Flatten Islandis 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.
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)
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.
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
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.
We spent several weeks testing online game engines, both for running games and our ability to modify or create new games.
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:
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.
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 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 (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 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:
Students would need to buy them, and potentially need to buy many games for one class.
Many games of interest run on only a subset of student computers (only Windows, or only high-end Windows computers, for example).
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
It has to be a good game – fun is the hook, though it isn’t the point.
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).
We have to be able to teach and run it within the 3 hour class time while leaving time for discussion.
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.
Online wargaming works, but it is more effort than live, because:
Test your technology thoroughly and ensure you have support on hand to run it.
Running wargames online will require a higher level of expertise from all of your facilitators, of technology and the games.
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:
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.
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.
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.
• 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
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.
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 recentdebates, 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 frownedupon, we focus on commercial wargames that have professional development value for war planners and tacticians.
While playing wargames electronically loses some of the tactile and social parts of the game, playing wargames remotely is certainly notnew. 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 Operations, Armor 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)
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 Firegames, 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)
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.
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.
Intervention! is a game of fictional great power intervention in the modern era, designed for 17-28 players (with a control team of four). It is playable in 2-4 hours.
This is a megagame about major power intervention in a regional conflict in the early 21st Century. Silvania has severe internal problems, marked particularly by a major rebellion in the south. The important port city of Warren Falls has been taken over by the rebels, and in order to oust them, and restore order, the Silvania Government has asked the aid of a powerful modern nation, Freedonia.
In this game the players will be either on the side of the Government and its interventionist friend trying to restore the status quo, or on the side of the rebels seeking to hold on to some hard-won independence, self-determination and freedom of religion.
Gameplay focusses on planning for and carrying out the battle for control of the city, whilst trying to stay ahead politically and avoid causing too much collateral damage.
Negotiation, resource allocation and good communication all feature heavily.
This is an entry-level megagame, for a relatively small group of players. Simple and easy to understand this makes a good start for anyone wishing to experience megagames for the first time
The game is designed by Jim Wallman, the guru of megagaming, and is received a set of downloadable pdfs comprising rules, briefings, maps, action cards, displays, counters, role badges, and everything else required to run the game. The purchaser is responsible for printing these.
The contested port of “Warren Falls” (or “Freeport,” if you’re a radical Daftist), looking suspiciously like Folkestone, albeit with a Buddhist Temple located in the grounds of the Parish Church of St Mary & St Eanswythe.
As the summary above notes, the game pits two coalitions against each other: the Silvanian government and its powerful Freedonian allies, versus the Separatist movement and radical Kippists (of Determination And Freedom Today, or DAFT). However, coalition politics is a challenge for all sides, and not all interests fully align. Even within a single team the challenge of coordination is substantial, with the political and military echelons needing to work together, and the various military commanders needing to agree on an operational plan and synchronize their actions. This sort of player-driven, semi-controlled/semi-chaos is what megagames are all about.
Teams must manage their resources carefully: Ammunition (necessary to attack), Action Points (necessary to move, and conduct other actions), and various Special Action Cards. The game uses simultaneous movement, based on Order Cards that the various military players submit at the start of the turn. Combat outcomes are based on the combat scores of the two sides, and resolved by a Results Card. Some units are more reliable, and have higher combat values, than others.
The Political Support Track of each side is essential to victory. This is affected by casualties, causing damage to (or fixing) civilian infrastructure, military victories, and control of key locations in the city. The lower the level of political support a side has, the fewer resources it will receive each turn. If it reaches zero, they begin to disengage.
The rules, displays, and various cards are all very clear and easy to understand. While the rules run to 19 pages, most of this is explanation and examples and could easily be briefed to players in 15 minutes or so. The various team briefings each are between 8 and 15 pages in length, consisting of political background and a description ofthe various roles and assets.
All-in-all, Intervention! is an excellent introduction to megagaming—and a very considerable bargain for the price. Having mastered the basics, it would be relatively easy to scale up, add complexity, or use this as a jumping off point to designing your own megagames.
Antoine Bourguilleau has developed a French translation and adaptation of Tim Price’s Flattening the Curve COVID-19 matrix game. In this revised version of the game, the UK and US actors are replaced by France and Germany.
Aplatir la Courbe contains an overview of the pandemic, guidance on running a matrix game, and briefings sheets for the major actors. For other game materials—notably the game display and markers—download the original (UK) version.
To support countries’ preparedness effort on the COVID-19 outbreak, WHO`s Department of Health Security and Preparedness has developed various COVID-19 tabletop exercise (SimEx) packages. This includes:
A Generic Covid19 SimEx to examine and strengthen existing plans, procedures and capabilities to manage an imported case of 2019-nCov and targets the health authorities at the national level.
A Health facility & IPC SimEx that is based on the Core Components of Infection Prevention and Control Programmes at the National and Acute Care Facility Level.
A Point of Entry (POE) SimEx to examine and strengthen existing plans, procedures and capabilities at the main airport (POE).
The simulation package consists of different elements including:
PowerPoint presentations to support the facilitation of the exercise and its subsequent debriefing
A participants’ guide and a facilitators’ guide to explain what is expected from the different people involved in the preparation and running of the exercise.
Chris Engle, the inventor of matrix gaming, has passed on some ideas for a COVID 19 general hospital simulation. We are pleased to post them below.
The world is facing a pandemic. It is testing our systems to the extreme. Maximizing utilization of resources is all important. This requires the following.
Pre-deployment of resources
Public policy to slow the spread of the illness
Maintenance of public order
Distribution of goods and services
Medical treatment as needed
Maintenance of front line essential workers
Evaluation of effectiveness and alteration of intervention
Data-based decision making on when to return to normal
It is a highly complicated situation that is in a constant state of flux. Simulating this in a timely meaningful way is a huge challenge.
What follows is a simple, inexpensive, easily run, quick to initiate simulation that might be helpful. The game is about a general hospital in a moderate sized city in Middle America: imagine it being in a city of 100 to 250 thousand people. Or it might be in one district of a much larger city. The players are healthcare providers, administrators, and other stakeholders. The game consists of play sessions of around 10 participants each engaging problems and solutions, and the problems that flow from them. Sessions last between 30 tp 120 minutes and can be done by phone, video, email, or in person. The game requires a facilitator/moderator/host who does not have to be an expert. Their job is to encourage people to participate.
The Matrix Game
General Hospital is run using a Matrix Game. This is a type of game that uses words and discussion rather than numbers and mathematical algorithms to track what happens, The approach has been used since the 1980’s as a planning/training tool in a variety of fields. Chris Engle, a psychiatric social worker, invented Matrix Games in 1988. Games consist of players making statements about what they think happens next in a given situation. They are narrating events, which they make up out of their imagination. The session is a conversation between participants. The outcome of sessions is a list of brainstormed problems and solutions, with some indication about which ones are more or less likely to happen. The complete rules of the game are as follows’ The host of the event starts the session by stating a problem. They then ask the players “What happens next?” The host then allows the players to speak. The host’s remaining job is to encourage people to speak, to recap what is said, to help players through the technical rules, to occasionally re-ask the question, and to wrap the game up on time. The players make things happen by jumping in as the spirit moves them to say what happens next. This might be an event, a plan, or another problem. Whatever the player says automatically happens, it is part of the story. Other players may jump in and add to this or they may alter it or even say that something else happens instead. These also automatically happen, and overwrite the first statement. If a player says something that people think is unlikely to happen they may ask the player to roll for it. The player must then roll a six sided die. On a roll of 1 to 3, the event does not happen and cannot be repeated in this game. On a roll of 4 to 6 the event does happen and cannot be overwritten, As many players as wish may ask a player to roll and the player must pass each roll to have their event happen. This is evidence or how unlikely people believe certain moves are.
The game ends when the starting problem is solved or when the players run out of time.
Dice rolls are never required and it is not uncommon for there to be sessions without any rolls. The ideas that players come up with will range far from their areas of responsibility and expertise. They will identify problems and interventions that touch on society at large. Some input will even be silly and fantastical. All this is allowed because with each statement, the players open up a little more which makes it possible for them to speak and share incites that will help. To this end, it is helpful for top leaders to say little or nothing in games since they may overly influence participants.
It is vitally important for time be given after each session for the players to talk about and summarize what they learned. This cements lessons. This can be done by the players talking to one another or by the game host recapping events and highlighting the important points. These recaps should then be passed back to the administrators and decision makers who sponsored the event so they can make use of the intelligence for planning purposes.
Any health professional or stakeholder in decision making can usefully participate in Matrix Game sessions. They do not need any simulation expertise or area knowledge beyond what they already have. All they need to know before the event is that they are going to participate in a low key, planning meeting that will give them deeper knowledge of the big picture of the present problem and how they fit into it.
Matrix Games are usually played in face to face sessions. But they work just as well as email/text messages. They also work in phone meetings or video conferences. The medium is unimportant, and because the game consists of conversations between players, there is no need for expensive computer programs or equipment. This approach can be implemented in a high tech city or a village with no paved roads. One advantage of using video or email is the potential to have a record of each game. These records form a data set that can be analyzed at a later date using computational models.
On Use of this Game
Permission is granted for any person, institution, or company to use this game and the Matrix Game approach in general for planning and training purposes. The only request is that they cite that Matrix Games were invented by Chris Engle in 1988. Please pass this document onto any and all people you know who might be helped by it.
Note for Facilitators
People are naturally shy when it comes to making things up. It is helpful to start the game by asking each player to say one thing that people in their role would do in the face of the presenting problem. Once that is done the ice is broken and the host can take a more backseat approach.
The facilitator is responsible for establishing and maintaining a good work environment. If players engage in abusive or intimidating behavior, it is the facilitator’s job to intervene and establish order. There can be no useful work accomplished without a good working environment. It is okay for participants to say little or nothing is a game. When they do this they are being the audience. They still learn from the event and may come up with the most useful observations during debriefing because they were looking at it in a bigger picture way.
The facilitator does not have to be an expert in technical subject matter. It is perfectly acceptable and expected that they will not know certain details. This allows them to model how to ask questions and listen to answers. The facilitator does need to be an outward going person who will engage the players actively. Aside from encouraging people, the facilitator is also a player. But they need to not take too much role in the game so that they do not unduly influence play. The facilitator needs to gather up all materials from the game and return them to the administrator who sponsored the event. This may involve writing a short report.
Lastly, end sessions promptly. Make certain there is time to do debriefing within the time of the meeting. Healthcare worker are very busy, especially now, and will appreciate meetings that end on time. Overstepping their time will reduce how much they take away from it. A good opening problem to start a game is: “The coronavirus is coming. We need to deal with it. How do we prevent a disaster?”
While the board game Pandemic makes no claim to be a serious game, it can certainly is the most popular game ever on the subject of epidemic disease. Now, courtesy of C3i Magazine, there is a scenario available that allows you to adapt the game to play the current COVID-19 pandemic.
C3i Magazine is proud to present Trevor Bender’s COVID-19 Scenario for the strategy boardgame Pandemic
The scenario introduces a new Action – Social Distancing – which allows players to explore the costs and benefits of this activity in a cooperative game environment, perhaps giving additional reason to what we are doing in society during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020
From deep in his secret social distancing bunker at an undisclosed but secure location, mysterious matrix game guru Tim Price has put together yet another matrix game: Flattening the Curve. This examines the current COVID-19 pandemic, with five players/teams: the UK government, the general population, the World Health Organization, the US government, and “mishaps and markets.” To apply it to any other national case, replace the UK player with your own national government.
The package includes background materials, briefing, and game components. A pandemic timeline is used in place of a map, although you can supplement this with a map if you feel the need to represent localized events or actions. Remember that it is a matrix game, so you are meant to modify for your own purposes!
In order to assist the designers of pandemic response serious games, I have compiled and prepared a set of 68 COVID-19 themed game icons. These are available in zipped folders in three graphic formats: jpgs, pngs, and transparent pngs.
From the ever-prolific and always-mysterious Tim Price comes yet another matrix game, this time exploring the current civil protests in Hong King: Basic Law. The game allows for 6 players: the Hong Kong Government, Pro-Democracy Protestors, China, the USA, the UK, and Taiwan. Included is a brief background, briefing materials, basic matrix game rules, a series of maps, and counters. You will find it all here.
I would like to thank Dani Fenning of NATO Headquarters Supreme Allied Commander Transformation for making the BEAR RISING briefing materials available to PAXsims readers.
The full description of the scenarios, together with briefing materials and a map, can be found here. The map alone can be found here.
The briefing pack does not include counters or initial set-up—if running a session, use your best judgment as to what needs to be included. Remember that in a matrix game an asset need not be displayed on a map to be used—it need only exist.
BEAR RISING is a matrix wargame that examines the political and strategic military pre-crisis actions within the Baltic region amid a failing Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. Earlier this year NATO Allied Command Operations used BEAR RISING to challenge NATO deterrence planning, strategic thinking and decision making. Opposing player teams were invited from several external organisations who were subject matter experts in the nations they played, including some more experienced wargamers from US Center for Army Analysis and US Army War College. The game was played over a three day period, with player teams of 2 to 3 in size, beginning a new vignette each day. Overall, the game met its objectives to challenge NATO’s decision making with deterrence plans and activities, however, one of the unexpected outcomes of the game was the development of a unique narrative through the employment of a white cell “Press Officer” role. During the game the “Press Officer” supported the development of the narrative by injecting likely media (including social media) and news headlines in direct response to actions made throughout the game. The vignettes explored three different situations in which NATO nations and Russia faced escalating tension:
A Darker Shade of Gray: Ethnic Russian protests in Latvia turn violent because of recent changes to laws regarding language instruction in schools; Russian minority groups in Estonia begin to stage sympathy protests with a widespread social media campaign. Through hybrid tactics Russia seeks to exploit the situation in Latvia to win the narrative and gain popular support.
The Islanders: Tensions rise as a NATO vessel returning from a large exercise crashes into a Russian trawler, an unfortunate series of events result in a Russian threat to a NATO partner nation’s territorial integrity in a geo-strategic location.
A Bridge Too Far: Social unrest rises as pro-democracy Russian protests against a ‘rigged’ regional election spread across Kaliningrad. Russia demands that Lithuania allows a large-scale deployment of Russian National Guard units via rail. Tensions begin to rise as military postures heighten in the region.