Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and gaming ideas

Dungeons & Dragons as professional development


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.

Brynania outcomes 1

Brynania simulation outcomes and events.

Brynania outcomes 2.jpg

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 Players Handbook (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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

UN influence.png

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.


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:

Discussion welcome: (war)gaming the US as ally and adversary


I’ll be giving some thought over the next week to “(war)gaming the US as ally and adversary,” for a piece I hope to write soon. I have always been interested in how we model actors with murky or complex decision-making processes, as well as actors who may at times appear irrational (North Korea for example, or Qaddafi’s Libya). How much of this is simply different worldviews and interests, and how much of it is truly non-rational? How can pol-mil wargames best generate policy responses that reflect ideology, confirmation bias, pride, narcissism, bureaucratic infighting, and other non-realist determinants of strategic or operational behaviour?

In particular, in the coming months and years those of us outside the US who do national security gaming may need to consider:

  • How best to model unpredictable US behaviour (say, wavering alliance commitments) or behaviours that veer between supportive and threatening.
  • How best to model the US as a partial adversary or threat to national interests (for example, on trade policy, or liberal democracy).

No this isn’t a real tweet.

Any ideas are welcome in the comments section.

Wargaming, bomber escorts, and the P-51 Mustang


War is Boring has just published an excellent piece by James Perry Stevenson and Pierre Sprey on the P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft, highlighting the many doctrinal and bureaucratic battles that shaped its development during WWII. Among the points that are made: many early US army aviation wargames and exercises were designed to validate the flawed concept that fast bombers required no fighter escort, while later wargames and exercises that pointed to the vulnerabilities of unescorted bombers were ignored or reinterpreted.

Between World War I and World War II, bombers began flying higher and faster than existing obsolete biplane fighters. Still, the U.S. Army Air Corps’ bomber generals refused to foresee that enemy fighters might prevent the lumbering aircraft from always getting through to the target.

These officers even ran field exercises designed to support their premises of bomber invincibility. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Henry “Hap” Arnold, a leading bomber advocate who would eventually become chief of the service’s Air Corps, was particularly determined to prove this point.

“Exercises held in 1931 seem to reinforce the idea that fast bombers could fare well on their own,” military historian Dr. Tami Davis Biddle wrote in Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare. “Arnold reached this conclusion, as did the umpires, one of whom proclaimed: ‘[I]t is impossible for fighters to intercept bombers and therefore it is inconsistent with the employment of air force to develop fighters.’”

This rigid mindset became embedded in the Army’s air power strategy, its budget battles and its endless barrages of air power propaganda.
Within just a few years, however, fighter war games and actual air combat abroad provided ample evidence the Army Air Corps brass was committed to the wrong conclusion.

“[I]n 1933, … squadrons intercepted 55 percent of enemy day-formations as they flew toward the target, … another 26 percent as they left it; [and] 67 percent of individual night raiders were intercepted,” Biddle noted. “But what might have seemed clear defensive victories were not perceived as such: proponents of strategic bombing refused to grasp the devastating bomber attrition forecast by these exercise outcomes.”

“When assessing results, the bomber advocates created both formal rules and cognitive filters [to insure] they would see what they expected to see: the primacy of the aerial offensive waged by determined bombers,” she added. “The rules under which the exercise were run gave advantages to bombers, and umpire rulings explained away unexpected, [inconvenient] results.”

The piece highlights that wargames themselves take place in a broader institutional and doctrinal context, in which sponsors and participants may be anxious to have them serve other agendas. Of course, good wargame design can reduce some of these problems of bias and cognitive filtering. However, the design alone is not enough: serious gamers also need to think to about the broader processes within which their games are embedded.

Trew: Can Strategy be Playful?

The following guest post is by Lt Col Jason M. Trew (USAF), a senior pilot and a graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). He is currently studying the history of technology at Auburn University. Part of his doctoral research is about the relationship between playfulness and airmindedness. He welcomes any feedback regarding this article or his research project (


War and strategy are serious topics and theorists constantly search for appropriate images to better grasp their complex nature. In their search, it is not uncommon to apply metaphors of games, such as gambling or wrestling. Indeed, a useful tool to “examine warfighting concepts, train and educate commanders and analysts, explore scenarios, and assess how force planning and posture choices affect campaign outcomes” is war gaming.[1]

Does the image of a game imply playfulness? Is it appropriate to frame strategy as playful? There is actually some ancient precedent for this, as reported by Plato in his dialogue, Laches.[2] Additionally, the literature on play is sometimes remarkably similar to strategic theory. In the list of quotes below, can you determine which ones are referring to military strategy or war, and which ones are from scholars analyzing play?

  • “[It] proceeds according to a set of artificial rules and, to the extent that it does, stands apart from ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life.”[3]
  • “[Participants] try to position themselves within a protected occasion that contains both familiar and unfamiliar elements and that possesses problems or challenges they consider intriguing or significant…players address and respond to some of the challenges, tensions, or conflicts…[it is] a form of problem solving.”[4]
  • “[Thinking about this activity requires] imagination, insight, intuition, ability to put one’s self in another person’s position, understanding of the wellsprings of human motivation”[5]
  • “[In] a de-centered world, change, randomness, particularity, cultural and social diversity, conflict, and ambiguity [it] is perhaps the most appropriate response to contemporary circumstances.”[6]
  • “[It] is about exploration and the development of new ways of seeing, thinking, and being.”[7]
  • “[It is performed] before audiences who not only critically evaluate but also contribute to an unfolding scenario that has neither clear beginnings nor ends.”[8]
  • “[It is] confined only by the event horizon of possibilities, a horizon which expands anew with every action. A potentially unlimited panorama of choices may be revealed with the next moment. There is no beginning or end…only more or less.”[9]
  • “[It] occurs in physical environments that both enable the activity and provide forms of resistance…fostered by conditions that are ambiguous, novel, and changing.”[10]
  • “[It is] not a thing…It is an idea, a product of the imagination. It is about the future, and above all it is about change. It is anticipation of the probable and preparation for the possible.”[11]
  • “References to ‘adaptive variability’ and ‘selective simulations’ at the beginning and end suggest that it is best not to think of [it] as a thing…but as a series of connected events. In this respect, [it] resembles a revolution, or a journey, or growth, or acceleration, or other processes that unfold and move along at varying rates….a process of unfolding in the direction of order supplies the most useful trope for framing [it].”[12]
  • “[It] does not seek a specific outcome or decision.”[13]
  • “[It is] often about relations of power, showdowns that make public the respective capabilities of the persons and groups involved…people do not always win or get their way. To some extent, they do not desire that they should always win.”[14]
  • “[It] is not about winning,” but more about “embracing perpetual novelty.”[15]
  • “[It] promotes the survival…when confronted with new or difficult circumstances.”[16]
  • “Surprises must be expected. They must be embraced and seized upon as opportunity.”[17]
  • “[It is] an exploration of powers and predicaments…[to] find out what we can—and cannot—do and to see if we can extend our capabilities. As a consequence of these attempts, we also learn what the world can do to us.”[18]
  • “[It is characterized as] a Conceptual Spiral for Generating: Insight – Imagination – Initiative.”[19]
  • “[The purpose of it is to] make coherent their possibilities for acting in the world.”[20]
  • “[To be effective] we need a variety of possibilities as well as the rapidity to implement and shift among them.”[21]
  • “[It is] a kind of performance, an acting out of imaginative possibilities”[22]
  • “[It involves the] “play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam.”[23]

Can you tell which ones strategists wrote and which were written about play? Starting with the first quote, every other line is from the former. The overlap is interesting, but—to quote another strategic theorist—“so, what?”[24] Are there really advantages to construing strategy in this way, even in serious military matters?

Answering that question requires a preemptive reply to a reasonable objection: warfare and play are not coincident domains. Metaphors, however, never are. As the saying goes, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”[25] The utility is found both within the overlap between contrasting images and where they diverge; a process that itself has been described as cognitive play.

Like other mammals, physical play is a critical component of our childhood development. But humans also play, and play for much longer throughout our life, in the domain we command: the so-called cognitive niche. Our evolutionary advantages accrue from intelligent decisions and that intelligence is nurtured by mentally playing with patterns, stories, and metaphors.[26] In other words, even if strategy is never playful, working through the competing images—that is, playing with the metaphor—yields cognitive benefits useful to strategists.

The alternating quotes above, however, reveal that strategy and play do share some elements. Therefore, those who have a role in the strategic process (theorizing, modeling, execution, etc.) should explore the origins and consequences of those connections; not in spite of the gravity of war, but precisely because of its high stakes.

We should not neglect any source of strategic wisdom, regardless of how peculiar it may first appear. Strategy as play does seem outlandish, bordering on inappropriate. But, even Carl von Clausewitz characterized war, in part, as the “play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam.” Or was that someone writing about playfulness?

Jason Trew

[1] “Wargaming.” RAND. (accessed November 12, 2016).

[2] “The Athenian Sophists Euthydemus and Dionysodorus applied their skills to military strategy, explicitly calling their approach (as reported by Plato in his dialogue Laches) ‘playful’” (Armand D’Angour, “Plato and Play: Taking Education Seriously in Ancient Greece,” American Journal of Play, Volume 5, Number 3 (2013), 304).

[3] Martin van Crevald, War and Technology (2010), 286.

[4] Thomas S. Henricks, “Play as Self-Realization: Toward a General Theory of Play,” American Journal of Play, Volume 6, Number 2 (2014), 192-3.

[5] Jessie Bernard, quoted in Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (2013), 153.

[6] Henricks, 194.

[7] Dolman, Pure Strategy (2005), 188.

[8] Henricks, 195.

[9] Dolman, 13.

[10] Henricks, 195-6.

[11] Dolman, 1.

[12] Scott G. Eberle, “The Elements of Play: Toward a Philosophy and a Definition of Play” Journal of Play, Volume 6, Number 2 (2014), 220.

[13] Dolman, 43.

[14] Henricks, 205.

[15] Dolman, 5, 132.

[16] Henricks, 196.

[17] Dolman, 126.

[18] Henricks, 204.

[19] John Boyd, quoted in Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (2006), 228.

[20] Henricks, 190.

[21] John Boyd, quoted in Osinga, 186.

[22] Henricks, 195.

[23] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (1989), 89.

[24] Colin S. Gray, “Out Of The Wilderness: Prime Time For Strategic Culture,”

Defense Threat Reduction Agency Advanced Systems and Concepts Office (2006), 12.

[25] George E. P. Box and Norman R. Draper, Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces (1987).

[26] Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (2010).

A simple planning game

On Thursday, as part of my talk at Duke University on gaming peace and conflict issues in the Middle East, I ran through a couple of turns of ISIS Crisis to demonstrate how a matrix game functions. That led to an interesting post-presentation discussion with one of the attendees, a US special forces officer, on how a matrix game might be used to generate vignettes for tactical exercises or problem-solving discussions.

Today I had a had a discussion over coffee in Alexandria, VA with Ratiba Tauti-Cherif, who specializes in planning, monitoring and evaluation of aid and peacebuilding programmes. She was interested in how a game might be used in a training context to develop local capacity in this area. Here too it seemed to me that a hybrid approach involving some matrix game elements could be quite effective.


The results of those two discussions can be seen above, in what—for the want of a better name—I’m calling a simple planning game. It essentially works like this:

Participants are given problem to be addressed, whether it is an aid program to designed and implement, or a military objective to be achieved, or something else.

  1. The  major steps or benchmarks to achieve the desired outcome are pre-identified by the instructor (represented above by the arrows marked Steps #1-3). These might be the primary elements of the planning, monitoring, and evaluation process for an aid project, for example, or the key stages in the Military Decision Making Process, or even a series of tactical challenges as part of a broader operation.
  2. Participants are divided into groups, representing real life actors. In a development context these might be local NGOs, the private sector, local and national government, donor agencies, and so forth. In a military context these might represent some combination of staff roles and units/capabilities. One member from each group is temporarily assigned to the Red Team.
  3. The members of the Red Team identify an obstacle appropriate to the current stage of the game, and explain how  it could derail the process or operation. The various player groups then discuss ways in which this obstacle could be overcome, and offer their ideas. As in a typical matrix game, each good argument or idea generated by the participants generates a +1 die roll bonus, while each solid argument from the Red Team imposes a -1 penalty. A d6 is rolled, and the marker is advanced (or retreated) the appropriate number of positions down the track (indicated by blue squares on the image above). This processes is repeated until the participants reach the next major step/task.

    Example: The participants are trying to design and implement a project to address high maternal death rates in a developing country. The Red Team argues that conservative religious leaders might be suspicious or hostile to outside efforts to address pregnancy and child-birth (-1 modifier). The aid actors respond by suggesting outreach to national religious leaders (+1) as well as engagement with community leaders in local areas (+1). The players roll a 4, which with a net +1 modifier advances them a total of five spaces towards their first major task.

  4. When the participants arrive at a major step/task, they are given a relevant group activity or practical exercise to complete before returning to the game. In an aid game this might be a outlining a strategy for stakeholder consultation, for example; in a military game it might be developing a proposed Course of Action.
  5. Members of the previous Red Team go back to their original actor teams, and a new Red Team is formed with new members. As before, the Red Team identifies an obstacle, other players try to overcome it, a d6 is rolled and modified, and the marker continues towards the next major step/task.
  6. The session ends when the players have reached the desired endpoint.

Organizing a session in this way allows a variety of individual topics and learning objectives to be integrated into a single coherent narrative. A skilled facilitator would be able to subtly adjust the pace of the game so that everything remains on schedule, thus addressing the time constraints of an organized course. Teams might even be given a limited number of deus ex machina or lucky break cards—things like extra resources, appeals to senior leaders , or a serendipitous meeting with a key interlocutor—that allow them to overcome obstacles that would otherwise bog down gameplay.

Facilitators would also be able to  modify the degree of challenge during the game so that it remains appropriate for the participants, and to make sure that everyone feels able to contribute. The game and argument/counter-argument components should help to keep everyone energized and engaged.

Since players would rotate through temporary service as a member of the Read Team, they would  gain experience both in identifying potential obstacles and in finding creative ways of overcoming them.One could instead have experienced staff or subject matter experts serve as the Red Team. This would add to the credibility of the the Red Team’s objections and ideas, although at the cost of exposing everyone to the experience of red teaming in policy planning.

If the outputs from each group activity were integrated into a single final product—for example, a Powerpoint presentation, report, or brief-back—players would hopefully come away from it all with a sense of real substantive accomplishment. In a larger group with multiple facilitators, one could even run the simple planning game as a competition, with an award given to the group that most effectively masters the process and generates high quality outputs from each of the group exercises.

Want to give this approach a try in your own training program or classroom? Contact me, and (if my time permits) I would be happy to help you customize it for your needs.

Last Turn Madness: Jim Wallman on megagames


The latest edition of the podcast Last Turn Madness has an excellent interview with evil genius Jim Wallman of Megagame Makers on the history, design, and future of megagaming. Megagames are large mass-participation games on both historical and fictional topics that use minimalist rules and instead emphasize developing narrative, player interaction, and emergent game play. Jim designed and ran the New World Order 2035 megagame we held at McGill earlier this year.

Among the many interesting issues explored in the conversation are the changing demographics of megagame participation, and the ways in which this has influenced both game design and play. Jim also discusses the central importance of narrative engagement, his “less is more” game design philosophy, the role of the Control team, and how to encourage player creativity without allowing them to exploit loopholes or break a game’s basic assumptions and reality. His serious game work is addressed too, with mentions of both the Connections UK professional wargaming conference (where he ran a game on the civil war in Binni) and PAXsims.


Jim Wallman at work at the New World Order 2035 megagame (McGill University).

Jim also mentions the the forthcoming “Wide-Area Megagame” that will be held in early July 2017. The scenario for this will be a massive crisis in a fictionalized United States, involving multiple simultaneous linked games played in cities across the UK. We’ll be participating in this from Montreal too, playing the role of neighbouring “Northland.” If you’re in the Montreal area, are interested in participating, and don’t mind getting up very, very early in the morning (we’ll be playing on UK time), drop me a line!

h/t Ben Moores

Gaming foreign policy (at the FCO)

Today I spent an enjoyable day at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, running an abbreviated version of the ISIS Crisis matrix game and discussing how gaming approaches can contribute to policy analysis in a foreign ministry setting. About a dozen people participated, most of them FCO research analysts.

My notes for the session can be found here. I started by highlighting the ways in which serious games could be used to explore issues of crisis, conflict, foreign policy, and related issues. We then launched into ISIS Crisis. This proceeded rather more slowly than usual, partly because foreign ministry staff tend to more spend a little more time verbally framing their actions, but mainly because we devoted considerable time to discussing strengths, weakness, and possible variations in the game methodology as we went along.

ISIS started things off by organizing a successful terrorist attack against a cruise liner in Greece, which boosted their morale and reputation. Alleged civilian casualties from an unsuccessful US drone strike against a senior ISIS leader were also used in jihadist propaganda.

In Iraq, the Kurds tried to take advantage of Baghdad’s focus on Mosul to consolidate their control of the city of Kirkuk. The Iraqi government responded by bolstering its own forces in the Kirkuk area. This resulted in a tense stand-off that was eventually defused through Iranian mediation. The Kurds then sought to use the incident to reopen negotiations on a range of revenue-sharing and constitutional issues, but the central government showed little interest.

The incident also put the long-planned campaign to recapture Mosul behind schedule. When Iraqi forces sought to regain the initiative by pressing forward in a poorly-coordinated fashion they suffered heavy casualties from determined ISIS resistance.

Meanwhile, the failure of Baghdad to address Sunni grievances, coupled with a growing Iranian role and the continued presence of Shiite militias in Sunni areas only increased Sunni alienation. The Sunni opposition player was increasingly disinclined to cooperate with the central government in counter-ISIS actions, and successfully sought funding from Saudi Arabia (which only worsened relations between Baghdad and Riyadh).

We finished up with a discussion of the game and its methodology. I made the point that games need to be designed for their intended purpose, that they could be useful in generating questions and issues for further examination, and that they usually worked best when they formed part of a broader process of policy analysis.

I hope the participants found the day as useful as I did. Particular thanks are due to Owen ElliottHead of the FCO’s Africa Research Group, who arranged the session.

Connections 2016 conference report

The following report on the recent Connections (US) interdisciplinary wargaming conference was provided by Major Tom Mouat (UK Army). All views expressed herein are personal ones.



In a moment of madness, I agreed with Rex Brynen that I would attempt to put together a report on Connections 2016 for PAXsims – and this is my attempt at such a report. It is important to warn you that Rex normally types on this laptop during the proceedings at a conference and is thus able to provide a contemporaneous report of what occurred. This was simply not possible for me; firstly, because I lack the expertise (I need to think about stuff for a lot longer than he does and I type really slowly) and secondly, because the conference took place in the excellent facilities of the Lemay Centre Wargaming Institute at Maxwell Airforce Base (which is a secure location – so no laptops, phones, etc).

This was unfortunate, as getting clearance to get on base was a significant hurdle to overcome and that, along with the added travel burden of not being on a non-stop flight location, made attendance much more difficult. If it wasn’t for the significant support from the on-site organiser, I wouldn’t have made it (but I believe I was the only “foreigner”). American Airlines didn’t help (missing my flight connections on the way in and making my return journey a 26hr marathon on the way back), but the Delta Airlines computer glitch messed up a lot of other people’s plans as well.

The conference programme is here  and the presentations should also be posted on the Connections website shortly.

Day 1

The initial session was a SECRET NOFORN (No Foreigners) brief, so I headed off with Matt Caffrey for an Introduction to Wargaming brief instead. Since the audience consisted of vastly experienced civilian wargamers and me, it turned into a feedback and support session on Matt’s briefing slides and a very pleasant chat about the best way to get the message about the importance of wargaming to an unfamiliar audience.

A number of useful things came out of this for me, one of which was the concept of tailoring Red force play in a wargame depending on the objectives of the event (What do you want Red to do? What should Red do for best value?)


Next up was Cdr Phil Pournelle with a presentation on Improving Wargaming in the DOD. I have heard several elements of his presentation before, but his arguments (and slides) are developing in a way that is very useful in helping to explain the subject and issues to an often sceptical audience. I would definitely recommend taking a look at his slide pack when it is posted on-line.

The vexed question of the actual definition of a wargame came up again and Phil had bullied Peter Perla into providing another definition (a variant on his previous one) with phrases like “a dynamic representation of conflict”, “people”, “decisions” and “consequences”. The issue of having an agreed definition of wargaming (or even general agreement on whether it should be spelled “war gaming” or “wargaming”) was mentioned several times. The concern was that the field is so broad that an all-encompassing definition is so bland as to be useless, and a more precise definition always excludes some segment of the discipline. This, in turn, leads the practitioners (who are all protective of their particular sub-discipline) to meddle and nit-pick with the definition to no useful purpose.

My personal view is that this a complete waste of time and effort. It doesn’t matter what the definition is – what matters is what wargaming does and why you would want to do it. We should therefore agree on a bland all-encompassing definition (to satisfy those who say we need one), but add “with the aim of” and then individual departments are free to mess with their personal aims to their heart’s content – and we can then all get on with some productive work.

I really don’t care what the definition is – but it isn’t a Wargame unless Blue can fail. J

This was followed by Dr Shawn Burns presenting on the Game Project Management Process. This was given from the perspective of the US DOD, whose scale and reach is orders of magnitude larger than most other countries wargaming efforts, but nevertheless the basics are applicable to all projects. The project management flow of: Task – Design – Development – Testing – Rehearsal – Execution – Analysis – Archive was clear and sensible, but his insight into the concept of Jidoka (taken from the Toyota production system) and the “5 Whys” was of particular interest.

The overall concept is summarised here, but the “5 Whys” process is simply the iterative process of asking “why” until the root cause of a problem is discovered. Shawn’s view (and I wholeheartedly support it) was that you should do the same with your Wargame Sponsor to work out what the sponsor really wants to achieve (which may be completely different to what you thought it was—or even from what he thought it was!).

The presentation on the OSD Wargaming Initiative was fascinating insight into how the Wargaming Repository project (a result of the DEPSECDEF memo) and US DOD process management was progressing. What was clear is that significant funding has been made available for wargaming initiatives (significant at least for the rest of us – they might seem small as DOD projects go), and the risk that things that weren’t really wargames would be classed as such in order to get money. There was a responsibility for those involved in wargaming to use the repository and to ensure that they get their messaging right to compensate for this.

There then followed Service briefs for the different environments which, while I was able to recognise more words after attending several Connections conferences, the majority of it went straight over my head. I can only presume that it served the vital function of maintaining “situational awareness” among the other Service branches – but from my outsider’s view it appeared to me that many of the challenges faced were very similar and that the USMC had the most coherent plan (and funding) for dealing with them. Time will tell if this is the case.

There seemed to me to be quite a lot on explaining procedural issues within the US DOD, fostering connections (!) and explaining structures and rather less on sharing best practice – but it takes a brave person to say something is “best practice” in front of this audience.

Cdr Chris Baker’s presentation on Stakeholder Management was good and matched my experiences in the UK Defence Procurement organisation. Far too many people in management positions seem to expect stakeholders merely to be asked their opinion (irrespective of whether they have any qualifications or formal training in the subject) (as opposed to just being appointed to their position) as if by aggregating these views together wisdom or innovation will magically appear. Leadership is required, as typified by the quote from Dr James Brown “Stakeholders expect you to lead… manage expectations… even if they are more powerful than you are”; if time is not to be wasted repeating work already done, or money wasted on “shiny toys” that don’t contribute to the outcomes we need.


As always Dr Stephen Downes-Martin’s talk on Wargaming Pathologies was really excellent – brutal and uncompromising in shining a light on why things go bad, but offering clear advice on what can be done. None of the advice was easy or trivial: You need deep knowledge and competence in your subject, Suitably Qualified and Experienced Personnel (SQEP), objective analysis of what we are trying to achieve and the results we gained, and above all, morale courage to ensure that we do the right thing. Too many wargames are compromised by a lack of professional ethics, competence and courage in the face of your Boss, the Sponsor and Senior Players.

We also had Lt Gen Steven L Kwast, Commander Air University, provide a particularly rousing keynote address. There might have been some criticism that his words might be somewhat lacking in practical results, but the very fact that a 3-Star Officer was taking the time to address the conference and say the right things, shows he is aware of the issues and understands the desired direction of travel. I especially liked his comments on “smart risk” and his use of the language of insurgency in order to get the message through to younger personnel. He mentioned the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie as an example of overcoming the tangled mess of corporate rules, systems, procedures and red tape, which has had very good reviews (including by Sally Jewell the US Secretary of the Interior): .

We then had explanations about various working groups and game labs. I elected to get involved in Matt Caffery’s group on “Growing Tomorrows’ Innovators” and did a demonstration session of a Cyber Matrix Game (a simplified version is available here:!ArdcexVTLJ4Pgdle6885ZelqslZHiw).

This was followed by some extremely useful discussions in the evening at the icebreaker no-host event.


Day 2

This started with Dr Burns’ presentation on Cyber Wargaming which we missed the preceding day. This was very useful – particularly for me as at the Defence Academy of the UK, the Simulation, Modelling and Wargaming department works to the Cyber and Information Management department and we run a cyber wargame as part of the Cyber Operational Awareness Course.

A number of helpful points were raised, based on Prof Stephanie Helm’s work looking into Cyber Considerations for Wargaming:

  • What is “Cyber”? How do you define “Cyber”? (How do you define Wargaming?)
  • The relationship between Cyber and Electronic Warfare (EW) or Information Operations (IO).
  • Operational factors such as Time, Space and levels of Force.
  • What does a Cyber Common Operational Picture (COP) look like?
  • What is Offensive Cyber?
  • What is Defensive Cyber?

From this fall out important questions that need to be addressed when designing a wargame that incorporates Cyber elements. Where does Cyber fit at the strategic level? How does it fit into the game objectives? Are the issues relevant to the decisions being made? Who is the bad guy?

We then covered the vexed problem of classification. Many aspects of operational Cyber capabilities are very highly classified; not just the ways and means, but the organisations and their relationships. This severely restricts the ability to wargame (or even discuss) the issues to gain the insights so badly needed. Is it possible to separate out the classified “actors, ways and means” from the unclassified and generalised “effects”?

This was a very helpful, and I shall be briefing this presentation specifically back to my department when the slides become available.

We were then privileged to have Brig Gen Brian M. Killough, Director of Strategy, Concepts and Assessments, Dep Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, HQ USAF give us a presentation on the Wargaming Enterprise.

General Killough, like General Kwast, inevitably demonstrated the General officer’s ability to start things off with a politically correct joke, but struck me as having a more grounded and realistic view of wargaming (warts and all) than the relentlessly upbeat talk from General Kwast. He also provided the first easy to understand view of what the 3rd Offset Strategy actually was.

I especially liked his points about including some of the weird stuff (avoiding predictable incrementalism) and the dangers of making wargames too big (because you simply don’t learn anything new). He was challenged on some points (after all he is “only a One-Star”), but I felt he gave frank and honest responses about the difficulties to be faced in the current fiscal environment. “Show me your cheque-book and I’ll show you what is important to you.”

Wargaming is not a science but I believe that several of our senior leadership understand the value of it – but equally they realise that it is an art form, so it can’t be mandated. It also is really hard to quantify, consequently they will have extreme challenges in funding and priorities, so I suspect that the best we can really hope for is encouragement and support. As Cdr Phil Pournelle said “we really ought to be able to game the system to get what we want – if we really call ourselves wargamers…”.

This was followed by an absolutely fascinating presentation by Robert Mosher entitled “Observations from a Role Player”, giving really grounded and sensible advice on the role of role-players, their functions, how to manage and prepare them properly and some top tips, such as:

  • Don’t fight the White (the exercise scenario). (Nit picking the scenario won’t help at this stage).
  • Understand the role/training objectives. (Not all roles are created equal and you have a function to do).
  • Ask questions early. (Don’t make too many assumptions)
  • Draw on your real world experience (in context).
  • Remember you are in Atropia now! (read your brief and don’t assume it’s just like Kansas…).
  • Be there for real-world mentoring. (Experience in these roles is transferable).

He was able to draw on his great depth of experience to illustrate his points with practical examples. His brief exactly matched my experience in that having role-play and experience role-players is incredibly valuable – especially in the situations the military find themselves in today’s operations (and his experience is pretty much second to none!).

During the preparations for the NATO deployment to Bosnia in 1994 some of the most valuable lessons (such as the need for a Political Advisor to the Commander and the need for a “Joint Military Commission” to handle all communication and dealing with the factions) came directly out of role-play sessions in the work-up training exercises and had not been foreseen beforehand.

Following the Working Groups initial discussions and lunch (I have to point out here that the fresh fruit and endless coffee / iced water were are real boon and very much appreciated) we went into speaker panels.

Panel One was Chaired by Dr Downes-Martin and looked at ideas and techniques explicitly intended to test to destruction proposed “innovative wargaming concepts”, which featured Dr. Hank Brightman (Naval War College) “Employing Qualitative Methods in the Destructive Testing of War Game Designs”; Dr. Jonathan Lockwood (Lockwood Research Associates, LLC) “Strategic Free Play Wargaming as the Optimum Approach for Testing New Concepts” and Dr. Yuna Wong (RAND) “Did Your Concept or Your Wargame Fail?”.

C2016-4There were a lot of good ideas and concept in these presentations. I was struck by the idea (that matched several speaker’s comments) that before you embark on a quantitative model, you really need to explain and demonstrate a qualitative model to start with – because if you can’t then it is highly likely that your quantitative model has shaky foundations. Dr Wong, as usual was compelling in her presentation – if we pretend to be scientists or engineers, we should try to employ the scientific method, Discover, Demonstrate, Support, Refute, Replicate and examine our validity criteria: Construct validity, internal validity and external validity. Do wargames generate innovation? Or is it that innovative organisations use wargames? Is wargaming an indicator of an innovative organisation rather than a generator of innovation itself?

The second panel, to Explore the effectiveness and feasibility of options to facilitate the development of innovators, was Chaired by Matt Caffrey with Major Eric Frahm, LCWI, Back to the Future: Revisiting Small-Scale Wargames and the Integration of M&S into Wargame Design; Dr. Mel Deaile, Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies, The Risk of Wargaming and Joseph M. Saur, MS/CS, CMSP, Principal Lecturer in Cybersecurity, Regent University, “Teaching Wargaming at Marine Corps University: Lessons Learned”.

This panel was right on the money for me with discussions on the scale of wargames (we don’t need big games to be effective), the dangers of “Gamer Mode” (See Anders Frank’s doctoral thesis on the subject) and the often dreadfully biased assumptions made by many involved.

In the evening I was able to demonstrate the Sandhurst Kriegsspiel, used in teaching cadets at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (available here).

Day 3

On Day 3 we were privileged to have a presentation by Colonel John Warden (ret.) (the man responsible for starting the whole Connections conference off in the first place). He spoke without notes and laid out his vision of low cost, small footprint, short war interventions.

This was followed by the third speaker panel, Wargaming and Organizational Change, with the objective to explore ways to implement the appropriate application of wargaming. The Chair was Paul Vebber with Dr. John Tiller, John Tiller Software, Strategies for Organizational Change, A Practical Approach; Michael K. Robel, Principle Senior System Engineer, General Dynamics Information Technology, Innovations in Outcome Based Training for Seminar Wargames; and Dr. Thomas Choinski, Deputy Director for Undersea Warfare, Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Macro Perspectives on Wargame Culture and Innovation.

There were some interesting ideas, particularly on Action Theory with regards to wargaming and innovation, taking an artefact, the system of manufacture, the technique and then the system of use; translating to Science and Engineering, Acquisition, and Doctrine, to the Warfighter. When considering computer simulation, Cdr Pournelle made the observation that if we are after innovation in ends, ways, means and methods, then using a simulation, by definition, handicaps your chances as it can only do what has been programmed into it – it is simply impossible to do something new (except in the most trivial of ways). It was interesting, however, to see direct parallels when considering the success factors in computer wargame design with manual wargame designs, in that it is important it looks good, it has a serious purpose, it is easy to get started with, it is engaging to play, it is easy to modify and it needs an advocate to provide “top cover”.

I then outlined the recent advances in Wargaming in the UK which were guardedly promising but still hampered by a lack of doctrine and the Connections UK Conference taking place on 06 to 08 September 2016 (see here for details).

Further sessions of the game labs were then continued. I volunteered to run a session in which we designed and ran a Matrix Game from scratch. I am extremely grateful to my willing bunch of volunteers for jumping in so whole-heartedly and putting up with my adjudication. We managed to do a run through of a scenario set in a Mega-City in Africa to a suitable finishing point within about 2 hours and then spent some time discussing Matrix Games. I have typed up a copy of the game (with a few changes) here.


This was most useful and, in keeping with Prof Downes-Martin’s exhortation to be intellectually honest, led to the production of a short SWOT analysis of Matrix Games.


Day 4

Day 4 was really briefing back the results of the Game Labs and the Working Groups. The brief from Matt Caffery’s Working Group on “Growing Tomorrow’s Wargame Innovators” almost exactly matched the conclusion that we had come to in the UK. There is a need for a graduated set of training courses following the Awareness – Practitioner – Expert model of training, with some form of short “Master Class” for senior officers. Our proposal is to have the Awareness Training available on-line (and this is in-hand), with the rest a mix of classroom sessions and distance learning. A Training Needs Analysis is currently underway and a business case will follow early next year.

The brief from Paul Vebber about designing an educational game, for non-military, non-wargamers to do with Naval Warfare in a complex environment, was very interesting. Called “Waves of Destiny” (and winning from the title alone!) it was intended as a very simple game to educate people about capabilities. I hope to be following this up later and look forward to playtesting the results.

Essentially there was a realisation that we need simple, accessible tools in order to train and educate people about understanding capability, learning to think against real opposition and also becoming “intimately or at least casually acquainted with a number of people that they might have occasion to work with or rely on in the future” (as Tom Shelling once noted).

The hot wash-up followed. This year’s attendance was lower than previously, mainly due to the location, but hopefully this will be fixed by returning to Quanitco and the Marine Corps next year. There were suggestions that we should put out a “Call for Papers”, deliberately invite or have a working group specifically for “under 35s”, and also invite the contributing authors to Zones of Control to participate.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a few quotes that I wrote in my notebook:

  • “Wargaming is a motivator to action not a quantifier of effect”.
  • “Wargaming should fix stupid”.
  • “We should play “The Game of Games” and work out how to get wargaming used more”.
  • “Games having analytically quantifiable results is necessary, but not sufficient”.
  • “The danger is that Wargaming can be taken too seriously, or not seriously enough”.
  • “Show me your chequebook and I’ll show you what is important to you”.

I was asked by a friend whether it was worth it for him to attend Connections after I returned to the UK. I was a little surprised at how difficult it was to answer the question. The problem is the sense of scale and range of professional wargaming in the USA – it is so large an enterprise and so full of specialisation that it can be difficult to find comparative value with the much smaller scale work carried out in Europe. Some of the presentations are only of interest (or be the least bit understandable) for the US DOD participants (but this is entirely fair). It also has somewhat of a “folksy charm” that might infuriate some people when everyone disperses at the end of the day to participate in game sessions in various rooms without some formal notice. The experienced attendee knows when to interrupt to announce a session and how to ferret out those individuals they want to speak with after the formal work is over. This might leave the first timer adrift and feeling left out. I found it to be full of ideas and moments of inspiration that make such an event essential to my professional development, but I think that much of the value is only gained by regular attendance – so I intend to be back next year!

Dstl wargaming trip report (or, I visited Portsdown West and all I got was this lousy mug)

Last month I visited the UK for a week of discussions on professional wargaming. My trip report has now been cleared for publication (public release identifier DSTL/PUB097079), and I’m pleased to present it below. It was a terrific visit as you’ll see!


 Dstl Day 1: Wargaming and its challenges

In late June I spent a week as a guest of Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), at their Portsdown West campus near Portsmouth. Dstl is an executive agency, sponsored by the Ministry of Defence. Dstl ensures that “innovative science and technology contribute to the defence and security of the UK.”

Dstl responsibilities include:

  • supplying sensitive and specialist science and technology services for MOD and wider government
  • providing and facilitating expert advice, analysis and assurance on defence procurement
  • leading on the MOD’s science and technology programme
  • understanding risks and opportunities through horizon-scanning
  • acting as a trusted interface between MOD, wider government, the private sector and academia to provide science and technology support to military operations by the UK and her allies
  • championing and developing science and technology skills across MOD

I was hosted by Dstl’s Wargaming Team, the team having recently been described in a memo to the UK MOD Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff as: “an MOD S&T asset responsible for enabling MOD’s wider wargaming activity”.

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Since WWII, Dstl and its predecessors have had a good track record of delivering wargames, mainly in support of decision support and operations. One of the current challenges for the team is determining how best to reinvigorate, and grow, a wargaming capability (a combination of people, processes, and tools) that can respond to the high levels of customer interest and demand. One of the ways that the team is tackling this problem is by capitalising on external expertise, in particular academic staff who specialise in, and have a passion for, topics such as political science coupled with game design.

They certainly kept me busy, with four and a half full days of lectures, workshops, and discussions on various aspects of wargaming.

I started on Monday with a presentation on The Social Science of Gaming in which I presented ten sets of findings from social science research that I thought had important implications for wargame design and implementation. Since this was a first draft of my September keynote address at the Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference, I won’t spoil the surprise by posting the lecture slides here—instead, you’ll have to come to King’s College London in a month’s time.


Next, I was asked to give a brief on A Personal Journey Through (Sometimes) Serious Gaming, in which I discussed may own background first as a wargaming hobbyist and later as a social scientists using serious games to support teaching and analysis. [slides here]. Among the highlights was a satellite photo of the exact location in a British schoolyard where, in the autumn of 1975, I met my first two fellow teen wargamers, David Knowles and Matthew Hayward. The legendary (to us) Lymington and District Wargames Club would be born soon thereafter.


In the afternoon attention turned to a presentation entitled Blessed are the Cheesemakers: The Challenges of Gaming Information Operations [slides here]. The title of the talk was a reference to a memorable scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and I was happy to be speaking in a place where most of the audience recognized it. I offered some thoughts on gaming IOs: either as an adjunct to another, generally, kinetic process, or as a primary focus (focusing either on their employment, as part a process, or in an effort to develop content).


Information and influence, I noted, were part of highly contextual social and political processes that were often poorly understood, so I was a bit dubious about placing a great deal of weight on the specific outputs of IO-focused games.

Instead, I suggested, such games should largely be valued for their heuristic value in generating greater critical awareness of the role, potential, limitations, and difficulties of information and influence operations. Members of the audience also offered a great deal of useful insight into the issue, based on their own experience. As with almost all my sessions at Dstl I may have taken away far more from the conversation than I ever contributed.

The final session was devoted to Managing Player and Client Engagement: Skeptics, Seekers, and Enthusiasts [slides here].


I had more to say on the player end than with regard to clients, since in many cases I’m my own client or have been given very free reign to design a game as I see fit. Much of the discussion ended up focusing on problems—such as unwillingness of players, especially senior players, to risk losing—and how they might be dealt with. Not for the first time I argued that managing players and game facilitation was a skill more closely related to roleplaying games than conventional hobby wargaming—a point that I really need to develop into a full PAXsims post sometime. I learned a lot from the experiences and approaches that were shared by members of Dstl, and there were certainly several ideas that I’ll add to my game design and facilitation toolkit.


Dstl Day 2: Daesh and matrix gaming

The second day of my visit involved a game of the ISIS Crisis matrix game, followed by an extended discussion of the potential use of matrix game methods for educational and analytical gaming. Major Tom Mouat—who developed most of the materials for the game—was there too.

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The game itself was insightful. The Iraqi government tried to launch a systematic campaign to advance north towards Mosul, but found itself stymied by poor coordination with supposed allies, ISIS terrorism, Iranian heavy-handedness, and internal tensions. The Kurds did well and finally manage to secure some extra heavy weapons from the US, but advanced little beyond their start positions. One US air strike in support of the Iraqi government went very wrong, exacerbating Sunni anger and causing a brief hiatus in the tempo of American operations. Iran, concerned that the Iraqi cabinet was insufficiently compliant, sponsored a proliferation of Shiite militias under its direct control. Although ISIS lost some of the territory under its control, it was able to use US and Iranian actions to spur additional recruitment. Finally, the Sunni opposition eventually rose up against ISIS and supported the central government’s military campaign, but at the cost of increasing tension with the Shiite militias. This finally erupted into open sectarian fighting when Iranian-backed militias undertook security operations in the capital against suspected Sunni insurgents.

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After lunch, the post-game session was perhaps the richest and most valuable discussion of matrix gaming methods and applications that I’ve ever participated in. Among the topics we collectively addressed were:

  • Variations in format, including larger games with team dynamics (as I used last month at MIGS), games where a team leader selects from multiple potential courses of action proposed by team members (thus increasing the number of possible COAs (Course Of Actions) generated), distributed games, interlinked games, and matrix games used as an element of other, more traditional wargames.
  • Facilitator skills and requirements for subject matter expertise.
  • Suitability for various audiences.
  • Variations in adjudication methods.
  • Representation of kinetic and non-kinetic activity in matrix games.
  • Suitability for various topics recently wargamed by Dstl.
  • The value of developing a generic “matrix game construction kit” with basic components.


Dstl Day 3: AFTERSHOCK , humanitarian assistance, aid, and stabilization

The third day of activities at Dstl revolved around gaming issues of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). We started with a game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis. The players secured a modest success in dealing with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in fictional Carana. The NGO team did particularly well in racking up “organization points” (reflecting public profile and political capital), although their single-minded focus on shelter projects caused some friction with other teams. The HADR Task Force had successfully withdrawn almost all their personnel by the time the game ended, and the government—although politically vulnerable to the end—utilized its informal aid distribution networks to good effect, while managing to contain or defuse any social discontent. Needs assessments proved particularly important in identifying emerging needs and challenges.

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Later that same day I made a presentation on the considerations that had informed the design of AFTERSHOCK, as well as the various ways in which in might be used [slides here].

My other presentation this day was on Aid, Stabilization, and COIN (COunter INsurgency) [slides here]. In it I warned that many of the key assumptions of COIN doctrine—namely that victory is about legitimacy; poverty and unemployment generates support for armed opposition; legitimacy is about the delivery of core government services; patronage and corruption is bad; and that we know what we’re doing—were contingent relationships. Because of this, COIN doctrine, while a useful guide to what might work most of the time in most places, does not always provide useful guidance all of the time in all places. This suggests a vital need to promote critical thinking and a willingness to modify views and approaches. I particularly stressed the importance of avoiding hubris, and the powerful (often overriding) effects that politics among local actors has on outcomes.


Dstl Day 4: Hybrid Warfare and Measures Short of War

Thursday was hybrid warfare day at Dstl. I offered some thoughts [slides] on the notion of hybrid warfare, arguing that most warfare was hybrid and that conflict activities across a broad spectrum were hardly new. (Later I suggested that the term had come to mean “challenges from opponents that we did not anticipate, plus things we once did that we’ve forgotten how to do.” We also identified some of the things that are commonly identified as part of hybrid warfare.

hybrid warfare

After this, we spent the rest of the day playing a few turns of three different games. Each of these explored the topic from different perspectives using a different gaming system: LTC David Barsness’ Kaliningrad 2017 (a matrix game), Brian Train’s Ukrainian Crisis (a more traditional rules/assets/area-movement wargame), and Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth (a card-driven game).

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Kaliningrad 2017

In the matrix game, players were limited only by real-world capabilities in taking potential actions across the diplomatic/information/military/economic (DIME) spectrum. This approach certainly encouraged greater innovation by players, although at the cost of a single action per turn. Kaliningrad 2017 uses a number of marker tracks to measure the game effects of global opinion, nuclear escalation, and a refugee crisis, and this sparked discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach compared to the simpler design of ISIS Crisis. Generally I’m of the view that “less is more” in matrix games, and that marker tracks can risk excessively focusing player activities in a certain area.

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Ukrainian Crisis

Ukrainian Crisis builds on more explicit models and assumptions than does a matrix game. Here the analytical value is not in thinking of new applications of power (since these are predetermined in the rules), but rather discovering how the subsystems and constituent parts of a conflict might interact. Labyrinth also contains an established game model, with the cards being used both to drive these and to insert various capabilities and events. Conventional wargames can certainly do a better job of modeling combat operations than an argument-based matrix games, although they may have difficulty addressing innovation adaptation, or complex political and economic consequences arising from kinetic actions.

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Because of this, I am of the view that a matrix game often offers the best way of exploring broad issues of hybrid warfare, although more detailed examination of particular domain areas could benefit from a more rigorous rules- and models-based approach. A matrix game could also be combined with another gaming approach, with the former perhaps best suited for the diplomatic/information/economic aspects, while the latter could address kinetic military activities. I also think the nature of the topic lends itself well to multimodal examination, whereby the same scenario is explored using several different gaming methodologies, each offering somewhat different insights.

Ironically, one of the problems of a matrix game approach is that it does not require a great deal of preparation, nor need it involve a great deal of materials and complexity. This makes it an unattractive proposition for defence contractors and consultants since product creation and delivery generates relatively few billable hours. Similarly, a sponsor may feel that it does not seem enough of a tangible product compared with a more complex, traditional wargame.


Dstl Day 5: Gaming wicked and messy problems

During my final day at Dstl we looked at gaming “wicked” and “messy” problems, with a particular emphasis on mass migration and refugee crises. The concept of wicked problems (first developed in 1973 by Rittel and Webber) addresses planning issues that are characterized by ten key characteristics:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

“Messy problems,” on the other hand, are rooted in complex adaptive systems wherein the key variables and the relationships between them are unclear or poorly understood, and in which adaptive subsystems seek to survive environmental change.

After a very brief introduction to the topic [slides], I highlighted a number of refugee and migration games I have either (co)designed or played:

Two of these (marked * above) were not really proper games or simulations, but rather had used game mechanisms to help motivate players.

Thereafter, we turned our attentions to identifying a migration-related topic that could be usefully gamed. After identifying the audience and purpose of such a game, we spent the duration of the session brainstorming game ideas. Some very good ideas emerged for a matrix game involving major European actors (Germany, Italy, the Balkan republics), possibly Turkey, the United Nations, an “other actors/subject matter expert” player, and the migrants themselves.

The migrant player would start the game with a “migrant deck “of economic migrants and refugees that they would seek to move into Europe. These would be played face down, with the identity of the migrant revealed only when they reached a final destination , were otherwise prevented from doing so, or died—the purpose being to personalize the otherwise faceless statistic of migrant numbers. (Tom Mouat subsequently made up a set of these, which you can download via PAXsims here.)


Source: Business Insider, 15 September 2015.

Other players would react to migrant flows in appropriate ways. National politics would be addressed by having each country played by a team representing political parties with differing interests and objectives, so that team members were essentially in competition with each other. Much like MIGS versions of ISIS Crisis, this would allow for a game-within-the-matrix-game approach.

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Left to Right: Ruby Tabner, Stephen Ho, Me, Colin Marston and Mike Bagwell

The final day ended with a visit to Southwick House to visit the D-Day map room, followed by a pub lunch.


All-in-all it was an absolutely terrific visit that generated some excellent discussions and ideas regarding (war)gaming methodologies. Colin Marston and the others at Dstl were excellent hosts, and I even got a Portsdown West Wargaming Suite coffee mug out of the deal! I’m very grateful to Tom Mouat for helping out too. I’ll certainly look forward to seeing many of my UK counterparts again at the Connections UK conference in September.


Back home, with my mug.


Engle: Proposal for a simplified matrix game


PAXsims is pleased to present the final of a series of posts by Chris Engle on using the matrix game method. Today he offers some thoughts on how to simplify matrix games still further when exploring a common challenge.


Proposal for a simplified matrix game

Matrix games are a simple, low tech, low cost simulation tool that tends to be good at running highly fluid situations. It is gaining some attention now which means more people will take it up and make their own versions. This is a good thing but it also could mean a slow creep towards larger more complicated rules. I suggest that that is not the way to go.

Matrix games are simple now but can be made even simpler. The advantage in doing this is not just that it makes the system even lower cost but more importantly that it is easier to explain to policy makers, who often lack detailed knowledge of simulation techniques. When they can understand what a game is they are more likely to fund it. To this end I suggest the following rules.

  1. Define the nature of the game in the briefest way possible. A one page scenario description, maps, a list of possible goals and maybe a cast of important characters is more than enough to suggest a world matrix. The player’s own imaginations fill in the blanks without any additional effort from the designer.
  2. Start with a problem. Make it a simple statement. This is the question the game tries to answer.
  3. Players do not take on roles. Everyone cooperates to make the game happen. They all work towards answering the problem statement. Naturally players will identify with various characters in the story but they are not locked into only acting through that person.
  4. There is no order of play. Players jump in as they have ideas. This follows participant’s energy. Rigid procedures can stifle creativity.
  5. Players point to a scene or location and say what happens. They should write this down so there is a record of events for post-game analysis. Actions may be done in the form of arguments (an action, a result, and three reasons why) but don’t have to be. Novice gamers tend to just tell stories and that is okay.
  6. Other players may add to or alter the previous statement. This overwrites what the last person said. There need be no dice rolling, the effect is automatic but may lead to a discussion. It is possible for players to go entire sessions without ever using dice.
  7. Any player may call for another player to roll dice to see if their action fails. Each roll is 50/50. As many players as wish may ask for rolls. If multiple players do ask for this then it is appropriate to discuss why. If the action passes the roll then it happens and cannot be changed. If it fails, it does not happen and cannot happen in this game.
  8. Players may shift around from scene to scene inside the game as they wish. This allows the flow to go from critical event to critical event rather than get bogged down in minutia.
  9. Play continues until the initial problem is resolved. My experience is that this generally takes no more than an hour and can be done in less time if that is required.
  10. There is no game moderator but it helps to have a game host to encourage players to stay focused on the problem at hand. They do this by inviting players to say what happens next.
  11. All sessions should end with a debriefing period during which participants and spectators discuss what they learned.

I have used games like this in psychotherapy for over twenty years and found them very easy to administer. They can even be made up on the fly.

I invite people to take these rules and adapt them for their own purpose. All I ask is that you share your methods and results with the simulation community.

Chris Engle

Engle: Rapid turnaround matrix games

PAXsims is pleased to present more ideas from Chris Engle, the original inventor of the matrix game method. Today he offers some thoughts on how simple matrix games can be used to develop rapid insight into a challenge or issue.



One of the realities of consulting is the requirement for speed. Problems arise and clients demand they be solved immediately. Highly complex simulations could take weeks or longer to set up and run. This limits their utility. Matrix games offer a simulation technique that is much faster to implement.

A customer may call with a question and be able to get a simulation solution to it within as little as an hour.

All that it takes to create a matrix game is to define a problem and briefly describe the context. The problem can be as little as one sentence and a context statement no longer than a page. A single writer could create this in minutes. The next step is running the game.

Games require players but they do not need to be face to face. If they are (such as in a staff meeting or some other kind of committee) that is fine but a focus group of players can meet online just as easily. Whoever calls the meeting brings the game and asks the participants to play. Even full blown games need last no more than an hour and sometimes less.

Once the session is done the consultant should write up the results in a report or tell the customer verbally. Either way the consultant need only summarize the key ideas and themes that emerged through play.

Rapid turnaround games like this can be used to help train people, to try and reach a consensus amongst a staff, to explain a policy decision, or build a team. The uses are only limited by the imaginations of the participants.

I have experience running games like this in psychotherapy since the late 1980’s. In these games, I bring up the simulation as needed and fit it to my client’s needs. Preplanning is impossible in this context. I use it as it seems appropriate. In substance abuse and anger management groups it is a way for people to examine their cognitions and assumptions. In individual counseling it is a way for a client to explore a possible course of action safely.

I see no reason why this technique could not work for any number of other disciplines. All that is required is the ability to think on your feet.

Chris Engle

Engle: Iterative matrix games


Yesterday, matrix game inventor Chris Engle provided an overview of the history of the matrix gaming method for PAXsims. Today he offers some more thoughts, this time on bringing narrative games and quantitative analysis together.


Iterative matrix games: Bringing together narrative games and quantitative analysis

reserach-charts.jpgMatrix games are a simple narrative simulation technique that maximizes the creative input of players by allowing them to make up what happens next. They say what they imagine and this allows those watching to get a glimpse of the inner workings of a player’s mind. The game is a conversation between players and is not built on an underlying mathematical algorithm. It is the opposite of a mathematical game theory approach. Consequently it is easy for designers who work in quantitative sciences to dismiss the technique.

There is a potential to bridge the gap between soft narrative approaches and hard quantitative ones. It is in iterative play. This has not yet been done but here is how I think it could work.

The game is played on an electronic platform. Participants register for the site by giving their demographic details, whatever details are appropriate for post-game analysis. Players gather on the site as they would on social media. Each game starts at a preset time. Players are presented with a brief scenario and asked to start.

Players then type in the actions they want to happen. This happens in real time so participants are both audience and actors. They may add to and alter the story as they see fit. Each addition adds to the narrative but also is linked to the writer’s demographics and sits in relationship to the actions that precede and follow it. In addition the platform could allow off side comments to further supplement the data collection. If games are limited to no more than twelve players it should work. More than that and play could spin into chaos as players are unable to keep up with the flood of new actions. Too many participants and information overload results.

If the same scenario is run repeatedly, for the same players or for new sets gamers, the electronic record builds up a data base of outcomes that can be subject to statistical analysis. So while any individual game may be “just made up”, when aggregated they form a picture of a crowd and crowds have wisdom.

As of now I know of no way a computer can breakdown individual stories to categorize them but I can imagine that coming. When it happens matrix games can be a way of melding together the strength of people and machines. The game combines human imagination with machine data crunching. The potential for useful research here is intriguing.

Chris Engle 

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