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Category Archives: simulation and gaming news

RAND: Next-Generation Wargaming for the U.S. Marine Corps

RAND_RR2227.jpgRAND has published a new study by Yuna Huh Wong, Sebastian Joon Bae, Elizabeth M. Bartels, and Benjamin Smith on Next-Generation Wargaming for the U.S. Marine Corps: Recommended Courses of Action.

The U.S. Marine Corps has an opportunity not only to adopt wargaming best practices, tools, and approaches from other sources but also to adapt and develop them further to suit its own needs. This report is designed to help the Marine Corps understand the utility of different wargaming tools as the service invests in its wargaming capability and in building its next-generation wargaming concept. The authors have collected information on wargaming processes, facilities, and skill sets through research and interviews at various wargaming centers. They identify tasks by wargaming type in order to provide information on when in the wargaming process certain tools might be useful.

The authors make recommendations for low-, medium-, and high-resourced courses of action (COAs), with the COAs meant to build on each other rather than representing choices between discrete options. The low-resourced COA involves actions that can be implemented with minimal resources and relatively quickly, focusing on improving processes and the wargaming skills of staff already engaged. The medium-resourced COA builds on the previous one, featuring recommendations that require more resources, time, and research and that involve a greater degree of uncertainty, focusing on acquiring additional skill sets, personnel, and equipment. The high-resourced COA builds on the two previous COAs and requires major reorganization or changes in policy or actions of inherent high complexity and financial commitment, focusing on the construction of new and specialized wargaming facilities.

You can read the full report at the link above.

Gaming tensions in the Gulf—in the classroom

Antoine Bourguilleau, a lecturer at Paris I Pantheon-Sorbonne University, has kindly provided this report on a recent session of the Horrible, One-Sided Deal matrix game.


 

A session of A Horrible One Sided Deal Matrix Game, was organized last September at the ILERI International Relations school in La Defense, near Paris. The twenty students were unaware that they were going to participate in a serious game session and none of them had any experience or knowledge in manual wargaming in general or in matrix games in particular. We (Antoine Debarbouillé from Pytharec and I) took 15 minutes to explain the basics of a matrix game and the subject of the exercise.

A Horrible One Sided deal provides for five teams, so the students were grouped into teams of four and were asked to read carefully the briefings of their respective actors (Saudi Arabia, Russia, USA, Iran and the EU) and try to define a long term objective and some short term objectives. They were also asked to prepare their arguments for the first turn. The Iranians were informed that they could make use of proxies (The Houthis in Yemen and various Shi’ite militias in Syria/Iraq/Lebanon) as a “bonus” and the Saudis that they could also use UAE/Oman, Bahrein, and Israel, the later two with the formal agreement of the US players.

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Twenty minutes later, the Iranians began their first turn by stating they were going to shut down internet in their country for fear of a cyber-attack. Most other actors just made some declaration of intention about the necessity of keeping the area peaceful. On the next move, nothing really happened except for the Russians and the Saudis who also decided to shut down/monitor more closely their communication networks; the Iranian team asked for a conference to bring the USA back into the nuclear deal, without any reaction from Washington. As things were rather idle, the facilitators decided to announce that an explosion of an unknown nature had stricken an oil facility in Saudi Arabia. Most teams thought the announce was in fact a covert action by the Iranians (who themselves thought it was a US “false flag”), and the two main actors of the area decided to opt for some troops redeployments, mainly as a show of muscle. This sparked a rise in oil prices. The EU chose to ask for multilateral talks, the US did nothing except ostensibly refuse to have serious talks with the Saudis between turns, which led the later to ask themselves what they could do to get some support from their main ally. The Russians unilaterally decided to lower their gas and oil prices, to relieve a bit of tension.

Then the Saudis opted for an all-out offensive in Yemen, much to the consternation of their American allies, who chose not to interfere. The Iranians, infuriated by this move send an ultimatum to the Saudis, stating they would not tolerate this offensive and asked for the Saudis to stop it immediately and leave Yemen, otherwise Iran would use any means necessary to make it stop. Once again Washington chose not to state precisely what they were up to but proposed some help to the Kurds in order to be a sting in the back of the Iranian-backed Shi-ite militias. The EU decided to move their combined fleet near the coasts of Yemen as a possible buffer force if the fighting were to stop, and the Russians chose to deploy part of their own warships in the Indian Ocean to the straits of Hormuz as a show of force.

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The Saudis refusing the Iranian demands, the Houthis intensified their attacks and some Iranian proxis crossed the border of Saudi Arabia from Iraq. The US troops in Kuwait did nothing to prevent this, much to the furor of the Saudis. Things were escalading quickly, Iranian armor was crossing the border into Iraq, the situation was absolutely out of control and the facilitators chose to stop things here to have a post mortem with the participants.

All in all it was an interesting sessions for many reasons.

First, if the Iranians and the Russians had rather clear views on their objectives and stuck to their respective strategies, the Saudis were too much hesitant as were the US team. The EU team seemed to consider the game as a roleplaying game and was quite content to endlessly talk about “commissions”, “talks”, “deliberation” and “interposition” without acting. It may be that the EU has this tendency, but the aim of the game was precisely to try to see what the EU could do if it wanted to act and, on this particular point, the exercise was partially a failure – but things showed that the EU has for the moment very few viable options. In comparison, the Russian team was not “Putinesque” in its behavior and was able to protect its interests and be resolved without being overly aggressive.

Second, the situation clearly escalated because the US were not firm enough in their actions and signals send to all the other actors; the Saudis felt betrayed and the Iranians considered they had an opportunity to act and “settle things” once for all with their neighbors. After discussing this matter with the US team, it appeared they had based their thinking on the rather strange idea that “The US want the Middle East to be stable, but not that stable, to carry on being a crucial actor in that part of the globe”, an assumption that had terrible consequences: The US team was quite happy to let the situation escalate but were then absolutely at loss on what to do next, when their first logical move should have been to state that they were going to use force should the Iranians attack Saudi Arabia – and to restrain the KSA on acting too rashly in Yemen.

Third, an interesting dialogue took place between the KSA team and the facilitators when the Russians decided to move their fleet near the Strait of Hormuz: “The Russian would never do that” said one member of the KSA team. The facilitators had to remind her that the object of such a game was not to find if one actor or another “would do” something but rather on whether it can do it – and what happens if it does. The game really had an impact in showing that a policy is based on assumptions sometimes ruined by new developments and that IR is precisely about “what to do when conditions change,”a mental exercise most students are not familiar with.

Fourth, the Iranian team insisted on conducting and offensive in Saudi Arabia, considering they had good chances to create havoc in the South. The facilitator (myself) expressed doubts on the matter. The events of late September, when Houthis were able to ambush Saudi armoured vehicles look like a validation of the students’ point of view!

Fifth, lots of information circulated around the room during the arguments. All the teams were able to provide for pros and cons on the actions of other actors. The facilitators learned lots of things about Middle East politics too.

Antoine Bourguilleau

PoNG: SIGNAL nuclear deterrence playfest

Pong_Logo_Final-300x135.pngThe Project on Nuclear Gaming (PoNG)—a research project that is “aimed at understanding the impact of emerging technologies on strategic stability and nuclear risk reduction”—hopes to convene the largest online wargaming event ever on Tuesday, November 12.

The Project on Nuclear Gaming (PoNG) is organizing an online playfest for our first game, SIGNAL, a video game focused on understanding the issues surrounding nuclear deterrence and strategic stability. Thousands have signed up to play SIGNAL since our public launch in May 2019 and our experimental wargaming concept has been featured in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Science. Now we want to elevate the wargaming community with your help.

On Tuesday, November 12, we’ll be hosting a SIGNAL online play festival to bring together as many people as possible for the largest online wargaming event ever conducted. Players can join in online beginning at 6p ET/ 3p PT at https://pong.berkeley.edu/signal/ to vie with students, policy scholars, military experts, and anyone with an interest in the art and science of wargaming.

Dstl wargaming “show and tell”

Dstl is being sent to Coventry!

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To be more specific, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) is seeking potential new suppliers to help influence future wargame development. A free “Show and Tell” event is planned with their partners at The Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry on 7 November .

Wargames can be used to explore tactical, operational and strategic issues across the business, security, emergency services, humanitarian and military sectors. Wargames encourage players to: think innovatively and creatively in a safe to fail environment; identify emerging issues; test hypotheses; assess alternate options and highlight the potential consequences of choices.

Under its Searchlight initiative, Dstl is looking for industry partners, especially Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to help develop innovative wargaming tools, techniques, technologies and analysis. Companies need not have any experience in the defence sector. Opportunities exist across all aspects of wargame design and analysis, especially in the field of data capture, analysis and visualisation.

Dstl will also offer the opportunity to access its expertise and peer review of the potential utility of innovative approaches and subsequently to test the best of these live in Dstl’s Defence Wargaming Centre.

The 7 November event will outline Dstl’s aims and give participants the chance to network with potential new collaborators. The dual focus will be on closed pitches from SMEs to the Dstl team of specific offers that may improve wargaming outcomes and on an open event where there will be the chance to present ‘Lightning Briefs’ to a broader audience and network informally with other participants and exhibitors.

The event is being hosted by The Manufacturing Technology Centre and supported by KTN; the UK’s Innovation Network; ADS, The Federation of Small Businesses; Team Defence Information and techUK. Dstl will also provide more information on its role in encouraging SME innovation and growth as partners in Venturefest South.

To secure a place at the event, register online at Team Defence Information.

Wasser: I Run War Games. Too Often, I Am the Only Woman in the Room.

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In today’s New York Times Magazine, Becca Wasser (RAND) discusses the endemic underrepresentation—and even marginalization—of women in professional wargaming. It’ is an outstanding piece, and should be considered a must-read for anyone involved in the national security or serious gaming fields.

As a game designer and facilitator, I have to create a believable environment and tell a compelling story that makes the players — usually United States military and government officials — take the game seriously, believe that their decisions have repercussions and play hard so that the results simulate the real world. I need to take a problem, boil it down to the basics and identify the details that really matter while still leaving enough color to make it interesting…. Too many options make the game ponderously slow, with players never getting a chance to see the results of their decisions; too few choices mean that I have potentially predetermined the game’s outcomes.

But there is something else dictating the available choices in war gaming, and that is a lack of gender diversity. War gaming — as with war more generally — has long been a male domain and has significant barriers to entry, retention and advancement. You can’t learn by reading; you have to learn by doing. Many women — myself included — find themselves doing managerial or administrative work for games in a bid to break into the field and learn about war game design and execution, but they often find themselves stuck in that track. I didn’t grow up playing Axis & Allies or memorizing all the fighter aircraft flown by the United States Air Force, like some of my male colleagues did. These are the sorts of things that started me at a disadvantage. Everything about war gaming and military operations more broadly I have learned as an adult, from scratch, whereas most of my male counterparts have been inadvertently training for this job since they were children. Even now, 10 years into my career, I am still playing catch up. This sense of disadvantage tends to discourage women from joining war gaming teams — let alone the national-security field — because many feel that there is not a clear substantive role for them to play or a path to advancement.

The unspoken gender divide that exists in the war gaming field comes out in funny ways. I know that when people arrive at most of my games, they don’t expect me to stand up and run the game, or to play judge, jury and executioner in deciding combat outcomes. I’m expected to be the note taker or the event coordinator. The number of times I have been asked where coffee is and whether I could fetch it is staggering. I will admit that there is something empowering about being able to command a room and prove my audience wrong. But the thing is, I’m tired of being a rarity. I don’t want to be the only woman in the room running a war game.

I’ve seen subtle but important differences emerge from games led by women or involving women in the design process. For a game exploring future technology, my male colleagues created a list of military capabilities — the order of battle — that focused heavily on systems that could be used to attack and destroy targets. In contrast, an order of battle created by women included more systems — like reconnaissance platforms — that provided better tools to more quickly alert war fighters of adversary activities and locations. This eye toward inclusivity can also be seen when women run games, as female facilitators are more inclined to encourage different voices to contribute to discussion and in turn gain a greater range of insights into the particular problem at hand. It is not so much that female war gamers approach the critical problems differently or focus a game on “soft” security issues like gender and humanitarian affairs. Rather, they are likely to have different perspectives, based in part on their experiences navigating a man’s world. By not having female game designers, facilitators or players, opportunities to uncover new and innovative strategies are falling by the wayside.

The article also discusses the work of Girl Security, the Leadership Council for Women in National Security and NatSec Girl Squad to address these issues, including the Korea wargame that Wasser and her colleagues at RAND recently conducted for female high school students.

In follow-up posts on Twitter, Wasser commented:

At the various Connections professional wargaming conferences only 5-10% of panelists are typically female, and about 15% of participants. In hobby wargaming, the proportions are markedly lower and the problem even more severe. In some surveys, only 1-2% or so of hobby wargamers identify as female.

At Connections North last year, 25% of our participants were women—probably because the event is held on campus, and significant numbers of students attended. The social and other barriers to entry to wargaming certainly seems to be lower at universities than in the national security field, with women making up almost half (19/40) students registered in my POLI 452 conflict simulation course next term. It probably also reflects the larger proportion of women in social sciences fields in general, as well as students whose interests are more focused serious games more broadly.

For other resources on gender and other diversity issues in (professional) wargaming, see these previous PAXsims reports:

 

 

KWN: Sabin on “The Future of Wargaming to Innovate and Educate”

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On November 22 (16:30-20:00) at King’s College London, Professor Philip Sabin (Department of War Studies, KCL) will address “The Future of Wargaming to Innovate and Educate.”

The lecture marks the first anniversary of the King’s Wargaming Network and Professor Sabin’s retirement after 35 years of service to the university.

Professor Brooke Rogers, Deputy Head, Department of War Studies, will deliver welcome remarks. Ms Ivanka Barzashka, Co-Director of the Wargaming Network, will chair the discussion.

Additional information and (complimentary) tickets can be obtained here.

Simulation & Gaming (August 2019)

sgbarThe latest edition of Simulation & Gaming 50, 4 (August 2019) is now available.

Editorial

Research Articles

Connections 2019 report

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This year saw the Connections wargaming conference move to the US Army War College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The event was just outside the base in the Army Heritage and Education Center, which was particularly helpful in that the administrative burden to get permission to attend for people like me (non-US citizen) was made significantly less onerous.

The event took place from Tuesday 13 Aug 19 to Friday 16 Aug 19.  Details of the programme are here.

I elected to fly over two days early because, thanks to changes in the Uk Ministry of Defence regulations, we are not permitted to drive having flown across the Atlantic until the following day. Since flying in to Washington and driving to Carlisle was considerably cheaper than trying to get closer by air (and gave me a car all week), it was an easy decision to make – and since the Battlefield at Gettysburg was on the route, I was able to get a little bit of military history on the way.

This year’s theme was: Futures of Wargaming – to which the obvious question was: was this to be about the “future of wargaming” or about “wargaming the future?” – to which the answer was “Yes!”.

Day 1

Colonel Russ Griffin welcomed us to the Heritage and Education Centre, explaining the purpose of the Center, along with the usual senior officer’s politically correct joke – but this time it was one about the fact that at the Gettysburg Cemetery, President Lincoln spoke his “few appropriate remarks” in less than 2 minutes, after former Secretary of State Edward Everett’s 2 hour oration. History remembers Lincoln, but few remember Everett – so his remarks were going to be like Lincoln’s – short and memorable, rather than long and forgetful. A fine ambition for a military officer and an anecdote that I shall steal for myself…

The programme this year was far more complex than usual, reflecting the high attendance, but the number of concurrent sessions caused frustration from the start, with Dean Cheng’s presentation on PLA Wargaming clashing with Mark Leno’s Computer-Assisted Wargaming. Since the topic of computer assistance was one that my superior headquarter was particularly interested in, I felt that duty came before personal preference and went to Mark’s session. I was not disappointed, however, as Mark gave a very interesting presentation on the practical aspects of computer assisted wargaming in a clear and frank manner, covering three separate game designs: An Information Warfare Game, a Defense Management Game and a Build the Force game.

The Information Warfare Game was a 7-Sided, blind, resource allocation game with a game map representing the cognitive space of the conflict with the aim of training the participants to think in a different way about the problem, allocating resources to discover information and apply influence. The challenge being to provide a gameboard capable of being centrally updated and delivered to different locations.

The Defense Management Board game was used to replace a written assignment as part of an existing exercise in order to make it more challenging. The requirement was intended to be part of a distance learning package using asynchronous turns, so players needed to manage their own time in planning and delivery. In essence the different roles represented by the participants had to agree 45 current and 16 future programmes going forward.

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The Build the Force game was to intended to get the participants to generate a balanced force, based on political and intelligence estimates, to meet and defeat any crises that develop during the game, at the minimum cost. The types of crises were graded from “most likely” to “least likely”, and used a mechanism to re-order them each turn. I was particularly interested in the fact that the students who elected to do excessive homework for the game doing some heavy math preparation tended to do well in the early stages of the game, but poorly later. That spoke to me of a well-balance design, where experience and intuition were also important. Managing the design to use real world force elements, with “ball-park” representation of costs, and still keep it unclassified, was also quite an achievement.

Mark was frank about the challenges of project like this, operating on military systems, using software tools (mostly Microsoft Office applications) that were universally available – rather than trying for bespoke solutions that would be extremely difficult to distribute and maintain. This meant that graphics would be limited, but the training burden would be lowered due to familiarity with the products. He also emphasised that it was essential to try not to be too ambitious and to keep solutions simple. A particularly helpful presentation intended to provide practical advice, rather than trying to make the team look clever.

For the second session, I elected to attend Joe Saur’s session on Combat Modelling, rather than Operational Wargaming in Korea or a session on Logistics. As a logistician by Arm of Service, I was tempted by a session referring to Logistics as the “Red-Headed Stepchild of Wargaming“, but in the end went with the Combat Modelling.

Joe is an extremely experienced instructor and his clear exposition on Attrition Models and Lanchester were very helpful, moving forward in complexity, covering factors in the modelling, with examples like the Madden NFL video game, through deterministic and stochastic models, and the sources of data.

I particularly like Joe’s discussion about the tendency to measure what is easy to measure and the problems associated in implementation between the Coders who make things happen in a simulation, versus the subject matter experts who have a more holistic view about the effects that changes in the variables might have.

This connected directly for me with the assumptions that designers make in their models, that may consciously or unconsciously reflect their biases, and the example provided in the UK’s Defence Wargaming handbook of the the “Gulf Strike” commercial boardgame during the First Gulf War (page 41). The designer, Mark Herman had developed a simple hobby wargame model, that was far more accurate than the multi-million-dollar simulations used by the DOD, as it was based on more realistic assumptions.

This was followed by a choice between Ed McGrady on Games as a form of Play, Merle Robinson on Megagame Design and Development, or Matt Caffrey with a book talk about On Wargaming. Since I have been playing Megagames for over 40 years, I was interested in Merle’s talk but felt I couldn’t really justify it, and Matt was to be presenting at UK Connections where I could see his talk, I elected to listen to Ed’s talk about Play.

Ed’s proposition is that play is underrated and that understanding it properly will give us insights into the process of learning, understanding and make for better games. He covered the elements that make up play, the huge range and diversity of play, relating them to games.

The “Magic Circle” was also covered. In games, the “magic circle” is the space in which the normal rules and reality of the world are suspended and replaced by the artificial reality of the game world. There is a boundary with an “inside” and an “outside”, but the boundary is porous, with the inside having its own unique rules but reflecting characteristics of the real world and the player can used this different cast on the real world, in order to help understand it and learn from it.

I was especially interested in his comments outlining the fact that surprise within the scenario is important in practicing the player in reacting to change (the Israeli Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Studies view this as extremely important for building adaptability). Also, the important psychological importance of the difference between an adjudicator rolling the dice, permitting the player to roll the dice, and requiring the player to roll his own dice. This is closely linked in my mind to the relationship between dice and understanding risk – and more importantly differentiating the difference between the understanding of a calculated risk and merely gambling.

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The essential point being that play is serious and has a significant impact on a wargame and removing all aspects of play from a game is a mistake – but also we can learn from a study of play about the essential elements that encourage “flow” (the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity), such as movement, haptics, surprise, challenge, etc. It was also illuminating to consider how computer games suppress many of these elements, while excessively indulging in others.

This was followed by a panel session on Wargaming Methods.

Jeremy Sepinsky started out with Programming with People about the organisation of the human component within the wargame, pointing out that whatever answer you get from a game will be meaningless unless you really understood the question the wargame was intended to answer in the first place. Players need to be organised in a way that supports answering the question and the more complex the question, the greater the number of people needed to address the question – and the greater difficulty you have in ensuring that the question is really understood.

He also pointed out that players require active management – you won’t get a second chance (unless you are really lucky), so they need to be kept focussed on the goal – but take care not to go too far to the extent that game play, or the people themselves, are adversely affected.

This was followed by Kenneth Sawka and Incorporating Structured Analytic Techniques into Business Wargaming. This was interesting – the method’s aim is to make the analytic process conscious and transparent, thus reducing the probability of errors caused by cognitive biases that go unchallenged in more usual unstructured and intuitive analysis – and the business use of the technique helped illuminate difference between that and the intelligence community. I especially liked the focus on assumptions, critical assumptions, checking assumptions and indicators of change and events that would change or invalidate assumptions.

Lastly Jim Markley talked about US Army War College Wargaming. This was the Strategic Wargaming Department and the use of games and exercises for education. What particularly impressed me was the range of diverse games and techniques (and my jealousy of their 3D printer and large-scale plotter). Chris Engle matrix games were singled out for a mention, which was nice to see as an accepted “mainstream” technique after all this time.

This was followed by another split session with the choices of Using Design Thinking for Designing Wargames by Yuna Wong, War Cry – Combat Force Cohesion and Capability Disintegration with Uwe Eickert or Gaming Urban Terrain and Megacities with Ed McGrady. Since I have been specifically asked to look at urban warfighting I elected to go with Ed again.

He covered a lot of ground in his presentation, pointing out that running this as a game was an abstraction, hoping to gain insights that would be useful, rather than an attempt to slavishly represent all aspect of urban combat.

There were a huge number of elements in urban combat that were of particular note in city environments, as well as the fact that every city presented unique terrain challenges due to the extreme diversity and that sweeping generalisations were not likely to be helpful. The terrain of course, was not limited to the surface physical domain, but covered sub-surface, cognitive and electromagnetic domains as well.

The issue was extremely challenging at all levels of representation and there are no easy answers. Many attempts at manual game structures tried in the past have been barely adequate and most computer simulations seeking to address the problem were extremely poor.

The day finished off with a Wargame Testing and Interactive Demonstration social session at the Desperate Times Brewery, which was very pleasant (but the background noise due to the building construction made communication difficult). I played Paul Vebber’s game about research and development in the production of the next generation submarine.

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Day Two

Day Two started with a Keynote from Dr Steven Stoddard, Deputy Director for Force Development. He elected to give a direct view on wargaming with the assertion that wargames inform change, and change needs leaders to make decisions. He chose to illustrate this with three examples: a NEO operation in the Pacific, a game for the Resolute Support HQ in Afghanistan and a game about near-peer warfighting prior to an Army modernisation programme. As he put it – telling war stories about wargames…

He gave a whole series of fascinating insights into designing games for senior leaders and the design process when you have high level games involving very senior officers and large numbers of them. The requirement for targeted rehearsals for mentors, facilitators and the Generals’ own staff; modifying the games based on the feedback received; all intended to ensure buy-in from the participants. I really liked the way in which success could be measured by the amount that the junior Generals and staff took over the debrief to present points to the Seniors.

Dr Stoddard was very open and frank about what worked well and what didn’t, and it was an outstanding presentation.

This was followed by a panel session on Futures Gaming.

Dr John Hanley talked about the CNO Strategic Studies Group Gaming, covering new concepts, requiring new models and the problem of proper validation. He took a historical view moving forward and finished with a clear view on what worked well and what did not.

Deon Canyon looked at Matrix Gaming at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, with some compelling insights into the current standoff with the DPRK and how the issue was examined in one of their courses. There were a number of observations raised on the technique, and modifications to make it work with the specific circumstances of the course that I found especially helpful. There was also a desire to come up with a system for indicating at a “winner” for the game, but I was please to see that this did not end up distorting the open-ended Matrix Game play.

Finally, Dr Kiran Lakkaraju talked about Experimental Gaming at the Nuclear Threshold. This was looking at experimental wargaming for National Security related to nuclear weapons, breaking the “nuclear taboo” and come up with some quantitative evidence from a large number of games. The technique used both manual wargaming in order to perfect the design, but also an on-line version. The Project on Nuclear Gaming (PoNG) is available to play at specific times as announced on the website. Some users have mentioned difficulty in running the game, but it is generating useful data. The manual board-game version was available to play in the demonstration sessions.

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We then went into the Game Lab sessions.

Again, as I have been given homework to do about urban operations, I went to the Future Combat in Megacities session. We were fortunate to have a diverse group discussing the topic, very capably led by Ed. The summary of the session that I gave to Yuna Wong afterwards really reflected the topic – it is hard to do – very hard. This was something of a relief to me as I had been struggling with the subject for some time. There are some good approaches, specifically the excellent We Are Coming, Nineveh! game from Juliette Le Ménahèze and Harrison Brewer at McGill (modified by Brian Train and Rex Brynen), but this was a level of abstraction that was unsuitable for many circumstances, and the equally interesting Urban Operations from Sébastien de Peyret, was seen as too complex for other circumstances.

We covered issues of gaming at the strategic, operational, tactical and detailed sub-tactical level; we looked at the difficulties of depicting structures, elevations, tunnels, line-of-sight (the game designer Jim Wallman physically modelled parts of a city using large quantities of foamboard and lasers for line-of-sight for one game); we also considered communications, cyberspace, casualty rates, logistics (drone delivery anyone?). The issue of hidden information and how that could be represented in a game was a complete topic in its own right.

An interesting point that had come out of last years’ Connections in Yuna Wong’s session on AI, was the possible use of AI “bots” not physically deployed in the city, but instead deployed “on-line” using algorithms to track down insurgents and enemy combatants from their communication interactions.

A very good point was made about the unique difficulties of representing civilians and their effect on operations at different scales – and the fact that a disproportionate amount of planning and game design made huge and often totally invalid assumptions about their behaviours and effects.

One of the fundamental issues is why a military force would wish to be involved in an urban location in the first place, since it was operationally so difficult. There are a number of possible reasons for intervention, such as vital route clearing or the destruction of enemy indirect fire assets using the terrain as cover, and it seems to me that each mission may require a slightly different approach to a possible game.

There was quite a lot of experimentation done in the UK about fighting in urban areas in the 1970s, some of the results of which are quite counter-intuitive, and are contained in the excellent book The Stress of battle: Quantifying Human Performance in Combat, by David Rowland, but it is out of print and very difficult to get hold of at a reasonable price.

In the afternoon we had the Gaming Showcase and Demonstrations. I put on a demonstration of a modification of the DSTL Cyber game that is used for training senior officers and students on Cyber courses offered at the Defence Academy of the UK. This involved the players attempting to carry out a Cyber attack on a piece of vital national infrastructure from the enemy point of view.

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Following dinner, the demonstrations continued and I was asked to repeat the Cyber game demonstration until we had to depart.

Day Three

The following morning started off with Commander Phil Pournelle, Retd, from ONA, on The Challenge Before Us. He observed that Secretary Bob Work had left the building and some of the impetus behind wargaming had slackened, but that the community was extremely vibrant and it was possible that we could “keep the nose up” on our flightpath and continue to deliver what was needed.

He observed that the nature of warfare had changed, needing new operational concepts that we didn’t have yet. We are not prepared for the new threats; our models are overly simplistic and simply not good enough for the current challenges. However, the analytical community and the wargaming community were actually starting to cooperate at last, so all was not lost. It was therefore essential to maintain momentum and made a plea to support the MORS Conference and other initiatives.

We then had a panel on Modelling and Wargaming.

This started with Jon Whetzel on Online serious gaming: Developing wargames for the crowd. Jon was part of the team from Project on Nuclear Gaming (PoNG), mentioned above and it was refreshing to have a younger member of the community presenting on the subject. He covered the types of applications used to create the Signal game and provided a number of key take-aways:

  • It is possible to create a complex game with a small team using open source software.
  • There is an underlaying dichotomy between the need for complexity to provide the analytical results and the need to make it entertaining in order to to get people to play the game (especially if you were not going to pay them).
  • Fidelity across mechanisms was important and part of the development process (Boardgame version vs the on-line game).
  • The technical infrastructure for an on-line game is at least as important as the game.

He was followed by Michael Robel with a presentation Toward Automating the Course of Action Generation and Staff Wargame. This is a key area of interest for the UK currently and was of particular interest to me. The presentation was very interesting – especially as the approach is a little different to the direction we are taking and seemed to support my view that the computer assistance is not there to select courses of action, but to highlight the ones that were most likely to fail and could therefore be discounted.

Brian Kirkpatrick followed with War Game Networks for Digital Distribution and Collaboration. He highlighted obstacles to technology transfer, from the concepts to the actual deployment, and the time it takes. In order to do digital distribution effectively, you need common platforms, services and data (matching Mark Leno’s comments from Day One).

Then we had Karl Selke with Modelling the player: A requisite for structured wargaming. The aim was empowering wargames through the automation of much that it was possible to automate, in order to get to a point where the wargames could generate robust analytical data.

We went on to the next group of seminar sessions: Data Collection and Analysis with Chris Weuve, A Wargaming Approach to Computational International Relationswith Karl Selke, and How to Improve your Communication Skills with Dana Lombardy.

I chose Chris, rather than Dana (despite, as an educator, wanting a view on improving my communication skills), because I felt that since the OR function in the UK MOD was now wholly the responsibility of the Defence Science and Technical Laboratory (Dstl), I had not had enough exposure to Data Collection and Analysis and this was an area of weakness.

Chris started with the comment that “A Wargame is often an act of Political Theatre” and carried on in a refreshingly candid style. He pointed out that wargames were full of stated and unstated assumptions, where best at posing questions rather than definitive answers and needed to be approached with realism rather than cynicism.

He also pointed out that the main purpose of the game report was normally to limit the claims made about the game results—so, in designing data collection and analysis, it was essential to plan for failure. You cannot analyse data that you didn’t capture and you cannot capture data that you didn’t generate.

Analysts need to be involved with the design of the wargame from the beginning as attempting to suddenly “bolt on” analysis afterwards was bound to end in failure. Data collection should be a mechanism of the game if it was not going to become intrusive and distort the game play (in the same way as Senior Officer “observers” often do) (interestingly there was a paper offered at the IITSEC Conference demonstrating that the physiological effects of fear and the stress caused by having your actions closely watched by someone sufficiently senior, are practically identical).

He stressed in analysing a game that you should be sceptical, highlight the subtle, caveat the limitations and ruthlessly quash the irrationally exuberant. In designing the game and the data collection plan, always get the sponsor to agree in writing, be realistic and plan for failure, document and critique the process and always have lots of office supplies…

He even provided a reading list:

I was extremely impressed with the presentation. Chris was very good at explaining how things were supposed to be, while all the time being totally comfortable in providing real world examples of why they were not, with the easy confidence of someone with a huge amount of experience in the field.

The next session was working groups on: The Future of Wargaming with Ed McGrady and Mike Ottenberg, Wargaming the Future with Stephen Downes-Martin and Wargaming for Future Leaders with Mike Dunn and James Morningstar.

I elected to take a look at the Future of Wargaming, since this was also an area where I was asked to look at specifically.

The session featured Pete Swan from VT Mak, which was a truly awful propaganda presentation (delivered on-line) about their product (VR Forces). Since VT Mak are part of the team involved in the US Army Synthetic Training Environment (STE), I can understand why they are asked to contribute, but equally having listened to BG Gervais explaining the ambition of the programme that went from exciting, to very challenging, directly into magical unicorn territory (given the timelines) (it gave me flash-backs to the FCS programme for those of you who remember that), I would have appreciated some indication (however optimistic) as to how they thought they were going to deliver.

However, this was followed by a truly excellent presentation from Lucien Parsons, Director – Mixed /Augmented /Virtual Reality Innovation Center (MAVRIC). He provided a candid and engaging insight into the use of VR/AR/MR (now called “XR”) that was of direct used in the courses that I deliver at the Defence Academy.

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The insights into the changing demographics of the gaming industry were especially useful as was the example of Maj Travis Sheets and Matthew Elmore in their paper Abstract to Action: Targeted Learning System Theory Applied to Adaptive Flight Training  in low cost pilot training.

There was an awful lot more in his engaging and frank presentation, including the dark side of the technological advances being made (such as privacy, eye tracking revealing hidden emotions, etc), and I would recommend checking out the slides when it is put up on the Connections website.

This led directly into the breakout session where we split into 4 sub-groups in order to examine the possible Futures of Wargaming through the mechanism of using quad charts with suitable axes such as low cost to high cost vs manual to digital techniques.

We elected to go for low cost to high cost against barely effective to very effective, but I am ashamed to say that was probably because I was influenced by the RAND paper on Collective Simulation-Based Training in the US Army that used the same axes and highlighted the problem of effective but hugely expensive and overvalued solutions, while failing to identify the cheap and effective alternatives (such as Majors Sheets and Elmore proposal for pilot training, above).

However, one of the other teams came up with the novel and interesting: Traditional to New Methods vs Physical to Cognitive. This generated quads of Physical/Traditional (Kriegsspiel), Traditional/Cognitive (Freudian) (like traditional Information Warfare and Pysops), to Physical/New Methods (Ender’s Game) and the most interesting Cognitive/New Methods (Minority Report/Inception).

This exercise was both fascinating and useful, and I shall ruthlessly steal the technique in the future.

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Day Four

The final day started with an excellent keynote from Ed McGrady, The Future of Wargaming – It’s up to you!

This was a call to arms for wargaming and a stern admonition that we need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and start making better choices. Games are about understanding a problem, about narrative rather than data, they are not a science experiment – the story is champion in the experience. He pointed out that if the wargaming community fails to properly define its value to Defence, then someone else will…

He suggested that in order to be influential, influential players were needed – but care was necessary. They need to believe in the game and you need to give them a good experience. We need to concentrate our efforts on the right subjects – precisely those that are the current, hard topics, such as social media, influence, grey zone conflict, people, etc., and get the right people (decision makers) to take part.

We should also not be concerned with sniping from the margins about wargames not being repeatable – practicing decision making, for which wargames are ideally suited, is obviously repeatable – whereas Desert Storm was the very definition of a one-off event (that really wasn’t instrumented properly) (and people took a great many questionable conclusions about the future of war from it).

The game might be unique, but themes emerge, and these provide the sorts of valuable insights that senior leaders need in order to shape the direct of the Armed Forces for the future.

Finally, we had outbriefs from the other sessions, closing remarks and a quick hotwash.

In conclusion I would say this was a truly excellent Connections Conference. My disappointment with multiple sessions running in parallel (meaning I missed out on a couple of things I wish I had experienced) was offset by the depth of the sessions,

The presenters gave the impression of being very open and candid – as if they were among friends who were interested in means and methods, rather than formally trying to impress anyone. This made them more accessible and the presenters approachable. I firmly believe that this made a significant contribution to the value of the event.

In addition, the administration for the week was simply excellent. The venue was ideal and the US Army War College were wonderful and approachable hosts. The catering arrangements were outstanding and something, as one of the organising team from Connections UK, I looked on with jealousy as it is not something we could hope to compete with in central London.

In short – something of a triumph – and a note of respect to Matt Caffrey, Tim Wilkie, the US Army War College and the rest of the team.

Tom Mouat

The Beaverton on board gaming

Today in The Beaverton is a report on a revolutionary new indie board game that’s even more fun to set up than it is to play.

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(Yes, this is satire)

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 20 August 2019

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PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) games that may be of interest to our readers.

Aaron David and Brian Train suggested material for this most recent edition.

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At Open Democracy, Luke Cooper reports “We wargamed the last days of Brexit. Here’s what we found out.

A group of us recently participated in a simulation game to model the future of the Brexit process. By assuming different roles amongst the forces in conflict over the future of the United Kingdom, we hoped to gain a greater understanding of the process and what might come next. We solicited the help of Richard Barbrook, an academic at Westminster University, and director of Digital Liberties, a UK-based cooperative that has pioneered the use of participatory simulations to anticipate political scenarios. His book, Class Wargames, applies the ideas of the French situationist, Guy Debord, who advocated the use of strategy games as performative, even theatrical, exercises to understand one’s political opponents and their strategic thinking. Barbrook designed the game, which he called, Meaningful Votes: The Brexit Simulation.

Collaborating on this initiative with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM) and the ERSTE Foundation in Vienna we assembled a group of participants in Vienna comprised of civil society, journalists, academics and intellectuals.They were a mixture of nationalities, from Austria, the Balkans, the United States and Britain, and held a plurality of political views from left to right. For mainland European participants the game provided an opportunity to empirically rationalise a crisis that many had found inexplicable; for example, the refusal hitherto of the British parties to find a compromise on Brexit in Parliament is highly alien to those used to the political systems with a culture of building consensus (often with proportional representation), that exist in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria. Each participant took on the role of a faction within Parliament with the game beginning after the defeat of the heavy defeat of the First Meaningful Vote on 15 January 2019.

PAXsims

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At War on the Rocks, Jared Samuelson argues that NATO navies need to do better and more realistic wargaming.

NATO’s navies should draw a lesson from history and begin wargaming for a potential future European conflict now. Fortunately, NATO can use an existing foundation to do exactly this with “War at Sea,” a game the U.S. Naval War College’s Joint Military Operations department originally developed in 2017 and has continuously revised since. So, what is the problem with existing NATO naval wargaming? It is high time to tackle this question. In answering it, I draw on my own experience with “War at Sea” — in my capacity as the U.S. Navy liaison officer at the German Armed Forces Staff College — to explain how this game can help plug an important gap in the alliance’s training efforts. Given the minimal additional investment in both time and money required, this wargame offers a golden opportunity for NATO to begin the learning process to succeed in a future conflict.

PAXsims

The UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) has contracted the commercial digital wargame designer Slitherine to develop and adapt hobby games for serious wargaming purposes.

You’ll find the press statement on the project here.

PAXsims

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The US Air Force wants wargames that would allow it to explore the use and implications of directed energy weapons, including lasers and high powered electro-magnetics. According to NextGov:

The Air Force Research Lab issued a request for information Friday seeking a vendor that can provide wargame modeling and simulations that include how energy weapons are being used today and how they will be used in the near future.

“The purpose of these [military utility] studies is to determine if and how well AFRL/RD and industry technologies can help address warfighter needs and gaps including complementing current fielded technologies and those under development by others,” the notice states.

PAXsims

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Registration for the October MORS Cyberspace Wargaming & Analytics workshop is now open.

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James Vaughan (CEO & Founder, Ndemic Creations) discusses how “0 to 120 Million: Infecting the World with Games that Make You Think,” in his keynote address at the recent Games4Change Festival.

Our PAXsims review of one of their games, Rebel Inc, can be found here.

PAXsims

The folks at the TESA Collective (designers of Rise Up!) have announced a new board game project: Strike! The Game of Worker Rebellion.

HappyCorp, the richest company in the world, has just unleashed its most evil plan yet: turning Mercury City into an entirely corporate-run city. From the schools to the sidewalks, everything will be owned and run by HappyCorp, and every resident will become a HappyCorp employee. There will be no more minimum wage, no more public services, and no more unions. HappyCorp has already begun unleashing its Smile Drones to convert the city’s infrastructure, crush protests, and ensure every resident watches its Commercial Breaks.

Players take on the role of the Strike Council to lead a city-wide strike of workers against HappyCorp’s take over, while also fighting for better livelihoods for all. Players will use energy tokens to grow their ranks, mobilize their workers, and complete strike cards. As the Strike Council scores victories for workers around the city, they will gain the support of more allies, from the dockworkers to the teachers, and build new bases of support from the manufacturing district to the university.

So do you have what it takes to lead the worker rebellion to defeat HappyCorp? Or will you soon be an employee of HappyCity?

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PAXsims

Prolific wargame designer Brian Train was recently interviewed by Harold Buchanan for his Harold on Games podcast.

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It includes the story of how Brian and I met, and a little about We Are Coming, Nineveh! (28:22), which should be available for preorder from Nuts! Publishing later this year.

PAXsims

On the subject of Canadians, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE)—Canada’s super-secret signals intelligence agency—have been making use of an “Ottawa-based escape room company to help grow its recruitment levels and raise its profile.” According to the CBC:

Starting in September, wannabe code breakers (and average revellers looking for a night out) can take a crack at solving cyberattack scenarios at the Escape Manor in the city’s Hintonburg neighbourhood.

The goal, said CSE spokesperson Ryan Foreman, is to attract new recruits to help the agency collect foreign intelligence and thwart cyberattacks.

“The idea behind our partnership is to bolster our recruiting efforts and build awareness of who we are and what we do,” he said in an email to CBC News.

“This is an ideal venue for us to reach people with these interests who may not be aware of CSE or have ever considered career opportunities in Canada’s security and intelligence community.”

The Recruit will be a narrative game involving a cyberattack by the fictional adversary known as The Syndicate.

There is no word yet on whether the adventure will include such hyper-realistic Canadian intelligence community challenges as trying to get paid properly on the federal government’s Phoenix payroll system or dealing with apparently endless access to information (ATIP) requests.

PAXsims

In an interview with Game Informer, the designers of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare argue the game isn’t “political.”

As a number of commentators have noted, theirs seems to be  a very narrow definition of politics.

PAXsims

Seven Board Games designed for use in education have been cited for excellence in the 2019 Serious Play Award Competition. You can find out about them at the (for-profit) Serious Play conferences website.

PAXsims

LECMgt-Logo-with-text.pngThe LECMgt blog contains a short interview with your very own PAXsims editor, on the subject of PAXsims itself.

You’ll find it here.

PAXsims

On a final note, with the ongoing US debate over mass shooting once again in the news in recent weeks, we thought we would post this informative infographic from Vox.

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Armchair Dragoons on the “culture wars”

DragoonsLogoHEADER-1A special issue of Armchair Dragoons’ Mentioned in Dispatches podcast features Brant Guillory, Matt Kirschenbaum, and myself discussing recent controversies on representation and diversity in the wargaming hobby.

For some background, see these previous reports at PAXsims:

There is also a longer list of articles linked at Armchair Dragoons.

And before anyone comments, yes we were all painfully aware of the irony of three middle-aged white guys discussing diversity in the hobby—sadly, many of the other gamers Brant reached out were unavailable. If you’ve got something you would like to contribute to the debate (especially if you’re a female, LGBTQ, or other minority wargamer) please drop us a line—PAXsims is always looking for material on this and other topics.

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Picture credit: Origin.

Wargaming and its place in PME

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

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

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

They conclude:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpected side effects of wargaming

At the Imperator Vespasian YouTube wargaming channel, there is an unfortunate tale of how wargaming A Very British Civil War (a 1930s alternative history that sees the rise of a fascist government in Britain) got one young man reported to the police for suspicious extremist activity via the Prevent counter-radicalizationprogramme.

It all ended up alright in the end, with the police dismissing the school’s concerns. Still, while one understands teachers being concerned at a student’s sudden interest in fascist paraphernalia, there does seem to have been a major shortage of common sense in this case.


The Prevent initiative has been controversial from the outset, although those who have been innocently caught up in the reporting system have tended to be Muslims.

In 2017/18 there were 7,318 referrals under the system, of which 33% were made by schools. 57% were under age 21, and 87% were male.  Of those reported, 44% were reported for suspected Islamist extremist, and 18% for suspected right wing extremism. 42% were investigated and no further action was required (and thus might be considered “false positives”—people who who incorrectly reported).

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NYT: Should Board Gamers Play the Roles of Racists, Slavers and Nazis?

NYTdraper.pngYesterday, the New York Times featured a thoughtful article by Kevin Draper on the growing debate within gaming communities regarding representation. The point of the departure was the controversy over Scramble for Africa, a colonialism-themed Eurogame that GMT Games was to publish, but later withdrew (see here for previous coverage of PAXsims).

In the continuing explosion of tabletop board gaming, there are numerous World War II games in which players get to be Nazis. There are American Civil War games in which players take the role of the Confederacy. Some of these games confront the victims of the Holocaust and enslaved people head on; most don’t, though of course they’re right there if players choose to look.

But even poorly designed games with war themes often get the benefit of the doubt. They are generally created and played by people deeply interested in history. They prize accuracy over fun. Most games in this genre are accompanied by extensive reading lists and explanations; players often treat them as a way to learn that is more engaging than just reading a book.

Scramble for Africa was a new strategy game — what is called a “eurogame,” to contrast the genre with war games and more confrontational luck-based American board games. In it, the player would “take the role of one of six European powers with an eye toward exploring the unknown interior of Africa, discovering land and natural resources,” as the game’s description put it.

And with that, Scramble for Africa became board gaming’s entree into the very particular, sometimes confusing and very of-the-moment culture wars of 2019.

My favourite part of the piece is a comment by game designer Cole Wehrle:

The board game hobby — especially in the United States — is overwhelmingly white and male, though, anecdotally, that seems to be changing. Mr. Wehrle and Mr. Reuss said they see more women and people of color playing games and attending board game conventions.

The ranks of board game designers, however, is changing more slowly. According to one study, 94 percent of the designers for the top 100 ranked games on BoardGameGeek were white men. This perhaps explains the viewpoint many games take. Their designers can more readily identify with the European colonizers, and not the colonized.

As long as Americans and Europeans dominate board gaming, themes of colonialism will likely abound. “You can make a game about anything, but you have to be responsible for the things you make,” said Mr. Wehrle, the designer.

Mr. Wehrle described board games as “little sympathy engines” because players directly embody a role. Designers should question whom they have players sympathize with, and why, but he believes they should still make games with difficult themes. “There is value to letting players sympathize with a position that is morally objectionable, as long as it has some larger payoff,” he said.

While the New York Times article is simply reporting on very real debates within the gaming community itself (and certainly did not urge censorship or indeed any particular position), the reaction in several online wargaming fora was predictably and depressingly hostile. Some were quick to decry this as yet another attempt by “Social Justice Warriors,” “Marxists,” or “globalists” to take away their beloved military-themed cardboard.

For another take on this issue, see our June report on wargaming and representation, wherein a piece in Vice by Rob Zacny provoked a similar barrage of angry online discussion.

Atlantic Council: Avenues for Conflict in the Gulf matrix game

Avenues_for_Conflict_in_the_GulfThe Atlantic Council has a released a new report detailing three Gulf crisis matrix games, recently conducted by John Watts, that explore how conflict might take place between Iran and Saudi Arabia:

The Gulf remains one of the most strategically critical regions in the world. Its stability and security have global implications, yet are far from certain. Along with the Arabia Foundation, the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security believes a convergence of trends in the region has created an inflection point, meaning actions today could have historic and long-lasting consequences.

Consequently, the Atlantic Council and the Arabia Foundation partnered to host a matrix game simulation with the intent to challenge commonly held assumptions of US and regional policymakers about the possibility for conflict in the Gulf, and plausible, but underappreciated, conventional and unconventional Iranian military options. The game recognized that Iran faces increasing pressure domestically and internationally, while simultaneously perceiving a historic opportunity to reshape regional dynamics through multiple regional conflicts. This convergence creates conditions that could lead to a strategic shock, and which warrant serious consideration. Moreover, throughout the region, shifting dynamics are creating new and unpredictable alignments in national interests among a variety of actors.

Because of the current uncertainty and diverse possible future permutations, the game sought to run multiple iterations of the same scenario, in order to explore a range of potential outcomes that would be deter- mined by the decisions of each key actor.

You will find further details and the main findings of the study at the report linked above. Particularly noteworthy is the heavy of covert, proxy, and “grey zone” tactics and the desire of both sides to avoid major direct armed conflict. This is also a rare case of a think-tank running multiple iterations of a game to more fully explore the problem space, so kudos to John and the Atlantic Council (together with the recently-defunct Arabia Foundation) for doing it that way. The token chips look like they might have come from the Matrix Game Construction Kit too!

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For an earlier 2016 game exploring crisis stability in the Gulf (in which John was also involved), see this Atlantic Council report and this PAXsims methodological note.

Finally, if you want to try your own hand at exploring tensions in the Gulf , have a look at A “Horrible, One-sided Deal,” a US-Iran matrix game we posted to PAXsims last month.

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