PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and gaming materials

Bandera online

Tim Price—reclusive starship designer, small-holder, zombie survivalist, and lock-pick—has put together an online version of his recent Bandera Russo-Ukranian conflict matrix game for PAXsims readers, using Google slides. The link to access these is below, but first you need to read these instructions verrrrry carefully.

  1. Go to the Google slides at the link below.
  2. Do not move, alter or edit anything on this slide deck in any way!
  3. Instead, pull down the File menu and make a copy of the presentation for your own use (see below).
  4. Close the original set of slides.
  5. Do whatever you want with the copy!

Using Google slides, any number of users can view the deck, move tokens, and so forth. It’s also easy to clone tokens if you need more, or make up new ones.

And what is the link, you ask? Here it is.

Bandera: A Russo-Ukrainian conflict matrix game

The ever-mysterious Tim Price has put together yet another matrix game, this time on the most recent developments in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict

The package contains background materials, briefings, a map, counters, and basic instructions on how to play a matrix game. You can download it here:

A high-resolution version of the map can be downloaded here:

Permission is hereby granted to print copies of the game, counters and maps, for educational, professional, or recreational purposes, without restriction (provided you aren’t using them to plan an attack against a neighbouring country or annex part of its sovereign territory.)

Building a climate change megagame (Part 3)

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


Concluding thoughts

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

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

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

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

2.     The eternal challenge of playable realism

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

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

3.     Recruiting and maintaining a committed and diverse design team

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

4.     Going digital

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

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

5.     The importance of good debriefing

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

6.     Future development

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


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

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

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

Building a climate change megagame (Part 2)

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


Playtesting

Play-test 1: Card-driven anarcho-communism

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

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

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

Play-test 2: Overwhelming complexity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playtest 4: The making of a megagame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main event: Playtest 5

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

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

Final version of the game board: overview.

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

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

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

Final version of the game board: close-up.

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


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

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

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

Building a climate change megagame (Part 1)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

EWC wargame design competition finalists announced

Two finalists have been announced in the Educational Wargaming Cooperative Designer Challenge 2021 wargame design competition. According to Nina Kollars and Amanda Rosen:

We are pleased to announce Michael Fowler’s Hunt for Red Rat and Duane Clark and Ben Griffin’s Counter-fire! as the winners of the EWC’s Designer Challenge 2021: Portable & Adaptable. The winning designers will be advanced to the next step where their games will be featured in game sessions with professional game designers – either virtually or in-person at the Naval War College depending on COVID conditions. 

This year’s competition challenge aimed to foster bootstrapped and/or portable games that educators could easily leverage for training and education. As a result, submissions were evaluated in terms of:

• Adaptability of the game design;

• Ease of play and accessibility;

• Pace of gameplay;

• Originality;

• Distributed nature or portability of the game.

The winning designs – Hunt for Red Rat and Counter-fire! – truly met these metric of the portable and adaptable game challenge. Both of the winning games really bootstrap students into the learning environment in under 3-hours which is really quite remarkable! 

Counter-Fire! is an educational game designed to “emphasize the immense importance of the sensor to shooter relationship and develop skills in field artillery and military intelligence professionals to support targeting and defeating enemy fires formations at extended ranges.” Hunt for Red Rat is intended to “introduce US Navy maritime capabilities with specific emphasis on anti-submarine warfare, missile defense, and long-range strike capabilities.”

You can download copies of both games at the link above.

WarPaths

A few weeks ago, a number of us at PAXsims had a opportunity to see a demonstration of WarPaths—an online, browser-based application for managing distributed, asynchronous matrix games. WarPaths is the brainchild of Dr. Tom Nagle, a retired US Army strategist and former armor officer.

I think we were all very impressed. The application offers a lot of functionality, from mapping and icons to tools for communications, matrix arguments, and adjudication. Moreover, Tom was also enormously responsive to comments and suggestions. Since recording the walk-through above he has added support for probability polling of participants as well as percentage dice resolution (in addition to the traditional d6s).

Despite the military theming, warPaths has utility well beyond military or POL-MIL wargames—it could be used in any serious game setting where a matrix games might be useful. To this end he now also plans to develop a non-military version on the same principles, but politically/humanitarian oriented.

For more information on WarPaths, contact Tom at the weblink above.

Taiwan Strait matrix game

A Sea of Fire is a matrix game of the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, by Evan D’Alessandro. It includes an overview of matrix game rules, scenario briefings, map, counters and event cards, plus designer notes.

Review: Hedgemony

Hedgemony: A Game of Strategic Choices (RAND, 2020). USD$250.

First of all, let us be clear that there is no typo here: RAND’s recently-published game of strategic resource management really is called “hedgemony” and not “hegemony.” There’s a good reason for that, too. In Hedgemony, the Blue side is preoccupied with allocating scarce resources, investments, and actions to counter challenges from Red. Much of this involves what international relations scholars call hedging: that is, using a mix of military and economic resources to both balance and engage, while trying to avoid costly large-scale conflict.

Hedgemony is a designed to be played with up to six players (or teams of players) divided into two sides. Blue consists of the United States and its EU/NATO allies. The Red side consists of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. The game also requires a White cell (game control, adjudication, and facilitation) of 2-4 persons. A game would typically take a half or full day. You can see RAND’s nice promotional video below

The game sequence functions like this:

  1. Red signalling. Each Red player chooses up to three investment or action cards that they might play this turn. They then brief these possible actions to the Blue side.
  2. Blue investment and actions. Have been briefed on possible threats, the Blue players decide what actions and investments they will make. Although they too have cards, they are not limited to these and may propose other actions and investments (to be adjudicated by the controller). The US will also have to spend resources to sustain its desired level of readiness.
  3. Red investment and actions. Red may now to choose to play any or all of the cards that they signalled at the start of the turn, provided they have adequate resources for this.
  4. Annual resource allocation. Players gain new resources based on the scenario and developments within the game.
Some possible Russian investments: new military forces, investment in national research and development, and arms sales to third countries.

In any phase, the White cell may inject international and domestic events, selected from an event deck or crafted for the scenario and current situation. Finally, they summarize the state of the world based on the most recent gameplay, thus setting the stage for the next turn.

Some EU/NATO events: interoperability problems, terrorism, refugees.

Key to the game is the struggle for “influence points,” which largely define success or failure. Various actions (or responses to events and actions) tend to increase or decrease each players influence.

Some international events: an earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia, Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, and growing tensions between India and Pakistan.
Some possible North Korean actions: a submarine-launched ballistic missile test, nuclear assistance to Iran, and an incursion in the DMZ. The Blue player must decide how to respond to these, and the outcome usually results in a gain or loss of influence points.

The board is divided into theatre zones, conforming to the US system of combatant commands. Because this is a strategic game focused on national resource allocations and theatre-level capabilities, military assets are abstracted to “force factors.” There is no differentiation of land, air, maritime, cyber, or space assets. However, forces do have a modernization level, which shapes their effectiveness for military operations. The game also tracks national technology levels, as well as certain critical capabilities (such as C4ISR, special operations forces, long-range fires, nuclear capabilities, integrated air and missile defence). There are also special rules for proxy forces.

The China display board, with two actions (Belt and Road initiative, economic cooperation in Africa) and one investment (building a permanent overseas base in another region) signalled.

Hedgemony comes with an extensive rulebook, player’s guide, and glossary, all of which are available as free downloads from the RAND website. There is also a game board/map (27’x36″), markers for forces, indicators for national displays, information displays and place tags for each actor, quick reference charts, and dice. The game materials are generally of very high quality. The force markers are rather small (and with very small printing on them), however. They are also laser-cut and rather sooty—I had to frequently wipe my hands when using them to avoid transferring black carbon smudges to other game materials. If I was using Hedgemony regularly I would probably invest in some plastic chips and laser-printed round labels to make them all a bit more substantial.

The game board and some of the (itsy-bitsy) force factors and dice for scale.

At the time of writing, the pandemic precludes a proper playtest: to do the game full justice you really need a dozen people in a room for a few hours discussing resource allocation and strategic options. However, I had the good fortune to take part in a few moves of the game via a Zoom call with the RAND designers and others. I liked what I saw.

Hedgemony is very much a serious game intended to spark thoughtful discussion on strategic issues, rather than a game designed for hobby play. The game strikes a good balance between the structure of a rigid, written ruleset and opportunities for more freeform adjudicated improvisation. If I were running a session I could even see switching to a quick round of matrix game-style argumentation to resolve actions outside the written rules and cards.

You do, however, need controllers and facilitators who know what they are doing. While the action and investment cards are clear enough, some of the resource bookkeeping could get a bit confusing for players, and they probably need to be talked through how the combat adjudication charts works if they have never seen a CRT (combat results table) before, especially given the need to take force modernization levels into consideration. It might be useful if RAND were to post a a “how to” video showing a full turn of game play to help those who are thinking of using it.

For my part, I will certainly be using it in my conflict simulation course at McGill University when we return to regular teaching next academic year.

Flatten Island

Flatten Island is a browser game in which a player tries to manage the COVID-19 pandemic by allocating scarce resources across several areas—infection control and social distancing, medical treatment, vaccine research, and public relations, while at all the time facing the constraints of financial resources and political capital.

The NGO Video Games Without Borders presents the video game Flatten Island, a not-for-profit development in collaboration with Margarito Estudio (artistic direction), Cicchi Consulting (technical management) and Asociación Oleaje (game design).

Flatten Island makes you the governor of a pandemic-stricken island. Experiment with managing a health emergency for fun and with a touch of humour. You’ll learn that no decisions come without consequences and that they aren’t always easy to make. What’s more, Flatten Island, which is already available for free on Android devices and on the web, makes it possible to financially support various initiatives of different natures that are fighting against the real-life pandemicthrough both research, health and care services.

Francesco Cavallari, founder of Video Games Without Borders, tells the story behind Flatten Island: “At the start of lockdown, we realized that we needed to do something, to do our bit in this exceptional situation. That’s how we had the idea to develop a game to help in the fight against COVID-19 and the direct and indirect consequences that it brings. No more than a few days into our venture, several people from our international community had already signed up to the project and we had a complete team to start work on the game. The entire development was undertaken on a voluntary basis, without investing a single penny, and was completed in just one month and a half. I think that’s a really great achievement and I want to congratulate the whole team for their altruism and professionality.

Since the beginning of lockdown, people have gone out onto balconies in several countries to applaud and support the key workers who are fighting hard to limit the consequences of the pandemic. This game is our special way to pay tribute to those people for their commitment and hard work, as well as to remember all those who passed away during the outbreak and especially to help the organisations that are still fighting to overcome the virus.”

Despite the cartoony visuals, the game is largely aimed at an older teen and adult audience.

Practical lessons from teaching online with wargames at CGSC

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


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

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

We ran wargames for 3 different courses:

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

Key Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease of use beats flashy presentation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything takes longer online.  

Your game is hostage to hardware issues beyond your control.

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

Ideally, each participant should have least 2 large monitors.

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

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

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

Technology in More Detail

Communications

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

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

Wargame Engines

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

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

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

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

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

Two key workarounds we used with VASSAL:

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

Tabletopia (https://tabletopia.com/)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roll20.net (https://roll20.net/)

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

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

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

No Computer Games – Why?

We avoided computer games for several reasons:

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

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

Teaching the Games

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching the Courses

Bitter Woods for the Art of War Scholars Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aftershock for the Homeland Security Planner’s Elective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History in Action Elective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Takeaways

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

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

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

Virtual AFTERSHOCK on TTS

Thanks to Nicholas Gray, AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game can now be played virtually using Table-Top Simulator‚ which means you and your fellow players can assist the earthquake-affected people of Carana without leaving your home or violating social distance protocols.

In the article below, Nicholas introduces TTS and the basic game controls. We are extremely grateful to him for producing this module. The rules to the game are available as a free download from The Game Crafter.

A VASSAL module is also in development, thanks to the folks at the US Army Command and General Staff College. We will post information on that too when it is finalized.


The game board.

AFTERSHOCK is now available in Table-Top Simulator (TTS).

For those unfamiliar with TTS, it is a board game simulator that can be purchased in Steam for both PC and Mac. There are several excellent videos on YouTube that demonstrate its use in detail, but the following instructions should help to get you started. 

You will need a keyboard and mouse in order to play.

In order to host a game, before launching TTS, search the TTS Steam workshop for Aftershock and select ‘Subscribe’ – this only needs to be done the first time you host. Then launch TTS, choosing either single or multiplayer, open the game folder and load the game.

If you are joining a hosted game then simply launch TTS, choose ‘join’ and search for the hosted server.

Once the game has completely loaded you are ready to play.

To choose a seating position, and thus one of the four agencies, click on your name in the top right hand corner and select a colour.

The following controls should help to get you started. In order to see a full range of TTS controls press the ‘?’ at any time. Note that these controls are for PC use, and although most have equivalents for Mac use they may not be identical.

  • ‘W’, ‘A’, ‘S’, ‘D’ keys will move your viewpoint around the table.
  • The mouse wheel zooms in and out. 
  • Hold the Right Mouse Button (RMB) while moving the mouse to change the elevation and rotate the table.
  • Hover over a game object and hold ‘Alt’ to magnify the object – while ‘Alt’ is pressed you can use the mouse wheel to increase or decrease magnification.
  • To move an object hover over it, then hold the LMB and move the mouse. Release the LMB to drop it at a new location.
  • To select several objects at once use the LMB to draw a box around them, then move as above.
  • When hovering over an object use the RMB to access the object menu. This allows shuffling decks and randomising containers, drawing cards/objects and searching decks/containers for specific items.
  • An alternative way to draw an object from a bag simply hold the LMB while hovering over the bag and pull away. The same is true for decks of cards. However, this requires some timing – LMB and drawing away quickly will draw a single card, but if there is a pause before moving then you will pick up the entire deck. With practice this can become intuitive.
  • The ‘F’ key is used to flip an object. ‘Q’ and ‘E’ will rotate it.
  • To put objects back in containers simply drop them on the containers, and similarly cards can be dropped on decks. These will need to be randomised/shuffled before the next draw if you don’t want the same object to be redrawn.
Problems in District 3!

There are many other controls you can learn to use once these have become familiar, but this will give you enough to play the game.

Nicholas Gray

Two recent wargaming podcasts

A couple of recent podcasts may be of interest to PAXsims readers.


At Controversy and Clarity (the official podcast of the Warfighting Society), Eric Walters discusses the value of wargaming:

• Wargames and the different ways to define them
• The trouble with the term “games”
• How Eric got into wargaming
• How wargaming led Eric to study all kinds of military history
• Eric’s thoughts on wargames as teaching tools for grade schoolers
• The many benefits of wargaming
• How wargames and reading helped Eric understand “the why” of doctrine, enemy tactics and organizations, and maneuver warfare
• How we should be wary of using games as a means of evaluating Marines as combat leaders
• Eric’s reaction to the explosion of interest in and acceptance of wargames in the Department of Defense
• Some recent wargame developments in the Army and Marine Corps
• Eric’s thoughts on General Berger’s focus on wargaming
• Eric’s experiences running wargames in the fleet as a company-grade officer
• How well the Marine Corps taught decision-making during Eric’s time as a young officer
• On the power of being supported by your superiors
• Eric’s thoughts on professional military education (PME) and what “professional” means to him
• What good PME looks like
• The need for one-on-one coaching in PME with accomplished masters
• The dangers of self-directed PME
• The need for study in the absence of experience
• The role formal schools should play in PME
• Eric’s thoughts on “lifelong learning”
• The coaches Eric has had over his career and life
• The value of belonging to a community of practice
• American Military University’s influence on Eric
• How decision games help build trust
• Eric’s approach to building PME programs while on active duty and the results of those programs
• What is critical thinking?
• Some critical thinking models and resources that Eric uses
• The relationship between decision games and critical thinking
• Eric’s admonition to Marines to remain relevant and take a long view of future threats


Meanwhile, at the CNA Talks podcast (episode 63), Samantha Hay and Cate Lea discuss wargaming too.

On this episode of CNA Talks Samantha Hay, CNA’s newest wargamer, sits down with Cate Lea, CNA’s most experienced wargamer. They discuss the process of designing a wargame and CNA’s role in the broader wargaming community. 

Catherine Lea directs CNA gaming efforts on Asia-Pacific operations and U.S. installation support. She is an expert on Japanese security policy and U.S. base politics in Japan. Her field work at CNA includes assignments at Amphibious Group Two, U.S. Fleet Forces, and three years in Yokohama, Japan, providing analytical support to U.S. Navy commands.

Samantha Hay is a research analyst with CNA’s Operational Warfighting Division. Prior to joining CNA, Samantha served as a senior research analyst with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), where she analyzed US security assistance efforts in Afghanistan.

Wargaming from home

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


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

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

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

Electronic Gaming

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

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

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

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

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

Manual Gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afghanistan gaming assets

sCREENSHOT.jpg

Although many people face lockdown due to COVID-19, there is still a requirement to carry out low-level wargaming training for the military. As a result I have made some contemporary Afghanistan assets (tokens, buildings, vehicles, etc) as transparent PNG files that you can use for free to run skirmish/RPG level games, using Roll20, Google Slides, or something similar.

CIEDMap.jpg

Roll20 is a browser-based suite of tools that allows users to create and play tabletop role playing games, and is available free in the basic version, with a paid for version offering additional functionality. Alternatively, you can create a shared collaborative environment using Google Slides, where all participants can access the environment at the same time, alongside a video chat application like Google Hangouts or Skype.

Included in the files is an overview map of a fictitious  location in Afghanistan, and a terrain background on which to place the assets.

 

C01 T01WMIK

 

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