PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and gaming ideas

Looking at social media

Some thoughts on simulating social media from Tim Price, international man of mystery.


I recently wrote a review of Hostage Negotiator by A.J. Porfirio from Ran Ryder Games and speculated that it might be a useful point to start a discussion on a possible model for social media influence.

There is an understandable amount of interest in government and the military about the effect of social media, and a number of large multi-national defence companies that offer expensive products that propose to use “AI and machine learning” to generate synthetic social medial feeds to allow training to take place.

The only demo that I have seen involved chat-bots degenerating into the inevitable repetitious trolling from a bank of comments scraped from Russian fake social media accounts. It was utterly unconvincing and, when I put the question to Paul Rimmer, the Deputy Director of the UK’s Defence Intelligence organisation at a recent talk he gave in Oxford, he chuckled and said that if “I had £1 for every company that said AI and machine learning was going to solve my problems, I’d be very rich and wouldn’t be talking to you now…”.

My personal view is that if we can’t get Alexa, Siri or Cortana to lose their temper, then attempting to mimic social media through AI is a waste of time – after all, it is the manipulation of emotion and deeply held beliefs that create the effects people are trying to achieve.

Current training consists of scripted “social media” injects into events that are either trivial “box-ticking” exercises or at best short-term interventions that are deliberately limited in their effects so as to avoid upsetting things too much. It is necessary to have a proper discussion about the subject and avoid the rush to buy “shiny toys” simply because they have the words “social media, AI and machine learning” in the advertising brochure. There is a real danger that “social media” is the new “cyber” in the short attention span of some senior officers…

The quote from F.W. Lanchester is appropriate here ” “Simple models that provide useful insights are often to be preferred to models that get so close to the real world that the mysteries they intend to unravel are repeated in the model and remain mysteries.” (The Lanchester Legacy, Volume III, Chapter 9). Even if AI and machine learning were able to replicate social media feeds, their inability to explain why actions succeed or fail mean that they are still unlikely to be useful for training.

We should construct a simple manual model for social media, that can provide a relevant degree of help or harm to a “normal” military training game.  Preferably something stand-alone and scenario agnostic, that can be adapted to the circumstances.

There are some fundamental questions that we need to answer:

  • What measurable effects does social media have? (Brexit? Trump? ALS Research?)
  • What actions cause effects in social media? (Russian Bots? Policy speeches? Cat Memes?)
  • What actions can the Players take to affect social media? (Hire Cambridge Analytica? Bribe the Russians? Both?)

Hostage Negotiator, at it’s core, is a game about your interactions with a hostage taker. If things go badly, he gets more angry until he starts killing hostages, and if things go well he becomes more relaxed until he starts releasing hostages unharmed. As a player you have different gambits you can try, each with their own risk/reward outcomes and probabilities. You seek to calm the hostage taker down and build trust, enabling you to get access to more advanced gambits giving you a wider choice of actions. Each turn there are cards representing the passage of time and the effect this has on the hostage taker (usually making him more frustrated and angrier).

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Assuming we take the track from Hostage Negotiator to represent the aggregated sentiment analysis directed to the players organisation and actions, we can look at a “sentiment tracker” below.

The assumptions are (for the moment) that sentiment in the green areas represent general support for the player (providing some advantage such as intelligence, warning of attack, donations to the cause, etc); while sentiment in the red areas represent the opposite (providing disadvantages for the player such as false reports, no warnings, and support for opposition groups). When the marker in in the “S” zone this represents significant Support for the player and in the “T” zone represents support for protests, violent clashes and Terrorism against the player, both of which would translate into concrete independent actions in the real world.

In addition, it is assumed that as the situation reaches the extremes of the tracker, it become correspondingly easier or harder to influence sentiment (represented by additional dice in the green zone and fewer dice in the red zone).

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The “Political Freedom Tracker” represents the degree of political support within the player’s organisation, so higher levels will provide access to more extreme (and possibly riskier) options expressed in the Social Media Action Cards.

The game starts with some negative event that the player is seeking to respond to. If they do nothing, the situation is likely to get worse (the equivalent of the “Terror” cards in the Hostage Negotiator game). The simplest way of doing this is by a “Sentiment Roll”, where they roll 1D6 and if the score is equal to or higher than the current sentiment, it gets worse by a point.

The player response can consist of one of several options, from the usual platitudes (“thoughts and prayers”) through stronger alternatives, such as “heartfelt denouncement by the Head of State”, to concrete action such as “legislative changes” or “direct action” by the police and military. Each option has a risk/reward matrix with high scores being beneficial and low scores representing failure, public anger, and a cost in “political freedom” to carry out.

The dice mechanism from Hostage Negotiator is to have a score of 5 or 6 on each dice as a success, a 3 or less being nothing, and a score of 4 requiring an investment of additional resources (reducing the players options in later turns). So, a roll of a 5 and 6 on 2D6 represent two successes; a roll of a 3 and a 6, one success and a roll or a 1 and a 3 represents failure.

An example card is: “Thoughts and Prayers”, where two successes gains the player +2 Political Freedom points (perhaps the speech was heartfelt and actual tears were caught on camera), a single success +1, and a failure triggers an additional Sentiment Roll because of the backlash. The card itself costs 0 Political Freedom Points.

Other example of 0 cost cards would be “internal enquiry”, “policy speech” or “divert attention elsewhere”. A “public enquiry” or “appoint a Task Force”, might have a cost of 1 or 2 Political Freedom points, but something such as a “Constitutional Amendment” would need at least 8 points.

Of course, the actions have to be appropriate to the level in which the game is set, be it nation state, military operation or local village council elections.

The player would start with a hand of 0 Political Freedom cost Social Media Action Cards and would attempt to defuse the situation with the usual political actions and, at the same time, build up support for riskier actions with a much greater direct effect if they succeed.

So – what next? This topic needs a wider discussion in a much broader audience than I currently have access to. Even a short examination of the subject reveals that this is difficult to model (which comes as no surprise whatsoever), so it will require a determined effort and imagination. Any suggestions would be very gratefully received.

Tim Price

MORS: Validity and utility of wargaming

 

Stephen Downes-Martin (organizer and chair of Working Group 2 at the October 2017 Military Operations Research Society special meeting on wargaming) has passed on to PAXsims the group’s extensive (173 page) report on the Validity and Utility of Wargaming  (pdf). It is an outstanding piece of work, and should be essential reading for anyone working in the field. I’ll certainly be assigning it as required reading in my small conflict simulation design seminar next term.MORS Wargaming Meeting 2017 Working Group 2 Final Report 20171208 (dragged).jpg

In part because of the structure of the MORS working groups, the report tends to devote more attention to game design and execution than it does to game analysis and interpretation. One of the interesting issues to arise out of the DIRE STRAITS experiment in September, however, was that different groups of analysts can both assess the validity/utility of a game differently, and draw different sets of lessons from the same wargame event.
Building on the excellent work of Stephen and his WG2 team, this is a challenge that I hope to explore more fully at the Connections US wargaming conference in July 2018—conditional, of course, on acceptance of my presentation proposal!

Game design challenges in building a megagame simulation of the Iran-Iraq War

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 This discussion of the recent Undeniable Victory megagame is provided by Ben Moores. Ben is a Senior Analyst at IHSMarkit Janes information group responsible for tracking and forecasting military requirements with an expertise in global defence industry, military exports and regional security. He is a sought after defence media commentator and has a BA and MA in War Studies and Defence Analysis respectively.


 

Undeniable Victory was a recently-run 70 player megagame that explored the military, political and international elements of the Iran-Iraq war over the course of a full day. This article will look at the design considerations and challenges of making a game about a relatively obscure, prolonged, multi-theatre conflict driven by domestic political conflicts and dominated by static warfare.

The base game structure was two teams broken into three core functions and three individual factions. The first function was the council game, the players representing the inner circle of the supreme leader. The second was the HQ game in which players would define strategy for each of their areas of operation. The third function was the operational level wargame. The core game design challenge was to ensure that decision at any one level had a meaningful repercussion at another level. This meant linking together a series of different mechanics and player structures.

This article is going to examine the following challenges and design considerations:

  • Relating Council mechanics to a wider game
  • Making a factional system relevant
  • Integrating domestic politics and morale
  • Building a foreign affairs model
  • Scaling a procurement model
  • Scoping out HQ backseat driving
  • Providing operational decisions in a static military environment
  • Restricting intelligence for improved decision making process plausibility
  • Implementing the evolution of military doctrine and capability
  • Connecting an air model to a wider game
  • Building a naval game for any eventuality
  • Sources and material considerations
  • Post game analysis
  • What happened on the day

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Supreme Leader’s Henchmen: Relating Council Mechanics to a Wider Game

The first challenge was how to represent an imperfect political system led by a leader whose personal goals don’t always match the team goals. The solution was to implement a “Hitlers henchman” structure. This is a game in which the leader is played by control and the team have a sub game to influence the leader to adopt their particular idea via set agenda tokens. The leader gave top level advice and guidance but was quite happy for the various players to get on with their ministerial roles. Each minister role had a “station”, a mechanic that allowed them to make actual decisions.

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Rather than having players  try to convince the control played supreme leader to adopt their ideas the agenda token system allowed some debate backed up with a mechanical structure. Agendas  allowed council players to overrule others, adjust war goals and strategy, replace other players and change the structure of government. This was effectively determined by a bluffing card play mechanic, in which the factions had to figure out how to allocate their hand of cards to which agenda in order to achieve their goals and block others.

Factional Drivers: Making a Factional System Relevant

Another significant challenge was representing the internal politics and the significant changes that occurred during the war. The Tikriti faction replaced the Ba’ath structure in Iraq and the Conservatives pushed  out the other ideological wings in Iran. The solution was to group all players into one of three team factions each representing the various political wings of each team. The factions could attempt to change the type of government, control the government branches and change the players within those elements. Furthermore the military structure was also split between various military types; such as the Regular, Popular and Republican Guard for Iraq. Council and HQ players could try to back their particular military wing and ensure that it got the best reinforcements and wasn’t held responsible for battlefield failings. This created significant pressure on the operational level players throughout the day and led to a series of tensions and imperfect strategic decisions that occasionally led to players or a policy being changed.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman.

Who Do We Blame This Time? Integrating Domestic Politics and Morale

In both Iran and Iraq there were significant domestic challenges during the era with a number of political groups forming to oppose both sides. Representing this with players or control would have been difficult. Many of these groups would never be able to find common discussion ground with the radical government structures and were too different to fit into the core game structure. The approach I took was to abstract this by having the interior minister choose a major domestic faction (Kurds, political minorities or economic elites) to blame every year, adding resentment chips that could eventually spill over into an incident. Players could reduce the chances of an incident by allocating resources to alleviate the pressure or instead allocate chips to the opposing team to to increase the pressure on them. Each of the domestic factions would have to pass a test at the end of each turn to see if there had been a major incident by rolling a number greater than the resentment chip number. These incidents could either lead to Kurdish forces appearing on the operational level map, Political minorities disrupting various parts of the game by random card draw and economic elites would reduce the long term economic income.

The only alternative to placing domestic resentment chips was to galvanize the country in a “Grand Offensive”, publically announcing an enemy target that they would take and hold or suffer morale damage.

No One Likes Us And We Don’t Care: Building a Foreign Affairs Model

The challenge for foreign powers with a stake in the war was that there wasn’t enough of a game for players to play the various other countries that were associated with the war without seriously increasing the scope of an already complicated game. It was decided that external countries would be played by dedicated control; we were fortunate in that we had a number of regional and subject matter experts who were available to support this. I had considered running a parallel club level discussion game covering all the other countries to provide material and a decision tree but recent publications had closely examined the international considerations and provided in-depth material to draw from.

Foreign relations were tracked by a chart that showed the relative relations for both Iran and Iraq with each of the nations the game tracked. A significant design decision was selecting the countries. Firstly all the major potential arms suppliers with an international interest in the region were represented and divided into two groups; imperialists (USA, USSR) and colonialists (UK, France, Italy and Germany). Then the immediate regional countries with a direct interest in the conflict were represented and grouped together (Syria, Saudi, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Turkey). Finally, Israel was also included.

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The status of each relationship gave a particular benefit or disadvantage. For example; Turkish relations impacted Kurdish stability, USSR could supply equipment and Saudi Arabia could lend money. Furthermore relative relations with each group allowed both Iran and Iraq to claim leadership in opposing Imperialism, Colonialism, Zionism and wider regional support which gave a benefit to domestic morale. The mechanic was that there was a trade-off between morale and various political advantages/disadvantages and arms procurement.

Having control generate each and every country relationship wasn’t possible due to time, player and information pressures. Instead approximately 80 pre-prepared events were introduced into the council game with various optional responses that impacted relations, morale and domestic resentment. Whilst these were resolved by the council teams on an annual basis the plan was that the foreign affairs control would interject as the narrative evolved. So there was a structure from which emerging narratives would emerge that the foreign control could handle in more depth such as the hostage crisis, arms deals with Israel or Lebanon complexities.

 Drinking the Cup of Poison: End Game Considerations

The end game was challenging as planning for the unknown in a particularly mechanical fashion wasn’t possible. Therefore the driver for peace was a collapse in domestic morale. As the game progressed the oil price fell dramatically which creates a guns versus butter decision. Once one team’s morale hit rock bottom they could suffer desertions, reach accommodation with the enemy or appeal for international intervention to end the conflict. Using the metrics we had of morale, international relations and the military situation we were able to use experienced control facilitators to start to place pressure on the teams to bring the conflict to a ceasefire. It wasn’t possible to fully explore a negotiated settlement as it would have included only a  small number of players.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman.

Arms Dealers Paradise: Scaling a Procurement Model

The challenge for procurement was capturing a level of arms sourcing granularity that interfaced with the operational level game but was simple enough to keep track of with limited control to oversee it. The game had to be able to capture procurement and the impact that foreign policy had on this. Whilst radical foreign policy led to increased domestic morale it increasingly cut players off from advanced arms supplies and, crucially, spare parts. Advanced weapons and specialist capabilities could only be acquired from Europe, USA or the USSR. As relations degraded countries would be reluctant to sell arms and then increasingly spare parts for existing weapons degrading their capability further.  China and North Korea would sell to either country regardless of the political situation and, although their equipment tended to be of very poor quality, this meant that neither team was ever entirely cut off from arms supply.

Another problem I initially had was trying to connect the right amount of money for procurement. To make the council financial game manageable within the time limits I made the cubes USD3 billion a piece but this was a large sum for the procurement system so they broke that money down into units of USD100 million which worked well when buying equipment at a brigade and squadron level.

There were 107 different types of procurement choices in the game ranging from chemical weapons, T-72s, MANPADS, improved shipyards, MiG-19s and hovercraft and this tied in with the squadron/ brigade/ ship level operational level game. Each piece of equipment or capability could only be sourced from a particular country and some elements only in limited numbers. Each piece was tracked for initial purchase cost, a generic spares cost and a specific origin source. This was manageable at a player level and worked well.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

The structure meant that the dedicated procurement player arguably had too much power, the council minister who was jointly responsible was often too busy with factional matters. This meant that there was often too little oversight which led to some unexpected but interesting procurements, including some very interesting back room arms deals as the game progressed resulting force structures and arms sources changing in fascinating and plausible ways. Maybe involving the wider HQ player base in the decision making process would have been useful.

 Implementing The Unimplementable: Scoping out HQ Backseat Driving

The HQ game challenge was not having them as back seat drivers for the operational level game but as strategic goal setters. I addressed this by having them unable to visit the operational maps for most of the game and issuing geographic maps without the movement areas on them. This meant that the orders they gave and the information they received were not always perfect. This was compounded as air support worked through a slightly different HQ channel. The downside was that the HQ players were reliant on the operational players providing them with information and if that information was not provided they had a limited game.

If I were to run it again then I would need to look at involving the HQ players in the procurement game or having a simple logistics game that they could resolve between themselves that impacted the operational level and perhaps the opposing HQ.  This could impact the operational level players in such a way that the players were keen to come to the HQ. Although part of the problem was the success of the factional system, operational players were very reluctant to share any bad news for fear of being demoted or removed by the council as part of a factional dispute.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

Delusions of Manoeuvre: Providing Operational Decisions in a Static Military Environment

There were a number of challenges in creating an operational level wargame that was dominated by static warfare, with imperfect, evolving military capabilities over an extended time frame.

I decided very early on that I would not capture exact formation nomenclature as over the course of the war there was a huge amount of change and the effort required to capture the exact nature of each formation nomenclature wouldn’t provide any increase in plausibility (the audience not being experts) or realism (due to the protracted nature of the conflict).

In regards to time relative to action I had to consider that there multiple game domains in each team including; a council game (seven players representing the inner trusted circle), a joint military headquarters game (seven players representing the various theatre commanders, procurement team) and the joint chief of staff. The three military games (land, sea and air) had to be on a similar timeline but the HQ game and the Council game could run on looser timelines that coincided at certain points.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

It is neither realistic nor engaging that military stalemate and lack of operational manoeuvre options in a game design mean there is nothing for players to do or plan for. This is a particular challenge in a strategic trench warfare environment. So when it came to handling time I wanted to create a design that kept players engaged in a decision making process even when there were no options for manoeuvre or attack.

For the military games I initially decided that I didn’t want fixed turns I wanted activations determined by logistics driven at an HQ level. The concept being that the various front players would be at various stages of “readiness” and that the long periods of historic inaction could be skipped through until a particular front was able to activate because the logistic resources were in place to enable them to do so. The problem was I couldn’t mesh that idea with the opening stages of the conflict or with the air game. It also meant that I still had to have some sort of turn system at an HQ level to determine when logistics became available. This still left me with the time challenge so I reverted to a proven process of drawing random player activation chits. This worked very well on the day because it provides definitive clarity on who can act and when but I will continue to investigate the initial idea.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

Dancing In the Dark: Restricting Intelligence for Improved Decision-making Process Plausibility

When it came to the operational design in a static trench warfare situation it was important that intelligence was very limited. Traditional closed map games create a much more realistic military intelligence challenge but they also tend to require lots of control, can be slow and can create confusion for player options. So the challenge was to capture imperfect intelligence information that could be managed by the players in an easy manner.

The solution was to hide force structures. Each operational player controlled a small corps, with divisions represented on the table but with the brigades (the smallest game element captured) within stacked on player’s individual command sheet. These were hidden behind a foam board that was on the map table. This allowed control and players to quickly reveal information when requested, resolve missions in short order and worked enormously well on the day with lots of imperfect decisions being made.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

Learning Lessons The Hard Way: Implementing the Evolution of Military Doctrine and Capability

Addressing evolving military doctrinal capabilities, as opposed to technical or force capabilities, over an extended conflict was another challenge. The solution I adopted was to implement a learning curve system called combat lessons. Combat lessons were effectively rules exceptions that were awarded primarily for failing in a combat. To avoid unnecessary complexity the control would give out a sticker that that would adhere to the command sheet. Combat lessons didn’t give bonuses but evolved the rules giving players new capabilities; changing how the various types of forces performed in different periods of the game. Players were only aware of the type of lessons as they learnt them, creating an evolving dynamic.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

Finally, ensuring that players had actions even when they couldn’t manoeuvre was critically important to both realism and player enjoyment. Doing nothing couldn’t be an option. So each player had a list of various missions and postures that they could adopt on a divisional basis that would give them combat and intelligence advantages relative to the opposition in the short and long term.

 The Air Blame Game: Connecting an Air Model to a Wider Game

The air war had to be fairly abstract considering the duration of the conflict. I wanted to capture strategic operations, ground support, air defence, air superiority and maritime operations. As the turns (called seasons) were effectively six months each this meant that the air war had to represent a series of engagements and support missions.

Representing air fields in the game was difficult, there were many of them and it added a level of detail and complexity to the maps that related to range. The problem with range is that it’s not a fixed amount; it’s relative to the mission and load out. However, air field attacks did play a notable element during the war so eventually I introduced them as a holding box in which air defences could be placed.

I also made the air force responsible for air defence in all rear areas for two reasons. Firstly, whilst not entirely accurate it did mean that the game had someone who was responsible for allocating air and ground based assets to defend infrastructure. This also meant that players were largely distracted by the operational air war and repeated the historic errors of the conflict in failing to allocate resources to strategic assets.

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

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Image credit: John Mizon

Carrier Death Ride: Building a Naval game for any Eventuality

The naval game challenge was to capture operations over an extended period that meshed with air power and created interesting decisions. In addition it had to capture the internationalization of the war if one side were to start successfully blockading the enemy and disrupting regional trade. Finally the system had to be detailed enough to represent combat between individual missile boats, evolving maritime air power and a potential death ride against modern carrier groups. It also had to represent hidden movement and imperfect force structures.

I resolved the imperfect force structure requirement by having a refit system that meant that a certain fraction of the previously deployed ships had to be put aside at the end of each season. Furthermore deploying forces into an area didn’t always guarantee that they were able to enter combat, they had to roll to enter combat reflecting what forces might have been available in a particular battle.

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The naval part of the game arguably failed to be engaging enough, whilst it functioned and provided a very realistic result it didn’t provide enough player decisions, rather just a lot of dice rolling. Fundamentally the map needed to be bigger to allow more areas for manoeuvre.

Books and Games: Sources and Material Considerations

The Iran-Iraq war has been relatively well covered by a number of books in recent years after an absence of much published material over the past twenty years. We now have a much better understanding of the internal dynamics of the Iraqi military command (thanks to Kevin Woods) and the Iranian political infighting (thanks to Pierre Razoux). However, there are only two commercially available games on the era; Ignorant Armies, an old school hex game and the very recent Bloody Dawns, a more modern abstracted card driven game written by Pierre Razoux. Neither game was suitable for adaption or inspiration for a megagame. This game was a culmination of a twenty year interest in the war and trips to the region to understand more. Unfortunately political tensions and sensitivities continue to make it challenging to access and understand the conflict in more depth.

Post Game Analysis

The game was largely successful with players being engaged enough to be arguing about who had won two days later and what if things had been done differently. The game was run with 68 people who didn’t know anything about the conflict but the war but the briefing materials and the game chrome (provided by control roleplaying and the events) meant that the participants made era appropriate decisions and considerations. Many of the players were megagmers, not war gamers, and some of them, including me, don’t enjoy traditional wargames. So part of the game consideration and design process was to figure out how to make a wargame interesting to someone who isn’t interested in traditional wargames. Part of that was relatively easy as we cast people according to their interest as we knew it but providing interesting, stressful, time pressurized dilemmas is harder.

Over the past decade I’ve increasingly drifted away from most commercial wargames because I don’t believe that actually resemble or simulate conflict in any meaningful manner. In part the design of this game incorporated the core ingredients that I believe are missing from games that claim to be about war, primarily imperfect intelligence and strategic directives that conflict with operational necessities.

I’ve been ribbed for observing that both sides made major strategic errors but in reflection I’m now very pleased about this because the game was designed to induce imperfect strategic decision making and in that I clearly succeeded without forcing poor decisions making upon players.

The History Of A Ball? What Happened on the Day

The game followed a plausibly historical pattern with Iraq striking out to take the Southern Iranian oil infrastructure and central and northern border regions. Caution left the Iraqi’s fairly short of their objectives but failing to guard the Iraqi Al Faw area almost trapped the navy and led to a series of extremely costly counter attack to regain it from Revolutionary Guard forces. By 1983 Iran had gone on the offensive in the Northern and central regions and a series of battle of attrition slowly pushed back Iraqi forces. Meanwhile in the South, after the initial confusion and repeated leadership changes, Iraqi forces had captured the key border cities of Khorramshahr and Abadan and even briefly took the key oil hub city of Ahwaz.

The Iranians initially got the better of things at sea damaging Iraqi off shore terminals but Iraqi procurements of Airborne ASuW assets in the form of Mirage’s, Super Frelons and Exocets wreaked havoc amongst Iranian platforms. An unapproved Iranian blockade of the Hormuz Straits dramatically escalated the international presence in the region drawing in large US naval forces that formed a critical end game component. Iran naval forces were building “kamikaze” speed boat forces by the end whilst the Iraqi navy had effectively ceased to exist as a fighting force.

By 1982 the Iranians had largely established air superiority and began to attack prestige targets in Iraq including Saddam’s Dam in Mosul and Saddam’s Palace which caused political chaos as an increasingly enraged Saddam lashed out at his council who in turn sought scape goats in the form of the air ministry which increasingly resembled a revolving door. However, large scale procurements in an extremely wide range of air platforms meant the air war continued unabated right until the end when a large successful Iraqi raid on the main Iranian exporting terminal at Kharg was a decisive moment in pushing the Iranians to consider a cease fire.

Both sides had focused on high end procurements over social subsidies which by 1986 began to draw both sides into a morale end game. Furthermore Kurdish forces were able to establish themselves on the Turkish border and around Mosul and caused significant disruption to Iraqi forces and oil fields.

By 1987 the Iranians had been able to break out of the mountains to the outskirts of the Northern Iraqi oil towns of Kirkuk and Mosul, had an armoured division within a season of Baghdad and had stabilized, but not recaptured the Southern border areas. (although they had no immediate chance of retaking them). However, by this point the Iraqi council had realized that they were not able to stabilize the front or domestic morale and had made major political concessions in exchange for US political patronage and around USD21 billion to keep them in the war.

A successful US strike on Kharg followed by the dramatic second Iraqi air strike and a general decline in Iranian morale led to Iran reluctantly accepting the unacceptable in a ceasefire at the end of 1987. Immediate stabbed in-the-back theories began to circulate amongst front line commanders.

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Slightly stunned Iranian players hear that Iraq has taken US patronage. Image credit: Becky Ladley

Ben Moores

Wargaming NATO Eastern Flank: asking the right questions

The following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by Natalia Wojtowicz of the NATO Civil-Military Cooperation Centre of Excellence. In it, she asks whether wargames focused solely on military response to a Russian conventional attack against NATO might be missing key elements of the picture: alliance resolve, population attitudes, non-kinetic and hybrid operations, crisis management, and conflict mitigation.


Wargaming is largely an intellectual exercise: posing dilemmas before we need to face them in reality. It needs to challenge notions, assumptions and ways of acting. It is about heads making decisions. The problem with NATO Eastern Flank is that we already prepared the answers. We have not given any thought to the question we are posing.[1]

Protracted fighting in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea has awaken the contingency planning for collective defence in NATO. Newly discovered sense of urgency has taken us back to thinking of East-West divide and Cold War times. The question which simulations are currently posing is: How to win the war with Russia? The critical assumption made is that there will be escalation and that the war will be decided by military victory.

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In September, the ZAPAD 2017 military exercise involved large numbers of Russian and Belarus forces. Image source: Sputnik.

The build-up in forces, readiness and narratives has been compared to the Cold War levels.[2] That is exactly the case in point for the question in mind: did the Cold War end as we have simulated it? Was it achieved with final battle between East and West? Was it readiness and tactical brilliance that dissolved Soviet Union? No. It crumbled under population resistance, organized social movements and political craft. Looking backwards might not always provide us with way forward – after all, the world took more than one twisted turn in the last 27 years.[3] Looking South and East of NATO to the destabilized zones, clearly the population has been the trigger for the tensions, the target of the operation and the mobilized force used to achieve political aims.

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Canadian soldiers with NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup Latvia coordinate a plan with a Polish tank commander. Image source: Canadian Armed Forces.

RAND Corporation has wargamed the Russian invasion on the Baltics, promptly concluding that NATO would be left with very limited options, all of them bad.[4] The answer based on the military potential can be calculated with a high degree of accuracy. If we treat the confrontation as blue (friendly) versus red (enemy) forces, simple Lancaster equations would suffice. A counterargument against this predictions is that we have seen different use of force in the East, especially with regards to Ukraine. We also saw different decisive force in the East considerably earlier, which rendered the predictions useless – fall of the Soviet Union.

Second consideration should be given to the objective of NATO. It has been founded for the collective security, which enshrines two elements: territory and population. We can safely conclude that NATO territory is not under attack (despite intense wargaming aimed at Northern-Eastern borders). On the other hand, we can also easily enumerate attacks which targeted population. This leads to the need for adaptation: first in thinking, second in the environment we nurture and third in responses we can employ.

Meetings of the NATO Defence Ministers at NATO Headquarters in Brussels- Meeting of the North Atlantic Council

Meeting of NATO Ministers of Defence – Brussels, 8 and 9 November 2017. Image source: NATO.

Think of it as a deck of cards. Even simplest two-player game starts with a goal. For NATO, this goal is to preserve peace by preparing for war. It is of utter importance not to confuse this two. The end is the peace and the mean is the military alliance. The ends and means have been mixed – we are wargaming the military confrontation to prove our peace objectives. This translates to having two cards instead of a deck of 52 – peacetime and all-out war. If you look to the enemy, it is testing this resolve – where is the line in the sand that pushes NATO to war. Can I destabilize the situation without collective response? The example of cyber-attack on Estonia following the removal of Soviet monuments in 2007 has shown Russia is playing their cards on the whole spectrum. NATO has regained its stance, confirming that cyber-attack can be recognized as a trigger for an Article 5 (collective defence). The problem is, this declaration followed in 2014. Adaptation rate was slower than the testing resolve. It also did not offer proportionate response options, which need to be available at first in the wargame, and eventually in reality.

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LOCKED SHIELDS 2017 cyberdefence exercise in Estonia. Image source: NATO CCDCOE.

What has not been recognized is that Ukraine has not fallen prey to all-out conventional attack – what NATO has named as the “hybrid warfare”, the Russian doctrine has labelled as New Generation Warfare. Putting the terminology aside, it has become apparent and urgent that different forces are at play. The question, which needs to be to starting point for NATO Eastern Flank wargaming is: how to prevent war with Russia?

To this question, new cards can be created, bridging the gap between all-peace and all-war. If we retreat to reality as the live laboratory, additional non-kinetic capabilities come to mind and people stand in the way of clinical strike. Our prepared answers do not fit the questions – raised readiness and posturing at the Eastern Flank can represent the cards needed to win the military confrontation with Russia. To prevent the war, we need proportionate response to testing of NATO resolve, means that enshrine population from attacks below Article 5 threshold and most importantly, full-deck-of-cards concept of security. In short, we must ask the right question: how to keep the peace, not how to win the war.


[1] Along several wargaming sessions on NATO platforms and independent simulations, the defence of Eastern Flank has been mostly based on military means, e.g. Potomac Foundation Hegemon Simulator.

[2] This rhetoric of intensified military exercises has been visible in NATO and Russian media. See, for example, this report in the Guardian.

[3] Counting the year 1989/1990 as the decisive time of Soviet Union dissolution.

[4] Reinforcing NATO Deterrence at Eastern Flank, full report available here.

Onward to Victory with Dstl!

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Some of the wargaming team at HMS Victory (left to right: Paul Strong, Mike Bagwell, Colin Marston, me, James Bennett, Mike Young and Major Tom Mouat).

Public release identifier DSTL/PUB103767

In mid-July I was fortunate to spend the better part of a week with the (UK) Defence Science and Technology Laboratory wargaming team at Dstl Portsdown West, near Portsmouth. As with my visit last year, I had a very enjoyable and productive time, exchanging views, discussing challenges and approaches, and generally benefitting from their broad experience. The schedule and pdfs of all my slides are provided below. (The videos have no sound, and are just another way to present the slides.)

20170728_PAXsims Agenda

Monday: Presentations

On the first day of my visit I made four presentations, each of which was followed by broader discussion with the group in attendance. The first of these examined wargaming as an educational (vs analytical) tool [pdf]. In this I discussed the strengths—and potential weaknesses–of serious gaming as an educational and training tool. I emphasized that educational outcomes depended not just on a game’s design, but also how it was used, and how it related to course objectives—the debate over the Statecraft international relations simulation being a case in point. I highlighted four general types of educational games, which I termed “pathway,” “strategy, “perspective,” and ‘fog and friction” games. I noted how the design of these differed from analytical games intended to answer one or more research questions. However, while games should certainly be designed for their intended purpose, I also suggested that practical realities (including limited resources) meant that it might sometimes be necessary or desirable to conduct dual-purpose games that have both analytical and educational dimensions. Much of the rest of the discussion focused on how best to do this without adversely compromising either aspect.

My second presentation [pdf] looked at wargaming unpredictable adversaries (and unreliable allies)—a topic of growing importance given the challenges of global terrorism, North Korean missile and nuclear weapon development, the current crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and similar challenges, coupled with the complications posed by uncertainty in US policy under the Trump Administration, plus Brexit in the European context. Much of my talk drew upon ideas I first raised in an article on the topic at The Strategy Bridge in March. I discussed several possible approaches to representing unpredictability/unreliability in a game, including scripting, stochastic (random) behaviour, responsive variables (with stochastic elements), using the white cell, and two (or more) level games.

After that, attention turned to gaming the semi-cooperative [pdf]. Here we explored the challenge of designing games that are cooperative but retain plenty of room for competition, poor coordination, and friction. This can be done, of course, with game mechanics that offer tangible rewards for both sets of behaviours, such as the dual metric system of (cooperative) “relief points” and (individual) “organization points” in AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. However, I suggested, there are limits to such a utility-maximizing, game theoretical treatment. Designers should also emphasize a psychological approach, whereby player engagement with the game narrative, imperfect information and communication, time pressures, game facilitation, and other methods are used to internalize sources of potential disagreement among the various participants.

The final presentation for the first day explored wargames as experiments [pdf ]. Here I suggested that wargames were rarely proper experiments: idiosyncratic variations between players, the limited number of iterations possible (often only one), and the complex, highly contingent nature of outcomes, all weighed against true experimentation. Nonetheless, some quasi-experimental designs were possible, and wargaming was extremely useful both as a way to generate questions for further study and in the context of efforts to triangulate findings using mixed methods. I pointed to a few techniques that might be used.

I also suggested that we needed more research on wargaming methodologies. One possible way of encouraging this would be to have an annual game design challenge, wherein wargamers would be invited to submit wargames exploring a set topic. This would allow methods and outcomes to be compared. (As Paul Strong pointed out to me, this is something the Society of Ancients already does in the hobby arena, annually refighting an ancient battle using a number of different rule sets.) A Dstl challenge for Connections UK 2018, perhaps?

 

Tuesday: Matrix Gaming and MaGCK

Most of the next two and a half days were taken up with a workshop on basic and advanced matrix game techniques [pdf], including an overview of the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK) prototype. For this I was joined by Major Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK), a fellow member of the MaGCK design team. We both found it very useful to get some feedback on the kit and its contents. Most of suggestions we received will be incorporated into the final production version, which will be launched at the Connections UK professional wargaming conference in September.

Day 2 also featured a presentation on gaming foreign policy [pdf]. This examined the value of serious gaming for training and policy analysis, and reviewed some of the work colleagues and I had done over the years gaming various aspects of conflict and peacebuilding in the Middle East.

At the end of the day we sat down to play A Reckoning of Vultures, one of the sample matrix games included in MaGCK:

A Reckoning of Vultures is set in the capital of the fictional Republic of Matrixia.

There, in the ornate Presidential Palace, surrounded by his most loyal Presidential Guards, the President-for-Life is on his death-bed—and various power-hungry factions are jostling to take power themselves.

Once the President passes, competition between these would-be successors will escalate to open conflict, until the Central Committee of the Ruling Party can meet and agree on a new leader

The Central Security and Intelligence Directorate (CSID) are Matrixia’s shadowy—and much-feared—secret police, responsible for maintaining a close watch on both dissidents and potential rival power centres within the regime. Although lacking large numbers of armed personnel, covert CSID operatives are well-placed to blackmail, influence, sabotage, subvert, or spy.

The Matrixian Armed Forces can call upon large numbers of military personnel located in three major military bases around the capital. Inter-service rivalries and the influence of other factions may mean, however, that not all MAF units are loyal or obey orders.

The Ministry of the Interior has authority over police and emergency services personnel in the capital. Although MoI units are well-positioned across the city, most are inferior in combat capability to those of the regular military.

Much of what happens in Matrixia is manipulated by a group of rich and powerful Oligarchs, who both control much of the business sector and have deep ties to the country’s major criminal syndicates. Although they have only a few private security guards and mercenaries to safeguard their position, they have considerable wealth that can be used further their political ambitions.

The National Union of Toilers represents the downtrodden workers of the country. NUT hopes to mobilize the masses and advance their political agenda through strikes, demonstrations, and direct action. If they can arm some of their followers and form a workers’ militia, they could become very powerful indeed.

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Things heat up in the capital of Matrixia (left to right: me, Colin Marston, Mike Larner and Major Tom Mouat).

In this particular case, our game involved a dead President (of course); student protests, which were soon crushed by hired thugs; an amphibious landing by MAF marines to wrest control of the port; a failed airborne landing at the worker-controlled oil refinery; a spectacularly unsuccessful jailbreak (in which unguarded prisoners preferred to stay in their cells than follow the revolutionary NUT leader); sabotage of the Ministry of Information communications system; bombing of the civilian airport by government jets; a dramatic face-off outside the Presidential Palace, in which tanks were vanquished by protesters (presumably through moral suasion rather than any sort of inherent anti-armour capability); and a closely fought vote for supremacy in the Central Committee of the Ruling Party. While it was all good fun, the scenario—as intended—demonstrated a variety of different matrix game techniques. Moreover, it was possible to relate most of the game events to real life coups and succession struggles in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and elsewhere.

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There was pointing too. No wargame is complete without much high-quality pointing.

 

Wednesday: More matrix gaming, and a dockyard tour

For me, one of the most interesting part of the programme was the opportunity to develop a matrix wargame from scratch with members of the Dstl staff, as a way of exploring matrix gaming and game design more broadly. The choice of topic was left up to me, so as a Middle East analyst I chose a possible future conflict between Israel and Hizbullah. After an overview of key aspects of the issue [pdf], we all set to work for a couple of hours. The result was a game design with four actors (Israel, Hizbullah, the Lebanese government, and civilians fleeing the fighting). Reflecting the complex, multi-sided character of Lebanese politics, the Lebanese government randomly determined each turn whether its actions reflected a common national interest, or the interests of a particular political or sectarian group. The civilian player represented the interests of Israeli and Lebanese civilians alike, and their actions offered an interesting way to model the safety-seeking behavior of local populations in wartime.

During peacetime phase, Israel and Hizbullah would each take one action each per turn, while the Lebanese government and civilians could take one action total during the entire phase. Once major fighting started, Israel and Hizbullah received two actions per turn (one military, one non-military), while the Lebanese government and civilians received one each. The war would continue until a ceasefire was agreed to by the parties, or the domestic support level of one of the belligerents fell to zero.

After all this it was down to Portsmouth, where we went on a specially-arranged tour of HMS St. Albans, a Type-23 Royal Navy frigate. Members of the crew were very ­informative—especially the watch officer who showed us around, and the senior engineering rating who offered a detailed look around the engineering control room and engine room (my first opportunity to get up close and personal with a Rolls-Royce Marine Spey gas turbine). The Dstl team later presented me with a copy of the ship’s crest—a lovely gift, even more so because it had been signed by everyone. We also had some time to see HMS Victory at the Historic Dockyard. Appropriately enough, dinner that evening was at the officer’s mess at HMS Nelson (Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Portsmouth), where–in the best traditions of the empire–it was curry night.

Finally, I spent a couple of hours that night, putting together a playable version of our prototype Israel-Hizbullah game, writing up rules and player briefings and using components from MaGCK.

 

Thursday: Playtesting and game design

The morning of Day 4, we playtested the Israel-Hizbullah matrix game. The game featured two distinct phases. The first depicted growing tensions, with a major arms build-up by Hizbullah, Israeli bombing of one particularly significant weapons shipment through Syria, the successful Israeli assassination of a senior Hizbullah military commander, and an ominous border incident. A system of random event cards left players the option of initiating conflict (at a political cost), or waiting for events to make it inevitable.

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The Israel-Hizbullag game being playtested. The white tokens are all civilians at risk, controlled by the civilian team. The map was made by simply drawing on an acetate overlay of a Lebanon map, while all other components were quickly assembled using MaGCK: Matrix Game Construction Kit.

Finally, the war came. Israel, which had already called up a substantial number of reservists for a planned military exercise, crossed the Lebanese border on a wide front, hoping to destroy most of the estimated 150,000 rockets Hizbullah had amassed in southern Lebanon. Going was slow, however, with Hizbullah forces making good use of the terrain, minefields, bunkers, ATGMs, and the combat experience it had gained in the 2006 war, the Syrian civil war, and elsewhere. However, most efforts by the Shiite militia to score a major propaganda victory—for example, by downing an IDF helicopter laden with troops—were largely unsuccessful.

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Contemplating the situation in Lebanon (left to right: Lt Cdr James Winsor, Stephen Ho and Ben Short).

The Lebanese government pressed for a ceasefire, and was ultimately successful in seeing a draft resolution tabled at the United Nations Security Council with the support of Russia, China, and the European Union. The Trump Administration, however, was sympathetic to the Israeli operation, and vetoed the resolution to give the IDF more time to achieve its objectives.

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Tom Mouat’s notes from the Israel-Hizbullah game.

There we had to end the playtest–Israel was narrowly ahead on points, but Shiite support for Hizbullah was high, and there was little evidence that the group had suffered a fundamental setback.

Later that day I made my final presentation for the week, on gaming corruption [pdf]. I differentiated between three levels at which corruption might be represented in a game: as a complicating factor largely beyond the control of players (represented by some limit or random event); as significant secondary dynamic that players could interact with and affect (as in Mission Zhobia);  and finally as the primary focus of the game. In the case of the latter I drew upon the serious games that Tom Fisher has developed for the World Bank and Egmont Group on money-laundering and anti-corruption efforts.

Last but far from least, the final part of Thursday was spent in an extended discussion of possible design elements for a project that Dstl is currently working on. I can’t disclose the topic or participants, but can say that our discussion addressed a variety interesting issues regarding:

  • in-game communication, including the constraints imposed by classified material
  • using the red cell in a way that both offers red “the freedom to win,” yet assures that game stays on course for its analytical or experiential purpose
  • employing subject matter experts (and keeping them sufficiently busy and engaged)
  • determining the level of military fidelity necessary (and deciding what of this should be communicated to the players)
  • the use and abuse of marker tracks and metrics
  • generating narrative engagement and immersion

 


 

With that, my visit to Dstl came to an end. It was enormously valuable to me to have had the opportunity to share ideas and insights with such a talented group of wargamers and defence analysts—and in a casual setting conducive to frank discussion, innovation, more than a few cups of tea, and a great deal of fun. I’m very grateful to Colin Marston and the rest of the team for their hospitality, as well as their support for the MaGCK project.

For those of you who want to try A Reckoning of Vultures or the Israel-Hizbullah War 201? matrix games, we will be running both during the games fair at Connections UK in September.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phalanx: More MORS wargaming

Volume 50 N 2

The most recent (June 2017) issue of Phalanx, the magazine of the Military Operations Research Society, contains a couple of wargaming items.

Phil Pournelle contributes an article on “designing wargames for the analytic purpose,” drawing upon the insights of last year’s MORS special meeting on wargaming as well as his own extensive experience. Specifically, he discusses what a wargame is, what it can be used for, and the characteristics of different wargaming approaches.

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He also highlights several key elements of a good wargame:

Wargaming is most effective when people are making decisions under uncertainty, in a fair competitive environment, with adjudication to generate consequences of actions taken. Such games should be repeated in an iterative process complementary to other techniques. These iterative efforts can enable organizations and individuals to gain insights into competitions. Wargames identify potentially successful strategies and diagnose the key competitive elements.

Game designers should borrow techniques and methods from existing games, particularly the vast body of knowledge in the commercial gaming community. They should also be aware of limitations and pitfalls of using methods without understanding the purpose of the game from which the methods are being taken.

There are different categories and styles of games each with their own purpose. While this essay was focused primarily on analytic and exploratory style games, it acknowledges there are similarities between such games, commercial games, and training games. Each has their own purpose and it is important to recognize that using one category for a purpose different than their proper design has certain pitfalls. Different styles of games exist within a continuum of games addressing generalities to specific, from creative to rigorous. To be the most effective in the cycle of research, games should move from the general to the more rigorous design during each iteration of the cycle. Movement may not, and does not have to be, uniform through the continuum, particularly as new aspects are discovered.

The core attributes of a good wargame is an adversarial environment where the game focuses on the players and the decisions they make. It is important to record the decisions of the players and why they made them. Good wargames are small and have an aggressive and dynamic red team. They avoid adjudication processes that conceal why decision or results occurred.

They are best when they are iterative in nature. Wargames do not validate or prove anything, they provide insights into competitions, and allow players and observers to think through the complexities of operations within those competitions.

Wargaming can be extremely valuable, but gaining full value will require a long view of the practice. Wargames can provide the means for generating potential strategies and solutions to challenges facing the department and leaders ready to meet them. Their best bene t does not occur with one-off games, but in series as part of the cycle of research. To harness the best benefits from games and analysis within the department will require identifying the questions and challenges and a committing to iterative efforts to identify and re ne the solutions.

The same issue also contains a brief report on the 29 individuals who received the a MORS professional Certificate in Wargaming, following the programme launched last autumn. Four of the group were women (13.8%), which is far from where we want to be, and well behind Phil Sabin’s MA course in wargaming at King’s College London, but still far better than the wargaming hobby (or the PAXsims readership) has managed. The next certificate programme will begin in September.

Rielage: An Open Letter to the US Navy from Red

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In the latest issue of the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings (June 2017), Captain Dale Rielage offers some hard-hitting observations about the way in which the US Navy prepares to fight future wars, written from the perspective of the Red (opposing) team.

Dear U.S. Navy,

It is time we talked.

We have regarded each other from a distance for years, but we need to get to know one another better. You see us in every major exercise and wargame. In the outbriefs, we usually are on the back wall, mixed in with the staff. The White Cell and Control talk about us a lot, but usually in the third person. Rarely do we have an honest conversation.

But lately the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) is talking about high-velocity learning, and there is discussion of a renaissance in wargaming. Maybe this is the excuse we need to start talking.

Across dozens of exercises, live and synthetic, tactical to operational, on both coasts, we have had the opportunity to watch your ways. We sit in every wargame, each one unique. The Blue teams across from us are diverse, representing every type of Navy authority, from students to operational-level commanders, and every warfare community and variety of staff life. We respect the variety and depth of professional excellence they bring to the fight. Nonetheless, regardless of which actual adversary we are representing as “Red,” there are patterns to our interactions that are worth your consideration, both in how you fight and how you train.

Much of what he  has to say is a searing critique of the way the Navy—and, I would argue, many others—approach wargaming. I’ll quote him at length, because it is an absolutely outstanding piece:

Your exercises have become Christmas trees. Time is precious, and the Fleet has fewer days under way and fewer flight hours than ever before. As a result, pressure to “maximize” training opportunities has grown. Doing a field-training exercise? Great, combine it with a staff exercise. Add some outside experimentation. Make sure several echelons are being evaluated and certified at the same time. The result is efficient but requires a high degree of scripting. Anything that throws off the timetable of the exercise results in a cascading series of events that don’t happen.

Enter Red, the adversary who defines success by creating friction and failure in Blue’s world. The only way the Christmas tree keeps all its ornaments is if Red is prevented from imposing too much friction. Have limited range time and need to conduct a strike mission? “White card” the high-end naval surface-to-air missile threat out of existence, because shifting to conduct a maritime strike mission to clear the ingress would throw off the exercise schedule.

Clearly, accommodations are necessary in training, but making them has become your opening assumption. Blue would do well to review why events are being conducted and identify the minimum essential events that must be completed. It may be that less is more.

Your opposing forces often are very good, but you have trained them to know their place. Most fleet training centers have a team capable of presenting a good-to-excellent Red threat. However, our experience is that they have learned to self-regulate their aggressiveness, knowing what senior Blue and White cell members will accept. As one opposing force member recently told us during a “high-end” training event, their implied tasking included not annoying the senior flag officer participating in the event. They knew from experience that aggressive Red action and candid debriefs were historically a source of annoyance. They played accordingly.

Excellence may be where you least expect it. We have consistently seen that the real centers of innovation and excellence are the commands and teams that have only recently started to look at a particular operational problem. As the new folks, they are learning the current baseline, are less likely to make assumptions based on how they “know” the scenario is supposed to go, and are open to what constitutes true “high-end” warfighting.

There are no points for internal excellence. As U.S. Navy professionals, we understand it is essential for the warfare commanders to be aligned and communicating well. The quality of the staff’s standing orders and the clarity of the commander’s intent are important. The experience your planners gain in the training is praiseworthy. As Red, we really don’t care. The bottom line is simple: Did you beat us? There is a time and place for sorting out staff processes. If that is the focus of this training event, great. If not, don’t commend yourself for it.

You must make time to stop, listen, and think. In too many events, the training loop is never completed. Debriefs tend to be cursory, typically at the end of the day when the entire team is tired and wants to move on. Events often are not equipped to capture ground-truth data and feed it back to the training audience quickly. Often months later, a long report is generated. The more honest it is, the narrower its circulation—in many cases never outside the training audience, who by then has moved on to the next challenge.

Be clear what we are doing. There are a number of ways to present Red. Red can be unconstrained, using the adversary toolbox in ways that seem most effective from a U.S. view. Red can be doctrinal, using the adversary toolbox in the way we think the adversary likely would. Most often, however, Red is constrained, asked to perform a specific function to facilitate an event.

Wargamers and exercise planners often recall Millennium Challenge 2002, an experimentation wargame run by Joint Forces Command. Marine Major General Paul Van Riper, playing an unconstrained Red, used innovative asymmetric tactics to shut down Blue in the first move. Blue had asserted that its new concepts would be tested and validated against an unconstrained Red, but when its objectives were threatened, it reset the game and created rules that, according to the final report, boxed in Red “to the point where the end state was scripted.” The entire event generally is remembered as an example of what not to do, perhaps because the game became a public controversy after General Van Riper quit as Red force commander. The reality is that we repeat this experience on a smaller scale multiple times each year.

In one recent event, Red was helping assess a new naval concept. In support of this assessment, Red presented a consistent, accurate, and limited threat to Blue, allowing Blue to work through a series of actions and understand the variables involved. It was the military equivalent of batting practice, with Red serving as the ball machine to put consistent fastballs in the strike zone. It made sense, and doing it well was important and worthy work. The problem developed later. As the results of the event were presented to more and more senior audiences, the briefs grew shorter and more “executive.” The description of the Red role eventually became a list of the organizations that had contributed Red players. By the time the briefing reached the four-star level, the implication was that Blue had validated its concepts in a full game against an unconstrained adversary—which was not the case. Red left the event convinced that, given realistic latitude, it could have stressed Blue’s concept to failure, perhaps even turned it into a costly defeat.

Failure should be an invitation to learn. Generally, when Blue units are killed in training events, they are quickly regenerated. Why? Typically, there are two answers:

• If Blue does not have X, it cannot do Y, and Y is a training objective. This makes sense in some cases, but in more complex exercises there is value in fighting hurt. Yes, if Blue falls below a certain level of forces, it cannot complete its tasking. How about the implied task of preserving surviving forces? Breaking contact, regrouping, and reengaging? These do not appear on the training order and are not normally exercised, but maybe they should be.

• If unit X is killed, it will miss the opportunity for further training. We create negative learning when taking fatal damage is consequence-free. If training demands a unit be regenerated, at the very least, the killed unit needs to conduct an immediate critique to answer the basic question “why did we get hit?” The answer in many cases is that they were balancing risk across a number of mission areas and the die roll came up badly for them. Sometimes, however, there was an avoidable loss of situational awareness or a failure to account for one threat while focusing on another. The cost of coming back into the fight should at least be a back brief to the White Cell. Further, if regenerating units is required for training, senior officers need to stop citing the resulting exchange ratios as evidence of operational proficiency. A 10-to-1 victory isn’t if Blue was effectively missile-proof.

You talk about accepting failure as a way to learn, but refuse to fail. It is instructive to ask a room of senior officers the last time they played in—or even heard of—a game or exercise where Red won. If our collective assessment is that Blue really can best its adversaries every time, we are in a good place. If not, it is time to rethink the process we have created.

For us, the point of playing Red is not to beat Blue. It is to train Blue. At the end of the day, nothing would make us happier than to bring our best game to the fight and get our clock cleaned. At this point, getting there will require a number of uncomfortable conversations and a level of personal and institutional self-honesty that, bluntly, we have not cultivated. But we must, and soon. As the CNO has said, our “margins of victory are razor thin,” and the real adversaries keep improving.

Meanwhile, we are always available to talk. Just look across the table.

(Competitively) Yours,

Red

Hopefully his observations will spark considerable discussion in the relevant sessions at next week’s Military Operations Research Society annual symposium, as well as the Connections US (August 1-4) and Connections UK (September 5-7) professional wargaming conferences. I’ll be at the latter, while other members of the PAXsims crew will be at the first two.

h/t Tom Mouat

Learning Spanish in San Splendido

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Jose Anibal Ortiz Manrique (Defence Centre for Languages and Culture, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom) recently presented a paper on “the educational benefits of a matrix game in Spanish language training” to the annual ITEC military training, education and simulation conference.

This work is the result of a collaborative process between the Modelling and Simulation department, and the Defence Centre for Languages and Culture (DCLC) of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. At the Modelling and Simulation department Tom Mouat has adapted Matrix Game, invented by Chris Engle in 1982, for military training purposes. After attending one of his workshops on the mechanics of the game, I found Matrix Game could be an educational tool for language training. In particular, it enables students to incorporate into language learning a range of skills they have gained during their military experience, such as leadership, team-working, problem solving, and creativity. For this reason, I started working with Tom to integrate the game into Spanish language learning at DCLC. The goal of this paper is to present an analysis of the educational benefits of the integration. The paper starts by explaining the learning approach adopted to carry out this integration. This explanation is followed by a pedagogical proposal to use Matrix Game in the classroom. Finally, the paper discusses the positive impacts of the game for Spanish language learning.

He concludes:

The matrix game is an innovative educational tool resulting from collaborative work that has improved Spanish language teaching and learning at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. We often tend to believe games are solely a means to have a break from classroom routine. However, as has been explained in this paper, the use of an appropriate learning model can transform a game, such as a matrix game, into a rich learning practise. As other interactive activities this game can also contribute to learning by enhancing inclusive and collaborative learning, autonomy, motivation, and communicative competences. It is another alternative for teachers to carry out assessments in the classroom, and to effectively manage group diversity. The evidence we have collected for this analysis has not been the result of a rigorous research, but of informal observations and students’ feedback. Thus it must be seen only as a guide, and not the only one, to continue enhancing the design and implementation of a matrix game, and other games, in language training.

You’ll find the full paper here (pdf).

Using matrix games for language instruction has also been discussed by Neal Durando at the Defense Linguistics blog.

h/t Tom Mouat

Teaching wargame design at CGSC

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Today, James Sterrett made a presentation to the Military Operations Research Society’s wargame community of practice on teaching wargame design at the US Army Command and General Staff College. James is Chief of Simulations and Education in the Directorate of Simulation Education at CGSC, and a periodic PAXsims contributor.

This lecture will feature a discussion of game design within the context of professional military education.  DEPSECDEF Work talked to the need to incorporate wargaming into the formal military education system.  One approach to executing this issue is to offer a course in wargame design to students at multiple levels of professional development.  However, questions on how to implement this approach remain:  At what point(s) within an officer’s career should they be exposed to wargaming?  What aspect of wargaming should be emphasized?  What level of proficiency is desired?  What portions, if any, of the remaining curriculum should be dropped or modified to accommodate this requirement?

While the lecture wasn’t recorded, you’ll find his slides here. For previous discussion on this same topic, see his earlier (January 2017) blogpost.

Analytical gaming in uncertain times: the Middle East, covfefe, and beyond

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The last few weeks have seen terrorist attacks in the UK, Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere, inspired or organized by ISIS (the so-called “Islamic State,” or “Daesh” as often called by its opponents). The US appears to be bolstering intelligence collection and covert action in Iran. A diplomatic dispute in the Gulf has escalated into political and economic warfare, pitting Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt (and their friends) against Qatar—a crisis complete with deportations, the suspension of air or maritime access, financial countermeasures, and threats to imprison all who disagree. The Turkish parliament has approved the deployment of troops to Qatar, where the Emir likely has some worried that Saudi actions could escalate further to supporting a coup attempt, or even direct military intervention. President Trump has tweeted support for the Saudi moves even as the US State and Defence Departments have praised Qatari cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts. The slaughterhouse that is the Syrian civil war continues, as does the bloody effort by the Iraqi government to liberate Mosul from ISIS. Amidst all that, the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq has announced a date (September 25) for their long-promised (advisory) referendum on Kurdish independence.

And that’s just the abbreviated version.

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As a Middle East specialist, it is no wonder I’ve been glued to the news (and Twitter), and can’t get much academic writing done.

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First, regarding ISIS:

  • The vast majority of ISIS Crisis matrix games that we have played since 2015 showed the jihadist group suffering reversals of its territorial gains in 2016, and ultimately being pushed back into an increasingly desperate defence of Mosul (Iraq) and Raqqa (Syria) by 2017—exactly what has happened.
  • Those games almost invariably saw the organization compensating for this by encouraging terror attacks in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere in an effort to maintain its global jihadist image and rally its supporters.
  • In the majority of games the Iraqi government made greater military progress towards Mosul than it did political progress towards reconciling with its own Sunni Arab minority. Certainly that also seems to be the case in Iraq too. Moreover, military operations often generated new sources of Sunni grievance as civilians were caught in the crossfire or suffered sectarian abuse.
  • Towards the end of the Mosul campaign the Kurds often withdrew from active fighting, built up their resources, and made other cautious moves towards independence.

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Regarding mounting tensions in the Gulf, last year’s Atlantic Council crisis game provided substantial insight to the problems that could lie ahead:

  • That game was designed to explore how differing levels of US engagement affected crisis stability in the region. Our finding was that what Washington does is more important than how much it does. This point is highlighted by the current Saudi-Qatari crisis highlights, where a more active US role seems to have made things worse rather than better. The Riyadh Summit last month clearly signalled that the Trump Administration wished to more closely engage with key Gulf allies. Those Gulf allies then took this as a green light to turn on Qatar, with potentially highly disruptive consequences (regardless of what one might think about Qatari foreign policy).
  • The game highlighted how regional actors, locked into geopolitical rivalries and threatening views of the other, easily interpret events as part of a broader hostile conspiracy. Some Iranian Revolutionary Guard officials have already interpreted the ISIS terror attack on the Iranian parliament as having occurred at the behest of Washington and Riyadh, as can be seen in the IRNA report posted above. That’s certainly nonsense, but it is nonsense that I am certain many Iranian officials genuinely believe.
  • The ease of misperception, coupled with sectarian and geopolitical tensions, creates fertile ground for “accidental” escalation. Indeed, I was so struck by how easily that happened at the Atlantic Council game that I made it a centerpiece of a subsequent presentation to US defence officials, analysts, and academic on “Noise in the Grey Zone.
  • The game also highlighted how easily Washington could be influenced by the Saudi view of things—something that certainly seems to have occurred in the Qatar crisis.
  • Designing and running the game also revealed some of the inside-the-Beltway DC sensitivities about discussing the Gulf. I won’t go into details, but—frankly—we could have done a better job of representing internal divisions within the GCC.

Finally, the extent to which the often erratic behaviour of the US Administration has become a growing source of concern for key US allies has certainly been underscored by events of the last few weeks, both regarding the Middle East but even more so concerning the recent NATO Summit, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the terror attack in London. That’s an issue I explored a few weeks back in a piece at The Strategy Bridge on “Wargaming Unpredictable Adversaries (and Unreliable Allies).” It is sadly indicative of its relevance that the topic has garnered increasing interest from key US allies.

Finally, let me offer a tangential comment on the relationship between wargames and strategic forecasting (a topic on which I’ve written more here, although not from a gaming angle).

It is often said by wargame designers that “wargames aren’t predictions.” I have always been a little uncomfortable with that formulation, for fear that it can also become an excuse for bad game design. I understand, of course, why designers are anxious not to be saddled with excessive expectations. Because analytical games massively simplify complex realities they certainly shouldn’t be seen as some sort of crystal ball.  However, even if wargames are not specific, confidence predictions, most should operate in the universe of the possible. In that sense they are a plausibility probe of sorts, identifying what might happen, how it might happen, and what the consequences might be. Repeated plays of a game help to map out those possible futures more fully, and may even flag those that seem most likely. Certainly I would argue that the games discussed above have contributed to a better understanding of how various conflicts and crises might develop in the weeks and months ahead.

Sabin: Wargames as an academic instrument

Professor Philip Sabin (King’s College London) recently delivered a lecture at the University of Edinburgh on “Wargames as an academic instrument.” You’ll find the video at this link.

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Dungeons & Dragons as professional development

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In response to one of the final exam questions this year, a student in my upper-level undergraduate course on multilateral peace operations at McGill University commented “I never knew D&D could be so useful until I took POLI 450.” That statement finally provided the impetus I needed to offer some thoughts on role-play games (RPGs) and serious conflict simulation.

In the context of POLI 450, the student concerned was referring to the massive Brynania peacebuilding simulation that we’ve been running for almost two decades. It is a grueling exercise indeed: 125+ players, 5-8 hours of game play per day for a full week, 10,000+ emails sent, and hundreds of hours of real and virtual meetings—all at a time when students are also trying to manage four other courses, plus occasional eating and sleeping. The simulation is designed to highlight a range of issues: political conflict and conflict resolution; insurgency; negotiations; humanitarian crisis and response; the challenges of coordination; stabilization; and longer-term development. Like a good game of D&D, participants face complex situations and even difficult moral choices while having to adjust plans on the fly with limited time, resources, and information. As has been evident from exam answers and course surveys over the years, students learn a lot from it, and it helps a great deal in putting course readings and theory into a practical, operational context.

However, I didn’t want to just comment on the value of RPG-type gaming as an immersive learning environment for students—as important as that is. Above and beyond this, I wanted to offer some thoughts of how role-play gaming can help to develop essential professional game design and facilitation skills. Indeed, in terms of professional wargame facilitation specifically, I would argue that running D&D games is probably a more useful preparation than playing either miniature or board wargames.

Before there’s a backlash from my fellow grognards, let me reiterate I’m talking here about game facilitation. I’m a hobby miniatures/board wargamer too, and I enjoy those a great deal. They’ve been invaluable in learning about military operations and history—indeed, far more useful than the 8+ years I spent studying in university. It is undeniable that hobby wargaming can contribute a great deal to one’s knowledge of how to model time, space, movement, and effects.

However, no one would argue that most hobby wargaming (with the notable exception of megagaming) really contributes a great deal to knowing how to run—as opposed to design—the multi-participant events that are usually characteristic of a serious professional wargame or political-military/crisis simulations.

There’s a certain irony in all this. As it is, professional wargamers already deal with a widespread bias against the gaming element of wargames. It is well-known, for example, that many military officers recoil at the thought of dice or cards determining the outcome of military actions in a wargame, even though they are perfectly happy to have outcomes determined through black-boxed stochastic processes embedded in computer algorithms. That Clausewitz once noted ” the absolute, the mathematical as it is called, nowhere finds any sure basis in the calculations in the art of war; and that from the outset there is a play of possibilities, probabilities, good and bad luck, which spreads about with all the coarse and fine threads of its web, and makes war of all branches of human activity the most like a game of cards” doesn’t change the fact that professional audiences often equate cards, dice, and other common game elements with a glorified version of Snakes-and-Ladders. Given that, suggesting that what they are doing is actually rather more like The Tomb of Horrors would certainly be a gaming system too far. Yet RPGs can develop invaluable skills in terms of scenario design, narrative engagement during game play, subtly keeping players on track for game purposes, and managing groups of people within such a context.

In terms of scenario design, this is very much at the core of role-play gaming—the game, after all, is almost entirely about the scenario and the players’ engagement in it. Good gamemasters are good precisely because they are able to keep players within the universe they have created, facing plausible choices with plausible consequences, and subtly encouraging everyone to internalize appropriate perspectives and motivations. In a well-run campaign the players aren’t simply trying to find treasure and slay beasts, but feel themselves part of it all. They begin to filter their worldview through their (fictional) professional specializations: fighters like to fight; magic-users like to stand back and rain destruction of foes while avoiding injury; clerics provide key support; rogues skulk and deceive; and much-maligned bards (like diplomats everywhere) use silver tongues to gain advantages that cannot be obtained by brute force. As Peter Perla and ED McGrady have argued, this sort of player engagement and immersion is also what makes (serious, professional, potentially life-and-death) wargaming work:

We believe that wargaming’s power and success (as well as its danger) derive from its ability to enable individual participants to transform themselves by making them more open to internalizing their experiences in a game—for good or ill. The particulars of individual wargames are important to their relative success, yet there is an undercurrent of something less tangible than facts or models that affects fundamentally the ability of a wargame to transform its participants.

A dungeonmaster also faces the constant challenge of allowing players to explore their universe, while at the same time keeping the game on-track in terms of general storyline and plot—all without letting players feel railroaded into doing (or not doing) particular things. They do so, moreover in a context of multiple participants with different perspectives and personalities. Take, for example, Phil Sabin‘s comments on a recent professional wargame in the UK (emphasis added):

This week at the UK Defence Academy we ran a two day research wargame with a couple of dozen players and facilitators to investigate nuclear risk dynamics.  I was on the Control team, and our main objective was to get the players first to use conventional force and then to escalate to nuclear strikes, despite their natural reluctance to initiate such dangerous and suicidal actions.  We succeeded, and play ended with wide-ranging conventional conflict, the nuclear devastation of central and eastern Europe, and a grave threat of further escalation, all from an initial spark in the Baltics in which both sides felt they were defending their existing rights and interests.

I remarked in the final plenary that wargame controllers in such games are rather like devils, seeking ways to foster player misperceptions and frustration and to present them with horrible dilemmas in a quest to make them trigger a literal ‘hell on earth’.  We succeeded in this aim, and it was sobering for everyone to realise how such a slide into disaster can occur through a horribly plausible sequence of interacting decisions, despite the initial resolve of each team individually to avoid such an outcome.  At least we can comfort ourselves that nobody really died, and that the whole point of such ‘virtual’ destruction in wargames is to help us to understand crisis dynamics and so make such escalation in the real world even more unlikely….

Replace “nuclear strikes” with “boss fight” or “confronting the dragon in his lair” and you pretty much have every D&D game ever. Phil may be more of a traditional grognard than a RPGer, but it is a gift indeed to be able to nudge participants in such a way that they don’t feel nudged, while giving them the freedom to make real choices.

Similarly, in the Brynania simulation, my task as CONTROL is to facilitate exploration of a plausible path of civil conflict and (hopefully) peacebuilding, while not allowing the game to get distracted or derailed. Doing so requires the subtle use of initial scenario and game injects, but in a way that players are—again—making real choices with real consequences. Certainly the outcomes over the years reveal a sort of bell-curve of results, with some more common than others, but none of them outliers in a way that would undercut the instructional purposes of the simulation.

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Brynania simulation outcomes and events.

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Primary peacebuilding mechanisms used in Brynania simulation.

I’m not the only RPGamer who feels this way. Tom Fisher is a fellow member of my local Montréal gaming group and DM extraordinaire, with an impressive record as a professional game designer and facilitator (he is codeveloper of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game and the forthcoming Matrix Game Construction Kit, and has worked with the World Bank and various international financial intelligence agencies on games addressing financial crimes/corruption and strategic analysis). He had this to say on the topic in a recent email exchange:

I can say, without hesitation, that roleplaying games—particularly D&D—have led to the best jobs I’ve ever had.

There is a natural flow between being a gamer and professionally developing games, that much is obvious. What is less obvious, however, are the lessons derived from playing those games that do not directly impact game development. Role playing games, particularly the gamesmastering (facilitation) thereof engages, develops and encourages a particular way of thinking.

Much has been said about the need for outside the box thinking or lateral thinking. What is less discussed is how to train the mind to think different as some marketing campaigns encourage. Roleplaying games, in their various forms, are a virtual goldmine for the development, testing and experimentation of thought, and ways of thinking.

Roleplay, at its best, teaches through gameplay to account for assumptions, test limits of rules, push the limits of established rules – in short, roleplay is a short course on iterative design: “ design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a product or process. Based on the results of testing the most recent iteration of a design, changes and refinements are made. This process is intended to ultimately improve the quality and functionality of a design. In iterative design, interaction with the designed system is used as a form of research for informing and evolving a project, as successive versions, or iterations of a design are implemented.”

Iterative design thinking is, in my view, the foundation of critical, outside-the-box, and lateral thinking. The process of iterative design faces-off actions based on assumptions against reactions based on real-world rules. Famously demonstrated by Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge, participants succeed by testing their assumptions against real-world effects (in that case, gravity and the relative strength of dry spaghetti).

The experiential and imaginary nature of roleplaying games requires reflection and forces a role-player to account for their assumptions when addressing a situation. In so many of my experiences delivering intelligence analysis or crime analysis courses, it is the recognition and testing of one’s assumptions that has been the lynchpin in achieving success in the training. Roleplaying games –and by extension immersive simulation exercises– are a crucible for developing the thought processes deemed so necessary and desired by modern institutions.

The experience of the gamesmaster, or facilitator, of roleplaying games adds a further level of complexity to the mix. Adult role-players, by their very nature, are an interesting bunch. Most tend to be well-read, quite intelligent, and universally challenging. As noted above, roleplay encourages the testing of limits, pushing of envelopes, and accounting for assumptions. So, a gamesmaster (GM) is confronted with a number of players –with their unique agendas– who inherently want to push the limits of the GM’s world-rules to achieve goals laid out by said GM designed to engage, thrill and enthrall each of the players. In short: herding cats. There is no more cost-effective short-course on diplomacy and small-team management than being a roleplaying game GM.

The complexity of gamesmastering (GMing) increases exponentially as GMs become involved in world-building. At the pinnacle of GMing is the world-building GM, who shapes world from thought to engage players in a truly immersive experience. Herein, the GM accounts for the cause-and-effect of player actions against the backdrop of an entire living world simulation. At this level, fluidity and iterative design are paramount to successful implementation and player-engagement, and will lead to a level of suspension of disbelief that will engage players not only logically in the gameplay, but emotionally, on a truly immersive level.

It is these skills of engagement, coupled with the role-player’s way of thinking, challenging and testing that have led to the best jobs I’ve ever had.

Much can be said about the nature of play and the strong links between creative play and language, physical, social/emotional, and cognitive development. Roleplaying games take this level of play to its limits, and push outward, not only encouraging growth, but in my opinion, forcing it, as new pathways of thought develop to deal with novel situations.

The elusive and mysterious “Tim Price,” prolific author of matrix game articles and scenarios, has certainly been known to frequently design and play RPGs. A certain former British military officer and gifted professional wargame consultant—let’s call him GLB—actually carries an image of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (above) surreptitiously taped to his clipboard to inspire him while facilitating serious games.

As for me, I’ve been playing D&D since the very first boxed three-volume set in the mid 1970s. Like the POLI 450 student quoted above, it’s fair to say that at the outset I too “never knew D&D could be so useful.”

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Have your own experiences of using RPG skills in serious gaming? Post them in the comments section!

McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament 2017

One of the challenges with using a boardgame in the classroom is how to accommodate a large number of players. AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis game is no different in this respect. It is designed for 4 players, and if players double or triple up on each team, you can fit 8-12 in a game. However if your class is larger, you have to find another approach: for example, running multiple games in parallel (as we have done for the Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Programme), or running one game with a new group of students assuming the player roles each turn (as has been done at the University of New South Wales).

My own POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course at McGill has around one hundred students in it, and the approach I have used is to conduct an after-school AFTERSHOCK tournament, with players competing to secure the highest group (Relief Points) and individual team (Operations Points) scores for bonus marks. This is fairly easy to do in POLI 450, since 10% of the course grade is based on class participation, a requirement that students can fulfill by taking part in online discussions, attending relevant campus lectures, taking part in McMUN (McGill model UN)—or participating in games like AFTERSHOCK.

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Members of an NGO team, upon realizing that they had forgotten to assign staff to an important task.

 

This year the games ran in the evening, taking about 2.5 hours (15 minutes rules briefing, a 2 hour times game, and 15+ minutes of debrief/discussion). Within a matter of hours of me announcing the tournament, four teams of 8 students had formed, representing about a third of the class. Indeed, I would have had one or two more teams if I had been willing to run more than four games. It should be noted that 23 of the 32 players were female, further evidence—as if any were needed—that women are just as happy to play conflict,  policy, or crisis games if the environment is right.

In all four games the At-Risk cards in each district were placed in a pre-arranged order, as were the cards in the Event deck. While this did not eliminate all random variation across the games (since Coordination cards cannot be prearranged and must be randomly drawn), it eliminated much of it and assured a more-or-less level playing field whereby each group was facing a similar degree of challenge. It also allowed me to make certain that particular cards or effects would make an appearance in the game, so that they could be used as teachable moments.

The scores across the four games are shown below. The shade of green indicates how well each group or team did. In one of the games (#1) the players won quite comfortably, in one they lost fairly substantially (#4), and in two others they only just came out ahead in the closing stages of the game (#2, #3). This is a fairly typical distribution of outcomes. I probably could have made the games a little harder—although perhaps this means everyone had been listening to my class lectures on the importance of humanitarian coordination.

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The tournament format went well, and I will certainly be using a similar format again next year. The only possible drawback was spending four evenings on campus outside classroom hours, running games—but the participants were so enthusiastic and engaged that I frankly had a lot of fun doing it!

What is a megagame?

John Mizon has put together a very useful video on “what is a megagame?,” in which he explores the player interaction, immersion, and emergent gameplay that characterize the genre. It even features a few seconds from our own recent War in Binni game!

You’ll find more of John’s megagame videos here. A great deal of insight into designing and running a megagame can also be found at Jim Wallman’s No Game Survives blog.

Simple UN Security Council rules

During our recent War in Binni megagame, we encountered an issue that often arises in POL-MIL games: we were missing part of the UN Security Council. In this case, all five veto-wielding permanent (P5) members were represented by players: China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States. Of the ten rotating non-permanent members, however, we only had two actually represented by players: Nigeria and Guinea.

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Members of the UN Security Council check the latest news from Binni via the live Global News Network Twitter feed.

One way of dealing with this is to simply reduce the size of the Security Council, and the changing the real-world UNSC voting roles (nine affirmative votes and no P5 vetoes) to something proportional to the size of the group. This is the way I do things in the Brynania peacebuilding simulation, for example.

In this case, however, we wanted more for the various UN ambassadors to do during the game, and we also wanted to highlight that even the powerful P5 members need broader support for anything to happen. Consequently the non-player members of the Security Council were represented by cards. Each card listed the issues that mattered to that country. When one of those issues was addressed well in a statement by a UN ambassador, the UN Control team would dice to see whether the card (and that state’s vote) would pass to the ambassador concerned. To reflect existing global alliances and relationships, some non-played countries were more easily influenced by some than others.

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In addition, at the start of each turn the various UN ambassadors could secretly use influence cards and foreign aid funds in an attempt to obtain a die roll bonus when attemping to secure non-player country votes.

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I was a little worried that the mechanism might result in a stilted debate process whereby UN ambassadors made speeches, stopped to await a die roll by Control, then continued. That, however, didn’t happen. On the contrary, UNSC debates were lively and fluid.

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Members of the UN Security Council debate the war in Binni.

You’ll find the materials here, should you wish to modify them for use in your own game:

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