that require strategic thinking as a pleasant pastime will be attracted by these games.

Overall, the stereotypes that gamers are antisocial (DeRenard & Kline, 1990) as claimed by the media from the 1980s and 1990s to the present day (Curran, 2011) were not supported. Instead, the present results fit into the RPG literature that portrays RPG gamers as empathetic and socially skilled (Curran, 2011; Meriläinen, 2012). However, the stereotype of gamers as nerdy and sharp-minded does seem to have a kernel of truth, and because reasoning scores were high in all three samples of gamers. And as reasoning ability is a key predictor of academic and occupational success (Kramer, 2009), MWG players cannot easily be dismissed as acting in a dysfunctional manner.

You’ll notice, however, that all of the subject sample (n=250) is male—underscoring the lack of diversity in hobby wargaming.

The sample group is also German-speaking, leaving open the possibility that their are differences across national gaming communities. Almost one-third of the sample were Warhammer 40K players. While the Warhammer community harbours a significant racist and misogynist subcommunity attracted by the dark dystopian militarism of the 40K game universe, other parts of it are also extremely diverse and open.

In terms of future research, the authors note:

This study provides initial insights into personality differences between MWG players and others. In future investi- gations, it will be fruitful to use experimental or longitudinal designs to draw conclusions about causality and answer questions such as: Can MWGs improve participants’ social skills? Can creativity and intelligence be enhanced by engaging in MWGs? Furthermore, observer ratings or infor- mant reports could be included to provide information beyond self-reports. Another interesting question would be whether personality traits predict certain motives to play MWGs (see Graham & Gosling, 2013). All in all, further psychological and transdisciplinary research in the field of MWGs may help us understand the roles of games and playing in forming psychological attitudes and abilities.

As we showed, MWG players are a distinct sample that has a specific personality pattern. Commanding little soldiers and fighting other gamers with the help of these soldiers seems to be an activity that is preferred by open, unconventional people with a high affiliation motive – and it is even possible that the activity may be suitable for developing social skills such as negotiating. Why not engage in MWGs?

*MWG: miniature wargame(rs) FPS: first-person shooters RPG: role-playing game(rs) GP: general population

“Soviet Military Thought”

Now that we are becoming interested again in the Russian Military, the collection of the “Soviet Military Thought” series of books translated by the US Air Force from Russian might be of interest. I have identified 22 books in the series and can find online texts for all (but two) of those on books.google.com. Some of the PDF versions are badly scanned and although readable by human eye, text search of the files is unreliable.

If you know of additional volumes beyond no 22, or if you have links or access to decent (OCR’d) versions, please respond to this post. Thanks.

I’ll update this list with clean OCR’d versions as I get to them.

  1. The Offensive
  2. Marxism—Leninism on War and Army
  3. Scientific—Technical Progress and the Revolution in Military Affairs
  4. The Basic Principles of Operational Art and Tactics
  5. The Philosophical Heritage of V. I. Lenin and Problems of Contemporary War
  6. Concept, Algorithm, Decision
  7. Military Pedagogy
  8. Military Psychology
  9. Dictionary of Basic Military Terms
  10. Civil Defense
  11. Selected Soviet Military Writings: 1970—1975
  12. The Armed Forces of the Soviet State
  13. The Officer’s Handbook
  14. The People, the Army, the Commander
  15. Long-Range Missile-Equipped
  16. Forecasting in Military Affairs
  17. The Command and Staff of the Soviet Army Air Force in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945
  18. Fundamentals of Tactical Command and Control
  19. The Soviet Armed Forces: A History of Their Organizational Development
  20. The Initial Period of War
  21. Tactics
  22. Camouflage

The kind of thing aspirational juniors will see on bookshelves and in briefcases

One of my aims here at PAXsims is to raise up the voices and experiences of professional gamers outside the “male and pale” majority. So here’s your starter for 10, from the Wavell Room:

If you want to be the best Armed Forces, then the only way to go is Feminist.  If you don’t believe me, there’s stacks of writing out there about the importance of diversity and inclusion to making the best decisions, and being the highest performing team.  And there’s also stacks of writing about the importance of feminist thought and analysis when it comes to conflict and peace. 

This post, however, is not about the necessity of Feminism.  This is about how men in Defence can start to change themselves and lead their conservative, homogeneous organisations into a better, more gender-equal future.

Nick P, So you want to be ‘Feminist AF’? at The Wavell Room

It’s worth reading the whole article, but I’ll pull out this one paragraph, and invite PAXsims readership to take up the challenge:

One small sign can be the sight of (particularly senior men) reading the kinds of books and articles that I recommend below.  It’s commonplace for someone like the General I originally wrote to to be reading a weighty, male-authored tome about strategy or leadership.  It’s the kind of thing aspirational juniors will always see on bookshelves and in briefcases etc. 

I asked him to take Soraya Chemaly’s “Rage Becomes Her” and make it something that he carries around with him, to be read as he goes from meeting to meeting, location to location, in the car, on the train, and that people see him reading and carrying, that he places on the table during meetings along with his notebook and briefing papers etc. 

People will see this, and it will send a sign to women in the room, and to men who are shy of being allies but want to participate, and it will begin conversations. 

Nick P, So you want to be ‘Feminist AF’? at The Wavell Room

h/t Louise Martingale at Dstl

Wargaming from home

The following piece was contributed to PAXsims by Dr. Jeremy Sepinsky, Lead Wargame Designer at CNA. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.


Professional wargaming is a critical tool in support of the safety and security of our nation. The technique is used regularly and often to help senior leaders align priorities, test courses of action, educate civilians and warfighters, and refine decision making. Regardless of the side you fall on the recent debates, we all agree that wargaming is important to the nation, that it needs to be done, and that it needs to be done well. Most serious gaming is done in-person and there is evidence of substantial value in this approach. Title 10 games routinely gather hundreds of participants for a week-long event. The CDC would still consider this unwise. While the defense industrial base is typically exempt from restrictions on gathering, many organizations are simply practicing good stewardship and postponing or cancelling wargames and supporting events. Social distancing efforts also make it hard to engage even in informal face-to-face gaming on a much smaller scale. So what do wargamers and their players do when governments restrict travel and even public gatherings due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, while they wait until normal operations can resume? Other authors have discussed how COVID-19 is impacting military training and exercises, as well as some of the solutions in place to bridge the gap. Here, I’d like to discuss some of the commercial games and wargames that can offer all of us – wargamers, warfighters, and analysts – some professional development while we physically distance ourselves. And perhaps some online games can bridge the physical gap and allow some productive socialization.

Of course, there is no substitute for professional wargames. The commercial games discussed here won’t give you the detailed, immersive, and educational experience that a professional wargame would have. These are, after all, designed for enjoyment, not training or analysis. However, these games can help develop operational and strategic thinking skills, contribute to professional military education by supplementing rigorous study, training, and practice, and help generate ideas to use in designing professional games.

With that in mind, I reached out to many of my professional wargaming colleagues and asked for their suggestions on wargames and board games that can be played either solo or virtually (online or by email). Since planning real military operations from home is typically frowned upon, we focus on commercial wargames that have professional development value for war planners and tacticians.

Electronic Gaming

While playing wargames electronically loses some of the tactile and social parts of the game, playing wargames remotely is certainly not new. Several game engines exist (both free and paid) to help facilitate that play. Many of the games referenced below might be available on these platforms.

VASSAL is a free, open-source application (for Mac OS, Windows, or Linux) that distant (or socially distant) players can use to play digital versions of board wargames against each other, either in real time over the internet or asynchronously by recording moves and exchanging them via email. There are downloadable VASSAL modules for more than a thousand published wargames and other strategy games available, including virtually all of the game releases of very recent years from many of the leading commercial wargame publishers such as MMP and GMT (but at least one of the players must own a copy of the physical game). VASSAL replicates the visual and intellectual experience of playing the boardgames, and even in normal times is a useful way to overcome not only an absence of face-to-face opponents but also the time-and-space challenges of setting up and playing games that are very large or very long. Playing VASSAL games by email can be particularly appealing for studious players who enjoy being able to wrestle with difficult tactical or strategic choices at length without trying the patience of an opponent across the table. (Karl P. Mueller, Political Scientist, RAND Corporation)

Tabletop Simulator (Berserk Games, 2015) – This does exactly what it advertises.  Available on gaming platforms like Steam, Tabletop Simulator (TTS) gives you the tools you need to recreate a multi-player physical game in a virtual environment. Standard game components such as playing cards, dice, chips, and other tokens are readily available to include into your game.  You can also upload your own graphics to create custom pieces, boards, and maps.  The Lua programming language can be used to create scripts to support game mechanics but is by no means necessary.  The built in physics engine lets you treat your game components like physical pieces so you do not have to create scripts to replicate game rules.  The best part of the physics engine though, is that it lets you flip the table when you rage quit. A large variety of boardgames are already programed and available in the game. The focus of this platform (and similarly Board Game Arena) is typically on commercial board games as opposed to wargame, but these can still have substantial value for strategists (Mr. Hyong Lee, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Applied Strategic Learning, National Defense University)

Steam is an online digital game distribution platform, hosting thousands of online games of various genres. Unsurprisingly, wargames are a popular category, which includes titles like the Total War series, Command: Modern OperationsArmor Brigade, and Flashpoint Campaigns. Due to advanced computing, digital wargames can incorporate a wide-range of factors such as weather, terrain, and morale, while maintaining accessible gameplay. Furthermore, by leveraging robust AI programs, digital wargames present increasingly robust and rich challenges, even in solo play. Some staunch traditionalists may disparage digital wargames as graphically appealing, yet substantively lacking. This may be true for some, but it is an unfair characterization for the entire genre. Admittedly, commercial wargames are no substitute for serious, well-researched wargames. However, when used correctly and under the right circumstances, commercial digital wargames can provide utility. For instance, Ben Jensen, a professor at the Marine Corps University, has demonstrated the value of Flashpoint Campaigns in educational wargaming. Likewise, Command: Professional Edition can be found in professional military courses on planning, operations, and wargaming. The appeal of these digital wargames lies in their distributed capability, customizable scenarios, and ease of access. (Sebastian J. Bae, Defense Analyst, RAND Corporation)

Rule the Waves 2 (Naval Warfare Simulations, 2019) – At the other end of the computer gaming spectrum from Command: Modern operations (CMO), in a host of ways, is Rule the Waves 2. It covers the timeframes between 1900 and 1950, so ends where CMO starts and uses an interface and graphics style more out of Microsoft Access than a Maritime Operations Center. But the good news is, if you are a professional Naval analyst, you will probably feel right at home! While it allows you to fight tactical battles from throughout the period, it puts you in the role of not just the Admiral in command of a fleet in a MahanianDecisive Battle, but also that of Fleet Architect. Make technology investment decisions, set engagement doctrine, then test them in Fleet Exercises. Your Government may make demands to build certain ship classes, despite their obsolescence, and events can cause tensions between nations to rise and fall. If you do go to war, you will face the old adage “you fight with the fleet you have, not the one you want”, stretched thin by requirements to deploy forces to areas across the globe. It has a fair learning curve, and is graphically austere, but with some suspension of disbelief it is a terrific sandbox for would be naval technology innovators! (Paul Vebber (https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-vebber-a16b6936)

Manual Gaming

A Distant Plain, 3rd Printing (GMT Games, 2018) – Designed by two prominent and prolific wargame designers, Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train, A Distant Plain is a card-driven game (CDG) counter-insurgency (COIN) wargame. Players must navigate the dangerous and shifting power structures of modern-day Afghanistan. Building on the game engine from Andean Abyss, players must leverage unique capabilities and stratagems to pursue their individual goals. Reflective of the wider COIN series, players must make difficult choices with limited resources in a dynamic strategic environment. Normally accommodating four players, A Distant Plain also provides a solitaire mode where a procedural artificial intelligence, in the form of logic flowcharts, simulates the non-player factions. To those new to the COIN series, the game may seem daunting to learn and master. However, A Distant Plain and the rest of the COIN series provides a vibrant and rich gaming experience, reflected by its widespread commercial following. It is also important to note that GMT Games offers several wargames with solitaire modes, such as Pericles: The Peloponnesian Wars and Empire of the Sun, 3rd Printing. Furthermore, Labyrinth: The War on Terror, a CDG about global Islamic jihad, has an early access version available on Steam(Sebastian J. Bae, Defense Analyst, RAND Corporation)

Agricola (Z-man Games, Inc, 2007) – Not every professional development game needs to be about war. Agricola is a worker placement and resource management Eurogame. The rules are fairly simple, but the strategy is complex. Players are working a medieval family farm, balancing the need to crops, livestock, and other resources. The game has a set number of turns, and, to be competitive, players need to begin optimizing their strategy from the very start. As the game progresses, players are forced to choose between a lot of bad options (including the ability to make other player’s options even worse). This is best for people looking to practice long-term strategic thinking as well as how to balance in-the-moment decisions that may derail their plan. It can be played solo as well as online. (Jeremy Sepinsky, Lead Wargame Designer, CNA Corporation)

Algeria: The War of Independence 1954-1962 (Fiery Dragon Productions, 2006) – This is a grand operational – strategic game of the insurgency-counter insurgency war prosecuted by France against the National Liberation Front (FLN) forces in its colony of Algeria.  Highly abstracted, it focuses on most of the military, economic, intelligence, and information aspects found in this type of conflict.  While the hearts and minds of the Algerian population play a role, of more importance is the sustainment of French popular support as the FLN attempts to manipulate the French willingness to prosecute the war.  The mechanics are sufficiently detailed to permit the examination of several different strategic approaches to both insurgency and counter-insurgency (see Bard O’Neill ‘Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse’).  Algeria is available as a VASSALmodule for remote play. (Mike Ottenberg, Military Operations Research Society Wargame Community of Practice)

Close Action (Clash of Arms Games, Mark Campbell, designer, 1997) – Close Action is a game of tactical naval combat in the Age of Sail (1740-1815).  Each ship in a battle is represented by an individual counter (or ship model if you prefer) and a hex grid is used to regulate movement and combat between ships.  Rules cover ship sailing performance, gunnery combat, boarding actions, and the influence of skill and morale upon combat outcomes. Each player commands one or more ships and secretly plots their moves before each game turn, which represents 200 seconds of real time.  Moves are revealed simultaneously, ships are moved, and then the players direct them where to fire.  The hex grid and the plotted moves make Close Action an ideal game to play by email—players simply send in their moves before each game turn, to a referee or to each other, then resolve moves and direct and conduct gunfire according to the rules.  Ship moves can be tracked and presented to players with photo images or using purpose-designed software (like VASSAL).  Play by email allows players from literally anywhere to play in a game.  Where Close Action really shines, however, is in its command, control, and communication rules, which simulate the signaling limitations of ships from its era.  The rules limit communication between players on a side to messages of a few words each game turn.  Players must write messages before a turn and then deliver them only at the end of the turn, thus causing their information to decay and potentially creating confusion in the minds of their recipients.  If a game is played with one player per ship, which is facilitated by email play, players can experience the confusion (and frustration!) that occurred in historical battles.  In this respect, Close Action can be a valuable tool—even while we’re sheltering in place—for teaching players about the impact of command, control, and communication limitations on tactical combat. (Sean Barnett, Senior Engineer, RAND Corporation)

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! (Academy Games, 2012, 2nd Edition) –  Conflict of Heroes is a historical WWII Eastern European Theater wargame taking place at the squad level.  Its scenarios start out very simple and gradually add complexity to include vehicles, hidden movement, and artillery.  The player must make use of limited command resources to coordinate the movements and actions of the ground units.  While initially designed for two players, single player experiences abound.  As a means of learning basic rules, combat tactics, and game mechanics, a single player can develop and try out strategies on their own for many of the game’s missions.  More importantly, the 2nd Edition is supplemented by a Solo Expansion as well as a random Firefight Generator which allows continual single player experiences against an AI adversary.  The games AI system is based on core principles of agent based modelling and provides a good tactical challenge. A more recent 3rd edition reimplements and simplifies the ruleset, but is thus not directly compatible with the solo expansions.  (Johnathan Proctor, Analyst, Joint Staff)

Dunn-Kempf (John Curry, lulu.com, 2008) – Dunn-Kempf is a professional miniatures wargame that was used to train and educate US Army military officers from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s.  Each alternating turn represents 30 seconds of combat.  Players maneuver single vehicles or stands of infantry representing fire teams on a terrain table where one inch equals 50 meters.  Direct fires, indirect fires, and other systems such as mines are adjudicated using pre-determined combat results tables using dice to represent the random effects of combat.  All elements of the game system are based in the weapons, tactics, techniques, and procedures used during that era.  Although there is no computer assisted version of this game, a play by e-mail MAPEX using PowerPoint and standard military tactical symbols is readily available for our current environment.  (Mike Ottenberg, Military Operations Research Society Wargame Community of Practice)

Enduring Freedom: US Operations in Afghanistan  (Ambush Alley Games, 2011) – Published as Issue #30 of Modern War (July-August 2017) this is a solitaire wargame of the invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Components include a sheet of 176 cardboard counters, a 22” x 34” map sheet and a 16-page rulebook. The player controls Coalition forces including brigades, battalions, FOBs, and air strikes (US, NATO, and the Northern Alliance). The game system controls opposing Islamist units and leaders  (Al Qaeda, Taliban, and Pakistani volunteers). The map is divided into regions that contain desert or mountain terrain, major cities, “Strongholds,” “Jihadi Centers” and airbases. The game objective is for the Coalition to destroy Al Qaeda and establish a stable Afghan government. The game covers October 2001 (initial US invasion) to March 2002 (conclusion of Operation Anaconda).  The complex sequence of play is organized according to doctrinal staff functions:  J-1 (Mobilization and Refit), J-2 (Information operations and intelligence), J-3 (Operations), J-4 (Sustainment), and J-5 (Civil-Military). This is a good example of solitaire wargame design for a contemporary joint Operational-level conflict at a fairly abstract level. (Michael Markowitz, Senior Research Specialist, CNA)

Foreign Legion Paratrooper (Decision Game, 2020) – This solitaire wargame is published as Issue #46 of Modern War (March – April 2020). Components include a sheet of 176 cardboard counters, a 22” x 34” map sheet and a 16-page rulebook. The player faces randomly generated crisis contemporary and near-future interventions in Africa and the Middle East, deploying platoon-sized ground and air units from a strategic display to mission maps (variously scaled at 500 meters to 5 km per hex) in desert, jungle, urban, mountain or oilfield terrain. A turn represents anything from 12 hours to a week.  A series of missions can be linked into an extended campaign game.  Possible missions include hostage rescue, counter terrorist operations, capture of high-value targets, and WMD interdiction, against randomly generated opposing forces.  The game system emphasizes planning and logistics, (factors often neglected in hobby wargames) using expenditure of “operations points” for various game functions. The game provides useful insight into the combat capabilities and limitations of modern French forces.  (Michael Markowitz, Senior Research Specialist, CNA)

Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations (Dan Verssen Games (DVG), 2010) – The entire library of DVG single player wargames provides isolated tabletop tacticians and strategists alike with a series of options spanning history.  Hornet Leader focuses on modern carrier air combat spanning from the first Gulf War in 1992 to modern day Syria. Players commit to an air campaign at both the squadron and flight tactical levels.  At the squadron level, players must select and manage a roster of aircrew and assets across multiple missions while selecting and prosecuting targets.  Since no plan survives contact, each mission includes random events that can change the adversary order of battle, impact available tactics and resources, or (rarely) provide an advantage to the player.  The ruleset is simple enough for beginners, but different campaign settings and associated resource limitations will provide difficult decision challenges for experts as well.  Additional titles that focus on Army and Air Force aviation include Thunderbolt Apache Leader and Phantom Leader respectively, which use similar setups and rulesets. (Johnathan Proctor, Analyst, Joint Staff)

Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game (Fantasy Flight Games, 2017) – Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) combines the decision-making in the face of uncertainty inherent in card games with a wargame set in a magical version of the Sengoku Period of Japanese  history. Players build and pilot decks from one of seven clans, each with a different theme. Some clans seek to quickly overrun opponents and break provinces militarily while others focus on controlling the political arena and slowly wearing down the honor of the opponent. Most games take roughly an hour to play. During gameplay, players must balance their resources across multiple phases; these decisions include playing more characters or playing specific actions. As in many card games, some of the information is revealed on the board to all players while other information is secretly held in each player’s hand. This game can be played online and is recommend for players who enjoy games with partial information and tradeoffs that effect future turns. (Justin Peachey, Research Scientist, CNA Corporation)

Napoleon, the Waterloo Campaign (4th edition Columbia Games, 2013) – This is a relatively uncomplicated wargame but one that employs wooden blocks rather than cardboard counters to represent the military units involved in the campaign. This physical system design easily introduces uncertainty and deception into play because the opposing players cannot see the real identity of opposing units until they engage in combat. Furthermore, the blocks allow easy implementation of a step-reduction system, allowing units to become attrited in combat while preventing the opponent from knowing which units have been damaged the most. The third major element of the game system is the use of point-to-point movement. Forces move between locations connected by roads and the capacity of the roads constrains how many units you can move from one town to another during a turn. This game is one of a handful of truly revolutionary designs, created in 1972 and spawning and entirely new genre of block games. It has much to teach professional wargamers. The mechanisms and components of the game are the most obvious innovations but there is far more to learn here. Perhaps most important lesson is the fundamental change in player perspective that the reduced information creates. Although not a complete “fog of war,” it is at least misty out there. But the game is also an object lesson in revolutionary innovation. It took the old paradigm of cardboard counters openly displayed on a hex grid and completely changed the model. The block-game model is of great interest, even today, for those trying to find a balance between the perceived (though often overstated) unreality of open, Igo-Hugo (i.e., “I go, then you go”) game systems and the perceived (though often questionable) realism of “double-blind” and simultaneous games. Not to mention the fundamental synthetic experience it creates by challenging players to devise a winning strategic approach and translate it into an effective operational plan. Napoleon can be played easily in person with or without a referee to create even more fog of war, or by using email- or text-based play using a referee to manage things. Unfortunately, there appear to be no dedicated resources for automated online play. (Peter Perla, Principal Research Scientist, CNA Corporation)

Pandemic (Z-man Games, Inc, 2008) – Pandemic is a family-friendly cooperative game where players together try to cure four different diseases while simultaneously controlling outbreaks around the world. It can serve as a very basic introduction to cooperative game mechanics and the types of conversations (and arguments) that a cooperative game may generate. While the topic is particularly timely in the age of COVID-19, the decisions have little bearing on how countries and international actors would deal with a real-life pandemic. Rigid rule-based games such as this have explicit connections between player actions and game effects, whereas serious games often serve as a mechanism to prompt real-world actors to figure out who needs to coordinate and when. That said, it is fun to play, and can certainly be considered part of your research into pandemic gaming. Pandemic may be also be played solo or on the iPhone/iPad. (Yuna Huh Wong, Policy Research, RAND Corporation)

Single Player Games – The ranks of purely or primarily solitaire board wargames that merit the attention of serious students of military affairs have grown remarkably in the past 15 years—John H. Butterfield alone has produced more than half a dozen during that time. Among the least conventional recent solitaire wargames, Brien J. Miller’s Silent War is an innovative and attractively-rendered simulation of the Allied submarine campaign against Japan. It captures WWII’s evolving and attritional nature in a level of detail that some players find highly immersive and others tedious, as the solo Allied player tries to sink millions of tons of shipping tracked in thousand-ton increments. (The sequel, Steel Wolves, does the same for the even larger WWII U-boat war against Britain.) The Fields of Fire games, by game designer and career U.S. Marine officer Ben Hull, simulate infantry combat at the company level from 1944 to Vietnam.  Fields of Fire uses a unique card-based system that illuminates things about small-unit combat that no other tactical boardgame has done, and has made some players fall out of love with better-known games that treat the topic more cinematically. Both series reward spending substantial time exploring them—one takes a long time to play and the other has rules that are challenging to master—so they might be just right for a period of prolonged social isolation. (Karl P. Mueller, Political Scientist, RAND Corporation)

Space Alert (Czech Games Edition, 2008)  – Decision-making under conditions of time constraint and uncertainty, while fostering teamwork, quick communication, and mental agility have become stock phrases associated with professional wargaming. Investment in professional wargaming centers that can put large groups through their paces in realistic scenarios developing these skills are in great demand and offer our warfighters crucial opportunities to hone those skills. But if you are a small group, sequestered from such facilities, or not lucky enough to get invites at all, fear not! You can get a taste of what those events are like in microcosm with this little gem of a game. Using Sci Fi tropes similar to computer games like Starship Artemis, players form a team in the roles of starship crewmen. They must face challenges from attacking aliens to defend the ship, and inevitably, repair it when damaged. The hook that draws you into the game is a set of 10 min audio files. These can be played on a CD or downloaded for your phone – the scripts are available to be read aloud if you need to save your tech for the real-world calamity! Between these encounters, you “jump to hyperspace” and can reset some aspects of the game to prepare for the next time you drop out into a new situation. It takes a few playings to get the mechanics down, but when players get in the flow of the game, its easy to picture yourself in a much higher stakes situation than a board game on your conference or dining room table. (Paul Vebber (https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-vebber-a16b6936)

Star Wars Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2016) – Rebellion is an epic game of hide-and-seek set in the Star Wars universe while fully incorporating the DIME (Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic).  Diplomatic: Both Rebels and Imperials must convince unaligned systems to join their cause.  Informational: The Rebels have a hidden base, which the Empire is trying to find.  Military: Like most games with Star Wars, there is an emphasis on the war: the game includes both land- and ship-based combat.  Economic: To continue fighting (i.e., building more units, possibly replacing lost ones) both sides have to increase their production capabilities weighed against their ability to produce those units in a useful, timely fashion.  Additionally, the Empire has its own set on monstrous projects (e.g., the Death Star) which it must separately balance.  All of this is within a move-economy determined by the number of leaders each side has (and how effectively the player uses them).  Rebellion pits two players (or two teams) against in each other in asymmetric play ranging from the Strategic to Tactical, while fully incorporating DIME. (Nolan Noble, Research Data Scientist, CNA Corporation)

The Waterloo Campaign, 1815 (C3i Magazine, 2019) – This is a recent edition to the canon (or is that cannon?) of Waterloo games. While its mechanisms are relatively uncomplicated, so too are those of chess. Indeed, in many ways the game plays in a very chesslike way. As with chess, this is a two-sided, open-information contest in which the players alternate moving one of their small number of pieces—around 20 for each side—until one or both players choose to stop. One of the unique aspects of play is that pieces are not limited to a single movement or attack each half-day game turn, but rather can be pushed as far as the player may wish until coming into close contact with the enemy. It is a system based on the same design-production team’s earlier Gettysburg game. The biggest differences from that earlier game have to do with implementing the different realities of Napoleonic warfare when compared to the U.S. Civil War. Primary among these are the operational and battlefield roles of cavalry and the effects of elite units such as Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, as well as the Emperor’s penchant for massing a Grand Battery of Artillery to pound his opponent’s line. Unlike the Columbia version of the campaign, the players of The Waterloo Campaign, 1815 can see all the opposing forces on a standard hexagon map but maneuvering those forces is tricky because units must slow down as they approach the enemy and become fixed in place if they intend to attack them. It is a different view of strategy and an unusual form of game play. Its new ideas—and new implementation of old ideas—offer the professional wargamer both new tools and fresh inspiration. The small number of playing pieces belies the depth of game play. Although a short playing time of 60 to 90 minutes is claimed by the designer, my experience is that careful players, using chess-like care, can extend the duration to twice that. As of this writing there appear to be no electronic versions of the game available. However, the small number of pieces and alternating action make it an easy game to play using email or text chat. (Peter Perla, Principal Research Scientist, CNA Corporation)

Twilight Imperium (Fantasy Flight Games, 2017) – Twilight Imperium is a complex wargame. The rules are very involved and a game can take 8 or more hours with the maximum number of players. Each player controls one of seventeen different unique factions. While all factions use the same set of units, each faction may use them differently. The game board varies each playthrough as players build the galaxy they are conquering during the first phase of play. During the main portion of the game, all factions compete to achieve ten victory points. The first player to do so wins the game. Gameplay often involves tradeoffs between attacking other players to gain more territory, building more units to attack and defend territory already owned, and taking actions to gain victory points. This game is recommended for people who want to experience the role of setting and implementing a grand strategy and altering said strategy in the event of contact with an enemy. It can be played online, but not solo. (Justin Peachey, Research Scientist, CNA Corporation)

WotR: Gordon, Joyner and Benitez on “Competitive wargaming in a pandemic”

At War on the Rocks, Thomas J. Gordon IV, James Joyner, and Jorge Benitez address “May Madness: Competitive Wargaming In A Pandemic.”

What starts with the enemy sinking three of your amphibious assault ships, and ends with a toddler interrupting the outbrief to a three-star general? A successful wargame in the age of COVID-19.

When the Marine Corps Command and Staff College was forced to shift from in-person instruction to a distance-learning model in response to the outbreak, the faculty and staff were confident that we could make our seminars work. We were not so sanguine about the execution of our capstone exercise, Pacific Challenge X. The scale and complexity of running a 250-odd person wargame, remotely, seemed daunting, indeed.

The results exceeded even our highest expectations. What was thought to be a threat to execution turned out to be an incredible opportunity. The distributed virtual medium actually increased participation from a host of different agencies and stakeholders, who otherwise would not have been able to support the event. And the natural friction created by the distributed online format, to our pleasant surprise, increased realism.

Given the realization that disaggregation is not only possible but, in many ways, better, future exercises will capitalize on the insights of this event.

The article makes several interesting points, including this one:

The natural friction created by the distributed online format, to our pleasant surprise, increased realism. Students playing the role of headquarters staff officers could not simply walk next door to discuss targeting or collection with colleagues. The framework forced the students to communicate via various digital media to collaborate and produce products.

I made much the same point to a major humanitarian organization recently, in a discussion on how to shift some of their simulation-based training to a distributed, online environment.

McGrady: Pipelines, chokepoints, and what the heck are we doing?

The following article was written for PAXsims by ED McGrady. Dr. McGrady spent over 30 years at CNA where he built and directed teams on wargaming and other defense topics. He is currently a Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and Principal at Monks Hood Media LLC.


There has been some recent discussion within the community about how to move people from “not a game designer/controller” to “professional (paid) game designer/controller” in an effective, efficient, and inclusive way.  As someone who once upon a time had the ability to hire, mentor, and promote game designers (and analysts) I thought I’d weigh in a bit on this issue.  Since I now run classes on wargame design for the Military Operations Research Society I still have some stake in the problem.  

I’d like to talk about two questions:  how do people transition from “not game designer/controller” to “professional game designer/controller?” Why is it so darn hard to make the transition?  What would I say to someone looking to become the next Peter Perla?  (Other than “Oh, my!”)  I’d also like to talk about and “what, exactly, are we doing with all this education on wargaming?”  And are our classes building the next cadre of game designers, or are they building better consumers of games?   Or a little of the first and a lot of the second?

First of all, as usual, let’s play the definitions game.  I’m talking about games that investigate or explore important and complex issues in a professional context.  These games involve players who are familiar with the profession and context of the game and are often doing something that resembles the job they have outside of the game.  I do not mean games for education, training, or entertainment, or even games that address broad policy or conceptual subjects.  Specifically, I’m talking about detailed, technical, games, whether they involve military units, disaster response, law enforcement, or disease response.  For military operations we’d call these “force-on-force” games but the forces don’t have to be military units – figuring out how to respond to a pandemic can be just as challenging.  These are the games that involve the most technical detail to build, and the ones that people are coincidentally willing to pay the most for.  Note that I said “technical detail” as policy games can be just as difficult to build, requiring the designer to often extrapolate knowledge that no one, including the intelligence community, has.  

Because of this when hiring I gravitate toward people with technical degrees.  When you’re running a game and someone turns to you and says “I’m using an AI-enhanced, spread-spectrum, wideband, emitter/receiver to manage the EM spectrum of the warhead” you cannot stare blankly at the person or guess what the impact will be.  Even if you had never heard of it before.  You have to have the technical prowess and engineering knowledge to be able to understand the technology and make a split second assessment that someone from the program office will buy into.  Or at least meet them halfway in a conversation.  

The nature of modern joint warfare requires a baseline level of experience with science and technology.  That often comes from experience in the military.  But with technology and systems moving quickly military experience alone can be inadequate to assess things we don’t understand.    Without a mathematical and scientific background, it can be difficult to imagine scenario details and extrapolate outcomes in games of exploration.  It’s not that it is impossible to do it, it is just harder when you don’t have the scientific or engineering background.  

That means the first hurdle to becoming a professional game designer is having the technical chops to manage the kind of systems that we use in modern warfare (and disaster response and disease response and cyber response: the list could go on).   You can get that from experience, but mostly you get it from having a technical degree in science or engineering.  

It’s easier for me to teach someone with a technical degree how to design games, and how the military works, than for me to teach a game designer or military professional science or engineering.  For professionals with degrees in the liberal arts who want to be game designers – there are ways to make it work – but I can’t have only philosophers and political scientists on my team (I’ve had both working for me).

So that is the first hurdle.  You have to be familiar with engineering or science.  You have to be able to do good operations analysis because a lot of game design and control involves operations analysis.

You also have to understand how the military, and organizations, work.  This requires, in my opinion, no small amount of cynicism and experience.  Games are about people, and about organizations.  How the 3 doesn’t get along with the 5, how the CDC ignores HHS, and how everybody screws up the public information message.   Where I used to work we’d solve this problem by sticking a PhD with a physics degree out on an aircraft carrier for a year or so.  Problem solved.  They came back with a lot of appreciation for how the military works, and how staffs and complex organizations try to get things done despite all the people who work there.

I can’t have a game designer who doesn’t know the subject area in enough detail to build in the tricks and complexities of real life, but I also need someone with enough technical chops to stand up to the O-6 who has flown the aircraft all his career.  

So that’s another hurdle.  

Then there is the small, and really tertiary, problem of knowing how to design games.  I can probably teach you that if you fit all of the above criteria.  

But you have to be interested.  

That, frankly, is a huge challenge.  People who are good analysts and have knowledge of the subject area have lots of potential opportunities.  Watching me do the same force on force scenarios over and over again while getting fussed by the players is not necessarily an attractive advertisement for a long-haul career in gaming.  You have to be dedicated, which is something that hobby gamers have in abundance.     

Hobby gamers’ role in professional games also raises another issue: some groups not traditionally associated with hobby gaming can feel unwelcome due to hobby gaming’s culture.  That is not appropriate in a professional environment but it does happen.  In my opinion some of the fault lies in the blending of the hobby culture, which can be quite misogynistic, with the profession.  If you don’t believe me look around the next time you are at Con and note all of the magazine game book covers with buxom women on the front, or the “joke” minis of the same.  It’s a bit awkward and a lot embarrassing.  I tend to think we need to work on it by distancing ourselves from that culture, but that is another essay.  

But this is where we lose a lot of our best candidates:  the field is not that exciting once you get in the trenches.  It’s a lot of slogging through sponsor’s bureaucracies, same scenarios, and endless arguments about systems.  And pitching for new funding.  You can’t run a game unless someone pays for it.  But if you are a hobby gamer this is your life’s dream and all the nonsense is merely the pain that lets you appreciate the joy of your job.    

Unfortunately for hobby wargamers there is a fourth hurdle.  You have to actually know how to behave yourself in a modern, high-speed, progressive, organization (see my remark about Cons).  That can be a bit of a problem.  Organizations like to screen out the difficult and challenging during the interview process.  That screening works pretty well.

The upshot is that it’s really hard to hire a game designer/controller, and you are almost better off building them yourself instead of trying to hire one from outside your organization.  (But wait, you say, “I’m a hip hobby designer who majored in operations research twenty years ago.” kbye.)

The good news is that you really don’t need a heck of a lot of top-level designers.  You certainly need analysts and support personnel, but the amount of business probably supports one or two top level designers per FFRDC, and one or two per major staff element within the military.  That’s not a lot of people.  

And once they get established designers don’t tend to die very quickly (despite their lifestyle choices) and don’t tend to leave because – “I’m a freaking game designer why would I ever leave that job?”  (Other than the constant travel, need to work hard for funding, and dealing with all the unrelated organizational issues you have to deal with, like hiring people.)  This means that the pipeline is narrow, and long, which is even more discouraging to that new, highly educated, smart, and marketable analyst I’ve just hired to do wargaming.  

So, “why are we doing all these classes on designing professional games?”  Let’s ignore the obvious answer that staffs think if they train a couple of guys on staff they will be able to avoid the rather expensive cost of paying contractors or FFRDC’s to do it for them.  Or the pain of getting their commander to task another over-tasked, wargame-providing, command to do it.  Instead I’d say that we are not actually building a lot of high-speed game designers in our classes.  Rather we are teaching people to:

  • Be good consumers of games.
  • Be better players in games.
  • Be better sponsors and funders of games.

We do this by telling people about the basics of game design, and, I believe more importantly, helping people understand what games are and are not.  For designers that take our classes we can pass on pointers and tricks that we have learned from years of experience: but I don’t believe that in one or two weeks we can build a professional game designer that can hold their own against a crowd of unruly O-6’s.  Our classes may be a stepping off point for a long period of apprenticeship and learning to be a game designer.  But for the vast majority of people it will be a (hopefully) pleasant introduction to the things they should ask, task, and review when they encounter a game in their day jobs.  

Now I have outlined a somewhat unhappy and difficult path into game design.  It is one path and based on my experiences doing complex games for demanding sponsors.  There are other routes you can take, not the least of which is that you simply declare yourself a game designer and do what the last guy in the job did.  But I’m talking about building people who will move the field forward, will bring in considerable funding for their organization around gaming, and will build a cadre of new analysts who are capable of, and enjoy, doing gaming.  Analysts that will become insightful, creative, and critical game designers.  That is a narrow path which, unfortunately, can be quite discouraging.  

ED McGrady

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