PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Matrix game leader tokens

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These will NOT be part of MaGCK, the forthcoming Matrix Game Construction Kit that Tim Fisher, Tom Mouat, and I are working on—for we are all very serious gamers, and would never do anything like that.

Nonetheless, Tom Fisher obviously has too much graphic design time on his hands, and we thought these might be of use for those of you involved in political-military gaming of current or future crises. The image is formatted to Avery 5410 1″ removable stickers, and you should print from the pdf file here.

We may update them, of course, if the forthcoming UK election goes the other way.

 

UPDATE: Now with Vladimir Putin!

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 2 June 2017

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PAXsims is pleased to present a number of items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers. James Sterrett contributed to this latest edition.

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pic859584_md.jpgAt First Person Scholar, Jeremy Antley discusses “Remodeling the Labyrinth: Player-Led Efforts to Update GMT’s War on Terror Wargame.” Specifically he explores how players proposed and undertook updates of Volko Ruhnke’s wargame Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001- (GMT Games, 2010) during and after regional politics in the Middle East were reshaped by the “Arab Spring” of 2011—notably through online discussions at BoardGameGeek and ConsimWorld. He focuses particular attention on the use of event cards as a game mechanism, a representation of history, and focus of player discussions:

While event cards comprise only a portion of the materials found in Labyrinth, their role as abstracted arbiters of reality sustains and reinforces the simulative model to a degree not matched by other elements.  This, combined with their extra-legal nature, allows designers and players alike to utilize event cards for the purpose of injecting their own augmentative or corrective point of view.  Because wargames emphasize the production of knowledge from play, this means that event cards need to distill their subjects using montage, and ensure that the resulting creations act as epistemic reservoirs in service to the operation of Labyrinth’s model.  Debates over player-created event cards such as ‘Curveball’ and ‘Snowden’ reveal the seriousness behind getting this process right.  That players focused their efforts on crafting new event cards to update perceived deficiencies in Labyrinth’s original model speaks volumes to the expectations held by these players in relation to the wargames they play.  Time spent with a wargame’s simulative model is expected to be productive.  Creating new event cards became, in this regard, not only preferable but also essential if Labyrinth players wanted their games to keep pace with current events.

You’ll find a PAXsims review of the game here. GMT Games subsequently published an expansion/update by Trevor Bender and Volko Ruhnke, Labyrinth: The Awakening, 2010– ? (2016). This is still sitting on my bookshelf, awaiting play—and when I do I’ll certainly post a review to PAXsims.

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At the Active Learning in Political Science blog there is some interesting discussion of emotion, engagement, immersion, and empathy in simulations.

Simon Usherwood first raised the issue in the immediate aftermath of the Manchester terrorist attack. This prompted Chad Raymond to note the problem of students acting too rationally and technocratically in a recent South China Sea simulation:

It is very difficult to get students to understand, in a self perspective-altering rather than an I-remember-what-the-book-said way, the emotional and psychological dimensions of political behavior. Simulations, though they often touted as effective at generating this kind of learning, may not be any better at this than other methods. My own attempts at empirically validating these kinds of outcomes with several different teaching methods have pretty much been failures. How do you get the typical American college student — often an 18- or 19-year old who has never traveled internationally nor has a deep relationship with anyone outside of his or her particular ethnic group or socioeconomic bracket — to temporarily step outside of his or her own feelings and experience what it’s like to be someone else?

Finally, Usherwood returns to the question, and suggests three potential solutions:

First option is to drown the students in detail. Chad’s only given his students a handful of things to think about/work with, so it’s understandable that they focus on these. If you’ve got the time and space, then giving them a whole lot more to handle/juggle makes it much harder for them to act rationally.

Which leads logically to the second option: starving the students. In Chad’s case, that might mean not even giving them what he has done, so that they come to it much more impressionistically and irrationally.

His third option—to “ju-jitsu your way out“—involves building on, modifying, and learning from what others have done:

So if you’re struggling to make your simulation work, why not look around at what others are doing and see if you can get their thing to work for you. If you’re not feeling so sharing-y, then you can also reflect on the other things you do: that’s how I developed the parliament game over its iterations, with its purpose being constructed backwards from what it actually did (which wasn’t what I’d set out to do).

We heartily agree.

On this same subject, this is a great time to recommend—not for the first time—the seminal 2011 Naval War College Review article by Peter Perla and ED McGrady, “Why Wargaming Works.”

We propose the idea that gaming’s transformative power grows out of its particular connections to storytelling; we find in a combination of elements from traditional narrative theory and contemporary neuroscience the germ of our thesis—that gaming, as a story-living experience, engages the human brain, and hence the human being participating in a game, in ways more akin to real-life experience than to reading a novel or watching a video. By creating for its participants a synthetic experience, gaming gives them palpable and powerful insights that help them prepare better for dealing with complex and uncertain situations in the future. We contend that the use of gaming to transform individual participants—in particular, key decision makers—is an important, indeed essential, source of successful organiza- tional and societal adaptation to that uncertain future….

PAXsims

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In March the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education held its annual “Atlantic Promise” field exercise:

This year’s exercise scenario allowed students to become members of a fictitious humanitarian assistance organization and assist a population in conflict after a Category 4 hurricane. The exercise purposely combines students from different schools to build interpersonal relationships, teamwork, and negotiation skills under stressful situations.

Students from Tulane University were among those who participated, and there’s a short account of their experiences on the university website.

The simulation will next be run in November, retitled “Coastal Hope.”

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The latest issue of ICONS News contains, among other items, a link to their latest promotional video.

The video contains sultry narrative tones of PAXsims associate editor Devin Ellis, so it’s obviously not to be missed! The ICONS Project can be found here.

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On the subject of newsletters, the Spring 2017 update from the World Peace game is also available.

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Last month the US Naval War College reported on a technology upgrade to its wargaming:

The capstone wargame for international students at U.S. Naval War College (NWC) has undergone a huge improvement this year, replacing oversized game boards and ‘paper ship’ game pieces with a new computer application that uses touch-screen technology and allows multiple player usage.

The 65 students taking the intermediate-level course through the Naval Staff College (NSC) are now using cutting-edge technology in their annual year-end event, which took place May 5.

NSC courses are composed predominately of international students who were divided into Blue and Gold coalition teams that crowded the wargame floor to compete.

The wargame was introduced as the final event of the academic calendar for the class three years ago. The purpose of the game is to allow students to put the theories of operational planning that they have learned at the college into practical use.

“This game is a culmination of the academics the students have learned during the year with concentration on military planning, communication, cooperation and leadership,” said Jeff Landsman, game director and associate professor in NWC’s Wargaming Department. “We bring all of these concepts into a practical exercise, allowing the students to work in an experiential and knowledge-based setting. Additionally, the new technology lets the wargaming faculty execute a more interactive and efficient game.”

Developing the new computer simulation started after last year’s game. The project really starting taking shape in the new year.

“The game was pretty much created from scratch. We customized the [game] grid and a few of the other components,” said Anthony Rocchio, lead program developer for the simulation. “It really came together in the last couple months. The scoring function was started on Tuesday and finished Wednesday, for instance.”

The two coalitions then conducted separate planning sessions and briefed their respective courses of action (COAs) to the Wargaming Department faculty. These COAs were then executed during game play.

“This innovative, current, computer-based simulation more accurately reflects real-world situations that the students could face as they operate in the joint maritime environment,” said Landsman.

The application also allows a simultaneous feed of the results of the game into the two teams’ planning groups so they can plan future moves with better, more updated information.

The new computer-based simulation has many other advantages, according to Landsman.

“The new simulation brings a better understanding of the operational and strategic level complexities, barriers and collaboration when applying national and multinational sea power,” he said. “They get a better look at decision making, leadership, theater complexities, and joint and combined maritime operations. This is a very valuable upgrade for the students.”

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Brian Train went to the US Army War College a few weeks ago, and you’ll find his report here.

Fortunately for me, he also showed up at the annual CanGames gaming convention in Ottawa a few days later.

PAXsims

Back in March, Gamasutra featured a discussion of This War of Mine (which James Sterrett reviewed back in 2014 for PAXsims).

The boardgame version of This War of Mine, launched as a Kickstarter project, has just been shipped—and I’m eagerly awaiting mine. I’ll review it as soon as it arrives and I find time to give it a try.

PAXsims

Observant readers will notice this “finding time to play” is becoming a bit of a theme—largely because I have so many game projects on the go. These include the Matrix Game Construction Kit (or MaGCK), together with PAXsims collaborators Tom Fisher and Tom Mouat; the Montreal edition of the July 1 wide-area megagame, Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos (UNSOC); a variety of game-related presentations in a repeat appearance at the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) next month; codesigning a South China Sea game with Jim Wallman for Connections UK in September (unlike UNSOC, this one should be zombie-free); and another crisis game for a government client in the fall (again, with Tom Fisher).

So many games, so little time…

Calling all National Security Policy Gamers: Make your opinions heard!

 

If you have some time, I’d very much appreciate PAXsims readers who work as professional National Security Policy Gamers (aka wargamers supporting policy making clients) taking a few minutes to contribute to a survey I’m running as part of my dissertation research. More information is below:uncle-sam-we-want-you1-kopie_1 (1)

I’m Ellie Bartels, a PhD candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and researcher at the RAND Corporation. As part of my dissertation research, I am studying the practices of national security policy gamers like you. I am interested in understanding what types of games you run, what tools you use to design and analyze them, and how you assess your work and the work of your peers. To this end, I invite you to participate in a 15-30 min survey on your game design, execution, and analysis practices at the link below before 30 May 2017.

Click here to be taken to the survey’s Google Form <https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfV-I_JwosnxjLhr9GlDkJoL2uARWyGBpxphJ5zX34JSPUzZw/viewform?usp=sf_link>

(please note, some firewalls may block google documents. If you encounter problems, I recommend trying to access the form on a different network and computer).

Your answers will inform two different projects looking at policy gaming practices. Survey results will be reported in the section of my public dissertation monograph on current practices, will be available on request as a data annex, and may be used in associated articles and presentations. In addition to the primary purpose of this survey, the questions on participant engagement and immersion will be used to inform internally funded RAND research to produce an article on the potential for Alternative and Virtual Reality technologies in policy gaming. Both efforts will produce work that is publicly available, with the hope that it will prove helpful to researchers like you.

Participation, both in the survey as a whole and in answering specific questions, is completely voluntary. Your name, office, and other individual identifying information will not be collected as part of the survey, and no effort will be made by the researchers to link your individual identity to your responses. If you have questions about your rights as a research participant or need to report a research-related injury or concern, contact information for RAND’s Human Subjects Protection Committee is available on the first page of the survey.

 

Simulation & Gaming (June 2017)

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The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 48, 3 (June 2017) is now available. The piece by John Curry, Dana Ruggiero, Phil Sabin, Michael Young on modelling international crises using confrontation analysis is likely to be of particular interest to PAXsims readers.

Editorial


Articles


Tom Fisher joins PAXsims

TomFisherregular.JPGWe’re pleased to announce that Tom Fisher is joining PAXsims as an associate editor.

Tom is a freelance game designer based in Montréal. He developed the Crime Analysis Simulation Exercise System (CASES) for the World Bank’s Financial Market Integrity and Stolen Asset Recovery group, and collaborated with several international financial intelligence agencies in the development and delivery of a strategic intelligence analysis course integrating traditional classroom work with a multi-faceted simulation. He was also game developer and graphic artist for AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game and AFTERSHOCK EXPANSION #1: The Gender Dimensions of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. He has extensive experience in game facilitation with both small and large (100+) participant groups. Currently is part of the PAXsims team working on the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK) for the Defence science and technology laboratory (Dstl) of the UK Ministry of Defence.

Tom is also a previous contributor to PAXsims on a range of issues, including turning tactical analysts into strategic thinkers, conducting megagames, and the contribution of role-playing games to professional game design and facilitation skills.

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Dungeons & Dragons as professional development

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In response to one of the final exam questions this year, a student in my upper-level undergraduate course on multilateral peace operations at McGill University commented “I never knew D&D could be so useful until I took POLI 450.” That statement finally provided the impetus I needed to offer some thoughts on role-play games (RPGs) and serious conflict simulation.

In the context of POLI 450, the student concerned was referring to the massive Brynania peacebuilding simulation that we’ve been running for almost two decades. It is a grueling exercise indeed: 125+ players, 5-8 hours of game play per day for a full week, 10,000+ emails sent, and hundreds of hours of real and virtual meetings—all at a time when students are also trying to manage four other courses, plus occasional eating and sleeping. The simulation is designed to highlight a range of issues: political conflict and conflict resolution; insurgency; negotiations; humanitarian crisis and response; the challenges of coordination; stabilization; and longer-term development. Like a good game of D&D, participants face complex situations and even difficult moral choices while having to adjust plans on the fly with limited time, resources, and information. As has been evident from exam answers and course surveys over the years, students learn a lot from it, and it helps a great deal in putting course readings and theory into a practical, operational context.

However, I didn’t want to just comment on the value of RPG-type gaming as an immersive learning environment for students—as important as that is. Above and beyond this, I wanted to offer some thoughts of how role-play gaming can help to develop essential professional game design and facilitation skills. Indeed, in terms of professional wargame facilitation specifically, I would argue that running D&D games is probably a more useful preparation than playing either miniature or board wargames.

Before there’s a backlash from my fellow grognards, let me reiterate I’m talking here about game facilitation. I’m a hobby miniatures/board wargamer too, and I enjoy those a great deal. They’ve been invaluable in learning about military operations and history—indeed, far more useful than the 8+ years I spent studying in university. It is undeniable that hobby wargaming can contribute a great deal to one’s knowledge of how to model time, space, movement, and effects.

However, no one would argue that most hobby wargaming (with the notable exception of megagaming) really contributes a great deal to knowing how to run—as opposed to design—the multi-participant events that are usually characteristic of a serious professional wargame or political-military/crisis simulations.

There’s a certain irony in all this. As it is, professional wargamers already deal with a widespread bias against the gaming element of wargames. It is well-known, for example, that many military officers recoil at the thought of dice or cards determining the outcome of military actions in a wargame, even though they are perfectly happy to have outcomes determined through black-boxed stochastic processes embedded in computer algorithms. That Clausewitz once noted ” the absolute, the mathematical as it is called, nowhere finds any sure basis in the calculations in the art of war; and that from the outset there is a play of possibilities, probabilities, good and bad luck, which spreads about with all the coarse and fine threads of its web, and makes war of all branches of human activity the most like a game of cards” doesn’t change the fact that professional audiences often equate cards, dice, and other common game elements with a glorified version of Snakes-and-Ladders. Given that, suggesting that what they are doing is actually rather more like The Tomb of Horrors would certainly be a gaming system too far. Yet RPGs can develop invaluable skills in terms of scenario design, narrative engagement during game play, subtly keeping players on track for game purposes, and managing groups of people within such a context.

In terms of scenario design, this is very much at the core of role-play gaming—the game, after all, is almost entirely about the scenario and the players’ engagement in it. Good gamemasters are good precisely because they are able to keep players within the universe they have created, facing plausible choices with plausible consequences, and subtly encouraging everyone to internalize appropriate perspectives and motivations. In a well-run campaign the players aren’t simply trying to find treasure and slay beasts, but feel themselves part of it all. They begin to filter their worldview through their (fictional) professional specializations: fighters like to fight; magic-users like to stand back and rain destruction of foes while avoiding injury; clerics provide key support; rogues skulk and deceive; and much-maligned bards (like diplomats everywhere) use silver tongues to gain advantages that cannot be obtained by brute force. As Peter Perla and ED McGrady have argued, this sort of player engagement and immersion is also what makes (serious, professional, potentially life-and-death) wargaming work:

We believe that wargaming’s power and success (as well as its danger) derive from its ability to enable individual participants to transform themselves by making them more open to internalizing their experiences in a game—for good or ill. The particulars of individual wargames are important to their relative success, yet there is an undercurrent of something less tangible than facts or models that affects fundamentally the ability of a wargame to transform its participants.

A dungeonmaster also faces the constant challenge of allowing players to explore their universe, while at the same time keeping the game on-track in terms of general storyline and plot—all without letting players feel railroaded into doing (or not doing) particular things. They do so, moreover in a context of multiple participants with different perspectives and personalities. Take, for example, Phil Sabin‘s comments on a recent professional wargame in the UK (emphasis added):

This week at the UK Defence Academy we ran a two day research wargame with a couple of dozen players and facilitators to investigate nuclear risk dynamics.  I was on the Control team, and our main objective was to get the players first to use conventional force and then to escalate to nuclear strikes, despite their natural reluctance to initiate such dangerous and suicidal actions.  We succeeded, and play ended with wide-ranging conventional conflict, the nuclear devastation of central and eastern Europe, and a grave threat of further escalation, all from an initial spark in the Baltics in which both sides felt they were defending their existing rights and interests.

I remarked in the final plenary that wargame controllers in such games are rather like devils, seeking ways to foster player misperceptions and frustration and to present them with horrible dilemmas in a quest to make them trigger a literal ‘hell on earth’.  We succeeded in this aim, and it was sobering for everyone to realise how such a slide into disaster can occur through a horribly plausible sequence of interacting decisions, despite the initial resolve of each team individually to avoid such an outcome.  At least we can comfort ourselves that nobody really died, and that the whole point of such ‘virtual’ destruction in wargames is to help us to understand crisis dynamics and so make such escalation in the real world even more unlikely….

Replace “nuclear strikes” with “boss fight” or “confronting the dragon in his lair” and you pretty much have every D&D game ever. Phil may be more of a traditional grognard than a RPGer, but it is a gift indeed to be able to nudge participants in such a way that they don’t feel nudged, while giving them the freedom to make real choices.

Similarly, in the Brynania simulation, my task as CONTROL is to facilitate exploration of a plausible path of civil conflict and (hopefully) peacebuilding, while not allowing the game to get distracted or derailed. Doing so requires the subtle use of initial scenario and game injects, but in a way that players are—again—making real choices with real consequences. Certainly the outcomes over the years reveal a sort of bell-curve of results, with some more common than others, but none of them outliers in a way that would undercut the instructional purposes of the simulation.

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Brynania simulation outcomes and events.

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Primary peacebuilding mechanisms used in Brynania simulation.

I’m not the only RPGamer who feels this way. Tom Fisher is a fellow member of my local Montréal gaming group and DM extraordinaire, with an impressive record as a professional game designer and facilitator (he is codeveloper of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game and the forthcoming Matrix Game Construction Kit, and has worked with the World Bank and various international financial intelligence agencies on games addressing financial crimes/corruption and strategic analysis). He had this to say on the topic in a recent email exchange:

I can say, without hesitation, that roleplaying games—particularly D&D—have led to the best jobs I’ve ever had.

There is a natural flow between being a gamer and professionally developing games, that much is obvious. What is less obvious, however, are the lessons derived from playing those games that do not directly impact game development. Role playing games, particularly the gamesmastering (facilitation) thereof engages, develops and encourages a particular way of thinking.

Much has been said about the need for outside the box thinking or lateral thinking. What is less discussed is how to train the mind to think different as some marketing campaigns encourage. Roleplaying games, in their various forms, are a virtual goldmine for the development, testing and experimentation of thought, and ways of thinking.

Roleplay, at its best, teaches through gameplay to account for assumptions, test limits of rules, push the limits of established rules – in short, roleplay is a short course on iterative design: “ design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a product or process. Based on the results of testing the most recent iteration of a design, changes and refinements are made. This process is intended to ultimately improve the quality and functionality of a design. In iterative design, interaction with the designed system is used as a form of research for informing and evolving a project, as successive versions, or iterations of a design are implemented.”

Iterative design thinking is, in my view, the foundation of critical, outside-the-box, and lateral thinking. The process of iterative design faces-off actions based on assumptions against reactions based on real-world rules. Famously demonstrated by Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge, participants succeed by testing their assumptions against real-world effects (in that case, gravity and the relative strength of dry spaghetti).

The experiential and imaginary nature of roleplaying games requires reflection and forces a role-player to account for their assumptions when addressing a situation. In so many of my experiences delivering intelligence analysis or crime analysis courses, it is the recognition and testing of one’s assumptions that has been the lynchpin in achieving success in the training. Roleplaying games –and by extension immersive simulation exercises– are a crucible for developing the thought processes deemed so necessary and desired by modern institutions.

The experience of the gamesmaster, or facilitator, of roleplaying games adds a further level of complexity to the mix. Adult role-players, by their very nature, are an interesting bunch. Most tend to be well-read, quite intelligent, and universally challenging. As noted above, roleplay encourages the testing of limits, pushing of envelopes, and accounting for assumptions. So, a gamesmaster (GM) is confronted with a number of players –with their unique agendas– who inherently want to push the limits of the GM’s world-rules to achieve goals laid out by said GM designed to engage, thrill and enthrall each of the players. In short: herding cats. There is no more cost-effective short-course on diplomacy and small-team management than being a roleplaying game GM.

The complexity of gamesmastering (GMing) increases exponentially as GMs become involved in world-building. At the pinnacle of GMing is the world-building GM, who shapes world from thought to engage players in a truly immersive experience. Herein, the GM accounts for the cause-and-effect of player actions against the backdrop of an entire living world simulation. At this level, fluidity and iterative design are paramount to successful implementation and player-engagement, and will lead to a level of suspension of disbelief that will engage players not only logically in the gameplay, but emotionally, on a truly immersive level.

It is these skills of engagement, coupled with the role-player’s way of thinking, challenging and testing that have led to the best jobs I’ve ever had.

Much can be said about the nature of play and the strong links between creative play and language, physical, social/emotional, and cognitive development. Roleplaying games take this level of play to its limits, and push outward, not only encouraging growth, but in my opinion, forcing it, as new pathways of thought develop to deal with novel situations.

The elusive and mysterious “Tim Price,” prolific author of matrix game articles and scenarios, has certainly been known to frequently design and play RPGs. A certain former British military officer and gifted professional wargame consultant—let’s call him GLB—actually carries an image of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook (above) surreptitiously taped to his clipboard to inspire him while facilitating serious games.

As for me, I’ve been playing D&D since the very first boxed three-volume set in the mid 1970s. Like the POLI 450 student quoted above, it’s fair to say that at the outset I too “never knew D&D could be so useful.”

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Have your own experiences of using RPG skills in serious gaming? Post them in the comments section!

Kaliningrad Fires is war, but no game

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A few days ago The Strategy Bridge posted the first of what will be a continuing series of wargames:

The Next War series on The Strategy Bridge publishes decision games designed to help military professionals visualize and describe the changing character of war and warfare. The games all consist of the same format:

  • An overarching situation and objective
  • An assessment of the enemy in terms of their disposition and composition
  • A space to articulate how players would approach the situation in terms of a central idea, necessary capabilities, and spatial and temporal dimensions (e.g. deep, close, security or shaping, decisive, etc.)
  • A course of action (COA) graphic and narrative

The games are designed to be short thought experiments that fit easily into training schedules. Individuals should take no more than one hour to complete the game and then one hour to compare results with other players in a group setting. These games can be used by military professionals in tactical units, from battalion to brigade, as well as on larger staffs to practice operational art and define new theories of victory. The wargames are experiments in which professionals can test their ideas (i.e. COAs = hypotheses) and identify candidates for further concept and capability development. By exchanging findings with the larger military professional network, practitioners crowdsource military innovation.

The first in the series, entitled Kaliningrad Fires, outlines a scenario in which US and Lithuanian forces are preparing to meet an imminent Russian invasion:

In this decision game, you are the lead elements of a NATO force sent to stop a Russian force from securing key terrain in the opening stages of a conventional fight. The game is designed to assist players in thinking through how to use fires in the defense to disrupt an adversary. You should assume the lead echelon of the advancing Russian force is just that, the lead echelon and likely to be followed by a larger force.

Following a stand-off with Lithuania regarding shipping tariffs between Kaliningrad and Belarus, Russia began mobilizing forces along the border between Kaliningrad and Lithuania. Initial NATO intelligence estimates suggest that Russia will cross the international border and attempt to secure a land bridge between Kaliningrad and Belarus, south of the Neman River, in 96 hours (D+0). The majority of their forces will secure Lithuanian highways A7 and A16, with additional forces guarding north and south of the route.

1/325 IN, B/1/82 AV, and 2/319 FAR (82d) were conducting operation IRON SENTINEL in Poland with other NATO units when Russia began its mobilization, and was re-tasked to fly to Lithuania and assist the Lithuanian Iron Wolf Brigade in defending Lithuania against a Russian attack. The remainder of 2/82, as well as 1/319 FAR and 3/319 FAR, are scheduled to fly in to Kaunas International Airport (1) NLT D-2. 2 CAV (Germany) will begin arriving on D+1 at the rate of one squadron per day.

It’s a great initiative, and I wish them every success with it.

…however, it isn’t really a wargame at all.

Rather, Kaliningrad Fires is a tactical problem, in which one reads the scenario and then develops a possible solution, possibly discussing it with others and comparing ideas afterwards. That can be very useful, but it lacks any sort of dynamic interaction with an adaptive opponent. It certainly isn’t a course of action (COA) wargame: as Graham Longley-Brown has (repeatedly and vociferously) noted, for a COA wargame to be a wargame it must be adversarial, and ideally conducted under some form of time pressure that reflects the real-life constraints on decision-making.

The scenario devotes much attention to the role of a new artillery system deployed by the (future) US side:

2/319 FA is outfitted with the Army’s newest system, the Advanced Artillery System, firing the Artillery Delivered Swarm System (ADSS).

Each of the [artillery] battalion’s 6 platoons has 8 HMMWVs (4 with howitzers, 4 with ammunition). 7 of the 8 are autonomously piloted and operated, slaved to the actions of the platoon leader’s vehicle.

The puzzle is clearly intended to address how this system might be employed:

Considerations

  • How would you integrate a Manned-Unmanned Teaming artillery swarm with attack aviation and ground units assuming hasty defensive positions?
  • How would you tie into terrain to create a defensive line?

That’s fair enough: it is perfectly legitimate to ask how deployment of a new weapon system might affect battlefield dynamics, and to use both problem sets and actual wargames to explore its tactical employment.

However, to do that one really needs a lot more information.  The tactical description says almost nothing about the entire Lithuanian mechanized infantry brigade that is also part of BLUE: no TOE (table of organization or equipment) is provided, nor any notion of how the Lithuanians would like to defend their country, or the degree of interoperability between US and Lithuanian forces. There’s also no discussion of BLUE air assets, or whether the Russians will enjoy temporary local air superiority in the opening stages of their assault. To my mind, those are all rather important considerations. It’s a bit like asking how the British Expeditionary Force should fight the Germans in 1940 using their newfangled 18/25pdr field artillery with little reference to French capabilities, no discussion of air control, and no reference to French plans.

Review: Bloc by Bloc

Bloc by Bloc: The Insurrection Game. Out of Order Games, 2016.

BbB.pngBloc-by-Bloc is a 2-4 person game in which players cooperate to overthrow state power in a fictional urban setting. Assuming the role of workers, students, prisoners, or neighbours, each player takes turn moving their units (blocs), barricading the streets, looting businesses, confronting the police, building occupations (assembly halls, people’s kitchens, hacker spaces, propaganda workshops, and molotov factories—among many others).

When all of the players have taken their actions, the police respond by drawing cards from the Police Ops deck, moving accordingly, and repressing the revolutionaries. If enough blocs survive in a district they might liberate it, granting bonuses to the revolutionaries. If the players can build occupations in all of the state districts before the end of eight days and nights, they win.

The rules for Bloc-by-Bloc are relatively simple, and player options and most other game rules are summarized on a two-sided reference card. Despite this, game strategy can be complex, and depends heavily on cooperation and planning. Defeating the police—and especially the fearsome riot vans—may take several players, and even after the forces of state repression are driven back it is important to follow up by constructing occupations and building barricades to protect hard-won gains. It’s all very abstracted from actual processes of revolution, but there is certainly enough genuine urban insurrection represented to make this more than simply just a stylish Eurogame with a trendy theme layered on top. Like a typical Eurogame, however, game boards, cards, and other materials are robust and very nicely produced indeed. Game play is listed as 120-180 minutes, but we’ve found it can be played more quickly than this, especially if you have less than four players.

While the beginners’ game is fully cooperative, the full game adds the twist of hidden agendas. Players can collectively win by fulfilling their collective goals, or win individually by meeting their secret goals. My personal favourite is the nihilist faction, who in fact have no collective goals, but instead favour fighting the riot police and burning down shopping centers to the exclusion of pretty much anything else. The game comes with ten scenarios. However, with 30 tiles that can be freely arranged into any 5×5 grid, the game is almost infinitely replayable.

As is doubtless clear from the comments above, I very much enjoyed the game. It could be used in an educational setting to explore some aspects of urban protest and uprising, although one would need to debrief games extensively to highlight where game play and real life diverge, and what aspects of revolution the game does not model. The game would also serve well to teach about cooperative and semi-cooperative game design, as well as the extent to which simple, elegant rules can generate interesting player choices and complex game dynamics.

At present, Bloc-by-Bloc is sold out. However, in keeping with the revolutionary anti-capitalist leanings of its designers, a print-and-play version is available for free from the Out or Order Games website.

UNSOC Northland

UNSOC Northland2
No, it’s not the latest UN peacekeeping force. Rather, UNSOC is Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos, the latest megagame from the fevered mind of mad genius Jim Wallman.

UNSOC is nor ordinary megagame, you see—instead, it is the world’s first wide-area megagame, with interlinked games being played simultaneously in eleven cities in five different countries. In Montreal, we’ll be playing the peaceable country of Northland, faced with a sudden and terrifying menace spreading from South-of-the Border:

Northland is a generally nice (if sometimes smug and self-righteous) place, known for its cold winters, hockey, doughnut shops, poutine, and polite do-gooders prone to apologize for the slightest transgression. As the country celebrates its birthday on July 1, however, this peaceable place may face its greatest threat ever.

South of the Border, something is happening. There are reports of violence, chaos, and panic well beyond the violence and chaos of daily life there. Military units are being mobilized, and this time not to invade some foreign country. Some even claim that undead hordes have taken to the streets in search of human brains—or, at the very least, free national health care. How much longer will it be before the urban nightmare moves north?

The game happens to fall on Canada Day, so that’s appropriate. Our game will be rather smaller than our last two games (New World Order 2035 and War in Binni). However it should be just as enjoyable for those many Canadian gamers who enjoy the complex interplay between federal-provincial relations and an impending apocalypse.

In the Montreal area on Canada Day, and interested in participating? Email me for more details, or buy a ticket at Eventbrite. We’ll be getting an early start, of course, to synchronize with the various European games.

DPRK matrix game

North Korea Map

The mysterious “Tim Price” is at it again, quickly putting together a matrix game that explores the growing tensions in the Korean peninsula. At this link you will find rules, a map, and markers/assets/counters. The game involves six players:

  • USA
  • North Korea
  • Japan
  • China
  • South Korea
  • Russia

DPRKThe game components even include Twitter indicators, allowing you to deploy the formidable 140 character rhetorical broadsides of the US president.

While the rules describe how a matrix game operates, if you have never seen one in action the concept of a freeform narrative game in which the participants make up the rules as they go along through discussion and assignment of weighted probabilities might seem a bit strange. As in most matrix games, players are free to take any plausible action they wish simply by describing: (1) the action they wish to take; (2) the effect this would have if successful; and (3) arguments why the action might succeed. Other players then add other arguments for and against success. Each solid argument is used as die roll modifier, dice are rolled, the action and its effects are adjudicated—and it is then the next player’s turn.

Still confused? Fortunately you will find lots of material here at PAXsims describing various matrix games in action.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, International Tabletop Day 2017 edition

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Geek & Sundry has declared April 29 to be International Tabletop Day, and we at PAXsims are happy to celebrate the occasion with some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (or not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers.

PAXsims

How might Brexit negotiations go? Back in January 2016, Open Europe “wargamed” possible British-EU negotiations. According to the The Economist:

…the second part of the war games, a mock-up of how the EU would respond to a vote for Brexit, was worse. Lord Lamont, a former Tory chancellor of the exchequer representing Britain, argued that an “amicable divorce” was in everybody’s interests. Britain could negotiate a trade deal similar to Canada’s, liberating it from EU rules, including free movement of people. He even volunteered to pay something into the EU budget.

Yet other countries were unimpressed. John Bruton, a former prime minister representing Ireland, said Brexit would be seen as an “unfriendly act” and would threaten the peace process in Northern Ireland (Enda Kenny, Ireland’s real prime minister, made a similar point after meeting Mr Cameron on the same day). Steffen Kampeter, a former deputy finance minister representing Germany, said Britain would not be allowed to cherry-pick the benefits of membership without the costs. Mr de Gucht noted that a new trade deal would be negotiated by the European Commission and national governments with minimal British input. He and others added that they would try to shift Europe’s financial centre from London.

The starkest warning came from Leszek Balcerowicz, a former deputy prime minister representing Poland. He said the priority would be to deter populists in other countries who wanted to copy Brexit. For this reason Britain would be punished by its partners even if that seemed to be against their interests. Mr Cameron’s negotiations may be hard, but they are a picnic compared with what he would face were he to lose his referendum.

Earlier this year, students at the Blavatnik School of Government (University of Oxford) also conducted a Brexit simulation:

In our simulation, British negotiators successfully deployed “divide and conquer” tactics, particularly when individual member states became sympathetic to the UK’s domestic constraints and frustrated with the slow pace of talks. Michel Barnier and the European Commission were at their most effective when they framed issues through the indivisibility of the “four freedoms”. However, when it became apparent member states were willing to forgo freedom of movement, EU leverage was sharply diminished.

The participants in our simulation recognised the close economic relationship between the EU and the UK. On finance and the City, discussions centred on how to make “equivalence” work post-Brexit, with some creative proposals to sidestep the ECJ. However, in trade the UK quickly announced its decision to step out of both the Single Market and the Customs Union, leaving detailed negotiations for a future FTA until after Brexit.

Despite this mutual reliance, the Brexit talks might still shift to a game in which the two players seek to inflict pain on one another. In part this is because preserving the EU is seen to require a demonstration that leaving the club comes at a significant economic price, even though this would leave both worse off than under the status quo.

You can find additional discussion of classroom simulation of Brexit negotiations at the Active Learning in Political Science blog.

PAXsims

NASAGA (the North American Simulation and Gaming Association) has podcasts! The latest edition by Sonya and Nicholas Wolfram explores “designed and emergent narrative” in game design.

PAXsims

Following the US decision to respond to Syrian chemical weapon use at Khan Shaykhun with a punitive strike on April 7 against a Syrian air base, the always-interesting Red Team Journal used the event to highlight the importance of “Asking the Right Questions (Before and After).” In doing so, they noted the potential contribution of red teaming methodologies.

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You’ll find their full discussion here.

PAXsims

At Small Wars Journal, Spencer B. Meredith III recently discussed “Reclaiming Strategic Initiative in the Not-So-Gray Zone: Winning Big Conflicts Inside Small Ones.” In the article he has some very positive things to say about the value of wargames and other simulations:

The first example occurred during a recent US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Senior Leader Seminar looking at competition short of armed conflict. Framed as a wargame, this seminar simulated several scenarios where traditional power politics and violent extremism collided. Participants were asked to dig deeply into the underlying causes of threats, and how perceptions shape everything from core interests to immediate grievances. Yet the event did much more than explain why stability is so elusive, and peace even more so. It also raised several key areas where the United States and its partner nations can mutually support each other.

One centrally important area is in building responsive governance. The notion rests on several claims, foremost that nations and the governments that govern them need not homogenize their interests, to say nothing of values, in order to cooperate. This pragmatism stands in contrast to nearly three decades of idealistic foreign policy that claimed the universality of certain collective goods, but which really defined them along a US-centric vision of what they needed to look like, even when the substance was foreign to the nations being “helped”. This idealistic vision took many forms, from economic liberalization that forced developing markets open through IMF austerity measures; to military imposition of democracy in places that had neither centralized governance capacity, nor the social consensus to build it; to more recent social reengineering to fit a narrow vision of Western pluralism. All have run headlong into local values, competing national interests, and ultimately, contending visions of what the global order should look like and what leadership among peer and near-peer rivals can realistically be.

Responsive governance also requires that states establish and defend parameters for public debate. Yet like pragmatism, this does not have to mean democracy in any particular form. NATO partner nations have a range of electoral systems that speak to a variety of cultural, historical, and normative differences about who should govern, how, and under what constraints. By relying on the core concept of responsivity, rather than the vastly over-used “democracy”, the analytical frameworks expressed in the USSOCOM event have traction within solid scholarly research, and equally important, with buy-in from partner nations on whom the United States will continue to rely and give support.

There is particular praise for a series of simulations designed and run by the ICONS Project:

Administered for the Joint Staff SMA program, the University of Maryland runs a series of simulations designed to provide short, sharp scenarios that evolve over multiple iterations. Harnessing real-world events and massaging them into realistic near-term future situations, the ICONS project (International Communication & Negotiation Simulations) brings together subject matter experts to play various roles in real-time, web-based engagements. Several lessons emerge from the simulations. The most important are the complexity of the problems each party faces, and the battle for strategic initiative as more ebb and flow than a sole power defending against all comers. These perspectives provide vital reminders for both academia and practitioners with our respective checklists for analyzing the “facts on the ground”. In addition, the potency for non-state spoilers remains incredibly high, higher than a cursory glance of the configuration of forces would otherwise reveal. Much like small parties in coalition political systems that can swing the balance of power either way, non-state proxies can serve as force multipliers for larger states, as much as independent agents seeking their own highest good at the expense of others. The ICONS simulations highlight these challenges, while providing avenues for practical courses of action for the United States and its partners of concern.

I don’t doubt the value of ICONS simulations—they’re excellent. However I’ll admit to a certain degree of cynicism about the conceptual utility of “grey zones”—that messy area, short of full-scale armed conflict, where politics, diplomacy, social and economic economic forces, covert action, and violence interact. Specifically:

  1. It has always been thus. Pretty much the entire history of European colonial expansion involved all that stuff, for example. Supposed civil society actors (the Royal Geographical Society) working in hand with national governments! Foreign “volunteer” troops in local wars! Bribery! Subsidies for friendly potentates and warlords! Piracy! Local alliances! Powerful social and economic forces! Trade agreements as an instrument of national power! It’s all so new.
  2. The notion of grey zones risks becoming the self-licking ice cream cone of national security discourse, where people eagerly frame things as “grey zone” aggression when they actually have far more prosaic explanations. This was certainly one of the accidental findings of last year’s Atlantic Council simulation on conflict in the Gulf.
  3. The rest of us call this “political science.”
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Russian “little green men” caught in the act of gray/grey zone conflict Crimea? No, this is the British East India Company in Madras. Their British officers and advisors declined to be painted, citing operational security.

PAXsims

 

Jensen: Wargaming the changing character of competition and conflict

SB4.png And there’s still more on wargaming at the Strategy Bridge! Today it is Benjamin Jensen (Marine Corps University) on “#Wargaming the Changing Character of Competition and Conflict” —and it’s not so much an article as it is an invitation to readers to participate in a series of collaborative online wargames over the coming year:

Over the next year, as a part of an ongoing series on #wargaming, we will return to Moltke’s vision of a series of map exercises that illuminate the changing character of war and, in the process, help the military professional develop new theories of victory.  Every month #wargaming will feature a vision of the next war by publishing a campaign-level decision game.  These short, seminar-style games are designed to help national security professionals think about multinational  campaigns and major operations possible, but not necessarily probable, in the near future.  These modern map exercises can be played individually similar to a tactical decision game, or used by a group to discuss military strategy and practice.

The games in this series will be take the form of short, seminar games that can be conducted by collaborative networks of individuals sharing their ideas or in small groups.  The games will establish a scenario and available forces.  Based on this initial data, readers can discuss military options, possible adversary countermoves, and the resulting cascading effects.  These discussions provide a vehicle for the national security professional to visualize and describe the changing character of war.

Jones: Communicating uncertainty in #wargaming outcomes

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Another day, another wargaming article at The Strategy Bridge! This time it is Mark Jones Jr. on  “Communicating Uncertainty in #Wargaming Outcomes.”

If a game were played one hundred times, would the outcome be the same every time? On the one hand, we do not expect the tactical results of this game to appear identical, but would the strategic outcomes appear consistent across countless repeats of game play? Is there any chance that strategic outcomes would vary? If so, how much? It’s certainly expected that small variations of the strategic outcomes may appear in repeated wargaming, but is it plausible to believe that some percentage of outcomes would suggest a completely opposite strategy or strategic outcome? These questions are what we mean when we ask, “How much confidence do we have in the outcome?” Unfortunately, we are ill-prepared to answer this question but not for dearth of tools and technology to make such assessments. Instead, there is a chance that most of us would not accurately comprehend such a confidence statement. This occurs largely because of a lack of shared understanding of a shared language of confidence and uncertainty. To help us build a vocabulary for answering these questions, I would like to propose three foundational rules. First, we should express wargame outcomes both qualitatively and quantitatively. Second, we should attempt to describe the range of possible outcomes. Finally, we ought to assess the frequency of potential outcomes.

Oh, and if the game in the graphic header looks familiar—it’s from Alex Langer’s prototype wargame on the Syrian civil war (one of the best insurgency wargame designs I’ve ever played).

Rothweiler : Wargaming for strategic planning

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It’s Wednesday, and the Strategy Bridge features yet another article in their week of wargaming analysis and discussion. This time it is Krisjand Rothweiler (US Army War College), who addresses “#Wargaming for Strategic Planning.”

Wargaming in most Department of Defense contexts consists of the action-reaction-counteraction of the Joint Operations Planning Process and is usually the first thing that comes to mind when this tool is mentioned. A close second to “planning” wargames are exercises conducted at the tactical and operational level, often also called by the same name. However, both these fail to consider strategic decision making exercises. Strategic decision making exercises can be described broadly (though not exclusively) as wargames, either seminar or matrix, which leverage gaming tools such as dice, cards, or boards and tokens to facilitate the process. These games are applicable to strategic planning, but are generally limited to academic (including military) institutions or small cells in strategic organizations due to the specialization required to construct and run such games. What this essay aims to do is introduce to planners and analysts the broader concept of wargaming while highlighting the utility of these alternate methods in planning and supporting military leaders.

He goes on to discuss seminar games, matrix games, and other approaches—and even cites PAXsims in the process. He concludes by noting:

Wargaming is not just a planning process step for military staffs but includes a variety of methodologies that are useful in informing strategic decision making and aiding in the development of strategies and contingency plans prior to or during detailed planning. By bringing wargaming into the planning process early and often, a staff can enable the inclusion of a wide variety of information and escape the often-hyper-focused mentality that comes at the initiation of a headquarters planning process. Finally, for those potential wargame sponsors, there are numerous military, academic, and private capabilities to enable the design, execution and analysis of wargames to address their objectives.

Brynen: #Wargaming unpredictable adversaries (and unreliable allies)

SB2.pngAs part of a week of articles on wargaming, the Strategy Bridge today features a piece by me on “#Wargaming Unpredictable Adversaries (and Unreliable Allies).”

One challenge in wargaming, and especially political-military (POL-MIL) games, is how to best model the behavior of unpredictable, even apparently irrational, foes. Is the mercurial behavior of North Korea’s “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, or Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army truly irrational, or is it a simply the product of a very different set of interests and objectives sustained by a very different world-view? To what extent do seemingly erratic aspects of their strategic behavior derive instead from factors we don’t understand well, such as internal politics or decision-making process? It has been well established since the POL-MIL wargaming of the 1950s and 1960s that actions that one actor believes to be rational signals of intent or deterrence are often entirely misunderstood by their intended recipient, in large part because they are deeply shaped by internal decision making processes that opponents fail to appreciate or understand.[i] How do we incorporate this into wargames when, almost by definition, we do not fully understand what is going on?

This ongoing methodological challenge has acquired greater significance in the context of recent political changes in the United States. Leaving issues of political partisanship aside, it is clear that many US allies find the new Administration of President Donald Trump to be unpredictable—to the point of posing a potential threat to their countries’ core national interests.[ii] Harsh campaign rhetoric, a seemingly chaotic foreign policy making process, mixed signals, and the propensity of the President to express his thoughts in provocative tweets have left many allied policymakers scrambling to develop contingency plans in case long-established US positions or commitments are no longer credible.[iii] Indeed, even those members of the US State Department charged with reassuring nervous US partners express frustration that they are often unclear as to what American policy is on any given day.[iv] The result has been an increasing interest in some allied countries in gaming the US as a potentially unreliable military-diplomatic ally, or even—on some non-military issues, like trade or climate change—as a political adversary….

Comments are welcomed.

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