PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and gaming ideas

Visualising War on wargaming

The Visualising War project at the University of St. Andrews has recently featured two podcasts on wargaming.

Wargaming in a Brave New World (SE01 EP14, 4 July 2021)

How do crisis simulations help us understand strategy and decision-making processes?  Crisis simulation exercises can take many forms, from complex live wargame events to on-screen and multi-week crisis scenarios. What is the role and utility of crisis simulations in the understanding, teaching, and making of strategy? Can wargames be used as a predictive tool, or should their utility be centred around training purposes? How are wargames and simulations adapting to an increasingly online workspace? 

James Fielder, Founder, Liminal Operations and Adjunct Professor, Colorado State University

Dr James “Pigeon” Fielder teaches political science at Colorado State University, where he researches emergent political processes through tabletop, live-action, and digital gaming. He founded the corporate wargame consultancy Liminal Operations and writes for Evil Beagle Games. Find Pigeon at @j_d_fielder

Paul Vebber, Assistant Director, Wargaming and Future Warfare Research, US Navy

Paul Vebber is a lifelong hobby wargamer and co-founder of Matrix Games. He currently works for the US Navy as a civilian focused on wargaming in support of technology development and associated employment concepts.

Yuna Huh Wong, Defense Analyst, Institute for Defense Analyses

Dr Yuna Huh Wong is a defense analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. At IDA she is currently involved in cyber wargames; as well as tabletop exercises and studies to support the Joint Staff. Find Yuna @YunaHuhWong

Felipe Cruvinel, PhD Candidate, School of International Relations, University of St Andrews

Felipe Cruvinel is a PhD candidate at St Andrews, currently writing a thesis on applying data analysis to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. He designs and produces wargames and simulations for the school and undertakes tabletop design and hobby gaming in his own time. Find Felipe @FCruvi 

Let’s Play: War, From Rome’s Gladiators to Warhammer (SE01 EP15, 5 July 2021)

What are the cultural legacies of visualising war through wargames?  Wargames are not a new phenomenon; in military exercises, as tactical plays tested on maps and as entertainment spectacles, wargames have been with us from ancient times. Studying wargames allows us to better understand the fog of war, as well as giving us nuanced insights into the processes by which military strategy is visualised and drilled into the martial and civilian body. How do we game war? And what does the history of wargaming tell us about its use today?

Aggie Hirst, Senior Lecturer, Department of War Studies, King’s College London

Dr Aggie Hirst’s work focuses on international political theory and critical military studies. She is currently Principal Investigator on a Leverhulme Trust and British Academy funded research project exploring the US military’s use of wargames and simulations. 

Alice König, Senior Lecturer and co-lead of the ‘Visualising War’-project, University of St Andrews

Dr Alice König’s research is centred on intertextuality and socio-literary interactions, attitudes to and the transmission of expertise, science, and war. Currently, her focus is on the Visualising War Project, exploring how war narratives interact and form throughout history. Find Alice @KonigAlice

Aristidis A. Foley, PhD Candidate, School of International Relations, University of St Andrews

Aris Foley’s research combines political and critical theories with dystopian literature, exploring the notion of Critical Dystopianism. He is an avid painter of wargame models, a hobby which has engaged him for 18 years. Find Aris @ares_miniatures

Katarina H.S. Birkedal, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Classics, University of St Andrews

Dr Katarina Birkedal’s work focuses on the politics of storytelling. Her research centres an embrace of interdisciplinarity and multiplicity, of voices and approaches. She is currently working on bridging disciplinary silos to further our understanding of war stories and their social and cultural impact. Find Katarina @Kat_in_a_Birch

You can find a full list of these and all other episodes at the link above.

Bryant and Nagle on “Wargaming for the new great game”

At the Modern War Institute (West Point), Susan Bryant and Tom Nagle have written an excellent article on “wargaming for the new great game.” In it, they explore the challenges of wargaming irregular warfare, highlighting common shortcomings and suggesting some very useful best practices.

Specifically they identify “four keys to better wargames”:

Focus on the Narratives

In irregular warfare, narratives carry the day. Narratives describe how individuals experience the world around them and then communicate that information to others. The Department of Defense has enormous blind spots in understanding how adversaries interpret our actions and spin new counternarratives.

Each party to a conflict comes with its own narratives. Robert Rubel, who chaired the Naval War College’s Wargaming Department, notes that participants routinely fail to connect the political and military aspects of the game. Unfortunately, this often results in unnecessary and costly escalations.

Plentiful Parties and Overlapping Objectives

Irregular warfare wargaming requires more robust, skeptical third-party teams with knowledge of political warfare and narratives. In traditional wargames of conventional conflicts, enemy and friendly forces fight over discrete objectives with minimal third-party engagement. However, in irregular warfare scenarios, third parties’ interpretations of friendly and enemy actions may decide the conflicts. Further, many parties simply defy these categories.

The Syrian Civil War provides an example of the complex array of actors involved in IW. To secure its interests, Russia must support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, defuse friction with Turkey, partner with Iran, defeat ISIS, and isolate the United States. No wargame could responsibly model the Syrian conflict without these and other players competing and seeking to advance their own objectives.

Unfortunately, US wargames understate the complexity of these types of situations. Once third-party players begin to outnumber friendly and enemy players, the games will begin to represent IW’s complexity. Attempts to accomplish this type of wargaming are nascent, but they do exist. The work done by Lieutenant Colonel Arnel David and Dr. John De Rosa on gaming narratives in the Baltics provides an example of what this type of approach would entail.

Whole-of-Government cannot be Controlled by the Military

Wargames are too military-centric. While the military aspires to a whole-of-government solution to population-centric conflicts, wargames rarely reflect this aspiration. Too often, the military assumes a degree of latitude not representative of real-world constraints. Expanding interagency and coalition teams in wargaming is one way to ensure more instruments of national power are realistically incorporated, rather than simply assumed.

Games Should Seek a Position of Continuing Advantage

Successful strategies in an actual irregular warfare conflict create conditions favoring long-term success, rather than the achievement of discrete military objectives. Irregular warfare–oriented games should employ an approach tailored to the scenario and avoid an emphasis on specific, traditional military outcomes. Though military objectives will still play a role, the use of the military instrument must be fully integrated with other activities intended to create favorable conditions for successful military actions.

They conclude by noting that addressing the challenge of irregular warfare is difficult, in part because of institutional inertia and the difficulty of promoting truly innovative thought.

Replicating IW is hard. As compared to conventional conflicts, IW campaigns will often play out over months and years. Fortunately, new wargaming tools offer promise to unlock new IW concepts and shift perceptions of IW. These tools can take many forms: for example, planning wargames as asynchronous, multiday events would leverage the time between turns to stimulate creativity and new IW concepts. Similarly, transitioning to a virtual format for some types of wargames not only can add more nuance to the scenario, but can make participation more accessible to tactical and operational decision makers across the force who may not normally have the opportunity to engage in these exercises. Increasing distributed, scalable, and easily manipulated irregular warfare wargames both for the operational force and at all levels of military education will not only promulgate new concepts and shift mindsets about irregular warfare, but will better prepare the entire defense apparatus to approach the contemporary security environment in dynamic and innovative ways.

h/t Scott Cooper

Building a climate change megagame (Part 3)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You can read Parts 1 and 2 here and here.


Concluding thoughts

One of the first impressions was that we were rather overwhelmed by the experience, which is one of the reasons this blog post, long overdue and way too long, did not materialize until at least one academic period had transpired after the main CCM event. However, now that we have gathered our thoughts a bit, we realized that we have probably learned a great number of things so far. For instance:

1.     Reasons for creating a megagame on climate change and social transformation

There are many types of games that relate to climate change and negotiations, but few that we feel concern the types of negotiations, dilemmas and interactions that may be common for professionals in companies and citizens in local regions facing the prospect of societal change. One of us, Ola Uhrqvist, had previous experience developing a game about city planning to take both climate adaptation into account— but there, few negotiations were conducted as the game was primarily a single-player web application. 

In the literature on learning for a sustainable development, engagement and various pedagogical forms is stressed as key to ensure that learners experience first-hand the dilemmas and difficulties they need to overcome. Furthermore, we noticed that when we pitched the idea of a “Climate Change Megagame”, it immediately piqued people’s interest in a way that acted as an icebreaker and helped us to engage rather diverse groups in conversations. Even though there were practical issues with every single version of the game we have tried, the concept itself has been intriguing enough to make people joining as players or contribute as control team and even contributing to game development. However, to understand exactly which difficulties to subject players, and what type of realistic situations to simulate, has proved to be almost as elusive as real societal transformation.

2.     The eternal challenge of playable realism

Serious games always needs to balance between relevance and playability. The activities players engage in, and the type of experience they have, must be of relevance whether it is “realistic” or not. We learned that some types of realism, such as players getting bogged down by managing their daily lives, may not be helpful in ensuring that the resulting experience is relevant to the end goal of understanding dilemmas and options for societal transformation. We wanted the game to offer interesting challenges without directing players too much with respect to what they would want to do. As designers, we can include mechanisms that reflect aspects of reality such as economic capital being vital for investments in infrastructure, say, without going so far as to say that without a growing economy, people would starve to death. We wanted to provide enough context and feedback mechanisms to stimulate discussions and make different visions apparent, without constricting players in such a way that their room for creative discussions and maneuvering would be artificially restricted. 

A golden rule for how to ensure players understand the rules well enough to be comfortable about breaking them and understanding just how much freedom they have to negotiate freely probably don’t exist but we understand much better now than before what would count as interesting and relevant challenges compared to “realistic” ones. In our experience minimalism of game mechanics is desirable in order to let participants focus on the content. 

3.     Recruiting and maintaining a committed and diverse design team

Including more people from the early playtests in game design and discussions made it apparent that it was difficult to ensure equal commitment among all when the game concept changed quite a lot, partly as a result of feedback. Also, we wanted to be open to suggestions about how different groups could contribute to the project, which placed high demands on participants to express clearly what they wanted to contribute to and what they expected. Some of the early contributors who provided invaluable feedback on the game and made it much better in the end still did not feel comfortable joining at the end as the game changed quite a lot between playtests. Though it was necessary to make the changes, it became difficult for all members of the design team to keep up with the ideas for changes that the core group brought forward, especially as we became limited to digital meetings during the pandemic. The take home lesson is the value of a clear aim, participants roles and modes of decision making and communication is increasingly important in a dynamic, explorative project.

4.     Going digital

Going digital opened up new opportunities for players from around the world to join and it greatly simplified our ability to collect data on how the game progressed, but also introduced a whole host of new issues. We spent quite some time even after the core game mechanics and graphical elements had been decided to ensure that the digital platform (Miro) could handle all graphical components and the 50 players with decent latency. Therefore, some graphical optimizations were required before the main event took place. For instance, components were merged into bitmaps instead of hundreds of separate graphics components. The communications channel (Discord) was set up very professionally by our Megagame colleague Darren Green from Crisis Games in the UK and that enabled players to have both private and public spaces for communications. Even with such a setup though, some players felt lost between all the channels and the Miro board. Having a technical setup and preparation before the main event, just focusing on the technical aspects of the game would probably have helped some participants who were struggling.

The main event was hosted at a venue where we broadcast everything live from a studio over Vimeo. This worked rather well as a compromise between having only an internal event and only having a studio with professional talking heads but having dual roles as hosts for both the game and the “show” was hard to manage. It would have been better to have studio hosts who could have focused on being hosts. Then again, a digital event that plays out through discussions on Discord and board changes on Miro might not offer enough continuous action for a continuous live show.

5.     The importance of good debriefing

The main event was intended to let people experience and reason about the needs for mitigation and adaptation, as in the needs for making changes to our societies that will reduce emissions versus the needs to adapt to climate change we cannot avoid. The primary aim of the debriefing was to capture the perceptions of these potentially conflicting needs, but it became apparent that the participants were mostly preoccupied with thoughts about the game mechanics, graphical elements and direct experiences. A debriefing is very important for a proper learning experience, and for us, the fact that people became preoccupied with the mechanics and graphical elements indicated that these were in fact the objects they thought mostly in terms of directly afterwards. Maybe the game was too heavy on mechanics since it became hard to talk about abstract things such as mitigation and adaptation in direct connection to having played. It would probably have been easier to first address game-specific issues and then later broaden the horizon to comprise the real world.

6.     Future development

The project had until this point been run exclusively on a small amount of seed money for a pedagogical project and a lot of personal commitment. We realized that continued work with this require us to leverage our initial experiences and gain access to proper funding for work that could significantly expand on what we have been doing. The game itself is not a goal, it is not even a product that may be finished but at best a way to help us think better, as designers and players, about what a sustainable society may be like. With some luck, we may have a chance to build on all we have learned and enable others to learn as we have about how to move constructively towards a societal transformation to sustainability.


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

Building a climate change megagame (Part 2)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.


Playtesting

Play-test 1: Card-driven anarcho-communism

The first iteration of the game was card-driven and centered around meeting different needs such as housing, food and transportation needs, while also being about changing the way you fulfill those needs (from more carbon-intensive variants to less carbon-intensive ones). Much of the game centered on meeting needs and negotiating with local politicians as well as companies on how to do that in a low-carbon manner. We had 15 players, three different municipalities in our region along with some companies and regional politicians. Everything was definitively NOT ready, but we understood enough of what we wanted to do so that we could start playing the game. After a few rounds of learning how to fulfill needs in general, people started getting creative about the use of different transportation methods so that we ended up having an electric garbage truck from one of the municipalities helping the population with food deliveries. Not quite sure about whether that would have conformed to sanitary guidelines, but we were rather happy about the level of creative thinking the group had going.

On the whole, the initial playtest left a bewildering mix of impressions. On the one hand, everyone present very much loved the format and engaged in lengthy discussions about how to develop the game further. On the other hand, we had succeeded in reducing carbon footprints in a way that may not have revealed very interesting tensions. As one commented, as players we seemed to behave as an “anarcho-communist collective”. Maybe not what we’d expect to see. We were not sure about how to interpret the outcome either. The companies were rather willing to forego profits and instead help the population get goods and services to meet their needs at cost. The local politicians had few restraints on their willingness to spend or meet needs or expectations from the local population. The emissions were not important in providing guidance to the players, and were not even noticed as part of playing. We succeeded without having very difficult conversations. In all, our collective success and limited sources of friction gave us much to consider for our next iteration of the game. Was the game too easy? Were we just too few to create interesting social dynamics? Did we need to pitch business owners or politicians as antagonists to the overall goal of achieving a transformation to reduce emissions, or did we simply need stronger incentives or opportunities for people to act in their own interests?

However, one design decision that was made at this stage was critical, and influenced the final game version: the general population of our region, Östergötland, would be represented in the game by players who would be able to take actions and make decisions, not as abstract values and mechanics such as tracks manipulated by decision-makers such as politicians, corporations, etc. This decision caused quite a few problems in the later stages of the design process, but in the end contributed to add a layer of interaction to the game that would otherwise have been missing and possibly sets the CCM apart from other megagames. In a megagame about, for example, the Napoleonic Wars, there are players playing generals and the officers they command, but there are no players playing the actual troops fighting the battle – whether they march where the general orders them to or refuse to move is most often decided by a morale roll, it is not the decision of a player. In this respect, the CCM was designed to bring to the table the debate taking place in society and the sometimes – from a societal planning point of view – irrational refusal by the entire or parts of the population to follow regulations and use available options to create a sustainable future.

Play-test 2: Overwhelming complexity

From the first to second iterations, we made several changes to explore designs hinted at by these questions. For one thing, we introduced quality of life, as a general mechanism that would see players optimizing well-being for the populations in their respective municipality, where reduced well-being of a population would trigger different sorts of social unrest.

Two main game mechanics were introduced in this version: the Quality of Life (QoL) tracker and Climate Impact tokens. The idea for the former began as a perceived need to track the progress of individual players in a clearer and more comparable way – an attempt to introduce the neighbour effect, i.e. ‘if my neighbour has it, I want it too’. This functioned as a form of victory points for the population players, which was affected by the overall goals in an indirect way, as extreme weather events could impact a player’s QoL, but would not necessarily do so depending on the type of event and what community it impacted.  

Here, each population player played a social stratum of the population: the population player’s needs were affected by the generations in their part of the population – each player began with 2 or 3 generations, each of which aged between turns and ran a risk (represented by a die roll) of ‘dying’ of old age and ill health. The latter was represented by a tracker, and players had to keep track of their generations so that they got proper health care, either from the local authorities or by purchasing it from private companies. This was introduced to give players a sense of relationship to a part of the population in one of the towns or municipalities. 

There were quite a few things to keep track of in this version of the game. All the needs cards in this version of the game had been replaced by boards and trackers, and players had to run back and forth to get the right resources to cover the needs boxes on their player boards. Some thought had been given to this being an obstacle in a game of a hundred players in the same room, and so some of the aspects, such as housing, had been placed on the board beforehand and did not change much during the game. Overall, however, the complexity of scaling up the original version of the game became a major problem: over 4000 cards and 50 player boards was needed for a game intended to be played by an estimated 30 players for the playtest – a climate impact issue in itself, as was noted by the control team when spending two hours cutting cards and boards. Also, if all 30 playtesters had turned up, we came to realize that there would have been chaos in the bargaining to get the resources they needed. 

The Climate Impact (CI) tokens was tied to the overall sustainability goal, which had been rather vaguely formulated in the first version of the game. The idea was that each action would carry with it its own ‘shame pile’, as one of the team members called it, in the form of a pile of CI tokens that accumulated over the lifetime of the resource. As an example, a good produced in Asia, with a certain amount of CI token already on it as decided by its production method and mode of transportation to Europe, would be purchased from the world market by a corporate player and then sold to a population player. As part of the negotiation to sell the good, the corporate player could offer to sell it at a lower price to if the population player would also take with them all CI tokens – or else offer to take all or some if the CI tokens in exchange for a higher price. The idea of the ‘shame pile’ was for each player to stand at their player board at the end of each turn and take in the sight of the climate impact they had given rise to during the turn. This was intended to provide incentive to opt for products and production methods that would lead to fewer CI tokens for the player, while giving them tangible feedback on their progress towards a sustainable society.

The complexity issue became apparent even with fewer playtesters than anticipated, and we figured out that we needed a better way of managing the small communities in the region, so we thought that having groups of players collaborating in smaller teams explicitly for the purpose of a small community might be a way forward. Also, we wanted to understand if the game design could work with a wider group of players and decided to recruit playtesters from a broader group for the next playtest.

Playtest 3: Decreasing complexity and the breakdown of the market system

Thanks to broader marketing and better advance planning, the third playtest featured a much more varied group of players, with roughly 25 playtesters of varying ages and backgrounds that attended the session. This was the first time we encountered accessibility issues relating to e.g. English as the only language for rules and components to cater the the minority of English-only participants, the height of tables in relation to wheelchairs and other aspects which had not been considered before with our smaller group.

This version of the game was a streamlined version of the one used in Playtest 2, and thought had been given to decreasing the complexity of the game and focus on the sustainability goals while not giving up the idea of simulating the problems faced by the population players in meeting their needs of the various generations of the population strata they represented. Generations were made a more central game aspect as they provided population players with actions and income, and the population players were also given more distinct roles with role-specific actions, e.g. the ability to steal from other population players or increase the resources gained from certain standard actions. The number of players per population had also been increased from one to two or three to decrease the complexity and workload of each player, and as it was beginning to dawn upon the game design team that megagames are played by groups of players, which had been noted in Playtest 1, when individual players banded together to discuss things and make sense of situations. 

The political system, which had been absent in Playtest 2 due to a lack of players, was incorporated into the game through the population player’s vote cards, which allowed them to give one of three political parties their vote. The parties, which were represented by one or two players, between them decided on regional policy. Such policies included taxes and restrictions – the power each party wielded was decided by how many vote cards they had and their ability to make voters stay with their party. The population players could change their vote at any time. This system proved to be rather static, as almost all vote cards were placed with one of the parties and few players gave their vote any thought during the game, leaving the players of two parties to try to get people to change their votes, which was in vain due to them being fully occupied with trying to sort out all of their needs and actions. This may have been rather realistic, as some of the players noted, but not great in terms of game experience. 

Two other roles were completely overwhelmed: the local authority player and the corporate players. These were more or less assaulted by a horde of population players demanding all kinds of goods and solutions to their problems, and getting access to market and local authority players became so difficult that the game rounds ended before all players had had a chance to get to the front of the line that formed in front of the market table. Thus, this version of the game showed that it would be impossible to hold on to the idea of simulating the complexity of the economic system of supply and demand – even in simplified form – by moving cards and tiles from one place to another. This also proved to be the fall of the ‘shame pile’ system as it had been imagined up to this point, as it proved far too problematic to transport the CI tokens in the room.

Research also made a small appearance with the introduction of research players, which tried to get funding to carry out research projects that would improve production processes and other aspects of the game. As this had not been given proper thought, the main role of the researchers, who represented universities as well as private research institutions, became to distribute university education and discuss matters connected to the Swedish government, which was not represented by a player in this game, but rather appeared on screens with different kinds of national policy, which the politicians were to deal with. 

After the playtest, further playtests and the main game event was postponed due to restrictions following the pandemic, which left ample time for reflections and rebuilding the game. In May 2020, the game design team met to discuss a heavily revised version of the game, which relied on the ‘steady-state system’ to deal with the choke points presented by the reliance of population players on the market and local authority players to get hold of the resources they needed to play the game. The object of this was to place more focus on the issue of discussing the overall goal of the game—a societal transformation towards a sustainable society, which had been more or less completely ignored by players during Playtest 3 – again, rather realistic, but not ideal for a game such as the CCM.  

Even though we wanted to illustrate that as citizens we have to spend our time managing our own lives instead of considering changing lifestyles and promoting a societal transformation, this was an unwanted piece of “realism” in CCM. Both game designers and playtesters wanted an immersion in the decisions and dilemmas inherent in societal transformation. To simply implement mechanisms that deflect from those decisions because those mechanisms are in place in real life would not stimulate the kinds of discussions we wanted. In that way, we did not want a “realistic” game experience but an engaging, immersive and relevant experience. We realized the difference between the two at about this point.

Playtest 4: The making of a megagame

The fourth and final playtest was held in October and was partly digital – some players sat by their computers in the same room as the control team (the only restriction at that time involved groups over 50 people) and others participated from their homes over Discord. This was in preparation of the main event, which in the end were to be entirely digital, a fact that was suspected at this point in time. Just under 20 players and control team members participated, and the playing was done using a Miro board. 

During Summer 2020, the game had been reinvented based on the lessons learned during Playtests 1-3 and the lead game designer’s improved understanding of megagames after studying them more closely over the past year. Population players were assigned roles tied to age group (young, working-age, old) rather than social stratum and, together with a local authority player, placed in groups based on which community in Östergötland they represented. This made it easier for players to act as a group against other groups, but also gave each player an individual income and a special ability, which both made them useful to the group and put them in a position to negotiate with the group members to reach their individual goals. The same was done for the corporate players, the researchers, and the politicians, who were all placed in groups (the business community, the research community, and three different political parties) with both common and individual goals. A map of the region divided into hexagons and some rules connected to it made the impact of extreme weather events and actions such as farming and harvesting forest clearer.

The most notable change was the disappearance of the market system and the cards or tiles for various needs as this proved to be a major detraction from the discussions we wanted to promote through the game. The constant negotiations to fulfil needs were replaced by an abstract ‘steady-state’ system in which only changes were recorded, and the needs of each community were reduced to four areas (food, goods, transportation, and housing). Each area was represented by a track with six boxes: three orange (technological solutions) and three blue (changes to lifestyle). By investing economic capital (earned primarily by working-age population players and local authority players), social capital (earned primarily by young population players), and cultural capital (old population players) the communities could either buy technological solutions or make changes to their lifestyle to decrease their community’s CI, which was displayed on the game board in relation to the goal of a CO2-free society in 2050.

Most of the lifestyle changes were available from the start of the game as they involved reducing consumption, often at the assumed social costs (which resulted in negative effect cards being drawn to affect the community occurring at the end of turn). The technological solutions, however, were mostly unavailable at the start of the game and had to be unlocked by the business community, which in turn relied on the research community to make the necessary technological advancements. Thus, economic capital flowed from the corporate players to the researchers, who worked hard to research the technologies that would allow the business players to unlock the technological solutions on the communities’ boards, allowing them to be purchased by the communities. However, even with technological solutions unlocked, community players could choose not to buy it and instead opt to implement lifestyle changes to reduce their climate impact. 

In this version of the game, the business community was made up of corporate players without specific roles, which made them act more like anonymous risk capitalists than local businesses.

Also, in this version the communities’ choices of technology and lifestyle did not affect the income of the corporate players which we realized was a missed opportunity for conflicting interests.  

Regarding research, a single player handled research using a deck of cards in which they put research objectives that came into effect as soon as they were drawn from the deck (this could be sped up using economic and cultural capital to draw additional cards, increasing the chances of success), which made the impact of research very low, which may be a realistic interpretation, but made the research sub-game less rewarding. 

As for the politics, no politicians were included in this playtest and instead one of the control team took on the role of discussing with anyone who wanted to contact the regional/national government, regarding, for example, increased research grants. No vote cards were used as this aspect of the game design was at this time in doubt whether they would actually contribute to the game experience. In the end it was concluded that they would, as they were reinstated in a slightly different form in the final version. 

The game lasted for two rounds out of the planned three, and the general feeling among the players afterwards was that the game would be very interesting to play, which resulted in several of the playtesters joining the control team for the main event. The game design team felt that the game inspired the intended kind of negotiations, even though feedback from the debriefing session mainly related to the game experience rather than to its connection to the real world. At this stage, we felt we were approaching what we imagined a proper Megagame experience should be like, and we were feeling increasingly confident that we could pull this off for a larger audience.

Some of the major lessons from the fourth playtest were that we needed some tighter connections between different groups of players. For instance, all corporations (each being run by one or two players) were given specific abilities and goals that were directly related to either local production (farmers, private forest owners, local factory owners, etc.) or import businesses (food store chains, import goods businesses, import car dealers, etc.), reflecting the conflict between local supply and global trade. The final version of the game was to feature two main contentions as we had uncovered from literature on differences between sustainability visions: technological change and intact/growing economy versus behavioural changes to reduce the economy, and global solutions versus local self-sufficiency.

Also, the community players’ decisions to make behavioural changes was made to affect the income of business owners in the final version of the game and research became directly connected to the business community’s ability to make technological solutions available to the communities.

The main event: Playtest 5

The main event was held November 21, 2020 and attended (digitally) by some 40 players from different countries. From our earlier playtests, we now had a well-functioning control team and managed to host the game from a studio at the local concert hall in Linköping which had been retrofitted into a studio for digital events during the pandemic. Two of us, Ola Leifler and Ola Uhrqvist, acted as both hosts and play leaders. As we ended up with roughly half the players required for a full game, it was decided that half the communites on the map (four out of eight) were not to be played. The work leading up to the event included a control team briefing session held via Discord and session a few days before the event, and a few days before that the sending out of 4-page role and rules documents to players. 

The changes that had been made to the version used in Playtest 4 involved the completion of the business and research communities as outlined above, and the addition of the regional council (politicians) and vote cards. Further reductions in complexity of game mechanics had been made, which resulted in cultural capital being removed and social capital being changed to social change tokens, which represented the snowball effect of change begetting change in that the more social change tokens were used, the more the young population players received the turn after. The old population players were also given a single social change token, as well as the power to make populations (now tokens on the game board) into generalists that could survive without the support of modern society to bring this option to the table as well. 

Final version of the game board: overview.

The politicians were divided into three distinct parties and given the option to grant economic capital to aid the communities and the business and research communities in their efforts achieve specific boxes on their development tracks, which provided them with both incentive for negotiations with other players and collaboration between the parties.

The individual goal of the politicians was to collect as many vote cards as possible, which all players (not just the populations) had been given and were free to give to any politician at any point up to the penultimate turn. Players could not take back their vote once cast, so it was important not to make the wrong choice or sell out too cheap in negotiations with politicians; most players waited to the very last minute to give someone their vote. The vote was used in an election held at the end of the penultimate turn, which decided which party/-ies would control power in the last turn. As the votes spread quite evenly the party with the most votes still had to make deals with at least one party made deals in the last round, so this did not change matters very much. 

The outcome of the game was that the four communities very nearly made it to a carbon-free society in 2050. As expected, most communities did not opt for only technological solutions or only behavioural changes but went with both, which left the business community rather poor at the end of the game due to heavy investments in research paired with loss of income from the reduction of consumption following lifestyle changes. The differences between communities was mostly during the first round, when some communities (primarily the large ones) opted to wait for the technological solutions to turn up (or even actively invested in research to make that happen), whereas others engaged all they could in lifestyle changes (the small and medium ones, who had little economic capital). During the second and third turns, the former made many lifestyle changes too, likely because they had the capital to do so and did not want to take any chances, and the latter gained handsome deals from the business community, which was trying to expand business to make up for lost income.  

Final version of the game board: close-up.

After the final round and looking at the results, debriefings were held and afterwards analysed (see a separate report. From a game design point of view, it was concluded that the game may have been a bit too easy to ‘win’, as in there may have been too much economic capital in relation to the price of unlocking the development boxes. On the other hand, all parts of the game functioned as intended and there was a great deal of negotiation going on, and the general tendency was for players to become more and more comfortable in their roles with each turn, which suggested that the game is possible to understand and make sense of. This was also suggested by the player debriefings, and the initial confusion reported by some appears to be mostly related to the megagame experience being difficult to envision beforehand, as well as the all-digital format which made it challenging to see how you could engage in conversations with other players when not in the same physical location.


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

Building a climate change megagame (Part 1)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You will find Parts 2 and 3 here and here.


Part 1:  Building a game about regional transformation towards a sustainable society

We have made major breakthrough in understanding cultural change and human behaviour”!

“VOTE for the Market Prophets if you believe in emission free transport, eco-building, repair shops and advanced food technologies such as synthetic meat”!

How do you convince people, a lot of people, to engage in meaningful conversations, or wild speculations such as those above, about societal transformations towards a sustainable future? How can you bring different perspectives to life through roleplaying in a way that not only roleplaying nerds can handle? How can you bring over 50 people from all over the world to sit in front of computers for 8 hours, starting from 3am or ending in the middle of the night? As it turns out, a Megagame on societal transformation, the Climate Change Megagame (CCM), was just what the doctor ordered. That it came to fruition as a digital event in the middle of a pandemic came as a surprise to those of us involved, but we speculate that it may have been a result from sending invitations for participation, and with people demonstrating and interest in participating, we settled on a date, panicked upon realizing that we had to create an all-digital version of the whole thing, and somehow forgot our panic and got to work. This is our story, as they say.

In early 2019, two of us (Ola Leifler & Ola Uhrqvist), who had met a number of times before but not really worked together, came to realize that we are both engaged in ensuring that learning becomes a platform for working towards a sustainable development, and we are both interested in creative approaches to learning as well including the use of boardgames and role-playing. One of us had heard about Megagames from a boardgame review site (Shut Up & Sit Down) but we had never played one ourselves. However, the concept sounded interesting enough and we also happened to have some seed money from a pedagogical project involving how to make use of climate simulation data in education, so we enlisted our third core member Magnus Persson as lead game designer and started our journey.

At the start, we wanted to illustrate how a societal transformation towards a long-term sustainable society would induce tensions between regional actors and interests such as conservation groups, business interests, the general public and politicians in a Swedish region of 500 000 inhabitants. Also, we wanted to make it clear that even as climate change effects will not be felt exactly the same by our region as others, and effects will be cumulative and delayed, there will be disruptions to food production and serious extreme weather events in the coming decades.  The exact nature of tensions and future visions were not very clear initially though, even as we read through reports from different research projects as well as national transformation initiatives. It became clear that visions for a transformed society could look rather different. There was also a whole lot of research on synergies and trade-offs between the different sustainable development goals which seemed to indicate that there are many layers of interactions between the different goals, both on regional but also national and international levels. An initial source of tension that we found to be interesting to explore through a Megagame concerned whether to make changes to our current way of life as we anticipate that it is not long-term sustainable, or focus on achieving short-term goals for ourselves such as going on vacation, building a house, buying groceries or finding a decent pair of shoes. 

So, was our challenge just to create a simulation of a region in a complex global industrial society? That would have been far too easy. We soon realised that this was just the point of departure on top of which we also had so simulate different futures depending on the paths the participants would embark upon and the transformation to get there. Oh, yes, we almost forgot, the game had to be comprehensible enough to be grasped in less than 20 minutes. 


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

Armchair Dragoons: Teaching game design

The latest edition of the Armchair Dragoons podcast features a discussion with Sebastian Bae, Jeff Tidball, myself, and host Brant Guillory on teaching game design.

We discuss some of the key points that they want students take away from their design courses, some of the process they use to introduce different game ideas and concepts to the students, and the toolkits (in some cases, literally) that the students use for their game designs.  As a nod to the current reality we’re in, they also discuss the challenges of teaching these classes during a global pandemic that necessitates distance learning.

There’s a lot of things discussed here, but among them are the Aftershock game(reviewed by us here), the White Box design kit, Stephen Downes-Martin’s (in)famous “Three Witches” speech/paper, the Georgetown University Wargaming Society (whose forums are hosted by us and could use some more traffic), Jeff’s consulting work, the Brynania peacebuilding game, the diversity split in their classes, GUWS presentations for our digital conventions, and the constraints of trying to get a game design crammed into one semester.

Bae and Kearney: Wargaming to sharpen the tactical edge

At the US Army War College’s War Room, Sebastian Bae and Paul Kearney discuss using wargaming to sharpen the tactical edge.

Educational wargaming is increasingly prevalent in the pedagogical toolkit but remains concentrated at the higher levels of Professional Military Education (PME). Advanced PME institutions like the U.S. Army War College and the Marine Corps War College are admirably expanding game-based learning in their curricula. In contrast, educational wargaming remains generally underdeveloped and underutilized in the operational force. The majority of educational wargaming is confined to the classroom, far removed from frontline units. At the tactical edge, wargaming is generally limited to the military planning process and course of action analysis. The rare employment of educational wargaming within tactical units is episodic and limited in scope. Thus, to systemically reap the dividends of educational wargaming, the Joint Force should aim to reestablish the tradition of educational wargaming within tactical units. Success depends on senior leadership support in the form of institutional funding and enduring partnerships with wargaming organizations.

The use of wargames to teach both tactics and strategic thinking lies at the heart of professional wargaming. Wargames provide a dynamic environment to explore and examine a variety of challenges and concepts along the strategic, operational and tactical levels. As an educational tool, wargaming fosters critical thinking and innovation, but most of all, it helps prepare tactical leaders for future challenges.

Read the rest of what they have to say at the link above.

Rubel: Whispers from wargames about the “grey zone”

At War on the Rocks, Barney Rubel discuss how wargames can “whisper” things that are outside their intended focus or parameters. In particular, he suggests that US wargaming has long been focused on conventional military power rather than asymmetric conflict and hybrid warfare—but if one had been playing close enough attention, the importance of these latter issues was often evident in the way the games played out.

A key characteristic of the scenarios used in post-Cold War games run by the U.S. armed services is the asymmetry in conventional military strength between “blue” and “red” players. Blue was always the United States, with red normally being a “rogue” country like Iran or North Korea. In such games, the scenarios created a competitive dynamic of the weak against the strong. That dynamic resulted in difficulties for umpires who attempted to adjudicate game moves. While blue players couched their moves in terms of Army divisions, aircraft carrier battle groups and Air Force wings, red players focused on things like political operations and special operations forces, because that is what they had at their disposal that offered some glimmer of hope. In other words, blue was trying to resolve the dispute with conventional forces while red attempted to side-step such force and directly address the dispute at the political level. Normally, game objectives focused on the use of conventional military force at the operational level, so umpires had to somehow reconcile the asymmetric nature of red and blue player inputs. The result was usually that red stratagems were not allowed their intended effects so that game play could proceed, and umpire assessments were couched in operational terms blue players could interpret.

It is the nature of red moves and the way umpires dealt with the asymmetry with blue that produces the whisper. What it was saying is that red would avoid direct challenge to blue strategies and that blue, in terms of both players and umpires, would attempt to fit such asymmetry within its conventional force superiority paradigm. The reasons for this are important to understand because they have implications for the defense and security community. It is important to note that I observed this phenomenon across many games over a period of years and, to be honest, did not grasp its significance until recently, so the purpose here is not to assign fault but to alert the defense community to the nature of game whispers.

Blue players and umpires were responding directly to game objectives, which were generally oriented on issues connected to the application of conventional military power. This in itself constituted a set of blinders for game players, umpires, and analysts, but in a broader sense reflected the aggregate perceptual constraints of the defense community. Threats were and still are defined to a significant extent in terms of conventional military aggression, whether a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a North Korean invasion of South Korea, or a Russian invasion of the Baltic countries. In the post-Cold War environment, these scenarios — major contingency operations, as they are called — dominated U.S. military planning. Their purpose was not only to provide a basis for force structuring and development, logistics, and command and control arrangements, but also for assessing the potential utility and cost-effectiveness of proposed platforms, weapons, and systems. Even after the 9/11 attacks, when counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations emerged as the principal day-to-day focus of defense, conventional scenarios still guided force development and thus continued to maintain the perceptual constraints of the defense community. A combination of factors served to create such channeling of focus. First, conventional force development is where the money is, so there are powerful institutional incentives for the services to justify force structure, and that means conventional warfighting capabilities. Second, it is not only natural but prudent to base planning on worst-case scenarios, which throughout history have featured conventional military aggression. Third, the creation of strong conventional forces, in conjunction with nuclear forces, is thought to constitute a robust deterrent to aggression. All of these are compelling reasons to focus on conventional warfare in wargames.

He notes, however, that “Blue consistently misinterpreted red signalling, leading to escalation of the scenario crisis that might have been otherwise avoided.”

This was mystifying until I “heard the whisper.” Blue was defining the problem/dispute through the lens of conventional military superiority. It was very much a case of the old saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The effect not only shaped blue’s moves — it distorted its perceptions of red signaling. Red kept trying to signal how important to it the issues in the crisis were, but blue kept ignoring or misinterpreting those signals.

In other words, “The games were whispering that, as Carl von Clausewitz claimed, policy dominates warfare. The side with the biggest army does not always hold the strongest hand in a dispute in which a fight to the death is not an option.”

Dozens of military wargames conducted over the past four decades have all produced a similar whisper despite differences in objectives, designs, and players. There is a profound difference between the weak and the strong that most definitions of asymmetry in warfare fail to capture. While the games might not have precisely indicated the possibility of China’s island-building or a Russian seizure of Crimea, they tried to alert us to our own perceptual limitations and thus to our vulnerability to surprise. This is not to ascribe negligence on anyone’s part, individually or corporately, but to sensitize the defense community to the deeper and more subtle aspect of wargames. Forewarned about the incentive of the weak but hostile to find ways around U.S. military superiority, we might have been able to forestall or counter gray zone operations more effectively. Two-sided games of the kind I describe here set up arenas of human competition that can reveal “unknown unknowns.”

It’s an important point: we need to be sensitive to insights generated by wargames, beyond those we hope or expect to find.

It also points to a weakness of wargaming, in that we too often find what we expect or want to find. As I have argued before, these framing effects may be so powerful that they essentially overpower the actual results of the game. In the Dire Straits experiment, for example, we showed that game analysts can come to very interpretations of exactly the same game. All of this underscores the recent call by Yuna Huh Wong and Garrett Heath for greater attention to assessing the actual effectiveness and utility of wargaming.

Interestingly, I have found in “grey zone” wargames that Blue sometimes over-interprets actions and events as hybrid warfare, when some of it is rather less nefarious or more routine. I’m also rather cynical about the terms gray zone and hybrid warfare altogether: it’s hard to think of any point in the history of human conflict when this sort of stuff wasn’t a key part of international relations (the British East India Company, for example, being a much more successful version of the Wagner Group in many respects).

This might also be a good time to revive that most important of all PAXsims game designs, Jargon Wars!

Wong and Heath: Is the (US) Department of Defense making enough progress in wargaming?

At War on the Rocks today, Yuna Huh Wong and Garrett Heath ask whether the US Department of Defense is making enough progress in the quality and effectiveness of its wargaming efforts.

Five years into its reinvigoration, the military’s interest in wargaming remains strong. Strategy writing teams in the Pentagon extensively wargamed candidates for the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Demand has only increased for approaches that can help senior leaders think through everything from technologies such as artificial intelligence and cyber to fully fledged concepts such as the joint warfighting concept and joint all-domain command and control. Wargaming plays a key role in these activities and, despite its limitations, few practical alternatives exist.

Yet, if wargaming continues to be one of the few tools available to better prepare the U.S. military for the future, is wargaming, as conducted by the Department of Defense, up to the task? There are four questions the department needs to answer before it will know.

First: Is the quality of existing defense wargaming sufficient? Is the overall defense wargaming enterprise able to support the present challenges in concept development, analysis, capabilities development, and professional military education?

A second key question for the department to answer is whether wargaming does in fact improve learning and innovation. The truth is that we have little to no empirical research that shows wargaming promotes learning, creative thinking, or problem solving — at either the individual or organizational levels.

A third question for the department to answer is whether there is sufficient wargaming capability and capacity across the defense enterprise to support current and future wargaming needs.

This leads us to the fourth question the department needs to answer: What is the state of the wargaming workforce, and does it need to modernize this workforce, in terms of backgrounds, skillsets, and professional practices? 

It’s a very valuable discussion that raises some very important questions—you should go read the entire piece at the link above.

Wargaming in the era of telework

At the Modern War Institute (West Point), Yuna Wong discusses “going virtual: wargaming in an era of telework, travel restrictions, and social distancing.”

One of the many ways that COVID-19 has impacted the US Department of Defense is in its wargaming activities. Typically conducted in person, wargames face challenges from travel restrictionslarge-scale shifts toward teleworksocial distancing measures, and state and local lockdowns that affect the defense industry. Wargames are also often classified, and classified work has faced particular challenges during the pandemic—although it has given rise to classified telework.

There are significant limitations of using many of the same approaches we have always used, just now in the virtual space. Additional thought and better design are required to improve the virtual wargaming experience and to gain the full advantages that distributed wargames may offer. As we have all discovered, virtual events come with their own set of challenges. The lack of face-to-face engagement takes away many of the benefits from traditional, in-person wargames and tabletop exercises. Zoom fatiguedistractions in the home; bandwidth and connectivity issues; anxiety, frustration, and boredom from social isolation; plus general pandemic stress all hamper participants’ engagement. Multiple, day-long tabletop exercises and wargames are impractical and ineffective when simply moved to Microsoft Teams without additional adaptation.

What, then, can wargamers do in light of these difficulties with virtual gaming?…

You’ll have to read the her article to find the answers.

Wargaming the laws of armed conflict

At War on the Rocks today, Thomas Gordon IV, Adam Oler, Laurie Blank, and Jill Goldenziel discuss “Lawyers, Guns, and Twitter: Wargaming the Role of Law in War.”

In partnership with National Defense University and the Emory University School of Law’s  International Humanitarian Law Clinic, the Marine Corps Command and Staff College implemented National Defense University’s “Burning Sands” wargame for the student body of 213 midcareer military officers and civilian counterparts. Burning Sands was created by faculty at the National War College and designed by National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning for the university’s War Crimes and Strategy elective. As students simulate a joint force command staff tasked with liberating an Islamic State-controlled city in North Africa (a fictional scenario based on Israel’s experience during its 2014 “Operation Protective Edge”), they navigate war’s changing character —and recognize its enduring nature.

At the start of the wargame, the students received an order with three mandates. First, they were tasked to secure the town as quickly as possible. Second, U.S. and coalition casualties were to be kept to a minimum. Third, students had to comply with strict rules of engagement, including stringent limitations on civilian casualties. None of these demands were surprising, at least initially. Political pressure to achieve military objectives rapidly and with minimal casualties is hardly new. Minimizing civilian suffering maintains coalitions, undergirds military ethics and the profession of arms, and is central to the just war idea. To accomplish the mission, students were provided a variety of military forces and weapons, ranging from special forces to cruise missiles.

Through a series of injects, students faced immediate operational dilemmas that raised legal questions and, in due time, presented challenges to the legitimacy of U.S. and coalition actions. Students quickly ascertained that, as several put it, “I can get you two, ma’am, but not all three mandates.” Students were required to assess the legal, operational, and policy issues and brief the joint force commander accordingly. To be clear, none of the options were close to ideal. Each time the coalition attacked a target, the results were immediately captured on video and broadcast to the world. For example, when the game started, students learned that the Islamic State was operating its main command and control node deep inside the city’s only hospital. As designed, the students wrestled with whether and how attacking the hospital would be legal once the Islamic State was using it for military purposes, as well as the accompanying moral and operational considerations. To start, the target could be destroyed with minimal coalition casualties with a large air-delivered ordnance. However, this decision would increase the prospect of civilian deaths. Alternatively, the students could recommend a ground assault on the hospital to neutralize the command and control node, limiting civilian casualties but increasing the risk to coalition forces. Most students asked for more time and intelligence reports, but the joint force commander reminded them of the time pressure imposed by Washington. Students would have to make a timely decision, as they would in the real world, in the absence of complete information….

Read the rest at the link above.

Bae on educational wargaming

At the Australian Defence College website The Forge, Sebastian Bae addresses how to develop an educational wargaming programme at civilian and military educational institutions alike:

Educational wargaming is experiencing a remarkable resurgence, reflected in the growth of wargaming Fight Clubs and the embrace of wargames as pedagogical tools in the classroom. From civilian educators to senior military leaders, there is an increasing consensus that wargames can be powerful learning tools – better equipping future decisionmakers to face a broad spectrum of challenges. As universities, both civilian and military, continue to develop a model for 21st century learning and education, wargaming and other forms of experiential learning may increasingly become permeant fixtures in curriculums. This begs the question: how does one cultivate wargaming at the university?

There is no singular, definitive answer. Several universities, such as King’s College LondonU.S. Army War College, and U.S. Naval War College, have established excellent wargaming programs, each with their unique character. However, if a university is aiming to build a wargaming program, storied wargaming histories or boasting one of the giants of the field are not prerequisites. Over the last two years, Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program (SSP), U.S. Marine Corps Command & Staff College (CSC), and the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) have all established respective wargaming initiatives. With the support of amazing partners and colleagues, these initiatives feature a wargaming lab, student societies, and wargaming design courses where students research, design, develop, and execute an original educational wargame.

The key to success and rapid growth of these initiatives lies in cultivating a wargaming insurgency, a grassroots movement to foster experiential learning on campus. Admittedly, the idea of establishing any wargaming initiative, whether an extracurricular student society or official course, can be daunting. Institutions of higher education, whether civilian or military, may be resistant to change, reluctant to assume risk, and may stifle innovation with bureaucracy. Hence, for those aiming to start wargaming programs of their own, I offer four potential overarching principles for conducting a wargaming insurgency: crawl, walk, run; find champions and sponsors; collaborate to generate growth and value; and be adaptable and exploit opportunities.

Read his full piece at the link above, and also check out the Educational Wargaming Cooperative.

Davis: Wargaming has a diversity problem

At The Wavell Room, PAXsims associate editor Sally Davis argues that wargaming has a diversity problem. She gets straight to her point in the opening:

Wargaming has a diversity problem: 98% white and male.

I propose there are two ways that people engage with wargames:

1. To dominate, to win, to prove their mastery, to confirm what they already know.

2. To experience a new perspective, to learn, to grow, to embrace the unknown.

Playing for domination leads to misogynist and toxic behaviour towards women and minorities.  It leads to playing for indulgence rather than learning the meaningful lessons serious games can impart—which is bad for the outcomes of wargames, bad for the culture of wargaming, and bad for diversity and inclusion.  Wargaming is literally meant to teach us to be better.

We need to stop pretending that arguing against diversity and inclusion is anything more than the masturbatory indulgence of straight white men.

If your organization would like to indicate support for diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming, there are many things you can do—including lending your support to the Derby House Principles.

Congress should be wargaming (but not Battle Force 2045)

The following piece was submitted to PAXsims by an anonymous contributor.


Rep Mike Gallagher claims in a recent War on the Rocks piece (with commentary by Rex Brynen and others here), that the US Congress needs to take a trip to the Naval War College to participate in a wargame showcasing Battle Force 2045, the Department of Defense’s recently announced plan for a 500 ship Navy. In order for “Naval advocates in the executive branch … to sell a simplified vision of integrated American seapower to the legislative branch”, he claims, they should participate in a wargame to understand the “assumptions, vulnerabilities, unknowns, and risks being assumed in the absence of change.” But selling concepts is a dangerous place for wargames to tread.

Rep Gallagher acknowledges this, saying that “wargames could be rigged to put a positive outcome in front of lawmakers.” He’s very right. A skilled interpretation of wargames takes experience and understanding its craft. You don’t need to have been in the Wargaming profession very long to see, or at the very least hear, a story of DoD leaders misinterpreting or over-interpreting the results of a wargame in support of their preferred concept or program. But wargames provide valuable insights for those willing to put in the effort. Congress should be wargaming – but at the strategic level, and with representatives from the entire interagency, to understand how best they can legislate, provide oversight, declare war, and wield the power of the purse for the benefit of our nation and its citizens.

Battle Force 2045, like all military plans, concepts, or proposed force structures, should be wargamed (and I’m sure it has been). Wargames, together with the rest of the cycle of research, give the planners, concept builders, and force structure assessors the information that they need to build a better plan, concept, or force structure. But that’s the job of the Department of Defense, not Congress.

Congress needs to be informed about the threats, the risks, and the opportunities afforded by everything that they legislate. When it comes to the military, it’s the DoD’s job to provide them with a clear and accurate articulation of the problem. When I brief the results of a wargame to leaders in the military, I don’t run a wargame for them. I use the insights that we learned in the wargame to provide actionable information relevant to the decisions that those leaders need to make. I don’t run a wargame for them to watch; I run a wargame to help me (and my analysis team) understand the problem, which helps me articulate the situation to those decision makers. If the DoD cannot articulate the situation to Congress and the White House, then the perhaps it is they who need to go back to the wargaming table (and the analytic reports, and the exercise schedule). 

What are the problems that Congress needs to understand?

Rep Gallagher and the bipartisan colleagues he references are right in saying that Congress should spend some time wargaming. There are many problems that wargames can and should help understand, not the least of which is the U.S.’s current relationship with China. But my experience via many wargames in recent years, from tactical to operational to strategic, have made one thing very clear: competition and conflict with China will rely on much more than Battle Force 2045 or any other force structure that the U.S. military will propose.

International conflict with peer competitors like China will require a robust response from all the pieces of the federal government. The Department of Defense must clearly be ready to deter, and if necessary defeat, aggression against the US or its interests abroad. The Department of State must be able to negotiate with China and come to a clear understanding about red lines, interests, national objectives, and international relationships. State must also be engaged with our allies and partners, exploring not only issues of access, basing, and overflight for our military, but also economic, social, and (dis)information issues that are critical to the US building a coalition of like-minded nations. The Department of Treasury must be engaged with our allies and partners to ensure our and their domestic security and quality of life, which is critical to supporting national will during a contest with one of our major trading partners. The Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Education, and even Transportation have an opportunity to be engaged in the escalating tensions with other global superpowers.

The DoD spends a good deal of money, and quite a lot of time, Wargaming a conflict with competitors across the globe. But rarely do those wargames include representatives from the interagency for a very good reason: that’s not the DoD’s job. Congress, on the other hand, has the ability to legislate issues surrounding all of these Departments. However, a myopic exploration of any one is likely to give a skewed perception of the importance of that line of effort when. If Congress were to declare war against a global superpower, then they must have a holistic view of the interagency problem and understand the broad ramifications – or at least that there are broad ramifications – of that act. Wargaming is a very effective way to do that.

Gaming for Congress?

At War on the Rocks today, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI8) of the House Armed Services Committee argues that the US Navy and Department of Defense need to to a better job of of selling their proposed naval force structure (Battle Force 2045) to members of Congress. The way this could be done, he suggests, is through a wargame:

Naval advocates in the executive branch need to sell a simple vision of integrated American seapower to the legislative branch in order to get budgetary buy-in. This will require the Pentagon to step out of its comfort zone.

This should start with a three-day trip, a short congressional delegation. Regardless of who is president and secretary of defense in 2021, this delegation should occur as soon as possible next year, as it may well be the most important government trip that will occur in the next decade. Pentagon leadership should gather congressional defense leaders, interested members, authorizers, and appropriators in the Mecca of seapower and wargaming at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. Over the course of 72 hours the department should walk Congress through a wargame that demonstrates the forces it needs, and how Battle Force 2045 will deny Chinese objectives in the Indo-Pacific generally and the first island chain specifically. The Pentagon needs to put it all out there: assumptions, vulnerabilities, unknowns, and risks being assumed in the absence of change, for legislators to understand and debate.

This idea of wargaming with Congress should have bipartisan support, if for no other reason than I stole it from Democrats. In an op-ed earlier this year with Gabrielle Chefitz, Flournoy argued that the Pentagon should invite members of Congress to observe its wargames in order to provide them with the context behind its budgetary proposals. This makes a lot of sense to me as a defense authorizer. The standard congressional hearings with the department are important, but are suboptimal forums for candid conversations, as neither members of Congress nor defense officials want to embarrass themselves on television and even classified discussions are frequently limited by time. A three-day wargame at Newport, on the other hand, would give members of Congress a rare glimpse behind the curtain of defense planning, allow members to ask stupid questions without generating negative press, and allow defense leaders to admit their intellectual or doctrinal blind spots without getting fired.

This does not need to be fancy. Congress just needs a map of the Indo-Pacific and a secure room filled with the Pentagon’s smartest people who can explain to members in simple terms the Chinese military threat, the blue force structure and capabilities needed to deter the People’s Liberation Army or defeat it in war should deterrence fail, and a clear understanding of what American allies bring to the fight. Defense officials should walk congressional leaders through how the current force structure in the Indo-Pacific is inadequate and how Battle Force 2045, in concert with the rest of the joint force, will turn an unfavorable military balance around and lead to victory. Armed with the analytical and tactical context behind the Future Naval Force Structure and the 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan, congressional leaders would then be in a position, despite budgetary headwinds, to make tough choices and convince their colleagues and the public to go along with them.

The idea has already received some pushback from those who fear that wargames can overemphasize military solutions to diplomatic problems.

This is a legitimate concern, although it is possible to run policy games on South and East Asia issues that don’t presume military solutions—as we did for Global Affairs canada in our South China Sea game.

A bigger concern, I think, is that of “gamewashing”—that is, designing and running a game designed to reach a preconceived conclusion. This is the issue that Jacquelyn Schneider raises:

Moreover, methodologically, it is simply impossible for a single wargame to “prove” the superiority of a particular force structure or set of defence investments, both because game outcomes depend (or should depend) on decisions made in the game and because you also need to test out alternatives. Did the US Navy emerge victorious in the wargame because of Battle Force 2045, or because of brilliant US game play (regardless of the asset mix), or because the Chinese side played poorly? Did eight nuclear aircraft carriers and six light carriers prove to be the key to victory, or would the US have done even better with fewer aircraft carriers and more investment in submarines, UAVs, or something else? How much advantage is gained from investing in Navy versus Air Force capabilities? Would the asset mix that proves most effective in defending Taiwan also be the most effective in other scenarios? And so on.

What you risk ending up with is wargame theatre—slickly-produced to engage and convince the audience, but telling only one possible story.

All that being said, I do think there is value in engaging legislators (and legislative staff) in games—largely to educate, to build the foundations for cooperation in times of crisis, and to seek their input into the political dimensions of policy analysis.

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