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Wargaming and wartime tactical training in the Royal Canadian Navy

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Lieutenant Carol Hendry (kneeling at right) and WRCNS colleagues plotting positions during a tactical wargame, 1944. Royal Canadian Navy

We at PAXsims have been enthusiastically following the work that Paul Strong and Sally Davis have been doing at the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in uncovering the story of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit—one of the most outstanding examples of wargaming for training and analytical purposes during World War Two.

Now Sally has come up with something else equally interesting: the existence of a similar tactical training unit in the Royal Canadian Navy. The story comes from Carol Duffus (née Hendry), a former officer in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), via The Memory Project:

My name is Carol Duffus, formerly Hendry. I was born in Toronto, September 25th, 1918. I did finally get called up in March of 1943. So, I stayed in until September 1945. Then I served as a WREN. We were called WRENS. The British women in the navy were called WRENS too and we took that name on only we called ourselves WRENs with a C, WRCNS, Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service. And we were associated with the navy. In Britain, it wasn’t so, they were a separate unit.

And then after a while, a position came free in the training office, a staff officer training was leaving, and so I took over at the staff officer training. And turned into the person who arranged training for the crews of any of the ships that came in, escort ships, when they needed training and tactical work or action stations or signaling or gunnery. I assigned the training in that job to, to anyone who needed it. So that was kind of interesting too. It was a good job.

The tactical table was to teach the tactics to the escort vessels when they were taking a convoy across the Atlantic. And it was six of the WREN officers took over a on a, well the tactical table wasn’t really a table, it was more like a, sort of a gym floor. Only, it had a wall all the way around it, about a little bit above a waist level. And the WRENS, who were taking over, whenever the escorts went out, there were six taking a convoy across. So we had representatives from six escort vessels there on, on the other side of a wall, they couldn’t see us, but we could look over at them. So each of us was assigned a ship. And each ship in this escort group would send their captain and their navigating officer and the signals man up. And they would sit on the other side of the wall, they couldn’t see what we were doing up on the table. And each of us was assigned a ship so they would give us the instructions that that ship would take, in so many periods of time. It was a tactical game that was, given to the escorts, in this case, a game, a tactical game where they were taking a convoy across. There would be one at the head of the convoy and one at the stern. And then there would be one stationed on each quarter of the convoy. And they were to protect the convoy from submarine attacks.

So it was a game played, it was sort of set and they would give them situations and it was all plotted out on the table by, by the WRENS who were doing the plotting on the table. It was all marked off in sections and we would chalk everything down as they’d tell us. Each of us would have one ship. They would instruct us what that ship was to do and we would plot it on the table, which was really the floor. We were down on our hands and knees for that.

And so they would play the game as situations arose, in this imaginary game that would happen. Perhaps it would be announced that there was a submarine sighted somewhere or someone had seen a, a ship blow up, so they knew a submarine had done that. These were all just cases that might happen, that was the game.

So we were, we were given these little chits every two minutes or so from our ship, each one of us had their ship and we would plot it on this tactical table. And this would go on for perhaps an hour, maybe two, as the situation arose and the uh, training commander would be there giving the instructions.

So at the end of the game, all the people who were doing the plotting, the captains and so on, came up on the table and they would see what they had done. And the training commander, who would review the whole situation, would see what had been done over the whole period of time by us plotting their instructions to us, as they would say, I’m going, you know, a certain degree for so, for so long and we would plot that.

So it was all laid down in chalk and when the game was over, everybody would come up on the table and then the whole thing would be criticized by the training commander. He would say to each of them, now, in this case, perhaps it would have been better if you had done this or that and so on. So it was very, it was a good educational tool and tactics, and they learned a lot that way I think.

And you often hear about women looking, being looked down on because they were women, doing a certain job. But I never, never, never felt that, ever. I was treated with tremendous respect and, and knowledge of what I was doing. And so you know, I, I think that was probably why I advanced to the staff officer training because I was respected and that I knew what I was doing and why I was there. So it was, it was fine. I had no problem at all being a woman.

An awful lot of people don’t know what the women did in the services during the war. And I think they should have a little more publicity because if it weren’t for what they did, a lot of things would not have been done. So I felt that I was able to do something useful. That was good and I think there are an awful lot of other women too who did useful things and they would never probably be recognized for what they did. I’d like to have people know that they did serve, they were very important.

You can hear the audio of the interview at the link above. Carol passed away on May 5, 2012

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Lieutenant Carol Hendry (standing) during a tactical game, 1944. Slacks were only worn on the job due to the the amount of time spent on the floor. Royal Canadian Navy

Connections UK conference registration now open

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The Connections UK 2018 conference for wargaming professionals will be held at King’s College London on Tuesday 4 – Thursday 6 September.

Registration is open. Go to the KCL eStore website and register now! Registration closes on Friday 24 August.

Purpose. The purpose of Connections UK is to advance and sustain the art, science and application of wargaming. We help to achieve this by bringing the wargaming community together to share best practice and network. Responding to your feedback, this year we will go into greater depth than previously, with more “how to” rather than “we did this…”

Duration. The conference will last three days. Tuesday 4 September will feature a concurrent megagame and a day-long Introduction to Wargaming Course for newcomers. This is an ‘either/or’ choice, although you simply sign up for Day 1 when you register. The main conference is on Wednesday 5 and Thursday 6 September. You can pay separately for Day 1 and Days 2 & 3—see below.

Programme. The latest programme is available on the Connections UK web site at http://professionalwargaming.co.uk/  Events and plenary topics include:

  • Key note address by Volko Ruhnke: Wargames and systems thinking.
  • Megagame.
  • Introduction to Wargaming Course.
  • Wargame design plenary:
    • Dilemmas and trade-offs in wargame design.
    • Game design as a form of journalism.
    • Working within design constraints.
  • Wargame development plenary:
    • Developing the KCL Crisis Simulation.
    • Developing an Arctic High North nested games family.
    • Model calibration.
  • Wargame execution plenary:
    • Play as pedagogy.
    • Business wargaming case study: ‘Cheese, butter & milk powder.’
    • Empowering Defense wargaming through automation.
  • Wargaming validation plenary:
    • Selecting, playing and assessing a COTS wargame (A Distant Plain).
    • Wargaming and reality: a case study of the Ukraine conflict 2014 – present.
  • Wargame refinement plenary:
    • Creating and sharing best practice.
    • Lessons learned from recent MOD wargames.
  • Analysis plenary:
    • US/DoD analysis: best and worst practice.
    • Designing analytical wargames with a view to successful data capture, management and analysis.
    • In the eye of the beholder? Cognitive challenges in wargame analysis.
    • SPECULAR STRIKE experimentation analysis.
  • Games fair: two sessions, as usual.
  • Facilitation workshop: a hands-on breakout session.
  • Automation tools: stands and demonstrations.

Cost. Costs are unchanged from last year (and the year before!). Connections UK is non-profit; it is a service to the wargaming community. Charges are as small as possible, sufficient to cover food, venue hire and whatever minimal administration is required. All food and refreshments are included. The Introduction to Wargaming/megagame day has been costed separately from the main conference days:

  • Introduction to Wargaming/megagame: £60.
  • Main Days: £135.

Location. The location will be Kings College London Strand Campus. Directions are on the KCL eStore web site at the ‘Location’ tab.

Accommodation. Finding accommodation is an individual’s responsibility, but there are two Connections UK-specific deals to be aware of. The Strand Palace offers reduced rates for Connections UK delegates (£150 per night depending on room type), and KCL has cheap and cheerful student accommodation available (£59 per night). Details and links are on the KCL eStore web site at the “More Info” tab, and don’t forget to quote “King’s College London” when booking.

Points of contact and further information. Consult the Connections UK website http://www.professionalwargaming.co.uk/ for programme updates and contents of former conferences (it is a wonderful resource). Please send general questions to graham@lbsconsultancy.co.uk and detailed queries concerning registration or administration to Bisi Olulode at olabisi.olulode@kcl.ac.uk

Privacy. As a non-profit, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) does not affect us that much. There is a privacy statement on the home page of the Connections UK website.

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New Yorker Radio Hour: Rolling the Dice in a Battle with Russia

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The New Yorker Radio Hour features an excellent 15 minute audio report by Simon Parker on “Rolling the Dice in a Battle with Russia.”  He starts by discussing the Western Approaches Tactical Unit with PAXsim’s very own Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK), and wargaming with David Shlapak (RAND). The report ends up with an account of a matrix game at the Defence Academy exploring contemporary Russian policy.

The complexity of world events can’t be modelled by a flow chart or even the most sophisticated algorithms. Instead, military officers, diplomats, and policy analysts sometimes turn to an old but sophisticated set of tools: war games. Simon Parkin writes for The New Yorker on gaming, and he recently observed officials playing what’s known as a matrix game led by Major Tom Mouat, an expert on war games, at the Defense Academy of the United Kingdom. Parkin describes Mouat’s game as being a cross between Dungeons & Dragons, Risk, and a rap battle. On the day of the game play, Britain had expelled Russian diplomats in retaliation for the poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil, and the game focussed on trying to predict and contain Putin’s response.

Gaming the strike on Syria?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One experienced UK wargamer replied:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further thoughts are welcomed in the comments section.

Ex SEA LION CADET at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is the home of the British Army Officer and the initial training ground for officers of the British Army, be they Regular or Reserve, Direct Entrant, Late Entrant or Professionally Qualified.  It is ranked as one of the best centres of leadership in the World.  Its famous motto is “Serve to Lead.”

Captain EC Farren was, until recently, an instructor at the Academy, overseeing the injured cadets of “Lucknow” Platoon.  His remit was to help the cadets under his charge recover as soon as practicable, so they could re-join the Regular Commissioning Course.  Much of his work is focused on the cadets’ physical state, but he must also try to keep their military skills and minds sharp in the process.  As a 2009 Masters graduate of King’s College London, Captain Farren studied under Prof. P Sabin (Simulating War) and has carried his experiences of Phil’s conflict simulation course with him into the Regular Army.  He appeared at Connections 2015 to discuss wargaming (link) in officer training and subsequently delivered an update (link) on examples used in his battalion in 2016.  Since June 2016 he has instructed at the prestigious British military academy in Camberley and has sought to utilise wargaming to enhance the education of young officers.  The extract below is from an article submitted to Sandhurst’s Wish Stream journal covering his platoon’s involvement in a Battlefield Study of Operation Sea Lion.  


 

Anyone who has participated in Ex NORMANDY SCHOLAR can attest to the innate value of a battlefield study to an aspiring Army officer. There is something about standing on the battlefield that concentrates the mind and gives one an appreciation from the combatant’s perspective that no amount of book study can mirror.  In previous years Lucknow platoon has been able to tag along with the Reg CC on Ex NORMANDY SCHOLAR, but sadly this was discontinued due to funding restrictions.  Undeterred, it was with a sense of optimism and trepidation that I approached Faraday Hall back at the end of 2017 to discuss running a bespoke battlefield study for Lucknow Platoon.

Knowing that I had minimal resources (in the end one War Studies Lecturer, one weapons expert and a minibus) I hit upon the idea of using the planned September 1940 German invasion of BritainUnternehmen Seelöwe  or Operation SEALION— as the subject for the battlefield study.  Geographically confined to the Kentish/Sussex coast, the stands would be within easy striking distance from Sandhurst.  It also offered a variety of tactical actions for study; air landing, seaborne assault, combined arms manoeuvre, opposed obstacle crossings and urban warfare.  Also, because the operation did not progress beyond the planning stage, it gave the staff and cadets greater freedom to offer their opinions and arguments rather than being constrained by ‘what actually happened’.  The study would run over two days, the first being classroom-based and the second being centred around three stands in Kent.

Day 1

Starting in Faraday Hall (a nice break from Lucknow lines) Dr Klaus Schmider started by covering the strategic context of Operation SEALION, and state of the two belligerent’s militaries in the summer of 1940.  QMSI Lawson kindly provided a variety of WW2 small arms from the Central Armoury and gave the cadets an excellent hands on feel for the weapons of the period.  The cadets learnt about the weapon mix of light machine guns, sub machine guns and rifles that comprised the infantry sections of both armies. The cadets then divided into two groups representing the German and British High Commands. They had around two hours to research and then formulate a back brief of 15 minutes covering the following key themes:

  1. What are the strategic and operational objectives for your side?
  2. What forces were assembled/available by your side and their relative strengths and weaknesses?
  3. What are the terrain/environmental factors that will/may influence the operation?
  4. What do you believe the operational main effort is, why and is it sufficiently resourced?
  5. What amendments would you make to the plan and why?

The highlight of the afternoon was a tabletop wargame—one with a nostalgic nod to the 1974 wargame run by senior war studies lecturers at the Academy. Thankfully for the cadets, our variant was much simpler and could be completed in the space of around two hours rather than the week it took for the 1974 wargame to run its course. Two wargames were run by splitting the OKW and GHQ teams in half and assigning them to separate rooms. Cadets role played various Army Group, Luftwaffe/RAF and CinC commanders to add a team dynamic.

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The 1974 Operation SEALION game at Sandhurst.

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Staff and cadets pose for a reconstruction of the 1974 picture. (Image obscured for privacy).

 

In both wargames the Germans were able to consolidate their initial landing zones after overcoming the British forces stationed on the south coast.  However, as German reinforcements dried up and British reserves poured onto the map the Wehrmacht teams struggled to push further inland.  The key cities of Dover and Brighton became contested battlegrounds in both wargames.  In wargame one the Germans achieved a ‘victory’ as defined by the rules of the wargame by seizing Dover and Brighton – with significant British forces arrayed between them and the next objective, London.  In wargame two the British managed to launch a sizeable counterattack into Brighton before the Germans took Dover, thus denying them a victory. In this wargame though, the British had nothing left to throw at the Germans should they go for London.  The cadets found the wargame was an excellent way to illustrate the research they had conducted during the day and gave them a wider, strategic overview of the operation before they went into the detail of stands on the second day.  The day concluded with the cadets breaking down into their respective groups for the three stands and conducting research and preparation for the field element on the Saturday.

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SEALION wargame 1 (left) showing a German victory, and wargame 2 (right) showing a British victory.

Day 2

An early start saw the cadets and staff head off to Kent for the first stand at Hawkinge.

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We were fortunate enough to be able to stand within the original airfield’s perimeter, albeit now largely parcelled up into various private estates. The teams did an excellent job of discussing the importance of Hawkinge to both the RAF and Luftwaffe and the problems inherent with air landings.

 

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Stand 1 Hawkinge on the original airfield site (now just a field). The cadets managed to find the original defence plans (right). (Image obscured for privacy.)

Next we moved to St Mary’s Bay, now doused in glorious sunshine, to discuss a potential sea landing.  The sea wall has been significantly heightened since 1940, and the towns of St Mary’s and Dymchurch have sprawled but the groynes and sands were much alike to the era of study.  The teams discussed the problems of fighting inshore through obstacle belts and having to clear the two urban areas of defending territorial and regular battalions.

Stand 3 at Bilsington covered opposed obstacle crossings over the Royal Military Canal.  The cadets researched and discovered a 1940s era pillbox that made the stand come to life.  After much discussion there emerged consensus that the Germans would struggle to cross the canal and therefore the Romney Marsh area would become a giant kill sack for British artillery.

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Stand 2 (left) at Dymchurch St. Mary’s Bay and Stand 3 (right) at Bilsington on the Royal Military Canal. The cadest researched and found a genuine WWII-era pillbox in the background. (Image obscured for privacy.)

Feedback from the cadets was broadly positive, despite having to work on a sacred Saturday!  They really enjoyed being given the responsibility for running the stands themselves which they all agreed kept them more engaged than if it had been entirely staff led.  The Faraday Hall element was judged at being concise and to the point, and covering the most important subjects rather than a huge series of lectures.  Naturally the cadets wanted more time to plan the stands, and would have liked to study at the lower tactical level (Coy-) rather than the divisional level.  Hopefully the exercise has reinforced the benefits of battlefield studies to the cadets of Lucknow platoon and generated support for a successive exercise next term (maybe even outside of the UK!)

Serious games for policy analysis workshop

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McGill gaming update

Previous McGill gaming updates for the Winter 2018 term can be found here (March 22) and here (February 3).


The regular school term at McGill University ended on Monday, and final exams are just starting. At the moment I am in the process of grading ninety or so student debriefs from our recent week-long (April 4-11) peacebuilding simulation in POLI 450/650. They are always interesting to read, encourage students to reflect on the simulation experience, and often contain insights from the game that had not otherwise occurred to me.

This year’s conflict in Equatorial Cyberspace saw months of tortuous negotiations between the government of Brynania and the Popular Front of the Liberation of Zaharia, finally resulting in a ceasefire and agreement on principles for a future peace deal. A small United Nations peacekeeping/observer mission, composed of Ethiopian, Indian, Canadian, and German personnel, was deployed to monitor and support the ceasefire at the most critical flash-point, the contested southern port city of Mcgilldishu. In the north, a ceasefire was also agreed with the diamond-smuggling warlords of the self-styled “Free People’s Army.” Elsewhere in the country, however, conflict continued: in the south, the radical Zaharian People’s Front conducted a series of successful hit-and-run guerilla attacks against government forces near Diku, while the western city of Aiku was seized by Icasian paramilitaries. A bloody, urban-type fight to recapture it followed, looking very much like the recent  Iraqi campaign to liberate Mosul.

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The government of Brynania and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Zaharia sign a peace agreement. Left to right: brutal defence minister, genocidal dictator, nice lady from the UN, scheming insurgent, ruthless guerilla.

The result—a ceasefire and preliminary peace agreement, supported by a UN force—has been the most common outcome we have seen over the 17 years I have been running the peacebuilding simulation at McGill, although certainly not the only one. Military casualties were the highest yet, however, due to the intense fighting around Aiku and with the ZPF. Civilian casualties were also very high, with the aid community slow to respond to the complex humanitarian crisis in the south.

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More than two hundred thousand refugees fled the area during the seven months the simulation covered, although the United Nations High Commission for Refugees did well in addressing their immediate needs—inspired, perhaps, by a real message of support sent by the actual High Commissioner of UNHCR at the start of the simulation (thanks again, Filippo!).

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Students and CONTROL alike were active on Twitter throughout—sometimes seriously, sometimes less so. One of the nice things about running this game in a university setting is that the participants can be very witting in their public statements (and Titter trash-talk), without in anyway distorting the fundamental dynamics of game or undermining the learning experience.

 

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The Brynania simulation is something of a labour of love: it took up around 18 hours a day of my time for a full week, during which I read or sent 6,438 simulation emails and simultaneously monitored 118 Facebook or other online messaging forums/chats—plus Twitter. You will find a couple of video documentaries on Brynania SIMs here and here.

My POLI 490 seminar in conflict simulation has also wrapped up, although the game projects are not due until the end of the month. The seminar this year was a practice run for a full class I’ll be teaching on the topic next year, and one thing I have learned is to add some graded milestone reports to the evaluation schema to make sure that each of the design teams gets a prompt start on developing a physical game prototype and playtesting it.

This year, there are three teams, one working on a game of the Darfur conflict, another developing a semi-cooperative game focusing on China’s One Belt One Road economic initiative, and a third exploring Iraqi military operations against ISIS in west Mosul in 2017.

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The game board for One Belt One Road.

Yesterday I was involved in a playtest of the Mosul project (“We Are Coming, Nineveh”). It is simple and elegant to play, but there is a lot built into the game design:

  • pre-game planning and capability investments (especially for ISIS, which needs to decide how to defend the city before the Iraqi assault)
  • fog-of-war via blocks and dummy counters
  • area movement that coincides with actual neighbourhoods and street grids
  • terrain types (open, urban, Old City) with effects on combat, and major thoroughfares (which allow for more rapid movement if cleared of enemy forces)
  • IEDs and VBIEDS
  • coalition UAVs (and ISIS modified quadricopters)
  • snipers
  • artillery and air support
  • bunkers and fortifications
  • tunnels
  • command and control issues, including coordination difficulties between different Iraqi units and organizations
  • combined arms
  • hastily-trained ISIS recruits and child soldiers
  • information operations, propaganda, and public opinion
  • civilian casualties/collateral damage

We will see how they all pull it together when it is finished—as they are finding out, there is a lot of detail to be ironed out before a game concept becomes a polished, final reality.

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Playtesting We Are Coming, Nineveh. At McGill University, our conflict simulation course teaches the pointing skills so essential to serious wargaming.

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Advancing forces of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services towards the IED-strewn alleys of the Old City.

At our final POLI 490 seminar meeting last week, we explored the issue of “in-stride adjudication”—an issue that will be examined in detail at this summer’s Connections US professional wargaming conference in Washington, DC. Since the students have acquired considerable experience this term participating in games with some degree of in-stride adjudication (Brynania is primarily adjudicated that way; February’s DIRE STRAITS megagame involved large doses of it, and they’ve all played in matrix games that often involve a subtle sort of in-stride adjudication by the game facilitator) I thought it would be useful to get player perspectives on the issue. It turned out to be an excellent discussion, and one of the students has offered to write it all up as a white paper for the Connections conference.

Now, back to grading papers!

 

Gaming at the CIA

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Ars Technica has an update on the use of boardgames for analyst training at the Central Intelligence Agency:

Last year, the CIA used a South By Southwest festival event to reveal one of its weirdest training exercises: a series of globe-trotting, espionage-filled board games. If you’re wondering why we’re circling back to this news almost exactly one year later, we have four letters for you: FOIA.

A series of Freedom of Information Act requests, filed last June by Southern California tech entrepreneur Doug Palmer, finally bore fruit last week. The CIA has now released rules, art, and design documents for the two board games we played at last year’s SXSW.

If you’re wondering: yes, these documents include enough rules and materials to help budding CIA officers print and play their own versions of the game’s Collection Deckand Kingpin: The Hunt for El Chapo. Unfortunately, the released files don’t come close to printing-grade quality, owing both to low resolution and fax-grade 1-bit color. Ambitious board gaming fans will have to pick up the aesthetic slack themselves. (Here’s to hoping someone creates entries at BoardGameGeek to inspire such an effort. As of press time, no BGG entries for either game exist.)

You’ll find the full report, and some low-res images, here.

It is a subject which CIA educator and renowned commercial wargame designer Volko Ruhnke has talked about in other settings too. Here at PAXsims we have also covered the role that crisis simulations play in CIA outreach and recruitment effort.

h/t Aaron Brennan

McGill gaming update

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Looking forward to the eventual arrival of Spring at McGill.

At McGill University, the annual, week-long Brynania peacebuilding simulation is fast approaching. Most of the role assignments have been made, and materials will be distributed to members of my POLI 450 peacebuilding class on Monday. The actual simulation will run from April 4-11, and during that period I’ll pretty much vanish—I will be deep in the Brynania CONTROL bunker in suburban Montreal, fuelled by endless coffee as I monitor the activities of almost one hundred participants.

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Yes, Galasi (the capital of Carana) looks suspiciously like a remodeled Copenhagen.

Two weeks ago, I ran the “Crisis in Galasi” simulation at a conference on the urban dimensions of religious conflict organized by Prof. Mick Dumper (University of Exeter). This seemed to go well, with participants welcoming a break from the usual academic workshop process to periodically assume the roles of actors in a fictional scenario of rising religious and political tensions. The simulation saw sectarian rumours circulate on social media; a protest march that turned violent, with barricades, arrests, and mysterious gunfire; and splits between soft-liners and hard-liners in the cabinet, resulting in a political crisis and the formation of a new coalition government. At the end, there was some effort by local Catholic and Muslim officials to find a way forward that might be acceptable to all sides, but the situation remained fraught and fragile. The Matrix Game Construction Kit was used to support the simulation.

This Tuesday, I took part in a simulation run by the folks at the ICONS Project, examining corporate response to potential armed conflict in their area of operation. I can’t share the details, but the event seemed to go well.

Finally, my POLI 490 seminar on conflict simulation design continues to be a pleasure to teach. This month we’ve looked at the design of negotiation simulations (drawing upon Natasha Gill’s excellent book on the topic), as well as best and worst practices in professional wargaming (using the UK Ministry of Defence/DCDC Defence Wargaming Handbook for the former, and CNA’s 2004 study of wargaming pathologies for the latter). Students have played Islamic State: The Syria War, and Brian Train’s recently published game Chile ’73.  Next week we will look at matrix game design, and we’ll play through the Reckoning of Vultures scenario from the Matrix Game Construction Kit. Since this (like Chile ’73) is also a game about coup plotting with pre-coup and coup phases, it will provide an interesting opportunity to contrast the relative strengths and weaknesses of more rigid, rules-based approaches and more free-form techniques.

 

Review: Hostage Negotiator

The following review was contributed by the ever-mysterious Tim Price.


Hostage Negotiator. Game designer: A. J. Porfirio. Don’t Panic Games/Last Level/Van Ryder Games, 2015. USD $24.99

Hostage Negotiator is a single-player game involving cards and dice. The player plays the role of the Hostage Negotiator in a scenario where someone has taken hostages and is threatening to kill them unless their demands are met.

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The basic game mechanic is that you have a “Hostage Negotiator Tableau” on which there is a track representing the mental state of the Hostage Taker. This represents the threat level and, if the threat level is low, you get more opportunities to influence the Hostage Taker and perhaps get hostages released; or if the threat level is high, your chances of influencing the Hostage Taker reduce and the chances that he will kill a hostage increases. There are random “Terror” cards and “Pivotal Events” to add flavour and increase uncertainty.

The principal tactics are to select “Conversation Cards”, each of which has a cost in “Conversation Points” and a risk/reward payoff with regard to the threat level. The aim is to get at least half of the hostages out alive and capture/kill the Hostage Taker, or to rescue all the hostages, in order to win.

The game is well made with very high-quality components, the rules booklet is clear and well-illustrated and the scenarios are well balanced. The box is small with no wasted space and the time to play is 15 to 30 minutes.

I’m really not a fan of solo games, but the idea of someone making a game about hostage negotiation really intrigued me. There are some minor niggles with the rules (exceptions to existing rules at different times in the game), but they are generally clear and easy to follow.

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The game was tense and developed a credible narrative following the cards played. I became engrossed and, after messing things up horribly (with most of the hostages getting killed), I immediately played again – which is always a good sign. I then introduce the game to someone who really isn’t a game player but was also intrigued by the subject and it was just as much fun, if not more so, working together to decide on the best negotiating strategy.

The reason that I’m writing a review here for PAXsims is that the game struck me as a possible model for social media influence, or other “hearts and minds” effects base influence operations. The threat track could easily be modified to represent “Social Media Sentiment” or “Support for the NATO Peacekeepers” with measurable effects occurring at the points where a hostage would have been released or killed. Modifying the conversation cards into a range of different “effects” gambits would be a very useful exercise, along with working out appropriate alternatives to the random “Terror” cards.

There is a lot of interest in “social media” simulation and emulation at the moment in Defence. A number of large simulation companies are offering to replicate various social media demographic groups by the use of “AI and machine learning”. The aim is to generate a social media feed that is supposed to replicate the target demographic to such an extent that the users can try out influence strategies for the purposes of training.

My personal view is that you might be able to use “AI and machine learning” to some extent to identify useful information from a mass of background noise, but this is several orders of magnitude away from being able to replicate those feeds to a level of fidelity for training purposes. These approaches are also likely to be hugely expensive and take some years before they could possibly be effective. In the meantime, we need to train people in “hearts and minds” and “effects” on people’s beliefs and attitudes, right now. Current training consists of scripted injects into exercises that are either trivial “box-ticking” exercises or at best short-term interventions that are deliberately limited in their effects so as to avoid upsetting the normal flow of training.

I think that the process of looking at a simple and inexpensive, off-the-shelf, little game like this; with a view to modifying it to produce a manual game system for effects and influence, may have a much greater payoff than putting one’s hope in a large multi-national company’s promise of “AI and machine learning”…

I intend to try this idea out and hope to be able to report back shortly.

Tim Price

How Russia wargames

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In the latest issue of the British Army Review (Winter 2018), Steven Main explores “How Russia ‘Plays’ At War.”

Earlier this year, an announcement appeared concerning the re-opening of the War Games Centre in the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. According to the interview of the Commandant of the Academy, Lieutenant-General Sergei Kuralenko:

…after refurbishment, in the Military Academy of the General Staff is the Centre of War Games. It is a multi-media complex and, thanks to the latter, the Centre of War Games will be able to conduct inter-service war games, as well as [other] measures of an operational training nature.

In an earlier statement on the work of the War Games Centre, Kuralenko noted that:

…the reconstructed War Games Centre has all the latest achievements in the area of information technology, all the training and strategic and operational strategic command posts have been re-equipped. The conduct
of command staff and military-practical games at the aforementioned command posts to the fullest extent possible ensure the practical training of the students to assume high of ce in the Armed Forces, or other forces of the Russian Federation.

You’ll find the full article at the link above.

McGill gaming update

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It has been a good week for McGill University gaming-related activities.

On Monday and Tuesday, I had a very enjoyable (and, I hope, very productive) couple of days at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Alexandria, VA. Much of the time we were discussing the ethics and crisis management simulations IFES is developing to bolster the capacity of election commissions, with the view that it is best to practice these sorts of issues in a safe-to-fail game environment. I also had time to make a more general presentation on the use of simulations and serious games (pdf here). They are a terrific group of skilled and dedicated folks at IFES, and kept me well supplied with coffee and sugary treats.  As you might expect, any place that names its conference rooms after the murder locations in the board game Clue is going to be simulation-and-gaming friendly.

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Wednesday was my weekly conflict simulation design seminar at McGill. We discussed aspects of game design (drawing heavily upon Phil Sabin’s excellent book Simulating War), and the students provided an update on the three group projects they are working on:

  • A wargame examining urban warfare in Mosul (2016-17). We had considerable discussion of how best to represent urban terrain, building types and density, urban population, transportation routes, ISIS defences (tunnels, fortified positions, various types of IEDs, human shields), and other elements in the game.
  • A wargame of the war in Darfur. This is intended to educate human rights workers, diplomats, development workers, and military personnel about the political and military logics of mass atrocity, with an eye to developing appropriate ways to deter and respond to them.
  • A strategic diplomatic/economic/military game of China’s One Belt One Road initiative. This is shaping up to be a semi-cooperative game, in which players represent different Chinese actors (for example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Liberation Army, state-owned enterprises, and the Chinese private sector).

We also heard a student presentation on gaming international humanitarian law. This largely looked at efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to promote greater IHL compliance in video games, including the partnership between ICRC and Bohemian Interactive which saw the release of IHL-themed downloadable content for the ARMA series of tactical first person shooters.

At the end of each seminar, we play a game (or at least part of one, since there is rarely time to finish). This week it was the 3 October 1993  “Lead the Way” scenario from Urban Operations, in which US Rangers and Delta Force personnel try to fight there way through hostile Somali militias to secure the crash site of Super 61 of “Blackhawk Down” fame. The game does a terrific job depicting urban terrain using a combination of hexes (for outside areas) and polygons (for buildings), which is why I had selected it as a demonstration game.

While all seemed to be going well at first for the Rangers, angry Somali crowds began to slow the Americans and growing numbers of Somalia National Alliance militia began to engage US forces. The Combat Search and Rescue team grimly held on at the crash site, using the helicopter wreckage to fortify their position as they drove back waves of attackers. Eventually they started to take casualties and run low on ammunition. Overhead, AH-6 Little Birds provided much-needed fire support, but found it increasingly difficult to get a clear shot at gunmen as the streets grew more crowded with angry local residents. Finally, Somali forces closed in on the Rangers from the west, and a lucky RPG shot took down one American platoon commander and forced the rest of his unit to take cover well short of Super 61.

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The Rangers advance towards the crash site, harassed by angry crowds and SNA gunmen. Minutes later, however, additional militia reinforcements would arrive from the west (left), engaging the rear of the American force.

This week we also finished the annual McGill AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament. This was a optional activity for students in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course, and 28 of them chose to take part as one of four teams. There are class participation bonuses for taking part, for being part of the highest-scoring winning game, and for being a member of the highest scoring individual team. In order to provide a similar level of challenge, and also to optimize teachable moments, the Event deck was prepared before each game to present an identical sequence of challenges and opportunities for each group.

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The results of the 2018 McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament.

This year, two of the games were wins, one was a narrow loss, and other was a more substantial loss. This is the third year I’ve run the game for the class–you’ll find last year’s results here.

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This year’s winning team at work in the 2018 McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament.

Finally, we’ve sold most of the tickets for the DIRE STRAITS megagame at McGill on February 25 (although there are still some available, if you’re interested). The scenario video for the game was posted earlier today here on PAXsims.

A busy year of gaming ahead

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Well, 2018 is already shaping up to be a very busy year for PAXsims, and certainly for yours truly.

This term I’m teaching a small seminar on conflict simulation design at McGill University. This is really a dry run for a larger course next academic year—and, if that goes well, possibly a regular offering in the academic years ahead.

Starting this week, Hiba Zerrougui and I will be running an AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament for students in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course. This is an optional event, in which players pick up bonus class participation credits for taking part, and an extra bonus if they win the tournament. You’ll find a report on last year’s version here.

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Next week, I’ll be in Washington DC for a couple of days to assist the International Foundation for Electoral Systems to develop serious games and simulations for training election officials. IFES does terrific work around the world helping countries with the complex procedures and mechanisms of electoral democracy, and I’m happy to lend a hand. I’ll also be doing some work with the ICONS Project over the coming months.

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On February 6, it’s off to my alma mater, the University of Calgary, to talk about the use of serious games in teaching about international development, and to run a demonstration game of AFTERSHOCK.

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On February 24, we’ll be holding a CONNECTIONS NORTH miniconference at McGill University on professional wargaming in Canada, with around 20 participants. Small as it will be, it is likely to be the biggest assemblage of Canadians to discuss serious wargame development in quite some time.

The following day Jim Wallman (Stone, Paper, Scissors) and I will, together with members of our elite Control team, be running the 3rd annual McGill megagame, DIRE STRAITS. This is a revised version of the game that Jim and I organized for the Connections UK wargaming conference back in September (and which received international coverage from BBC News). Anja van der Hulst (TNO) will be passing through Montreal so that she can take part in both the conference and the game, and she’s kindly offered to run her comprehensive approach game for my students on the following Monday.

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In early March, I’ll be taking part in a workshop on the urban dimensions of religious conflict, being organized by my colleague Mick Dumper (University of Exeter). Mick and I have worked on other conflict simulations before—including a prescient 2013 policy simulation that explored possible US cuts to UNRWA, and an educational simulation on the Syrian refugee crisis. This time I’ll be developing a multi-part crisis simulation, set in the fictional country of Carana, that will continue throughout the event. Our hope is that it will compliment the academic papers and discussion that are the main component of the workshop with some illustrative communal flash-points, conflict, and policy challenges.

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In early April, civil war will once more stalk Cyberia, as more than one hundred students in POLI 450 and POLI 650 spend a week trying to bring peace to Brynania. This will be the 19th annual running of our massive McGill University peacebuilding simulation, and I’ll spend much of the time monitoring more than 15,000 emails between the participants in my role as CONTROL. The effort that the participants put into this is truly phenomenal, especially considering how little the activity actually counts for (10% of their course grade), and is testimony to the outstanding students we have at McGill. You’ll find a detailed account of the simulation here, in an article in PS: Political Science & Politics (2010).

During the summer, things won’t be slowing down all that much. I’ve got an article, and possibly a book chapter, to write on serious gaming. There may be another return visit to Dstl—I certainly hope so, since these have been a hugely valuable opportunity to see what my UK defence colleagues are up to. I hope to be presenting at the Connections US professional wargaming conference at National Defense University in July on the results of our DIRE STRAITS experiment, and I’ll certainly be attending the Connections UK wargaming conference at King’s College London in September.

Plus there are all sorts of game ideas germinating—some of which you will hopefully see on the pages of PAXsims in 2018. And that’s just me! Associate PAXsims editors Ellie Bartels, Devin Ellis, Tom Fisher, Gary Milante, and Tom Mouat are just as busy with their own projects too, many of which you will also see here in the year ahead.

PAXsims 2017 in review

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With 2017 now behind us, it seems an appropriate time to review some PAXsims statistics from the past year.

In 2017 the website attracted some 92,480 views from some 48,885 visitors. That’s slightly down from 2016, and similar to 2015. The number of email and WordPress subscribers continues to grow, and now stands at 389. Since PAXsims was first established we’ve had more than half a million views from more than a quarter of a million visitors.

Our visitors last year came from 172 different countries and territories, with the United States continuing to represent by far the largest share:

  1. United States 45.0%
  2. United Kingdom 11.5%
  3. Canada 9.4%
  4. Netherlands 4.3%
  5. Germany 2.8%
  6. Australia 2.6%
  7. France 2.1%
  8. Spain 1.7%
  9. Italy 1.5%
  10. Belgium 1.2%
  11. Sweden 1.1%
  12. Brazil 1.0%
  13. Japan 1.0%
  14. New Zealand 0.7%
  15. India 0.7%
  16. Poland 0.6%
  17. Turkey 0.5%
  18. Czech Republic 0.5%
  19. Russia 0.4%
  20. Portugal 0.4%

We posted 119 items to the website in 2017. The most popular of these were:

  1. FBI: wargamers are intelligent, overweight, messy, loyal, frugal, and spend a lot on games
  2. MaGCK (Matrix Game Construction Kit)
  3. Dungeons & Dragons as professional development
  4. War in Binni: another McGill megagame
  5. Wanted: wargame analyst (US DoD)
  6. UK MoD: Wargaming Handbook
  7. Request for feedback: Teaching wargame design at the US Army Command & General Staff College
  8. Reflections on (another) McGill megagame
  9. Review: Urban Operations
  10. Dissecting DIRE STRAITS

Our most popular post from previous years in 2017 was the AFTERSHOCK resource page.

We had 161 visitor comments last year. Once again, our most prolific commentator was Brian Train.

Of course, PAXsims did a lot more than just post materials online. Last year also saw the publication of the Matrix Game Construction Kit, a joint project by PAXsims editors Tom Fisher, Tom Mouat, and myself. We also ran demonstration games of AFTERSHOCK, helped design the DIRE STRAITS megagame, provided game design advice, and organized a diplomatic game on the South China Sea for Global Affairs Canada, among other activities.

Now it’s onwards into 2018!

Further Holiday Spirit…

Evidence that the Matrix Game Construction Kit can be used to win an office holiday party door decorating competition – yet another way to deploy this amazing product!

 

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