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Category Archives: simulation and gaming ideas

Lacey: Teaching operational maneuver

The following piece has been contributed by Dr. James Lacey, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Marine Corps War College and author of the recently-released The Washington War: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Politics of Power That Won World War II.


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Picture credit: War on the Rocks

TEACHING OPERATIONAL MANEUVER

For well over five decades the U.S. Military has ruled the tactical battlefield. While much of this tactical superiority is explained by superior military technology, it mostly reflects the literally thousands of “set and reps” tactical leaders receive in training events, professional military educations system (PME), and actual combat. We have highly capable and rapidly adaptive tactical units because, to a degree unequaled in other militaries, U.S forces really do train as they fight. As such, the battlefield is a familiar place, and given virtually any situation, an American combat leader can instantly reach into his memory to retrieve a similar circumstance from training.

This capacity of “instantaneous pattern recognition” is what keeps leaders from freezing in combat. So, although every training or combat situation has its own unique elements, effective training almost always creates sufficient similarities for experienced leaders to draw upon a stored “mental template” to rapidly build, in their mind’s eye, an accurate picture of the fight, and to immediately start making decisions. It is during home station training, while at training centers, on deployments, and in classrooms that our tactical leaders get the “sets and reps” they require to “see” the battlefield and react rapidly and appropriately, while under the stress of combat.

Unfortunately, none, or precious little, of this level of preparation exists at the operational level and above. While we are fantastic at fighting battalions and regiments/BCTs, the skills necessary to fight a dozen or two dozen BCTs as a coherent whole in a swirling maneuver battlefield have atrophied. If Multi-Domain Battle is going to become a battlefield reality, we must once again teach senior leaders how to fight battles, campaigns, and wars above the BCT level. Further, rising senior leaders need to relearn the art of combining a series of battles into combinations of war-winning campaigns.

Some may argue that PME accomplishes this at the ILE level.  And admittedly, there are some small pockets where the rudiments of what is necessary are still being taught, but, for the most part, ILE (and related) institutions no longer teach operational maneuver.  Instead they teach the “process.” Told to get ‘Force A’ to ‘Objective X’, an ILE graduate can layout courses of action, and present a plan to move along ‘Axis Y or Z’ to arrive at the objective. They can also do much of the detailed staff planning necessary to make such a move possible. What they cannot tell you is whether “Objective X” was the right place to assault in the first place.

I first noted that our senior officers had no idea about how to ‘think about or conduct’ an operational battle while attending various Service wargames. For instance, in one major game the scenario called for US and NATO troops to retake the Baltics, currently occupied by Russian forces. The solution that a room full of field grade officers arrived at was to send the attacking force straight north from Poland. The predictable enemy response was to launch the 1stGuards Tank Army into the attacking force’s unprotected flanks and rear – obliterating the four NATO divisions.

This only confirms something that has disturbed me ever since I began employing wargames in War College classrooms. To help the students master the mechanics of these complex games I bring in local civilians with years of operational and strategic level wargaming experience… but no military experience. In every case, no matter the time-period, or the game level (strategic or operational), the war college students are consistently outclassed by civilian hobbyists – it is not even close. This holds true even after the students have played the game a few times and fully understand the game rules and mechanics.  Time and again, my students are out-thought by civilians with no military experience or education.

This does not mean that civilian wargamers would be effective on a real battlefield.  In truth, few of them could lead a platoon out of a paper bag and most of them would seize-up if confronted by a real combat situation.  Moreover, wargamers lack the experienced-based judgement that is a product of years of training and combat experience.  When one plays a wargame, every unit has a set of assigned numbers, which typically everyone knows at the start of the game. For instance, unit counters will typically have their strength, speed of movement, and other factors printed on them. So, when a friendly unit runs into an enemy unit one can quickly calculate relative strengths and with a glance at the game’s combat results table instantly know the probability of success of any engagement.  In real life things are never that easy.  A unit’s strength is always a judgement call that must be made by an experienced commander. Moreover, this judgement (a mental number) is constantly changing as the battlefield situation evolves.  For instance, a battalion commander might mentally consider his best company a “10” on a scale of 1 to 10.  But, maybe he will assign that same company a “6” after it has been in prolonged combat for 72-hours without a rest… and reduce it further to a “4” or lower if it has lost a few key leaders. If he manages to rotate the company out of the line for 48-hours rest he may, once again, elevate it to a “7”, and then make it an “8” based on getting some quality replacements. In combat commanders are continually assessing their units and judging their relative effectiveness; no one is giving them that number.  Moreover, the best commanders are doing the same thing when they judge the relative combat power of their battlefield opponents.

At the operational level of war, the capacity to make such judgements are the result of years (decades) of accumulated experience. This is why the judgement of wargamers cannot be applied in an actual combat environment. Still, wargames remain the only way to “simulate” war at the operational level and above, short of training maneuvers on a scale no one is willing to pay for. And despite the shortcomings of wargames and civilian wargamers as military leaders, a singular truth remains; at the strategic and operational level, civilian wargamers display a capacity for “instant pattern recognition” that very few field grade officers can match. In most cases, a civilian wargamer requires only a cursory glance at a map and a rudimentary understanding of the game mechanics and objectives to comprehend the entire situation and decide on a course of action. Similarly, I can set up actual operational or strategic situations from World War II (or any past war) on a map and the civilian wargamers will come up with a plan of action in a fraction of the time it takes most professional military officers.

The answer appears simple; our PME systems must wed its students’ undoubted tactical expertise, leadership abilities, and judgement to the “instant” operational and strategic “pattern recognition” that many civilian wargamers possess. Getting there, however, is not going to be easy, as it means undertaking a major curriculum upheaval within almost every PME institution at the ILE level and above.

For over a decade-and-a-half, field grade PME institutions have been focused on teaching leaders how to integrate an all of government approach to fighting COIN conflicts. Given the global situation – almost all of the nation’s landpower engaged in two COIN fights – this was undoubtedly the right thing to do. But, while we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world refused to sit still. As we rise our sights above the COIN fight we find ourselves confronting two global military powers, each capable of meeting U.S. forces on the battlefield as peer competitors. It took nearly a decade to get the right people within PME to transform our institutions into COIN academies. Unfortunately, our potential peer-level opponents are unlikely to allow us that much time to realign curriculums back toward operational maneuver.

At this level of warfare civilian wargamers have a tremendous intellectual lead over most military professionals, as they typically have thousands more strategic and operational “reps and sets” than the average field grade officer. Our nation has been served well by company, battalion and brigade level leaders who, because of enduring thousands of “tactical reps”, have repeatedly proven themselves demonstrably superior to their battlefield opponents.  After two decades of training and combat experience we can be reasonably sure that a lieutenant-colonel confronted with almost any tactical situation (real or simulated) will think quickly, move rapidly, and act decisively; all because he has a stored “mental template” to work from. But, unless they are self-taught, military leaders are given few, if any, “reps and sets” at the operational level. Consequently, when confronted with an operational or strategic level problem, their capacity for rapid and decisive action vanishes.

The second great advantage civilian wargamers have over most military professionals is a deep grounding in history, particularly military history. That this advantage exists is somewhat surprising, as military officers are told from the start of their careers that they need to read widely and deeply into all aspects of military history. Unfortunately, disturbingly few bother to do so.

Almost every wargame hobbyist I have met is a walking encyclopedia of historical knowledge. Sit down to play one in a simulation of the Battle of Gettysburg and you will discover that they not only know the big events of the battle; most of them can also tell you what time and from what direction each of Hill’s and Ewell’s brigades arrived on the first day.  But their knowledge usually goes far deeper than such minutiae. Over numerous discussions, I have discovered that they are almost always well-read on the politics, diplomacy, and economics behind any strategic game or simulation. In fact, when it comes to discussing history the average wargamer of my experience can hold his own with any War College faculty member.

Consequently, when a wargame hobbyist examines a new operational or strategic situation he draws upon a huge reservoir of knowledge to contextualize and understand what he is looking at. In short, he has thousands of “mental templates” in his head that help him make sense of even the most complex situations. Moreover, they also have a very good idea of what others have done in similar situations – what worked and what failed.  On the other hand, the typical field grade officer, bereft of the opportunity to develop such “mental templates”, views every situation they are exposed to (and that is way too few) as something totally new… and every approach as novel.

As we begin to reform and realign PME our first question must be: how do we take tactically proficient proven leaders and turn them into – to use an old term – maneuverists? There really is only a single answer; it is the same one that that made them masters of the tactical battlefield. We must increase the number of operational and strategic “reps and sets” they are exposed too. This is the only way to instill in our future senior leaders the “instant pattern recognition” necessary to make them outstanding operational commanders and strategic thinkers.

There are, regrettably, no quick fixes for this problem, as there is no crash course that will give senior leaders the thousands of operational or strategic “reps” they require. Moreover, while most would agree that a leader’s progress toward higher levels of operational and strategic comprehension should start early in their careers, this has always proven a bridge too far. Besides, this is the time when young leaders must focus on the basics of the profession, learning how to lead, and becoming tactical masters.  We can, however, certainly do much better in placing more operational maneuver wargaming and simulations at the ILE level. And then using the war colleges to reinforce these initial “reps and sets”.

I am not advocating turning the “entire” curriculum over to wargaming/simulations and other forms of experiential learning, but they can and should become the “centerpiece” of operational level and strategic education. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Paul Selva have written: “Should we instead think about using wargames that explore joint multidimensional combat operations to pursue our JPME objectives? Building school curriculums around wargaming might help spark innovation and inculcate the entire Joint Force with a better appreciation and understanding of trans-regional, cross-domain, multidimensional combat.” Only by placing our future senior commanders within a series of operational and strategic situations can they begin building the “mental templates” and decision-making skills necessary for success on the maneuver battlefields of the 21stcentury. Time spent on often useless electives would be much better used running a series of operational and strategic exercises (or other experiential learning events) that will teach as well as challenge students at the higher levels of warfare.

The second part of the solution is to finally get serious about teaching military history to future strategic leaders. By this, I mean history writ large, in a program where military history is the focus, but also includes the political, economic, and diplomatic contexts in which conflicts are conducted.  It is no longer sufficient to create a booklist and hope officers read it (most do not). A professional reading program must be instituted and enforced (not talked about) at every level. At its best, such a program would eschew lists of required books, in favor of something akin to study guides. For instance, an officer desiring to develop a better understanding of the American Civil War, would be able to access a 2 or 3-page guide that lists a number of books he can choose from, depending on what his current emphasis of study is.

Where would I like us to get to? As a start, I would hope that every field grade officer would have the knowledge to reply to General Bernard Law Montgomery’s request for three courses of action to take Arnhem with: “Sir, should we not first consider taking Antwerp?

If you have no idea what the above analogy references, or you don’t know why “Antwerp” is the right answer then your study of military history is sadly deficient.  Get to work on that.

James Lacey
ME - 2

 

Wargaming and its place in PME

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War on the Rocks has just published a piece by Carrie Lee and Bill Lewis of the US Air War College entitled “Wargaming Has a Place, But is No Panacea for Professional Military Education.”

The school year is about to start, and not just for the kids. Senior-level professional military education is about to begin a new academic year, with new classes of students from across the services preparing to embark upon ten months of education that is meant to elevate their thinking from the operational and tactical to the strategic level. In the two years since the release of the National Defense Strategy (and the now-infamous paragraph that declared professional military education to be “stagnant”), a heated debate has emerged on the pages of this website about the best ways to accomplish the mission of professional military education. Suggestions for improvement have spanned the gamut, from teaching students to be good staffers to introducing diversity — both in the faculty and the curriculum — to improving the ways in which we assess strategic competency. Others have pushed back, pointing out that professional military education already is highly responsive to change and warning about the dangers of the “good idea fairy.” In April, James Lacy of the Marine War College proposed another solution: All professional military education institutions should include board game wargaming as a part of their curriculum.

While this recommendation may hold appeal with those who are explicitly focused on military history and operational art, Lacey’s proposal is both short-sighted and misses the importance of diversity in professional military education — both between service colleges and in the curriculum itself. There is little doubt that experiential learning can be a valuable part of any education, including professional military education. But it also comes in many forms, all of which have benefits and costs. If the mission of professional military education is to educate the next generation of senior leaders about the strategic level of war and expose them to the tools they will need to succeed at that level, then we must use a variety of methods across the service colleges, rather than defaulting to a series of one-size-fits-all solutions.

They conclude:

In order to best educate and prepare our students for this complex and challenging environment, a variety of tools are necessary, and “one size fits all” solutions may do more harm than good. There are many types of immersive programs that can be employed to achieve a broad range of learning objectives. We should strive to view our curriculum not as a checklist of required activities but instead as a wholistic educational experience.

Lee and Lewis are right, of course, that serious gaming is not some magic educational bullet. It takes times. Not all wargames are fit for educational purpose, even if they work well as hobby or analytical games. Academic schedules are crowded, and you can only do so much. There are many teaching techniques available. There is even overwhelming evidence that simulations, when used poorly, can do educational damage.

That being said, I’m not sure they really offer a great deal of guidance in what should be used when and in what ways, how this relates to other teaching techniques, and how we know we measure the effectiveness of all this.

Jim Lacey, who the authors critique as a point of departure, was quick to post a response to Facebook (reproduced here with permission):

Well it is not every day my approach to teaching strategic studies is called “shortsighted” by folks who apparently have no idea what I do. But, I suppose it is always an easy-out to set up a strawman – no matter how it departs from reality – as a foil to base an article upon .

In any event, it may have helped if you had read my earlier article on the topic

But in hopes of increasing your understanding of how we educate MCWAR students, please allow me to offer the following.. During the course of the year MCWAR students participate in a number of experiential events, including:

  • Conducting several staff rides, including Yorktown, the Overland Campaign, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Normandy. – FYI, the students also go on a two week trip to either Europe and Asia to immerse themselves in current issues
  • Engaging in multiple simulations (as you describe them). This includes participating in two multi-day geopolitical simulation at Tufts and Georgetown universities. Moreover, we employ a number of in-house simulations throughout a spectrum of historical, current, and future related topics.
  • I would dare say we also employ a large number of models (as you describe them) throughout the year.
  • When it comes to wargaming MCWAR employs the entire gamut: seminar games, matrix games, board games, computer assisted games, etc.
  • Engage in a number of simulations and wargames based on future scenarios against China, Russia, and Iran, which feed directly into ongoing concept development and Title 10 wargames
  • We also use boardgames, but they remain both a subset of our overall curriculum and a subset of our experiential learning program.

In any event, boardgames are never used in isolation. Let me give one example.

As part of our military history curriculum we examine the Civil War. The structure of that program breaks down as follows:

  1. The students are given a set of readings to finish before they enter the classroom
  2. They are then directed to a website I am developing, where they can listen to lectures from some of the best Civil War historians in the nation.
  3. They are also given CDs so that they can listen to other lectures in their cars
  4. Then, once they have absorbed this material, we conduct our seminar sessions. We only have two seminars at MCWAR…. So I break each of them into two parts and conduct a series of seminars with only 7-8 folks in each (as close to an Oxford tutorial as I can get).
  5. After all of this we conduct a board wargame. I run 3-4 wargames at the same time, so all of the students can fully participate. I have local community volunteers (long-time wargamers) sitting at each game to take care of the game mechanics, so that the students can focus on strategic decisions
  6. Then, when all of that is done, the class goes on their staff rides.

I am always looking for way to improve, and am hopeful that you can suggest ways I can do so.

In any event, I just wanted to clear the air and correct any misperceptions you and your co-author have as to how MCWAR sets-up its curriculum, as well as my approach to teaching and the use of wargames. Of course, a much of this could have been easily cleared-up with a phone call or an e-mail before you went to print. But, moving on… if there is anything I can do to assist your efforts to increase and enhance the use of modeling, simulations, and wargaming – or any other experiential learning methodology – at the Air War College, please do not hesitate to ask.

Thank you for your time and comments. I look forward to learning more about the Air Force conducts experiential learning.

This isn’t the first such debate. I’m not sure is should even be a debate, however. Rather, it points to the value of a common-sense “toolkit” approach to serious gaming. Wargames are tools. Sometimes they may be the best tool for the job. Sometimes there are better tools. Sometimes they are a pretty bad fit. Almost always, they need to be used in conjunction with other techniques.

Wargaming as an academic discipline

 

P1110648a.jpgThe following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by Dr. Aggie Hirst (left), Lecturer in International Relations Theory and Methods in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.


 

Wargaming as an Academic Discipline

On 16th January 2019, Dr. Yuna Wong spoke to an audience of policymakers, scholars, practitioners, educators, and students about the establishment of an academic field of Wargaming, in the second public lecture of the King’s Wargaming Network’s inaugural series. The King’s Wargaming Network (KWN) was established in the School of Security Studies at King’s College London in 2018 as a global hub for the theory and practice of wargaming, drawing together a diverse range of academics, professionals, and stakeholders from War Studies, International Relations, defence, policy, industry, and civil society with an interest in the topic. In response to the currently diffuse and ad hoc character of wargames research and practice, the KNW seeks to take a leading role in the development of an integrated, globally recognised academic discipline in which knowledge about wargaming may be produced, preserved, and transmitted.

In her talk, Dr Wong set out a series of pathways, possibilities, and pitfalls associated with the establishment of such a field. Her comments built upon discussions held earlier the same day in the first meeting of the KWN’s Academic Working Group, comprised of leading figures in the professional wargaming community. She addressed the questions: Why do we need an academic discipline of Wargaming? What concrete steps can be taken in the short and medium terms to establish such a discipline? What obstacles might be faced in this endeavour? Below I provide an overview of Dr Wong’s comments and suggest some key critical contributions that academics can make in the current wargaming renaissance.

Beginning with the oft-cited DoD-wide memos issued in 2014 and 2015 by then Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Deputy Bob Work, a renaissance in US military wargaming is currently underway.[1] Indeed, in what Dr Peter Perla has called the ‘sine wave of popularity’[2], professional wargaming is also enjoying renewed interest across government, business, third sector, and hobby spheres. The origins of this renaissance in the military can be traced to the priorities outlined in the Third Offset Strategy (3OS),[3]and associated Defence Innovation Initiative (DII), launched by Hagel and Work, which identified wargaming as a key method by means of which US strategic advantage might be maintained in an environment of narrowing technological superiority. Spanning areas as diverse as education and training, research and analysis, doctrinal innovation, operational concepts, and procurement, military wargaming, its proponents claim, can mitigate the structural uncertainly and complexity of the current security and operational environments. It can do this by allowing players to ‘climb inside’[4] scenarios and explore individual and collective decision-making practices. In this way, they assert, wargaming can facilitate institutional learning and assist with future planning by examining the human domain of contemporary conflict in ways quantitative Operations Research (OR) cannot.

This renewed attention, and the accompanying increase in funding, has led to the establishment of new agencies and working groups, such the Defense Wargaming Alignment Group (DWAG), a series of Military Operations Research Society (MORS) special meetings,[5] a classified wargaming repository housed in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), and the publication of several handbooks and manuals outlining the value-added and best practice standards of military wargaming.[6] A small but committed wargaming community of practice (CoP) has capitalised on this renewed interest and is currently seeking ways to further proliferate its remit and mandate in DoD.

As part of this endeavour, the issue of the establishment of a dedicated academic field of Wargaming has been raised. As Dr Wong noted, while the practice of wargaming is proliferating, the scholarly study of the field remains limited and ad hoc. This is in part because almost all professional wargamers are first and foremost practitioners, whose work focuses on designing, facilitating, and analysing games from the perspective of a particular institution, objective, or stakeholder. These commitments often prevent them from conducting broader studies of the field. Accordingly, Dr Wong identified a series of practical and intellectual reasons why the establishment of an academic discipline comprising interested parties from with and beyond the wargaming CoP is desirable.

First, such a field would tackle the complex task of properly conceptualising and theorising wargaming, both as a method and an object of inquiry. As Peter Perla’s opening KWN public lecture in December 2018 set out[7], and to which KWN Co-Director Ivanka Barzashka responded earlier this year[8], practitioners variously view wargaming as an art, a science, or a craft, and opinion varies widely on its proper epistemological assumptions, its relationship to modelling/simulation/OR, and whether or not it should (continue to) be integrated with digital technologies. Without seeking to reduce this diversity, an academic field would play a central role in formalising these debates and pushing forward analyses through testing and mutual critique.

Second, an academic field would serve to train and qualify people to create, facilitate, and effectively analyse wargames, serving to professionalise the field and formally accredit practitioners. This would also help to open up the often opaque pathways via which wargamers can develop their skills from novice to journeyman to master, a shift which is all the more important as pressures to diversify the field in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and so forth are brought to bear.

Third, such a field would be less vulnerable to changes in government, administration, funding priorities, and individual preferences than are the military and consultancy institutions in which the CoP tend to be housed. While the acquisition of academic research funding is always a challenge, stability for the practice and study of wargaming could be generated through such grants and the establishment of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, provided a sufficient job market persists.

Forth, because it would comprise a focus on both applied and theoretical dimensions of wargaming, a dedicated field could act as a bridge between government/policy and the academy, filling the policy-relevance gap with which academics frequently struggle.

Fifth, such a discipline could function to draw together the existing rich but disparate research in a range of fields focusing on, and relevant to, wargaming. Dr Wong mentioned in particular the applicability of research in Organisational, Educational, Experimental, Social, and Military Psychology as well as advances in Education, Sociology, Applied Anthropology, and Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Uniting these discrete areas within an interdisciplinary field of Wargaming would serve to make the best use of existing research and develop new collaborative projects and funding bids.

Finally, an academic field would provide a context within which non-practitioner voices could study and evaluate gaming from political, social, ethical, and economic perspectives. An academic field of Wargaming, like any healthy discipline, should contain a plurality of approaches, foci, and interests. It should attract scholars, students, and practitioners from across of wide range of backgrounds, and comprise those for whom wargaming is a method of research and/or teaching, and those for whom it is an object of study. Furthermore, it should include seasoned pioneers and practitioners as well as those new to the field, and those offering critiques of existing artefacts, traditions, and practices.

In addition to these reasons for establishing a Wargaming discipline, Dr Wong noted the need for robust empirical studies to settle the debate surrounding wargames’ efficacy. While anecdotal evidence of its popularity and utility abounds, little concrete evidence that wargaming is superior – whether defined in terms of engagement, retention, results, or some other metric – to conventional teaching, training, and research methods currently exists. Academic research could play a vital role here by conducting multi-year studies with control groups to establish whether and how wargames really do facilitate unique and improved teaching and/or research.

Moving beyond this debate, the academic study of wargaming has the capacity to explore not only why wargaming works[9] but also how it works, and with what consequences. In other words, the debate could fruitfully be expanded from efficacy to effects. Similarly, scholars could move from evaluating wargaming and its effects in positivist terms to using post-positivist social science approaches, something also noted by Dr Wong in her talk. In particular, the rise of ‘critical’ and ‘deconstructive’ thinking as a military priority invites an analysis of the different uses of these terms and methods by post-positivist scholars in the civilian academy, who are interested in critiquing rather than promoting the current global order. Moreover, the challenges posed by the wargaming CoP to the modelling and simulations practitioners in the OR community parallel in interesting, and hitherto under-researched, ways the challenges posed by post-positivist scholarship to the quantitative and objective aspirations of positivist social science. This line of inquiry would open new pathways surrounding the enduring question of the validation and verification of wargames.

In addition, and as also noted by Dr Wong, an academic field of Wargaming would facilitate the analysis of wargaming beyond DoD. In addition to gaming in the fields of health, first responders, child and adult education, advertising, jobs and skills training, housing, and social engagement, a host of grassroots groups are currently developing and repurposing games in areas as diverse as political contestation[10] and veterans’ community-building and suicide prevention[11].

Finally, and I would argue crucially, the wargaming CoP has paid very little attention to the question of the impacts of wargaming on those taught and trained with them. Most professional wargamers are confident that because people find wargaming fun, it is a welcome break from conventional classroom and field methods. And yet important questions remain unanswered, and oftentimes unasked, about the state of immersion generated in play and the circumvention of critical reasoning than this state entails. One interesting line of inquiry, then, is the apparent paradox that wargaming simultaneously promotes and restricts critical thinking in players, and the distribution of these tendencies across the rank spectrum of service members.

While advances in wargaming design, research, and execution are widespread, a lack of scholarly integration limits our understanding of these activities. And although a promising body of scholarly work on wargaming is emerging, it has yet to be drawn together to develop best practice guidance for research and teaching. In addition, little research exists which critically evaluates professional wargaming. As Dr Wong set out in her talk, there have been at least two attempts in recent years to establish an academic wargaming program in the DC metro area, but these have yet to be realised. With the rise of recreational gaming as the leading mode of entertainment in the current digital age, there has never been a better time to study gaming. While researchers in the Social Sciences have explored the videogame phenomenon in some depth, the study of professional gaming—both digital and manual—remains in its infancy. Whether through the establishment of a dedicated academic field of Wargaming, or by means of interdisciplinary work conducted across established fields, research examining how wargaming works and with what consequences for strategy, operations, and trainees is of key import in the current security environment.

Aggie Hirst 

References

[1] Chuck Hagel, “The Defense Innovation Initiative”, Department of Defence Memorandum, 2014; Bob Work, “Wargaming and Innovation”, Department of Defense Memorandum, 2015.

[2] Peter P. Perla, in Philip Pournelle (ed.), MORS Wargaming Special Meeting October 2016: Final Report, p. 87.

[3] Bob Work, “The Third US Offset Strategy and Its Implications for Partners and Allies”, 2015; Bob Work, “The Third Offset Strategy”, Speech at the Reagan Defense Forum, 2015.

[4] Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke, “Chess, Go, and Vietnam”, in Pat Harrigan and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (eds.), Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (Cambridge; London: MIT Press, 2016), p. 526.

[5] Philip Pournelle (ed.), MORS Wargaming Special Meeting October 2016: Final Report; Phillip Pournelle and Holly Deaton (eds.), MORS Wargaming III Special Meeting October 2017: Report, 2018.

[6] Joint Publication 5.0, ‘Joint Planning’, 16 June 2017, https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/pubs/ jp5_0_20171606.pdf; TRADOC, “The Applied Critical Thinking Handbook”, 2015; James Markley, “Strategic Wargaming Series Handbook”, United States Army War College, 2015.

[7] Peter P. Perla, ‘“The Art and Science of Wargaming to Innovate and Educate in an Era of Strategic Competition”: KWN Public Lecture, December 2018, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgHWLM5I32fRKgoclCDaNhg.

[8] Ivanka Barzashka, “Wargaming: How to Turn Vogue into Science”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 15 March 2019:https://thebulletin.org/2019/03/wargaming-how-to-turn-vogue-into-science/.

[9] Peter P. Perla and Ed McGrady, ‘Why Wargaming Works’, Naval War College Review64, no. 3 (2011): 111–30.

[10] See for example the group Class Wargames: http://www.classwargames.net/.

[11] Leading this field is the veterans’ group Stack-Up.Org: https://stackup.org/.

 

 

Setting the (wargame) stage

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I delivered a (virtual) presentation today to the Military Operations Society wargaming community of practice on the importance of “chrome, fluff” and other finer touches in promoting better game outcomes through enhanced narrative engagement. Having forgotten to set a calendar reminder I was a fifteen minutes late for my own talk, which only served to reinforce the stereotype of absent-minded professors. Apologies to everyone who had to wait!

The full set of Powerpoint slides is available here (pdf). Since the content may not be entirely self-evident from the slides, I’ll also offer a quick summary.

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First, I argued—in keeping with Perla and McGrady’s discussion of “Why wargaming works“—that narrative engagement is a key element of good (war)game design and implementation.

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In addition to their experience-based, qualitative argument, I adduced some quantitative, experimental data that shows that role-playing produces superior forecasting outcomes…

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..and that the way we frame and present games has profound effects on the way players actually play them.

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I also noted a substantial literature on the psychology of conflict and conflict resolution that points to the importance of normative and other non-material factors in shaping conflict and negotiating behaviour.

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In other words, if your games don’t have players feeling angry, or aggrieved, or alienated, or attached to normative and symbolic elements, they’re acting unrealistically. Since the selling point of wargaming is that it places humans in the loop, you need those players playing like real humans, not technocratic, minimaxing robots.

Doing that, I suggested, requires nudging participants into the right mindset. One has to be careful one doesn’t overdo it—some participants may recoil at role play fluff that makes it all look like a LARP or game of D&D.

What then followed was a discussion of some considerations and ways that I had done it, but which was also intended to spark a broader conversation. Specifically we looked at:

  • How player backgrounds and player assignment will influence how readily participants internalize appropriate perspectives.
  • Briefing materials should designed to subtly promote desired perspectives and biases (without being too obvious about this). Things like flags, maps, placards, and so forth can all be used to make players more closely identify with their role.
  • In repeated games—for example, some wargames in an educational setting that might be conducted every year)—oral traditions and tales from prior games can make the game setting richer and more authentic (although at the risk of players learning privileged information from previous players). Participants might also contribute background materials, chrome, or fluff that you can use in future games—such as the collection of songs from Brynania that my McGill University students have recorded over the past twenty years.

  • Very explicit objectives and “victory conditions” should often be used sparingly, lest they promote both an unrealistic sense of the rigidity of policy goals and promote excessively “tick-off-the-objective-boxes” game play.
  • Physical space should be used to subtly shape player interaction, whether to foster interaction, limit it, or even create a sense of isolation and alienation.
  • Coffee breaks and lunch breaks should be designed NOT to pull players out of their scenario headspace. The last thing you want is Blue and Red having a friendly hour over lunch talking about non-game matters in a scenario where they are supposed to distrust or even hate each other.
  • Fog and friction should be promoted not only to model imperfect information and imperfect institutions/capabilities, but also to subtly promote atmospheres of uncertainty, fear, crisis, panic, frustration, and similar emotional states, as appropriate to the actors and scenario.
  • The graphic presentation of game materials should encourage narrative engagement and immersion. Avoid inappropriate fonts and formats, make things look “real,” and be aware that game graphics can very much affect how players (and analysts) perceive the game and it’s outcomes.

A variety of other issues came up in the Q&A and discussion. Many thanks to everyone who participated—I hope they found it as useful as I did.

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Wargaming and representation

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At Vice, Rob Zacny published a thoughtful piece yesterday on representation within wargames (both digital games and serious manual hobby games), specifically regarding the sometimes sympathetic portrayal of the German army during WWII.

The issues with responsibly depicting German combat forces in World War 2, and their connections to Nazi crimes against humanity, are well-known at this point and have been a point of increasing discussion and debate among historical hobby gamers for years. EA’s flagship shooter might be on the cutting edge of mainstream video gaming, but its naive politics are years behind the state of historical research. The argument that a character fought bravely and heroically for Germany, but not the Nazis, isn’t just naive, but it’s one that was aggressively promulgated by German war criminals themselves.

There are two major tenets to the whitewashing of the Wehrmacht, one more reprehensible than the other. The first and worst is that the Wehrmacht was by and large the German army but was never a Nazi army, and did not participate in the crimes against humanity that was the bedrock of Nazi governance and expansion. This was false: Particularly on the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht worked fist-in-glove with the SS to round up and exterminate Soviet Jews, Romani, and other groups the Nazis systematically persecuted and murdered. Whatever the different experiences and actions of the millions of soldiers (volunteer and conscript) who served in the Wehrmacht, the institution of the Wehrmacht was both complicit and participant in Nazi atrocities on a wide scale.

The second tenet is that the Wehrmacht was, in a word, awesome.

We’re not going to stop making and playing World War 2 games. For whatever reason, there are countless people (myself included) who are endlessly drawn to revisiting and refighting its battles. But that narrow framing of the history, that exclusion of all the crimes and murders that surrounded the actual fighting on the front lines, serves things beyond the purity of game design. It burnishes and reinforces myths, it divorces warfare from politics, it elevates the soldier—no matter what they serve or advance—as a kind of secular hero. And it gives cover for the idea that there was something admirable and heroic about waging war for Nazi Germany.

For the full depth and nuance of his argument, you should read the full article.

One can disagree with parts or even all of Zacny’s argument, of course. It is pretty clear, however, that he is very much writing about games, game design, game play, and the possible role of games in shaping popular culture. You would think that this would be and issue that serious wargame hobbyists would want to engage, right? After all, as Clausewitz argued, politics is central to warfighting. Moreover, many hobbyists pride themselves on their love of military history and argue that wargames offer insight into real conflict.

Except that’s not exactly what happened when well-known wargame scholar Matthew Kirschenbaum shared the piece to the large ( 11,000+ member) “Wargamers” group on Facebook.

The posting immediately sparked a heated discussion on how culpable the average German soldier was for Nazi war crimes, and some discussion of how to portray atrocity and evil in games. Sadly, however, it also quickly provoked comments that showed how unwelcoming the hobby community can be:

  • The first “snowflake/social justice warrior/political correctness” insults appeared around 15 minutes after posting (ironically, by those arguing that the topic shouldn’t be raised for discussion).
  • A racist and homophobic “Pepe” meme was posted after 24 minutes.
  • After about half an hour there were calls to lock or delete the thread because it was too controversial or divisive (that is, to discuss game design in a gaming group).
  • Less than an hour in, it was suggested that the article was part of a broader socialist/globalist/Soros conspiracy. A little later on, a couple of posters implied that this was all part of blaming white people.
  • A transphobic comment was added at 57 minutes, as well as one linking the discussion to feminism and/or insufficient testosterone.

Within two hours, the thread had been shut down by the group admins. A follow-up thread lasted about an hour. Threads were also shut down in several other gaming groups.

Now, it is important to point out that the most offensive posts were from a very small handful of people, out of the several dozen who contributed. It is also important to remember that internet discussion tends to bring out both extremists and uncivil behaviour.

Nonetheless, anyone who happened to be female, LGBTQ, liberal, a visible minority, or Jewish might well see in the thread a rather unwelcoming hobby. They would have been even more dismayed by how few people spoke out against the bigotry and insults. “Discussions” like this one inhibit growing the community, inhibit greater diversity and inclusion, and discourage thoughtful discussion of serious topics.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time we’ve encountered this at PAXsims, of course.

Professional wargamers—those in the national security community whose gaming is intended to enhance security or save actual lives—tend to be far more supportive of addressing these sorts of issues. I’ve discussed issues of wargame ethics, sensitive topics, and representation in lectures I’ve delivered to defence audiences around the world, and without exception have found them receptive and reflective. These issues are also frequently raised and discussed at Connections conferences, in the US, UK, and elsewhere.

There’s a lot that serious gaming can learn from the hobby. However, there are also some bad habits and prejudices that remain far too persistent there—and which clearly need to be resisted.

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Kadlec: Modelling Competition and Cooperation in Strategic Games

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At the US Army War College War Room, Sean Kadlec discusses the use of relatively simple serious games (such as matrix games) to explore and foster interagency and civil-military cooperation.

Role-playing games and similar low-cost thought- and dialogue-based exercises can produce insights into and solutions for difficult national security problems, while also creating conditions for real-world cooperation. The USAWC — CSL, other institutes like PKSOI, and the student body — can assist operational units and interagency partners by combining such “experimental strategy” exercises with academic theory (like the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”) as in-class research or assignments. More importantly, however they are created and staged, security professionals should use dynamic gaming as a means to develop conceptual understanding, generate practical solutions, and foster cooperation in a low-cost game environment before implementing potentially costly and untested ideas in the real world. There is no dilemma here: “gaming” cross-sector collaboration is worth every penny not spent on untested strategies — especially when they fail for lack of forethought.

You’ll find the full piece here.

Bartels: Building A Pipeline Of Wargaming Talent

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At War on the Rocks, Ellie Bartels (RAND) discusses “Building A Pipeline Of Wargaming Talent: A Two-Track Solution.” In it she argues the need to educate neophyte and mid-career (war)gamers, and also to educate sponsors, clients and managers about best practices and using games most effectively.

For gaming to help prepare the Department of Defense for the future, different types of wargame education are needed, aimed at different communities. Deep study of games is required for game designers to develop mastery. For those who work alongside these experts, in roles ranging from sponsor to subject matter expert, short courses may be a valuable addition to existing government educational institutions, most notably the military schoolhouses. Building up a new generation of experts, and giving civilian and military partners the tools to ask the right questions and provide information to designers is key to building more high-quality games. Without these pipelines, the existing cadre of designers will not be able to keep up with demand, leaving the department unprepared for the future.

It’s an excellent piece, and well worth reading (and not just because Ellie is one of our associate editors).

“Raising the next generation of wargamers” (+a somewhat related rant)

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At War on the Rocks, Sebastien Bae (RAND) discusses raising the next generation of wargamers:

Wargaming in today’s defense community is the purview of a select few with the necessary niche expertise and experience. It relies on a cadre of senior wargamers who spearheaded professional wargaming during the 1980s and 1990s. The community is best depicted with an inverted pyramid, since senior wargamers significantly outnumber young, more junior ones. Military wargaming also relies heavily on defense contractors and civilian experts. However, this approach can be costly, doesn’t build long-term institutional knowledge, and can be unpredictable in terms of quality. In the absence of an official wargaming military occupational specialty, or a civilian degree in wargaming, most professional wargamers are usually converted hobbyist board gamers with backgrounds in political science, military planning, and operations research. Finally, despite existing wargaming education opportunities, there is no established talent pipeline through which young servicemembers are identified, trained, educated, and nurtured to be wargamers as with other military specialties.

As the demand for wargaming grows, cultivating the next generation of wargamers will become critical to the field’s future. Therefore, the Defense Department will need to draw from a much wider pool of talent, inside and outside the military, and change the way it recruits, trains, funds, and promotes wargamers.

He offers several ideas to address this potential shortfall, including learning through (wargame) play/competition and “establishing and funding a systematic process to expose both enlisted troops and officers to wargaming,” including regular exposure in professional military education. The latter is, I think, particularly important: wargames need to be part of the process early so as to generate familiarity, and inclulcate critical consumer skills (that is, the ability to distinguish between a good and flawed game).

Bae also notes:

For long-term success, the community of wargamers cannot be limited to the defense community and its periphery. Otherwise, wargaming risks becoming parochial, isolated, and intellectually stagnant. The Defense Department should consider supporting a wide range of efforts to broaden its talent pool with top recruits from academia.

He’s right—that’s a terrific idea, both in terms of encouraging student interest in wargaming and broader intellectual cross-fertilization. However, it faces a remarkable number of bureaucratic hurdles.

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One key problem is site access, especially for academics (who aren’t defence contractors or government personnel, or aren’t at US universities that do substantial defence contracting), hobby/commercial designers, and university students. It is even harder if you aren’t a US citizen.

For example, in my own personal experience, doing things like this:

  • Interviewing the senior leadership of a designated terrorist organization at one of their organization’s safehouses in Damascus.
  • Arranging to be flown into Benghazi on a rebel plane at the height of the Libyan civil war.
  • Setting up meetings at the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Visiting Iran.

…is considerably easier than:

  • Attending a MORS conference (some years are worse than others).
  • Getting someone to agree to process the paperwork for a wargame-related visit to a NATO facility on an American military base. (The fact that I spent this morning on the phone trying to get this done is entirely unrelated to this rant, of course.)
  • Running an (unclassified) game of AFTERSHOCK at a Canadian defence establishment.
  • Getting someone to put the UK IVCO paperwork in a fax machine at the High Commission (embassy) for a visit to Dstl.

Really.

This is not a US problem. Rather, it is (as some of the examples above suggest) a NATO-wide problem. And things are even worse if, say, you’re Brian Train.*

In addition to this is a labyrinth of contracting issues if you want to receive some remuneration, since the process is set up for large defence contractors not for individual designers and academics. It once took Tom Fisher and I almost a year to get a $150 invoice paid by one American professional military education establishment. Embarrassed colleagues elsewhere once had to do an office whip-around for the price of my Greyhound bus ticket, since they couldn’t get my travel expenses authorized in time.

One might think such issues of access and flexibility are most severe in the US, given the size and bureaucratic complexity of the US defence establishment, the presence of many large defence contractors, and the tendency of the US military to NOFORN things that really don’t need to be limited to US citizens. However, I would argue that this problem has even more deleterious effects elsewhere in NATO (and beyond), where the community of wargamers is much smaller, resources are more constrained, and the need for cooperation and outreach is correspondingly greater.

(/rant)

On a final note, it would have been nice to have seen some mention in Bae’s very good piece of the Connections interdisciplinary wargame conference, held annually in the US, UK, Canada, Netherlands, and Australia. It is not hard to get students to attend these: this year, I had students at Connections North, Connections US, and Connections UK.  Certainly, there is no better place to acquaint yourself with the art and science of wargaming and meet a (somewhat) diverse and (certainly) interdiciplinary group of professional wargamers.

 


*I’m willing to bet Brian comments on this within 48 hours.

Distilling wargaming wisdom at Dstl

The following report has been cleared for release by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (public release identifier DSTL/PUB110424).


 

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The legendary Dstl coin holds off RED forces on the outskirts of a small village.

At the end of June I spent a very pleasant week at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Portsdown West (Portsmouth), discussing various topics with members of the wargaming team there and others. I made similar visits in 2016 and 2017, and—as with the earlier occasions—this trip was very stimulating, productive, and enjoyable.

Monday

Day 1 of my visit started with a presentation on wargaming and forecasting (slides/pdf). Wargamers often intone that “wargamers are not predictions,” largely so that clients and participants will not hold games to an unreasonable standard of predictive accuracy. However, while wargames do not generate detailed findings about the future, they do contain an element of prediction in that they are usually intended to explore plausible futures. Assessing that a future scenario is plausible is, after all, an act of forecasting in itself.

Dstl Forecasting

Given this, the literature on political forecasting offers some guidance as to how games might be better configured to increase foresight. I also suggested that wargames were best used as an adjunct to other forecasting methods (helping us to identify key junctures, challenge assumptions, and encourage discussion) rather than a method in and of themselves.

This was followed by a second presentation on ethical challenges in wargaming (slides/pdf). Here I addressed three major themes:

  • The use of serious games to teach about ethical decision-making, the laws of armed conflict, and similar topics.
  • The use of games to explore the dynamics of mass atrocity and human rights abuses, so that we might develop appropriate policy responses.
  • Finally, I discussed some of the ethical issues that might arise in game design and facilitation.

I was especially pleased with this presentation, since it raised issues that have not been discussed much within the professional community. How should games address sensitive issues such as religion and ethnicity? How can a game explore topics like torture, mass atrocity, or sexual and gender-based violence without having adverse effects on participants who may have had personal traumatic experience of such things? What is our ethical obligation to produce high quality games, given the implications of our work for policy or war-fighting? What is our obligation to produce games that have positive moral effects—and what should we do if we believe a game design might be put to unethical purposes? Interestingly, I was not the only one in attendance who had refused work from a client because we were uncomfortable with who might be using a game and what it might be used it for. (This is, of course, a rather more difficult choice if working on wargame design as a government employee.)

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Much of the latter part of the session involved case studies to which members of the audience were invited to respond. How does one deal with player humour that might be seen as insensitive or offensive by some, given the game scenario? How does one incorporate issues of (countering) sexual exploitation and violence in wargames given the possible effects on players who have experienced the same in their personal or professional lives?

Next, came a session devoted to gaming indirect social media and cyber effects (slides/pdf). I started off by warning that not everything is new under the sun, and that communities and combatants alike have always leveraged new information and communication technologies to enhance their influence and effect. Certainly, the digital age had made it easier to do this, and to reach more people faster than ever before. However, the magnitude of this change might sometimes be exaggerated.

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Maj. Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK) and I then moved on to discussing a variety of interesting games and game mechanics that might be adapted to explore such issues. These included:

 

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Demonstrating influence dynamics in Hostage Negotiator.

Tuesday

The second day of my visit largely involved me participating in, and commenting on, other people’s wargames, which is always an enjoyable task. In the morning, our focus was matrix gaming. I made a quick presentation on the status of the Matrix Game Construction Kit, then Tom facilitated a session of the High North matrix game. This went very well, with Russia, the US and Canada all using environmental concerns to project their regulatory influence well beyond their established Exclusive Economic Zones. Chinese efforts to meddle in a Greenland independence referendum went badly wrong, while “the spirit of capitalism” pursued a variety of economic opportunities as the polar ice cap slowly receded due to global climate change. The session provided ample opportunities to discuss both matrix game design and game facilitation.

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Gaming the “High North.”

After lunch, we discussed support for RAF wargaming. As part of this, Flt. Lt. Colin Bell (RAF) demonstrated three educational games he has developed for training cadets. I particularly enjoyed his air logistics games (in which players must move personnel and supplies using a variety of air assets to various locations, in response to randomly-drawn mission cards), and a game that explored mission planning and execution for offensive and defensive air operations. Playing a few turns of the latter, we lost a few Typhoons in our fighter sweep ahead of our main force but came out slightly ahead in air-to-air engagement. A heavy concentration of radar targets suggested an impending inbound enemy attack on our air defence command centre, so we ordered two other fighter groups to reposition themselves to respond. Meanwhile, we had two strike packages headed towards our target—an enemy destroyer, docked in port—when the game had to be brought to an early end.

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RAF wargaming—teaching about air logistics.

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More RAF wargaming. Strike package inbound!

Wednesday

Day three of my visit involved a morning spent at Dstl’s annual historical analysis symposium. My own paper explored strategic communications, signaling, and deterrence in the specific context of Syrian use of chemical weapons (slides/pdf). Here I drew upon both the scholarly literature on deterrence and the findings of wargames to suggest how it is that what one side regards as a robust signal of capability and credible commitment might be seen rather differently by the recipient—in part because each side operates in a very different organizational and political context.

Dstl Communications

Wednesday evening was spent at the mess of HMS Excellent, the Royal Navy “stone frigate” (shore establishment) on Whale Island, Portsmouth. After dinner, not surprisingly, we all turned our attention to some less serious gaming. While some of the group plotted to assassinate Hitler in Black Orchestra, the rest of us played Bloc by Bloc. I’m happy to report that fascism had a bad day: Hitler went down in the former game, while in the latter a progressive revolutionary coalition of workers, students, anarcho-neighbours, and prisoners brought down the repressive state system.

Thursday

The fourth day of my trip was wholly devoted to a day-long workshop on wargame adjudication (slides/pdf). In the morning, Tom and I started with a presentation on the topic, drawing upon our own experience. Adjudication runs along a spectrum from rigid (rules-based) to free kriegsspiel, with matrix games and hybrid approaches somewhere in between. Adjudication also varies depending on whether game play is turn-based, continuous, or a mix of these.

I suggested that wargame facilitators and adjudicators stand astride two essential mandates, sometimes complementary, but also sometimes in tension: that of the technician (committed to attaining the technical goals of the game) and the theatre director (responsible for bringing alive the imaginary world of the game narrative).

After lunch, we collectively discussed two recent Dstl games and the adjudication challenges each had presented. We then broke into smaller groups, and discussed how we might address a number of game adjudication vignettes:

  • Dealing with an adjudication error in combat resolution. Do you rewind the game, admit the error but press ahead regardless, or hide the mistake from the players?
  • What sort of adjudication would be most appropriate for a game intended to examine security planning for a forthcoming high-profile diplomatic visit, and why?
  • How should one deal with a (more senior, male) SME who is persistently pestering a (junior, female) player with criticisms of the game system?
  • How might adjudication approaches be configured to better withstand sponsor pressure to reach predetermined conclusions?

Interestingly, almost all of the participants felt that an adjudicator should cover up a minor error during a game if the mistake had no major game-changing effects and if informing players would “break the bubble” of narrative engagement—only disclosing the glitch after the game was over, depending on the participants and client. I concur and have done it myself, but I know others who don’t and wouldn’t. The issue was one that was further debated at the Connections US wargaming conference a few weeks later, during a session on in-stride adjudication.

Friday

The last day of my visit involved a trip to the Maritime Warfare School at HMS Collingwoodfor a playtest of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit naval escort game. PAXsims has extensively covered the work that Paul Strong and Sally David have done on WATU and its impressive contribution to World War Two naval tactics and training, and it was an absolute delight to see how it all worked.

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Playtesting the WATU wargame.

During the playtest, I commanded one of the Type-VII U-boats attacking a convoy headed from Liverpool to Halifax. I did well, using the darkness to maneuver within the convoy formation and torpedoing three merchantmen before ordering a deep dive and hard turn to port to evade the now-alerted escorts. Initial depth charges fell well wide of their mark, but a couple of escorts did manage to ping my boat with ASDIC and had turned course towards us.

Just then, explosions at the far side of the convoy signaled that another German submarine had found its prey—hopefully distracting them while I dived even deeper and headed to the rear of the convoy. My intention was to surface once the action had passed me by, and then use my deck gun to finish off any damaged ships that were straggling behind the main formation.

We had to bring the game to an end at this point, but I must say it went well for an initial playtest. I think all of us who were there were very proud to be recreating a great moment in wargaming history. Sally Davis has also written up a brief account, which I have also posted to PAXsims.

The WATU wargame will be demonstrated at King’s College London in September, during the Connections UK wargaming conference, and shortly after that in a special session at the Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool. I am especially looking forward to the latter—an opportunity to conduct a WATU game in the very rooms used to command the North Atlantic convoys during WWII.

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Before I left, Dstl presented me with both one of their rare challenge coins (see picture at top) and a copy of  their STRIKE! Battlegroup Tactical Wargame. Dstl has developed this manual wargame for the British Army to help it examine how the Strike Brigade would perform on the battlefield—we will be providing more detail on the game in a future PAXsims article. At McGill University I intend to use STRIKE in my conflict simulation course next year to illustrate fundamental elements of basic wargame design (such terrain and capability modelling), so you may see some after action reports here too.

 

How can we credibly wargame cyber at an unclassified level?

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The frighteningly-efficient Stephen Downes-Martin has been kind enough to pass on a game lab report from the recent Connections US 2018 wargaming conference on “How can we credibly wargame cyber at an unclassified level?”  (pdf).

A small minority of cyber experts with wargaming and research experience have security clearances. If cyber operations are researched and gamed only at high levels of classification, then we limit our use of the intellectual capital of the United States and Allies and put at risk our ability to gain edge over our adversaries. We must find ways to wargame cyber[1]at the unclassified level while dealing with information security dangers to best use the skills within academia, business and the gaming community. During the Connections US Wargaming Conference 2018 a small group of interested people gathered for about an hour to discuss the question:

“How can we credibly wargame cyber at an unclassified level?”

The group concluded that it is possible to wargame cyber credibly and usefully at the unclassified level and proposed eight methods for doing so. The group also suggested it is first necessary to demonstrate and socialize this idea by gaming the trade-offs between the classification level and the value gained from wargaming cyber.

[1]“Wargaming cyber” and “gaming cyber” are loose terms which group deliberately left as such to encourage divergent thinking and to avoid becoming too specific.

Adjudication in matrix games

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A Game Lab session at the recent Connections US wargaming conference examined the different methods of adjudicating the outcomes of arguments put forward in matrix games,  with an eye to examining which methods might be preferred more than others in different circumstances.

The current guidance for assessing arguments in Matrix Games, contained in the MaGCK User Guide[1] is as follows:

Consensus. Some players prefer to reach agreement on the most likely outcome of the declared ACTION. This can work well in highly cooperative games but can be more difficult to implement in cases where actors have conflicting or opposing goals.

Umpired. Once PROs and CONs have been identified it might be left up to an umpire (or White Cell or Control group) to determine what happens. This has the advantage that the game outcomes can be aligned with research or doctrine, or nudged along a path that maximizes their educational value. It can also be useful when the players themselves have only limited knowledge of the game subject matter. However, having a third party determine success and failure can make the game seem rather scripted. If players may attribute the outcome of the game to obtuse or heavy-handed umpiring rather than to their own decisions and interaction with their fellow participants then much of its value may be lost.

Weighted Probabilities. This system of adjudication places a great deal of emphasis on the arguments put forward by the players, while introducing the element of chance. It is slightly more complicated than the previous systems. There is also risk that some professional audiences may recoil at the sight of dice—associating these more with children’s games than serious conflict simulation and gaming[2]. In this system 2 six-sided dice are used, with a score of 7 or more being required to succeed, with each strong and credible PRO argument counting as a +1 dice roll modifier, and each strong and credible CON counting as a -1, with especially high or low results representing more extreme outcomes. This also provides a “narrative bias” to the game as a score of 7 is actually a 58.3% chance of success and helps contribute to the evolving story.

Voting. The success and outcome of actions can be determined by a vote among participants. This can either be a straight majority vote, or the odds of an ACTION can be assessed by the distribution of votes. In the latter case, if 75% of participants think an action might succeed, then it has a 75% chance of success, and percentile dice or some other form of random number generation is used to determine this. Alternatively, players can each be asked to assess the chances of success, and these can be averaged. In analytical games, this provides potentially valuable insight into how participants rate the chances of a particular course of action. Voting systems do risk players metagaming, however—that is, voting not based on their honest assessment of the ACTION and its chances of success, but rather to affect the probability assigned to it to advantage themselves within the game.

Mean/Median Probability. Alternatively, players or teams can each be asked to assess the chances of success, and these can be averaged. In analytical games, this provides potentially valuable insight into how participants rate the chances of a particular course of action. Although not included in MaGCK, there is an add-on set of estimative probability cards which can be used for this purpose. Following discussion, players or teams simply select the card from their hand that, in their view, best represents the probability of an ACTION’s success. These are then averaged (whether by calculating the mathematical mean of all cards played, or by using the value of the median card), and percentage dice are used to determine success or failure.

Discussion

The most popular method for assessment is that of using Weighted Probabilities as this reflects the early widespread use of matrix games in the hobby community. As a method, it is inherently understood by anyone with any familiarity with games and is relatively easy to explain for those without. It is fast and provides the adjudicator more licence in influencing the pace of the game to ensure it doesn’t get bogged down in excessive debate.

The main concern from those present in the Game Lab session in Connections US 2018, was that this, and all the alternatives above, failed to specifically address to one of the academic underpinnings of matrix games, that of crowdsourcing[3] the results.

Based on Surowiecki’s popular book, there are a number of elements required to form a “wise crowd”:
Description

Criteria
Diversity of opinion Each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
Independence People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.
Decentralization People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
Aggregation Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.

As the MaGCK User Guide already covers crowdsourcing ideas from diverse participants[4], it was felt that the element of aggregation would be best served by the use of Estimative Probability cards[5]. These are available from the Game Crafter, but  a set of print-and-play cards can be found here that have the same utility. It was generally felt that this was a more accurate method to leverage the work on crowdsourcing, as well as making the resulting probability more accessible and acceptable to the participants. The terms on the cards also reflect those commonly used in the intelligence community[6]. It also follows that the participants in the Estimative Probability method should be from all those present and not just be limited to the specific roles in the matrix game.

Oinas-Kukkonen has made a number of conjectures based on Surowiecki’s work[7], asserting that “too much communication can make the group as a whole less intelligent,” which we can address by the encouraging relatively quick moves, and the intention to avoid too much detailed debate following a player’s argument. This means the game can have a reasonable number of moves, requiring that the participants to have to live with the consequences of their actions made earlier in the game. I would suggest at least six moves, to allow for two cycles of Action-Reaction-Counter Action by the players. I would therefore recommend, at least for high level policy and analytical games, that the Estimative Probability method is used in future.

The procedure should be, following the arguments, to have all participants with their own deck of cards, and assess the probability of success independently and without discussion. They should then all reveal them simultaneously to the facilitator for adjudication. My preference would be to select the MODE or the MEDIAN of the results, rather than the MEAN as it is quicker and avoids lengthy arithmetic. Excessive outliers can then be discussed quickly.

It should be noted that, when using percentage dice to determine the final result, it is usually best to be consistent in expressing exactly what the dice roll is for (the success of the argument) and what score is needed with participants who are not gamers (e.g. “A 70% chance of success, which is a score on the dice between 1 and 70”). There is evidence that participants perceive “a 70% chance of success” differently to “a 30% chance of failure” despite their mathematical equivalence[8], so consistency in expression is advised.


[1] MaGCK User Guide at https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/pdf-only-magck-matrix-game-construction-kit-user-guide

[2] Edwards, Nicholas. 2014. What Considerations Exist in the Design of the Elements of Chance and Uncertainty in Wargames Utilised for Educational and Training Purposes? MA thesis, Department of War Studies. King’s College London.

[3] Surowiecki, James. 2004. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. Doubleday.

[4] 1.0 Introduction to Matrix Gaming, in MaGCK User Guide, 2017, p7.

[5] MaGCK Estimative Probability Cards at https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/magck-deck-1.

[6] Sherman Kent, 1964. “Words of Estimative Probability,” Studies in Intelligence (Fall), via CIA website.

[7] Oinas-Kukkonen, Harri (2008). Network analysis and crowds of people as sources of new organisational knowledge. In A. Koohang et al. (eds), Knowledge Management: Theoretical Foundation. Informing Science Press, pp. 173-189.

[8] Hohle, Sigrid Møyner & Teigen, Karl Halvor. More than 50% or Less than 70% Chance: Pragmatic Implications of Single‐Bound Probability Estimates. 2017. Behavioural Decision Making, Volume31, Issue1, pp 138-150.

Gaming the strike on Syria?

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On 14 April 2018, US, French, and British military forces launched missiles against Syria, in response to a chemical weapon attack by the Asad regime against the rebel-held town of Douma a week earlier. This followed a pattern of repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military, despite a previous US retaliatory attack in 2017. Three sites, all associated with the regime’s chemical weapons programme, were hit.

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This led Graham Longley-Brown to ask whether the British government had conducted a wargame of the proposed attack before carrying it out:

  1. Did anyone wargame the geo-political situation? Were expert players and decision-makers engaged to represent Syria, Russia, Iran, China, The Arab nations et al to elicit plausible reactions and risks, various categories of ‘unknowns’, and maybe even a Black Swan or two circling just out of sight… Having just re-read Tom Schelling’s Zones of Control chapter ‘Red vs Blue’, it struck me that something at the pol-mil level along the lines of his games would have delivered significant benefits to our decision-makers, both in terms of an enhanced understanding of the situation and their actual decision-making process.

  2. If no wargaming occurred, why not? The answer to that question might shed light on the attitudes to wargaming within the MOD, despite the recent success of the second VCDS Wargame. There was time to put some combination of matrix/seminar game on the table, possibly informed by M&S and/or other wargame results. Rex Brynen suggested that even a well-facilitated and well-moderated BOGSAT would have been useful. There was time to design and play such games, either in parallel, in sequence, or both. While not quite a cycle of research, some sort of triangulation or cross-pollination would have reinforced insights arising and shaped more detailed analysis. This would all have been TBD during whatever rapid design process would have been implemented. If no gaming occurred because ‘it takes too long to develop these games’, do we need to have a bank of Schelling/matrix-like games developed for identified trouble-spots and waiting to be pulled off the shelf? This along with a wargaming ‘rapid response team’ to tweak these and then facilitate rapid gaming?

  3. If wargaming did occur, did someone in the MOD reach for a phone and speed-dial ‘wargamers’?  If ‘yes’, who was at the other end of the speed dial number? It should be (certainly include) Dstl’s Wargaming Team and Tom Mouat. Did this happen, and is the process formalised? If not, why not? Did the call recipients respond by putting a series of appropriate games on the table within hours (Mark Herman-like)? Was Dstl involved? If not, why not? Crucially, what lessons were identified with the process of rapidly designing and executing a wargame, and how will these be captured and turned into lessons learned?

  4. Did anyone model the attack in detail? It would have taken Jeremy Smith about 2 minutes to ‘RCAT’ this using open source data, playing tunes with variables such as Russian SAMs engaging or not engaging and different permutations on Syrian AD. I suspect this would have been insightful. However, computerised sims would have been far more important. Were any used?

  5. Finally, how might the non-MOD professional wargaming community (e.g. Cranfield) get hold of classified data from the attacks to further validate their sims? We have previously used open source data from real-world examples such as Mosul and Sirte – before, during and after those events – to validate and refine our irregular warfare RCAT models. Doing the same with near-peer, peer and peer + adversaries in a high-intensity warfighting context, will become increasingly important. What AD engaged? What was the success rate of the missiles launched? What are the BDA results? How was targeting conducted, and how effective was it? What Collateral Damage was caused? Etc. If the results are too highly classified to release then we are missing the opportunity to improve the simulations we all espouse the utility of and use for actual Defence planning. Access to real-world data such as this is crucial. Let’s hope examples remain rare, but we should leverage them when they occur.

Any such wargame would have been classified, so there’s a chance we wouldn’t know. However the consensus among UK wargamers was that no, they probably didn’t. Should they have?

One experienced UK wargamer replied:

I’ve had a think about this (with some help) and we need to be careful. There is no way we will get the great and the good to spend half a day away, in the middle of a crisis, to play a wargame.

We need them to play wargames regularly to get an appreciation of what wargames offer, but in a crisis we need a parallel process to run alongside the crisis planning. It needs someone with a trusted ear to the commander (VCDS?) who heads off and gets us lot together and then reports back with what we found…

We then need somewhere we can do that, at the right classification, that is available (like the JFC Battlelab).

As for validating our sims – I think I’m looking at a higher level (the Pol/Mil implications or the crisis and subsequent reactions, rather than the detail of the military action), so I’m less worried about building a better mousetrap, as getting insights to the commander.

The important observation here was that crisis wargaming might not (for reasons on time, among other things) be a central part of the process, but it could be a useful adjunct. To do that, however, there has to be an existing on-call capability to design, populate, run, and assess a game—quickly enough that it can raise issues for planners to consider, and with a solid enough track record that any such inputs were welcomed by planners and decision-makers. One experienced observer questioned whether the UK would ever be in a position to deploy a wargaming team quickly enough to support this sort of compressed decision-making cycle.

My own response was that this might be a case where digital simulation and modelling would be far more useful than manual games, since much hinges on the interaction of really technical variables (topography and radar shadow generated by the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, the exact placement of Syrian and Russian EW and target acquisition radars, SAM effectiveness against low flying targets amid considerable ground-clutter, and the hit (Ph) and kill (Pk) probabilities of Tomahawk/JASSM/Storm Shadow/SCAMP, and so forth).

Regarding the political dimensions of the attack, I may be a wargamer but I am not convinced this would best be explored in a wargame at all. Instead, based on my own experience, a  well-moderated BOGSAT (bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table) might work better, Much would depend, of course, on the BOGAT form, the expertise at the table, and the skill of the facilitator. It is also possible that a relatively quick wargame might provide input into those discussions, something we had previously noted in our various matrix games of the counter-ISIS campaign in Iraq.

For what it is worth regarding the attack itself, I think the target set was way too narrow, and that the regime was genuinely pleasantly surprised that so little of so little value was hit: a research facility and a few bunkers. No key regime assets or capabilities were struck. None of the units or facilities involved in the Douma attack were attacked. Nothing that signals any significant cost to Asad was destroyed—indeed, the regime secured the Douma area and almost all the Damascus suburbs in the meantime. One American contributor to the discussion similarly noted “The aparent dearth of notable results makes me suspect that no one cared over much about militarily effective action but rather focused on ‘doing something’ that looked like ‘punishing Assad’ without risking a serious confrontation with [Russia]” A wargame might have brought all that out, but so too would a half hour conversation with a reasonably competent Syria analyst.

An experienced American wargamer commented that if the strike had been wargamed, the most useful insights might be in the area of coordination and process:

The real war-game here is the inter-coalition coordination of the strikes, how the C3, legalities, and permissions worked, and how the planning process leading up to the strikes would work across the different coalition partners.  Who was in charge?  How was the coordination done (NATO or multi-lateral)?  What C3 systems were used and how did they interoperate?  How did authorization flow and deconfliction occur?  The technical side of the strikes is, as I believe someone said, pretty much physics and targeteering, which affects C3 but is not necessarily an interesting game in itself.  I’m sure there have been many games done that look at coalition strike C3 in both a NATO and a multi-/bi-lateral context amongst the countries involved.  That gaming probably informed some of the experiences and decisions of the officers making the call as to how to organized the event.

Further thoughts are welcomed in the comments section.

Looking at social media

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are some fundamental questions that we need to answer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Price

MORS: Validity and utility of wargaming

 

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

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In part because of the structure of the MORS working groups, the report tends to devote more attention to game design and execution than it does to game analysis and interpretation. One of the interesting issues to arise out of the DIRE STRAITS experiment in September, however, was that different groups of analysts can both assess the validity/utility of a game differently, and draw different sets of lessons from the same wargame event.

Building on the excellent work of Stephen and his WG2 team, this is a challenge that I hope to explore more fully at the Connections US wargaming conference in July 2018—conditional, of course, on acceptance of my presentation proposal!

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Factional Drivers: Making a Factional System Relevant

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

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Image credit: Jim Wallman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Drinking the Cup of Poison: End Game Considerations

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

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Image credit: Jim Wallman.

Arms Dealers Paradise: Scaling a Procurement Model

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

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

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

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

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

 Implementing The Unimplementable: Scoping out HQ Backseat Driving

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

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

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

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

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

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

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

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

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

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

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

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

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

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

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

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

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

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

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

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

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

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

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

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Image credit: Jim Wallman

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Image credit: John Mizon

Carrier Death Ride: Building a Naval game for any Eventuality

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

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

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

Books and Games: Sources and Material Considerations

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

Post Game Analysis

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

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

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

The History Of A Ball? What Happened on the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Moores

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