PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

AFTERSHOCK at the Université de Technologie de Troyes

The following game summary was provided by Gilles Deleuze, a sessional lecturer at UTT.


This session was organized as part of the 2nd year of Master IMSGA (Master Ingénierie et Management en Sécurité Globale Appliquée), and the “Crisis Management” chair of the UTT (Université de Technologie), in the Grand Est region of France. The 12 students have a background in industrial safety, political science, firefighting.

This was the first time AFTERSHOCK was used in a training course in UTT, and probably in France. The aim was to focus on importance of coordination, logistics and communication during emergency management. At another level, it was an opportunity for a discussion about serious gaming and its benefits in the Master IMSGA and training for Crisis Management.

French rules translation and aids were used. Two tables were organized in parallel. On one table, the facilitation was done by a peer, with some experience of the game. Eventually, there were some misunderstanding of the rules, and the facilitator proposed to stop the game at turn 2 and join the other table

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10.00 : Start, 10.30:  Turn 2, 10.50 : Turn 3, 11.25 : Turn 4, 12.00 : Break, 13.00: Restart Turn 5, 13.30 : Turn 6, 13.45 : End of session

At the other table,  the facilitation was done by the session lecturer, with experience of the game. After a round for explanation, the game went right.

The root causes of the success, are the high lelel of coordination since the beginning, especially between UN and HADR-TF, the strategy of Carana, investing a lot on clusters, which permitted to draw valuable coordination cards, and a some luck, as very few district resolutions were drawn at the beginning, especially for the semi rural area, which was voluntary left aside in the emergency policy. Also the players took care of media attention.

The debriefing led to following conclusions and proposals for an efficient use of Aftershock in the Master IMSGA at UTT

  • Require a gamemaster with experience dedicated to each table.
  • Not very fun at the beginning, then the players liked the challenge to achieve together the success of the mission.
  • Prefer to learn by playing rather than reading the rule book (too complex and long to read before the game, maximum 10 pages for a rule set in this context).
  • The game highlights the importance of cooperation. The players were very cooperative and succeded with an high margin
  • Realistic, good level of modeling of logistics issues, but a price to pay in complexity
  • Good for an initiation to crisis management before an exercice with more actors and software based simulator done during the Masters.
  • The « hardware » support permitted more interaction between players and a global view of the situation compared to a software based simulator
  • Strong agreement to continue in the next year courses especially before the large scale crisis exercise.

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Playtesting Viva La Revolution

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Today I had an opportunity to playtest a beta version of Viva la Revolution, a simple but enjoyable and effective counterinsurgency board game being developed by Ed Farren. As the screenshots will reveal, the game was played via Table Top Simulator (Steam)—necessary since I’m in Montreal, while Ed is currently deployed to Kabul.

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The game depicts a fictional Latin American country, pitting the government against rebel forces. The map depicts one central capital city, and eight outlying regions. The territory of the latter consists of small towns, farmland, and dense jungle. The game metrics track four strategic objectives: control of regions, support in rural population centres, legitimacy (based on a variety of factors, including the number of various types of units, as well as the political effects of air strikes, terrorism, and drug labs), and finally control of the capital. The rebels need to win in all four categories before the game ends. The government is just trying to hang on.

Judging from the title (revolution not revolución) the insurgents are a group of rebellious  anglophones.

The game turn starts with a random event. These are not entirely random, in that players have some choice as to which event occurs.

Next, the rebel player takes two actions from a menu of five choices:

  1. construct/collapse drug lab (which funds insurgent mobilization)
  2. create two new insurgent units
  3. move two insurgent units (with possible combat)
  4. upgrade one insurgent unit to guerillas
  5. move one guerrilla or regular unit (with possible combat)

In addition, they may undertake an optional act of terrorism.

The government then takes one action from their own menu of possible actions:

  1. deliver relief supplies (thereby counteracting effects of terrorism)
  2. move two police or two army units (with possible combat)
  3. train one new police unit
  4. upgrade one police unit to an army unit
  5. upgrade one army unit to a guards unit

The government may also undertake an optional airstrike, if they wish.

Units have different combat ratings for jungle, rural (farmland and towns), and urban terrain. Police and insurgent units may not leave their own region.

The rules include extensive design notes. Ed credits David Kershaw’s Irish Freedom and Brian Train’s Guerilla Checkers for inspiration.

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Turn 1: All looks relatively quiet, but insurgents are lurking in the distant jungle. This is the classic first stage of a Maoist-type insurgency.

Playing as the government, my primary strategy was to mobilize as many police units as possible to hold rural areas, and then upgrading police in the capital to better quality army units. Ed’s insurgents sprouted like revolutionary mushrooms in the jungle, where he also hid a drug lab or two. The insurgents were then upgraded and began to take on my police units in the more populated rural areas, sometimes being driven back, but other times overrunning my positions. Since victory in combat gives the rebels a free unit upgrade, the gradual effect of these victories was to improve the quality of the revolutionary army through captured weapons and battlefield experience.

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Turn 5. I’ve already lost control of Santiago, Rio Nochas, Esturia, Chi Machura, and Los Ablos. However the rural towns (and hence the roads into the capital) are still held by police garrisons. We’re on to the second stage of the insurgency, as the guerrillas expand the territory under their control.

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Turn 11. The rebel army continues to grow, although most of the rural population centres are still under government control.

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Turn 16. Caring little for political legitimacy, the government militarizes the capital and conducts frequent airstrikes. More and more of the rebel units have been upgraded to guerrilla or regular status—preparing for the third stage of an insurgency, engaging in semi-regular combat against government forces and major urban areas.

It was all very Maoist, as more and more of the countryside gradually came under the rebel control, slowly surrounding the capital. Airstrikes sometimes slowed the rebel advance, but at the cost of government legitimacy. However, my mobilization in the capital (aided by a well-timed event card) made it a difficult nut to crack. I managed to hold on to the end, and squeak a narrow victory—but only just.

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Turn 20: While the government has had some success with a counter-offensive to the south, army units sent to New Spain and Santa Maria have been destroyed. Although this has left the defences of the capital severely weakened, it is the last turn—so the government wins (barely).

Ed provided some end-of-game statistics:

Casualties:
  • Rebels: Insurgents x 8 Guerrillas x 8 Regulars x 2
  • Government: Police x 7 Army x 5
Other Stats:
  • Acts of Terrorism x 5 (3 thwarted by security forces)
  • Air Strikes x 10 (around 60% successful)
  • Drug Labs constructed x 2
  • Relief supplies delivered x 0
  • US intervention/aid to Govt = none
  • State assistance to rebels = none
  • Natural disasters = 1
  • Regions abandoned = 0
  • Elections held = 0
  • Coups = 0
  • Desertions = 0
  • Defections = 1
  • Riots = 0
  • Peace Talks = 1
  • Rebel attacks on capital = 1
  • Maximum Govt Army strength = 5
  • Maximum Govt Police strength = 12
  • Maximum Govt Guards strength = 0
  • Maximum Rebel Regulars strength = 3
  • Maximum Rebel Guerrilla strength = 6
  • Maximum Rebel Insurgent strength = 10

I thought it all played intuitively and smoothly, and the progression of the insurgency certainly fitted the classic model. We discussed a few tweaks, for example introducing a “planning” action that would enable a player to take an extra action in the next term. This would enable more organized offensive and counter-offensives, better matching the battle rhythm of most military campaigns.

Much of our discussion focus on the event cards. In my view, such cards should never be so powerful as to decisively shift the balance of the game, which would lead players to attribute a game outcome to blind luck. (In Viva la Revolution, event cards are only semi-random, in that players have often have a choice as to which of two cards is triggered.) In a game of this sort, five major types of card effects are possible:

  • Minor unexpected events. These can enhance narrative engagement, spice up game play with unforeseen twists, or include other fun little elements.
  • Consequences, whereby players are punished or rewarded for having undertaken certain types of actions. Heavy use of air strikes or terrorism might spawn a reaction from international human rights groups, for example.
  • Interesting choices. For example, a random natural disaster might present both players with the option of reassigning some units to humanitarian assistance—losing them for combat purposes, but gaining legitimacy.
  • Investments—these are “tech tree” type cards, whereby the play of one card might trigger or increase the effect of another later card. “Foreign diplomacy,” for example, might enable later play of “foreign aid,” or investment in “human intelligence” might help one side spring an “ambush” later on.
  • Catch-up mechanisms—that is, cards that reward the losing player. Such mechanisms are common in hobby/entertainment games, where you don’t want one player pulling so far ahead early on that their opponent is doomed to turn after turn of futile play.
  • Snowball mechanisms—that is, cards that reward success. These should be used sparingly in games designed for entertainment purposes, since they contribute to the problem of insurmountable leads described above. However, real world insurgency and counterinsurgency is heavily shaped by cascading effects. Insurgent victories, for example, can intimidate government supporters, sway fence-sitters, and attract new recruits. Similarly, major government victories can deter support for the opposition.

In a game like this, moreover, one could reconfigure the event card deck depending on the audience and purpose of the game. Playing Viva la Revolution for fun? Then you want more catch-up cards and fewer snowball cards, and quite a few amusing minor events. Using it for training purposes? Then you want more snowball cards (because that’s the way the insurgency works), more investment cards (because these allow players to strategize more), and appropriate consequence cards (to highlight the costs of doing things wrong, violating the laws of armed conflict, and so forth). In the latter case, it is especially important that the game design incentivize the kind of behaviours and choices that you are trying to teach.

If you’re interested, you can see the game at the Steam link above. Ed has also set up a BoardGame Geek page, to which he will be uploading game rules and print-and-play files.

 

Connections 2019 wargaming conference — Call for presentations

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Connections 2019 will be hosted by the U.S. Army War College at the Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, PA, 13-16 August 2019.

Connections is an interdisciplinary wargaming conference that has been held annually since 1993, with the mission of advancing and preserving the art, science, and application of wargaming.  Connections participants come from all elements of the wargaming discipline, and include those in the military, government, academic, private sector, and commercial hobbyist fields.  By providing a forum for practitioners to share insights and best practices, Connections works to improve gaming as a tool for research, analysis, education, and policy.

Presentations on any aspect of professional wargaming are welcome.  The 2019 conference theme is Futures of Wargaming, and with that in mind, presentations on wargaming future events, advances in wargaming techniques, wargaming to train future leaders, and related topics are especially encouraged.

Please submit your proposal via the Google Form at this link (which contains additional information).

It is by no means necessary to have attended a previous Connections conference to participate as a speaker.  More information about past Connections events and current updates on the status of planning for Connections 2019 can be found at the conference website: https://connections-wargaming.com/

Feel free to pass this along to those who you think might be interested, including posting this in appropriate places online.  For additional information or any questions or concerns, please contact Tim Wilkie (National Defense University).

Wargaming Network at KCL

DrUh2x9X4AAKpPo.jpgThe recently-established Wargaming Network at King’s College London has announced its inaugural lecture on 4 December 2018, by none other than Peter Perla:

Inaugural Wargaming Lecture

Dr Peter Perla, ‘The Art and Science of Wargaming to Innovate and Educate in an Era of Strategic Competition’

What can we know about pressing security challenges through wargaming? How do we know?

To mark the establishment of a new Wargaming Network, the School of Security Studies is launching a public lecture series on wargaming. The lectures will examine fundamental challenges for adapting wargaming theory and practice to usefully address contemporary security problems facing the UK and its NATO allies.

The UK and its NATO allies have revived their interest in wargaming as a tool for strategic, operational and technological innovation in a new strategic environment marked by the return of major power competition. While the value of wargaming as a method for learning and teaching is well-accepted, its value as an rigorous academic method of inquiry is still largely contested.

Dr Perla will re-examine the fundamental theoretical debate of whether wargaming should be considered an art or a science in the context of the changed security environment. The aim of the talk is to bring wargaming theory and practice to a new multi-disciplinary epistemological ground that would enable its useful contribution to advancing knowledge, informing policy and furthering education.

Prof Wyn Bowen, Head, School of Security Studies, will deliver the welcome address and Ms Ivanka Barzashka, Wargaming Network, will chair the discussion.

Details and registration for the event can be found here.

By happy coincidence I’ll be in London that day and able to attend, so look forward to an eventual lecture report at PAXsims.

You can follow the activities of the King’s Wargaming Network via Twitter.

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87th annual MORS symposium

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The 87th annual symposium of the Military Operations Research Society will be held at the  US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO from 17-20 June 2019:

This year’s theme, “Advancing Analytics to Support National Security,” emphasizes the Society’s goal of leading the national security analysis community in the development of cutting-edge tools, techniques, and best practices. The 87th Symposium will include hundreds of presentations across 7 Composite Groups, 34 Working Groups, and numerous Distributed Working Groups, Focus Sessions, Special Sessions, Demonstrations, Tutorials, and Continuing Education Unit Courses over the four-day program.  Sessions will be conducted at the classified and unclassified level.

New Working Group: Data Science and Analytics, being led by Mr. Ian Kloo of the U.S. Military Academy.  This working group will pave the way in this very active field of research and applications.

Abstracts are now being accepted through 15 February 2019.

For further information, to submit an abstract, or to register, visit the MORS website.

 

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 29 October 2018

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

PAXsims

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At the Modern War Institute (US Military Academy) website, Garrett Heath and Oleg Svet offer some thoughts on wargaming within the US Department of Defense. Col. Heath leads the Studies, Analysis, and Gaming Division at the Joint Staff, which manages the Wargaming Incentive Fund and supports the Wargaming Repository. Dr. Svet (AT&T) is a senior defense analyst who supports SAGD and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Each month we analyze new and updated Repository information in order to produce a report that we share with over five hundred government officials of the Defense Wargaming Alignment Group (DWAG). Each report highlights results from multiple recently completed wargames and a listing of upcoming wargames. These reports provide wargaming community members from across all the services, combatant commands, and other DoD organizations with useful information and situational awareness for planning purposes. Perhaps most important is that members gain information that leads to contributing and participating in wargames that they were not previously aware of, but align with topics their organization is interested in. In addition, members share information that they submitted to the Repository during biweekly DWAG meetings. These meetings provide a venue for participants to elaborate on Repository information and begin collaboration on upcoming wargames. During most meetings, we have witnessed firsthand how—just as DoD senior leaders had envisioned—the Repository enables inter-service and cross–combatant command cooperation and collaboration that helps in the development of wargaming concepts and plans, as well as dissemination of wargame lessons learned and results.

To answer the second question, we examined how well games aligned with senior leader priorities and to what extent leaders were involved. Between May 2016 and August 2018, WIF supported fifty-four wargames, which account for 20 percent of all wargames in the Repository during that period. The scenarios for these games addressed the top priorities in the National Defense Strategy that the Secretary of Defense announced in January 2018. The strategy’s principal priorities are China and Russia, while its secondary priorities are North Korea, Iran, and counterterrorism. Our analysis showed that 68 percent of game scenarios focused on peer competitors (the principal priorities in the strategy); and 24 percent looked at rogue states (the secondary priorities). Ninety-two percent of games have been directly aligned with the National Defense Strategy priorities and the most pressing needs of department leaders. The remaining 8 percent focused on topics outside of these priorities but relevant to national strategy. For example, high-level political and military officials from a wide variety of our partners have participated in wargames. These games supported the second line of effort of the strategic approach outlined in the National Defense Strategy, which is strengthening alliances as we attract new partners.

Wargame results were being shared up the chain to influence senior level decision making. Nearly all, fifty-two of fifty-four, WIF-funded wargames’ results, high-level insights, and lessons learned were briefed to senior leaders. Additionally, 32 percent of these games involved direct participation of general and flag officers, or members of the Senior Executive Service. Many of these games had profound impacts. The majority of game results are classified; however, an unclassified example of how a WIF-funded wargame informed senior-level decision making is TRANSCOM’s contested environment wargame. In April 2018, the top commander of US Transportation Command testified to Congress that his wargame revealed critical security vulnerabilities and that lessons learned “drove changes in how we plan for attrition, cyber, mobilization, authorities, access, and command and control.” Instances like this where a commander directs a game and uses the results in his or her decision-making process speaks volumes about the value and need for the WIF.

PAXsims

CF09Mag.jpgThe latest issue of CounterFact Magazine features a Joe Miranda-designed wargame exploring modern war in a megacity:

War in the MegaCity is a simulation of a fight for a city in the near future. It covers conventional, unconventional and civil disturbance operations. One player controls Government forces, the other the Insurgents.Designed by Joseph Miranda

War in the Megacity (WMC) is a simulation of hypothetical near-future battles fought in metropolitan areas with populations of 10 million or more. The objective is to show the spectrum of operations–conventional, special operations and unconventional–in this type of fighting on the grand tactical level. There are two sides, both controlled by one player, in WMC: the Insurgent player, who wants to seize control of the city. Opposing him in that effort is the Government player. The Infowar Index is central to play. Each player has an Infowar Index, which indicates how successful his is in achieving his goals–representing the amount of overall public support each side is getting.

Each game turn represents from two days to two weeks of real time, depending on the tempo and scope of the activities conducted in each one. The various units represent force sizes–most either task-organized or spontaneously generated–varying between battalion and brigade sizes: anywhere from about 500 to 5,000 total personnel.

The Game Map shows a megacity and its environs. The large rectangular boxes are called sectors. Each sector is named after the predominant structure within it or the main activity conducted across it. Players organize and move their units within the sector boxes.

Separately, Ty Bomba posted some thoughts on “The (Im)Possibility of War in the Mega-City” on the CounterFact Facebook page:

Given the phenomena of “casualty aversion” that’s overtaken Western societies since the end of the Cold War – that is, a general unwillingness by electorates to sustain any government prosecuting a war longer than one election cycle or bloodier than a relative handful of total deaths – and it can be seen it’s effectively impossible for us a society to engage in that kind of war.

The only exception would be if the stakes involved were readily perceived by a majority the electorate as truly and fully existential at the national level. In turn, to get to that level, you have to posit near science fictional scenarios, such as the Chinese landing en masse along the US west coast or armies of Jihadis surging into Europe’s cities. Short of such epochal hypotheticals, one is hard pressed to name any mega-city anywhere on Earth the control of which would be important enough for a US administration, or that of any other Western democracy, to be willing to sacrifice so much to get it.

Mega-city wars will therefore likely remain the domains of criminal gang turf fights and civil wars fought among groups with nowhere else to go. Until such time as aerial and ground drones and autonomous robots are further perfected, no Western democracy can make war effectively in mega-cities.

That in turn led Brian Train to offer his own thoughts on the subject at his Ludic Futurism blog:

I find I cannot disagree with what Ty has written here, having read some time ago all the articles and papers he cites, and more besides. Yes, we will not see the entire rifle-company strength of the US Army and Marine Corps squandered in an enormous mega-Aachen, or even a restaging of the Second Battle of Seoul (not least because Seoul is ten times the size it was in 1950). Ridiculous notion.

Ty published the designer’s notes to the game over on Consimworld some time ago, wherein Joe seems to be walking back the game’s initial impression that you are fighting a massive, primarily kinetic battle for a huge city (wherein Fallujah or Grozny would fill only three or four of the map’s 30 abstract sectors). He uses the triple-CRT, units-rising-and-falling-in-strength method first done in James Dunnigan’s game Chicago-Chicago!, and reused by him in LA Lawless, Decision Iraq, and by me in Greek Civil War (this last by order of Decision Games, though somewhere in between my submission and eventual publication there were a lot of changes to both my game and to Joe’s system, including collapsing the 3 CRTs into one, and radical changes in unit typology and abilities). He also speaks of the ridiculous troop-to-space ratio in a city of 10 million or more, but does note that the troop scale in the game is brigades (thousands of uniforms) vs. crowds (tens of thousands in size); even the guerrilla units are estimated to be a thousand or more fighters (though in fairness, because it’s a Joe Miranda near-future game, there are also small detachments of “”Fifth Generation” troops whose weaponry, and sometimes their own physicality and mental states, have been enhanced by leading-edge technologies.”).

But I added the emphasis in Ty’s penultimate paragraph. Megacities will not be the arenas where entire brigades and divisions square off against each other, but they will see a great deal of low-level irregular conflict, by and among irregular forces, who will be opposed much of the time by uniformed forces in modest amounts. However, I do not share his enthusiasm for autonomous robots.*

Joe and I are on the same wavelength on a lot of things, but often we differ considerably in our design approaches to the same kind of problem. To my mind, a more realistic and sobering pair of books to read on this subject are Planet of Slums by Mike Davis and Out of the Mountains by David Kilcullen (especially his chapter on the Tivoli Gardens operation in Kingston, Jamaica). What would be interesting from my point of view would be a game in a megacity that emphasized limited intelligence, surveillance, building and degrading organizations, positioning and threats, information warfare, for both insurgent and counterinsurgent. All precursors to kinetic operations, which are kept to a minimum. So far the megacities in the world that have experienced problems severe enough to see actual conflict involving their national militaries have all been outside of NATO, and the conflicts have all been pretty one-sided; government moves in against insurgent gangs, they scatter obligingly and civil disorder continues, though turned down to a dull roar until the uniforms leave and the gangs return.

I tried to do this in one of my first games, Tupamaro, which took place entirely within one large city (1.5 million, which was kind of large for 1968). And maybe that’s more typical of what went on in Baghdad (pop 6-7 million, give or take) for years. This was my thinking in developing the “Maracas megacity” module for the District Commander system over the last couple of years, available here for free PnP at least until Hollandspiele publishes it some time in the next few years.

It all makes for some thought-provoking reading.

PAXsims

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The Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation has released an “online first” article by Donald Brown et al on “Design and evaluation of an avatar-based cultural training system.”

The need for cultural training for members of the military, and supporting government and industrial organizations, has become more important because of the increasing expectations of effective collaborations between people of different cultures in order to achieve common security objectives. Additionally, the number and mix of countries, and cultural groups within those countries, make traditional classroom training less feasible. While good simulations have been built for cultural understanding, they have not been developed widely or used for pre-deployment training. This paper describes and evaluates an avatar-based game for pre-deployment training. The game is built around two scenarios from the Afghan culture: a market scenario, and a local leadership council scenario. The game also allows participants to reverse roles and play the part of an Afghan interacting with an American solider. To evaluate this avatar-based game, we developed an experimental design to test the effectiveness of the game versus commonly used video instruction, and to test the effectiveness of role reversals in training with games. Results show that participants trained with the avatar-based game had significantly improved understanding of Afghan culture (p<0.01p<0.01). However, role reversal did not improve performance. Additionally, responses to a questionnaire showed that participants in the avatar-based game had a much greater appreciation for their understanding of the Afghan culture than the more video-trained control group.

PAXsims

Ed Farren is developing a simple two player counterinsurgency game, Viva La Revolution. The print-and-play version will be available on BoardGameGeek, and an online version can be found for Tabletop Simulator on Steam.

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It looks very good, and we hope to review it here at PAXsims in the near future.

PAXsims

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The International Organization for Migration recently held another one of its simulation exercises on cross-border mass migration, this time in Niger.

More than 500 members from communities, local authorities, civil society and security forces participated in IOM’s fourth crisis simulation exercise this week (17/10) in Tillabéri, Niger.

The exercise took place in close partnership with the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Humanitarian Action and Natural Disaster Management, and the Ministry of Health in Niger.

The exercise was organized under the project Engaging Communities in Border Management in Niger – Phase II, funded by the US Department of State. This was the fourth simulation exercise organized by IOM in Niger, having previously held similar exercises in 2017 and 2018 – two in Zinder region and one in Agadez region.

Tillabéri, site of this latest exercise, lies in a region covering southwest Niger which is regularly affected by population displacement flows. After the internal armed conflict in neighbouring Mali in 2012, over 50,000 Malians sought refuge in Niger. More recently, intercommunity clashes and the presence of terrorist armed groups in Niger triggered the internal displacement of more than 32,000 Nigeriens.

As with previous exercises, the simulation this week used a scenario conducted under real-life circumstances to test local and regional authorities’ ability to respond to a mass migration movement into Niger, precipitated by a crisis at the border.

This was the first time IOM Niger organized a simulation exercise on the Niger river, which entailed new logistical and coordination challenges. The new setting allowed for new actors to be involved in the exercise, such as the Gendarmerie’s River Brigade and the Environmental Services.

In addition to building the capacities of the authorities in responding to cross-border crises, the simulation exercise also enhanced community involvement in crisis management, as communities from the surrounding area played the roles of both displaced populations and of welcoming community….

PAXsims

Chris Bennett of the Game Design Thinking Research Group at Stanford University asks “How Do You Create Paper AI?”

One of the challenges of board games, and especially more sophisticated historical simulation games, is finding the opponents and the time to play. In the past decade or so, we have seen a shift in the hobby towards games that support more robust solitaire play. But until more recently, most solitaire play felt very luck based, and seemed to have little strategic thought behind it. In short, it rarely felt like playing against a “real” player.

But in 2010, GMT Games published ‘Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?’ by game designer and CIA national security analyst Volko Ruhnke. And as part of this card-driven two-player boardgame about the complex political and military nature of the War of Terror, there was an option to play the game “solo” using a paper AI to tell the human player what to do in various situations….

You can read the full item at the link above.

PAXsims

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Earlier this month, the G20 Health Ministerial Meeting in Argentina featured a drug-resistant E. Coli pandemic crisis simulation, as part of an international effort to tackle antimicrobial resistance. According to the UK government:

The governments of the UK and Argentina will lead on the exercise to test G20 world leaders on how they would tackle the spread of an infection that is resistant to antibiotics.

The crisis simulation will put ministers in a fictional scenario where an E. Coli outbreak that is resistant to antibiotics spreads across borders, putting public health, livestock, trade and travel at risk. The exercise takes place today (Thursday 4 October) at the G20 Health Ministerial Meeting in Mar del Plata Argentina.

The simulation will test leaders’ and countries’ ability to act quickly if antibiotic resistant bugs cross borders and lead to a pandemic affecting global public health, placing pressure on health systems and the economies of the fictional countries involved. It will be led by Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Dame Sally Davies and Argentine journalist Dr Nelson Castro.

The exercise will raise awareness and understanding of the key challenges of AMR, and encourage G20 ministers to ensure countries are doing everything they can in the global fight against superbugs.

The aim is to help governments across the world confront difficult issues around reducing antibiotic resistant bugs, including how to reduce the overuse of antimicrobial drugs, while making sure patients who need them have access to them….

You’ll find further coverage at the Daily Mail.

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PAXsims

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Can you do better than Theresa May and the British government as they try to negotiate an exit from the European Union? Bloomberg gives you a chance to find out in their online Pick-Your-Own Brexit Game.

PAXsims

Last month we posted a report on RAND’s Will To Fight project. At the Bravo Zulu blog, Mountain Navy offers some additonal thoughts:

…Wargame designers may benefit from the Will-to-Fight Model (p. xx) presented in this study. It certainly provides a different way of looking at those factors that affect a soldier on the battlefield.

My own reaction to the study is mixed; I like the model but shake my head ruefully at the games selected for study. If nothing else, maybe Will to Fight will give another generation of wargame designers and publishers a chance to assist the military and create a better war fighting force. I can only wonder what designers and publishers like Mark Herman or Uwe Eickert or Volko Ruhnke, or even small start-up companies like Covert Intervention Games think as all in the past or presently support government or military gaming.

 

 

Beware the confidence heuristic

This quick tweet today by political psychologist Philip Tetlock caught my eye, since it has important implications for serious policy gaming.

As I have noted elsewhere, research on political forecasting (including Tetlock’s seminal book Expert Political Judgment (2005), as well as the work of he and his colleagues with the Good Judgment Project) has highlighted the greater efficacy of cognitive “foxes” (those not overly attached to a single paradigm) and Bayesian updaters in correctly anticipating future outcomes. By their very nature, such individuals are willing to accept new information and change their views accordingly.

By contrast, groups (including teams within wargames or other serious games) may be heavily swayed by persuasive, overly-confident rhetoric—the “confidence heuristic” referenced in the linked Bloomberg article. In many settings—especially with military participants—this dynamic may be further aggravated by the effects of hierarchy and rank. As a result, confident pronouncements by senior leaders may obscure uncertainty and drive out differing views, even if the uncertainty is important and the differing views might be correct.

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Much depends on the mix of individuals and group dynamics at work during the game, then, as well as the analysis and aggregation methods used to assess game findings.

For more insight into individuals, groups, and forecasting, I strongly recommend Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (2015), a highly readable book by Tetlock and Dan Gardener. Nate Silver (of FiveThirtyEight fame) stresses the importance of Bayesian updating in The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t (2015).

For a few brief thoughts of my own, see my presentations earlier this year on Wargaming and Forecasting (Dstl) and In the Eye of the Beholder? Cognitive Challenges in Wargame Analysis (Connections UK, audio available here).

Simulation & Gaming (October 2018)

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The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 49, 5 (October 2018) is now available.

Symposium: Research in Health and Healthcare Simulation

Editorial

  • Healthcare Simulation Research in Simulation and Gaming: Past, Present, and Future
    • Taylor Sawyer and Mindi Anderson

Research Articles

  • A Brain-Based Instruction Simulation Approach to Improve Code Team Response in an Internal Medicine Unit
    • Timothy C. Clapper, Kapil Rajwani, Elizabeth Mauer, Linda M. Gerber, Joanna Lee, Kevin Ching, Stephanie Miller, and Kirana Gudi
  • Enhancing Clinical Learning Through an Innovative Instructor Application for ECMO Patient Simulators
    • Abdullah Alsalemi, Mohammed Al Disi, Yahya Alhomsi, Fayçal Bensaali, Abbes Amira, and Guillaume Alinier
  • Customization of Avatars in a HPV Digital Gaming Intervention for College-Age Males: An Experimental Study
    • Gabrielle Darville, Charkarra Anderson – Lewis, Michael Stellefson, Yu-Hao Lee, Jann MacInnes, R. Morgan Pigg, Jr., Juan E. Gilbert, and Sanethia Thomas
  • An Exploratory Study on the Köhler Effect and Flow in Long-term Exergaming
    • Seungmin Lee, Nicholas D. Myers, Taiwoo Park, Christopher R. Hill, and Deborah L. Feltz
  • Zombies vs. Anxiety: An Augmentation Study of Prescribed Video Game Play Compared to Medication in Reducing Anxiety Symptoms
    • Matthew T. Fish, Carmen V. Russoniello, and Kevin O’Brien

Simulation Ready to Use

  • Cells of War: A Serious Game for Familiarizing Players With the Immune System
    • Konstantina Konstantara and Stelios Xinogalos

 

Connections NL 2019 after action report

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Did you miss Connections Netherlands wargaming conference this year? If so, here’s a chance to read their after action report (pdf).

 

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

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

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

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

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

Bae also notes:

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

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

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

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

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

…is considerably easier than:

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

Really.

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

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

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

(/rant)

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

 


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

Belt and Road matrix game

BeltAndRoadPAXsims is pleased to present a “Belt and Road” matrix game examining Chinese grand strategy, by the ever-prolific Tim Price. The file (which you can download from here) includes a map; counters/assets/markers; briefing documents for China, the US (and allies), Russia, India, and ASEAN states; random event cards; and brief instructions on how to play a matrix game.

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Further guidance on playing, facilitating, and designing matrix games can be found in the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK) User Guide, available as a pdf download from The Game Crafter. The full Matrix Game Construction Kit (also available from The Game Crafter) contains everything you need to develop and run matrix games for professional, educational, and hobby applications.

MaGCK

For other games on this and related themes, see:

A Very British Coup: A game of political negotiation

The following piece has been written for PAXsims by Jim Wallman of Stone Paper Scissors. A Very British Coup was run at the recent Labour Party conference in Liverpool, where it attracted some press attention. You’ll also find additional details on Jim’s blog, No Game Survives


Late in 2017 I was approached by Richard Barbrook of Digital Liberties to design a political megagame for UK Labour Party activists to practice negotiation skills and practice balancing ideology and pragmatism.

A primary inspiration for the game was to come from Chris Mullin’s political thriller A Very British Coup, published in 1982 and depicting a fantastical scenario of a principled and popular left-wing labour leader (Harry Perkins) sweeping to power in an unexpected election victory as a discredited and failing Tory government collapsed under a plethora of scandals.  The action of the story was all about how the  ‘The Establishment’ – the bête noire of the Left – comprising, press barons, the old boy network, the security services and the military, egged on by Foreign Influences (a Republican-led USA) would conspire to bring down a popular socialist government by subversion, foul means and fake news.  The book was dramatised by Channel 4 in 1988, and I well remember enjoying it immensely at the time.  Clearly a fantastical scenario.

avbc-player-guide-cover.jpgDesigning a purely political game has a number of issues that affect the megagame design.  In this case the main design aim was a game that would be accessible to non-gamers, or at least people for whom the only board game they would have heard of would be Monopoly.  In addition the game should maximise negotiation to give the players the chance to not only negotiate but to experience, directly in the game, second (and even third) order consequences of their negotiations.  Something that the players might rarely get to do in a safe-to-fail environment.

The chosen game theme was especially appropriate – we did not want to divert or distract players into current political arguments or rivalries – so setting the game safely in the 1980s meant that whilst the background was familiar enough, it was also possible for a player to role play a faction that might not necessarily represent her current political perspective.  The key to the game was to be negotiation, after all.  It was also for this reason that the game simplified and adjusted the 1980s setting – the aim was not for the game to be a detailed political simulation but a negotiation game themed on that topic.  This allowed better game balance and player agency (although the ‘unhistorical’ aspect did worry a tiny minority of older players who remembered the 1980s, some of whom seemed to still want to refight those old battles!).

The first step, of course, was to build the game environment and a number of experts in the history of the Labour Party in the 1980s helpfully created a list of Labour ‘Factions’ who would represent the majority of the player teams.  Of course only having Labour Factions as teams would miss the important element in any game of an active adversary – an adversary adds that important element of pressure and tension into the game.  The scenario described in the eponymous book has some very clear adversaries.  So it was obvious from the outset that the primary dynamic of the game would be a number of Labour party factions negotiating and interacting, with a smaller group of ‘Establishment’ player teams providing challenges and attempting to exacerbate the infighting and bring influence to bear to de-rail the left-wing legislative programme.

But what would the Factions be negotiating about? What would be the role of the Cabinet? How would players interact with each other?  These are (and were in this case) key game design questions.  It is not enough to just have players in the room talking to each other – they must also be making meaningful decisions and taking in-game actions that have in-game consequences.

And this is also the point where any megagame design has to, almost inevitably, part company with the narrative of a novel, play or film that inspired the game theme.

To be at their best, megagames have to be open-ended rather than scripted, and the participants must be given real agency in the game.  So whilst the game can be inspired by a novel it cannot (and should not) attempt to become a re-enactment of it.  This is an important aspect of game design – works of fiction are not (or at least rarely) amenable to good gamification straight out of the pages.  It is important to remember this.  Just because characters exist in the fiction does not necessarily mean they would have agency in the game context – often they do not.

As part of my research I re-read the 1983 Labour Manifesto, and the description of the real aspirations of a fairly leftish party of the time (or ‘far left’ by comparison to the Blair years).  This was the context of Mullin’s original story, where it was the Perkins’ Government’s programme of ‘dangerious left-wing dogma’ that the Establishment was trying to counter.  So it seemed obvious to me that a key focus would be on implementing the manifesto.  Party Faction teams would therefore be arguing and manoeuvring to have their favoured policies enacted as early as possible in the life of the government. The game then tracked, for each policy, its Impact, Cost and Outrage scores.  Balancing these three factors to get the most impact with the least cost or outrage (from the right wing press) was the core game metric, although there were other factors such as the popularity of the policy with party members, MPs and the Trade Unions.

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Photo credit: Stone Paper Scissors.

It also quickly became obvious that the Cabinet would not be played by players because this would erode the role of the faction teams as the main drivers of the game (remember the game aim of maximising the opportunity for practicing negotiation skills).  So the game would have the various factions seeking to influence and ‘control’ non-played cabinet members, and use that as leverage in the important game process of setting the legislative agenda.  Control of a Cabinet member would increase the influence a faction had, particularly in Parliament – but control could be challenged and other factions could use their influence to gain control instead.  The struggle to influence the Cabinet was the second main activity for player teams, both within the Labour Party and the Establishment (who could bring the old boy network into play too).

The game, for the Labour Factions was on four levels and members of the teams were expected to manage their time to work on multiple levels simultaneously:

  • Influencing Cabinet – and the (non-played) Cabinet members whose influence weighs in significantly in the game on behalf of the faction.01 AVBC influence cards
  • Influencing the order that policies are enacted in parliament. The game timescale covered several years, because although a week is a long time in politics, legislation grinds slowly. And the measures that get passed have all have Impact (for good).
  • Influencing the vote in parliament, both directly and indirectly.The weakened Tory Opposition was still present (and played) in parliament so there were opportunities for cross-party agreements.
  • And at the same time agreeing compromises and deals with the other factions to get things done.

The aspect of time management and team coordination are also important parts of the game experience.  Teams who were able to manage themselves well, found the game easier.

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Photo credit: Stone Paper Scissors.

Obviously, the Government (represented by the collective activities of the Labour Faction teams) as a whole would get little or nothing done, unless it could manage its infighting and cut deals – ‘log rolling’ if you will – the game allowed players to have a lot of fun with doctrinal and principled arguments and infighting.  And that is entertaining in its way.  But, unless they find ways of pulling together, the party’s impact is small, and consequently its public support dwindles under the constant assault of a hostile press.  Too many individual victories could lead to group defeat, and an early General Election (= A Bad Thing).  And this was the point of the game – illustrating that holding on to a position dogmatically meant that policies failed to become enacted (in the game) – and players learnt though emerging gameplay that the only way they can achieve sufficient impact as a government is by finding common ground and compromising. This is a non-trivial challenge, but one that is obviously mirrored in the real world.

The Establishment Adversaries in the game also influenced the progress of legislation and the impact of government by:

  • Influencing Cabinet members (through the old boy network, blackmail or other dirty tricks)
  • Influencing the Impact of legislation (through the old boy network and the civil service legislation could be delayed or diluted due to ‘technicalities’)
  • Influencing the public popularity of the government (through the media power of the Press Baron team).

However, the Establishment teams also had their own negotiation and communication challenges.  One of my main changes over the original novel was to make how the Establishment works a little more realistic – so rather than a monolithic extra-democratic power bloc envisioned in some of the more paranoid fears of the left in the 1980s in this game they are a good deal less efficient and also have their own internal pressures, objectives and concerns.  Organising resistance to the new Government’s policies has to be in the context of resolving their own internal factional issues. Whitehall has often been described as ‘a loose association of warring tribes’.  Hence in this game the Establishment is more ‘Yes, Minister’ in feel. This opens the game up to negotiation between the Establishment and the Labour factions on specific issues where there are common interests.  This made the game a lot more nuanced and interesting for all the teams.

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Photo credit: Stone Paper Scissors.

The value of the game, which has been run several times now, is in the way it highlights this conflict between factional perspective and wider objectives.  Players in the game often find that the first couple of turns the government is pretty ineffective as the infighting leads to watered down or low-impact policies being enacted, or even legislation failing to be enacted at all. As the game progresses the players realise (usually) that more can be achieved by compromise, careful communication and even a bit of mutual trust and respect.

Far from being a game to teach the Labour movement to ‘defeat’ those who would oppose it from within the party and/or from the so-called ‘Deep State’ this game encourages players to practice the skills that are practical and useful is defusing internal conflicts and finding common ground and consensus.

Finally a couple of anecdotes from previous games illustrate how a very simple game system can produce some interesting emerging gameplay:

  • The Head of MI6 arrested for treason as a result of a falling out within the Establishment teams (instigated by the Head of MI5).
  • The Cabinet Secretary (manipulated by the Police) causes Press Reform to be brought to Parliament earlier than planned (much to the consternation of the Press Baron) but because nobody was ready it failed to pass (much to the delight of the Press Baron).
  • A Faction of the Labour Party (Fabian Society) was on the brink of being expelled from the Party, when everyone realised just how bad that would look, and the teams found a compromise.

Jim Wallman

 

 

 

 

Will to fight

Back in July, we mentioned Ben Connable’s presentation on “the will to fight” at the Connections US wargaming conference. Now we are pleased to post links to the two recently-released RAND studies on the military will to fight (Connable et al, 2018) and national will to fight (McNerney et al, 2018):

x1537447779761.jpg.pagespeed.ic.mrO8JdPXvH.jpgWill to fight may be the single most important factor in war. The U.S. military accepts this premise: War is a human contest of opposing, independent wills. The purpose of using force is to bend and break adversary will. But this fundamental concept is poorly integrated into practice. The United States and its allies incur steep costs when they fail to place will to fight at the fore, when they misinterpret will to fight because it is ill-defined, or when they ignore it entirely. This report defines will to fight and describes its importance to the outcomes of wars. It gives the U.S. and allied militaries a way to better integrate will to fight into doctrine, planning, training, education, intelligence analysis, and military adviser assessments. It provides (1) a flexible, scalable model of will to fight that can be applied to any ground combat unit and (2) an experimental simulation model.

x1537447770588.jpg.pagespeed.ic.-2B1VyhWWt.jpgWhat drives some governments to persevere in war at any price while others choose to stop fighting? It is often less-tangible political and economic variables, rather than raw military power, that ultimately determine national will to fight. In this analysis, the authors explore how these variables strengthen or weaken a government’s determination to conduct sustained military operations, even when the expectation of success decreases or the need for significant political, economic, and military sacrifices increases.

This report is part of a broader RAND Arroyo Center effort to help U.S. leaders better understand and influence will to fight at both the national level and the tactical and operational levels. It presents findings and recommendations based on a wide-ranging literature review, a series of interviews, 15 case studies (including deep dives into conflicts involving the Korean Peninsula and Russia), and reviews of relevant modeling and war-gaming.

The authors propose an exploratory model of 15 variables that can be tailored and applied to a wide set of conflict scenarios and drive a much-needed dialogue among analysts conducting threat assessments, contingency plans, war games, and other efforts that require an evaluation of how future conflicts might unfold. The recommendations should provide insights into how leaders can influence will to fight in both allies and adversaries.

The former study in particular examines the way in which wargames do or do not model “will to fight,” and suggests some key lessons for future wargame design:

Adding will to fight changes combat simulation outcomes

  • Most U.S. military war games and simulations either do not include will to fight or include only minor proxies of it.
  • However, the simulated runs performed for this report showed that adding will-to-fight factors always changes combat outcomes and, in some cases, outcomes are significantly different.

Recommendations 

  • U.S. Army and Joint Force should adopt a universal definition and model of will to fight.
  • Include will to fight in all holistic estimates of ground combat effectiveness.
  • War games and simulations of combat should include will to fight.

Design Matters: Tiny Epic Zombies…and Glasses

Design Matters: A series on matters relating to design, and why design thinking matters.

Rex Brynen and I recently play tested Rex’s brand new copy of Tiny Epic Zombies. Our ensuing after-play discussion got us thinking about the game and certain common, irksome points we thought were design pitfalls to be avoided in any games, whether destined for the entertainment market, or geared toward the serious gaming and educational spheres. Thus the idea of Design Matters was born.

Tiny Epic Zombies – A Game of Brutal Survival
www.gamelyngames.com
www.gamelyngames.com/tiny-epic/tiny-epic-zombies-deluxe

Watch it Played
https://youtu.be/O9u8VXz8u80

I LOVE Gamelyn Games. I do. I own every single one of their games, love the concepts, adore the themes, am awed by the artwork, thrilled with the simple —yet engaging— rulesets: all in small inexpensive packages.

I say this, because, while I do enjoy the theme, concept, and art, Tiny Epic Zombies presents a few significant —avoidable— problems that should come as a lesson to all game designers.

Size matters.

Tiny Epic Games are not small, by any means, in their effect or entertainment value. Where Tiny Epic Zombies’ (TE:Z) size is lacking is in its small font.

Graphic design is about much more that making something pretty. The fundamentals of graphic design deal with visual communication; the key word being communication. If information is not being clearly, and effectively, communicated it can severely impede gameplay. If this is an intended effect, to frustrate or slow players down, it can be an effective tool. Unfortunately, in the case of TE:Z it is not. Sometimes icons, or text are impossible to read at any reasonable distance.

From a graphic design perspective: parts of the rulebook, certain objective cards, some mall map cards, TE:Z comes up short. This author and Rex Brynen both had difficulty discerning the text on certain cards without picking up the card and playing with the distance, necessitating glasses, adjusting glasses, removing glasses, or resorting to using the magnifier function of my iPhone to read some text. In one particular case it was absolutely impossible to discern what icon was being used on an objective card. Not difficult, not challenging, but impossible. The font size used on the Investigate the Source Objective Card —for example— was simply too small. The print resolution would not allow for the icon in the text to be seen as anything other than a circle with a blob. This inexcusable error in graphic design was immensely frustrating, and forced us to work backwards, trying to figure out what the icon could possible be. The design decision to go with such an impossibly small icon is confounding and frustrating.

It is always important to remember that —particularly— in game design, form should follow function. Games enjoyment, and engagement depend so much on a suspension of disbelief that any shock to the system that brings us out of the game experience will have an associated detraction from said game experience. Stopping the action to peer over a card, squinting to read text is anathema to a positive game experience.

Contrast this user experience (UX) with the thoroughly adorable and fun ITEMeeples Gamelyn produces for TE:Z. ITEMeeples, are iconic, specialized, plastic avatars with holes in them to place “reminder” items on a player’s character piece, representing weapons. While fundamentally unnecessary to gameplay, they add so much enjoyment and fun to the UX, and suspension of disbelief (“no, I really am carrying a chainsaw!”) they become an intrinsic piece of the game experience and enjoyment. They are so intrinsic to the positive game experience, their creation and inclusion in a number of the Tiny Epic Games makes one wonder how we ever gamed without them.

This fabulous attention to detail in this particular aspect of the game experience, while ignoring the game experience in another should serve as a cautionary tale to game designers: everything matters.

Location, location, location

The Echo Ridge Mall is the nexus of this little slice of this apocalyptic zombie outbreak. It is beautiful, with a richness of art that I admire tremendously.

However, in our play test this richness in detail sometimes became problematic. Each of the separate “stores” has any or all of: its own written rules box, objective placement icons, room numbers, or secret passages. These elements get lost in the richness of the art at tabletop distances. If our two player test had troubles, I can only imagine the difficulty five players, huddled around a large table in a semi-lit room would have discerning what they were supposed to do o a given card. Certainly, after one has played through a few rounds, the card-store effects become second nature, but having to pick up a piece of the map in order to read what you’re supposed to do, displacing items, meeples, and tokens is problematic.

1528240027632Further, unlike other Tiny Epic Games I’ve played through, the precise placement of the cards can be quite important. Each of these store location cards is divided into three rooms, which are bordered by thick walls. Each card, in turn, is bordered by this same thickness of wall, creating a discrete, modular store. Eight (8) of these stores surround a central courtyard in a layout as pictured below. Gamelyn produces a TE:Z Gamemat and online visual aid to lay this out.

Where other Tiny Epic Games’ card-location is only important insofar as where they are placed relative to each other (adjacent or not), TE:Z’s location-cards are placed and played directly against one another. This impacts movement, shooting, and card legibility.

The problems with this scheme are many fold:

Some cards will be placed upside-down. This would not matter except for the fact that many rules are written on the location-cards themselves resulting in a situation where many cards’ rules will be upside-down relative to the player. Add to this the font-size problem discussed above and early play grinds to a halt as players jockey for position to read a card, or have to pick up said location in order to proceed.

This, in turn leads to another —fiddly— problem: position matters. Each location card has one main “opening” or entrance, otherwise it is bounded by a solid-line wall. Players may move through walls, as they are presumed to find or make gaps through (strangely weak?) mall walls. If players pick-up and replace location-cards, jostle location-cards during gameplay or accidentally shift their position in any way, this can dramatically affect movement, shooting, tactics, and approach to gameplay. The Gamelyn-produced TE:Z Gamemat-for-purchase addresses this somewhat, but this particularly fiddly scheme could have been more easily solved with a simple graphic element — an alignment arrow in the middle of each card edge.

As walls are so fundamentally important to the gameplay, it struck us as very strange that all walls were clear, and of uniform width except for the central courtyard walls. Where all location-cards’ rooms are very clearly delineated by thick walls or uniform width, the central courtyard is divided into five (5) sections by markedly thinner walls. These walls are so different, we didn’t even consider them walls when playing through the game in our play test. Only upon careful review of the rules did we realize, thanks to a simple qualifying statement (p.8 “*Note: the Courtyard has 5 rooms*”), that these were meant to be walls, and the courtyard was not simply one large room. This would have substantially altered our game outcome. The lack of consistency in the application of this design element is inexplicable to me.

The decision to go this particular route with location-cards (stores), has another side-effect: The playmap neither looks nor feel like a mall. Referring back to the suspension of disbelief and user experience (UX) design discussed above: a decision was made to create this particular schema that took Rex and myself out of the game. When something doesn’t feel like what it is expected to be, there is a cognitive disconnect that occurs that informs gameplay. This can be a powerful tool when implemented properly, or a distracting nuisance when accidental. The result was —for us— a persistent feeling that something didn’t quite feel right.

Dissociative Personality Disorder (AKA I can do what?)

On that same front, we questioned the abilities of a number of the Player Cards. Not so much the abilities themselves, but the abilities associated with the names of the Player Cards.

User experience (UX) is a tricky and very particular aspect of any game design to master, largely because it relies on fickle and finicky human emotion, response, behaviour, and expectation. Designers can use psychology, the senses, and numerous devices to shape this experience. Gotten right, a game’s UX can overcome many a shortcoming. Gotten wrong it can detract from the pleasure of play.

There are specific instances where the player has a reasonable expectation of what a particular Player Card should allow the player to do:

Athlete Card: enables greater movement
Burglar Card: expanded item acquisition powers
Mechanic Card: better at repairs

When this expectation (Based purely on Name) meshes with the effect of a particular card, the result is pleasing and harmonious: a triumph of UX design.

When this does not:

Fry Cook Card: somehow make less noise?
Photographer Card: ending your turn in a store with 2 zombies results in finding ammunition?
Scientist Card: if any other player kills three or more zombies gain ammunition?

a disconnect results while questioning the meaning/source of these effects. While not insurmountable, the unintended consequence of a naming convention and the resultant cognitive dissonance when an effect does not match one’s expectation is entirely avoidable.

If these Character cards were named for persons instead of a specific role —Mary instead of Photographer— there would be no (reasonable) expectation of effect: why can’t she, instead, see things better with her zoom lens —improving search— for example. While this won’t break a game, it will distract, and distractions of this type will almost always lead to lessening enjoyment. Anytime a player begins questioning what the designer was thinking, the player is out-of-the-game.

What Went Right

The above should serve as cautionary reminders to PAXSims’ community of game designers and enthusiasts: every aspect of a game needs to be considered. A solid theme/idea/ruleset is not enough, a designer needs to communicate clearly and shape gameplay with intention or the game experience can suffer.

However, when you do get things right —as Gamelyn often does— you can create great experiences.

Excepting the above, TE:Z remains an enjoyable game because what it gets right it gets really right.

Some design shortcomings aside, the game art is —simply— fantastic. The clear theme carries throughout the game and spectacular card and box art. The game’s art direction truly sets the stage for the coming zombie apocalypse. Before the players even open the box, the stage has been set, then reinforced. Gamelyn, in my view, always gets this right. This is the campy, fun, zombie game experience you want with the pièce d’art of the contemporary gaming world: ITEMeeples.

ITEMeeples add so much fun and thrill to the game that no tiny pieces of plastic have any business doing —they are near magical. The excitement of attaching a chainsaw or assault rifle to your character meeple is reminiscent of opening a surprise gift. Completely unnecessary to the rules, this component-based element of UX is beyond spectacularly fun. Add a police car or motorcycle into which you can literally place your ITEMeeple, and you’ll be making engine noises while moving your pawn like you did when you were pretend driving in the back of your parents’ car as a child. This level of engagement clearly demonstrates how well-chosen and designed components can directly impact the game experience. (A phenomenon we harnessed in developing MaGCK, using iconic images as aides-memoire for matrix gaming)

Objectives (excepting some of their card design problems) are largely fun affairs where the ongoing challenge of risk-reward balanced against time constraints and a little bit of greed (but I really want to pick up that bazooka in the other store) played out —for us— down to the wire. The game seems to achieve a great balance of ramping up danger, while keeping you on the edge of your seat with interesting choices. Developing appropriate challenges and choices shape the game experience and flow, great care was taken in creating and testing these objectives, I am certain.

Once you get into the groove of the gameplay (one or two full turns to get up to speed), the game progresses quickly, satisfyingly ramping up intensity. If not for the distractions discussed above, the play is near seamless, with decision points to test each player’s resolve. Ease of access, understanding, and a gradual learning curve benefit this (and many) game greatly.

The card-based AI work very well. We played cooperatively without a Zombie-player, and the anticipation of each end-of-turn search-card’s resolution kept us in some suspense. I look forward to playing a larger, competitive game with the full complement of 5 players to note the differing experience. (clearly knowing each location-card’s ability will be fundamental to this, I believe) Scalability is a great aspect of the game: playable by one to a full complement of five players.

Overall, while not my favourite Gamelyn gameplay experience, Tiny epic Zombies remains a game I would replay. For PAXSims’ readers’ purposes, the game does illustrate a number of avoidable design pitfalls that should be considered by game designers and producers:

Design matters:

We can see, in the example of TE:Z, it is not enough for a game to be pretty (but sometimes, it certainly helps!). While great visuals can immediately engage players, clarity and legibility are fundamental in rules layout, design, and ability descriptions. Form must follow function. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to read a rule, card, ability, or effect.

Consistency is key. A lack of consistent application of design elements can —and often will— lead to misunderstanding and misplay, affecting the overall game experience. Design must be purposeful and mindful in order to lead the player to the game experience the designer wants. Any lapse in this regard will have unintended consequences.

Expectations must be mindfully considered and managed as they will form an immediate opinion and impression. If something looks out-of-place it creates an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, which —if purposeful— can be a powerful tool —if accidental— will detract from a game and risk running it off the rails.

Components and visuals can have tremendous positive impact, when properly implemented, or detract from gameplay when applied carelessly. The purposeful use of media will have an important impact on a game. (As discussed at Connections North in the presentation Grand Designs – Design Thinking in Games)

An accessible learning curve, geared toward the target player creates ease and comfort, allowing players to engage in the game quickly. The faster a player can integrate the rules into their experience, and simply engage in the theme of the game, the more effective the game will be.

Wargame Designers Series: Peter Perla

As part of their Wargame Designers Series, Columbia Games interviews Peter Perla (author of the seminal Art of Wargaming).

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