PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: AFTERSHOCK

AFTERSHOCK at Pennsylvania State University

The following report on a recent game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game at Pennsylvania State University is provided by Nick LaLone.


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For the past two semesters, I have had the opportunity to run AFTERSHOCK for a crisis informatics course here at Pennsylvania State University’s Information Sciences and Technology program. The IST program is not international relations, political science, or social science focused in any way. Instead, this class focuses on the use of information and communication technologies and how those ICTs support crisis management. To that end, the use of AFTERSHOCK was meant to offer these students a glimpse at the various bottlenecks and pitfalls that crisis responders must deal with as a response evolves.

Through that lens, we gathered these 20 students in a conference room and sat them down to play – five students to a team. I began by explaining the goal of the game, the major players, their motivations, and ended with the sequence of a turn. Given that explanation, play began. In total, the room learned how to play the game in less than 30 minutes.

The following caveats should be noted:

  1. The players were told that if they were not participating in the cluster that they could not communicate with the other teams. This was done by placing them inside another room if they were not there. Sadly, no players actually did this.
  2. I stacked the deck for the first turn. The cards I chose were:
    • Landslides – a card that allowed me to talk about the Frontier.
    • Things Change – a card that allowed me to talk about Needs Assessments.
    • Infrastructure Breakdown, which allowed me to talk about the difference between supplies and infrastructure.
  3. The first turn ended with “Trying Times.” This card resolves the highest risk card on the board. I suggested throughout the first 3 turns that players try to meet needs according to the number of people listed on the card and the number of relief points that card represented. My hope was that this would generate some competition and the students would prioritize rescuing according to “big numbers.”

Over the course of 2 hours, we played through 4 turns or through 2 weeks of response efforts. While it was not a complete game, it was enough to see the game take shape and the players start to recognize their roles.

At the beginning of the game, the 4 representative teams – the host country, the humanitarian coalition (HADR-TF), the United Nations, and the Non-Government Organizations – were pretty much all at the same place in terms of the knowledge of the game and the knowledge of what they needed to do. This quickly changed as the first turn ended. By the second turn, the media played a significant role within the game. In AFTERSHOCK the media begin with their cameras pointed at the administrative district or District 1. However, the Infrastructure Breakdown card allowed the players to move the media. The United Nations decided to move the media to a place that benefited them and only them – to district 4 or the middle class areas. The media would remain here for the rest of the game. On their first turn, the United Nations players asked,

“So you get points if the media is watching but what happens if they aren’t there and you save all those people?”

To which we replied,

“You know that you did a fantastic job saving all those people! The response effort as a whole becomes more stable.”

To that answer, the UN and NGO player began to concentrate on “Media Outreach.” The UN did this by distributing teams and resources wherever the media was in addition to maintaining a presence within the Media Outreach portion of the cluster. The NGO player, who was stuck without any ability to import resources due to few infrastructure being placed at the airport or dock until turn 3, sat inside the “Media Outreach” box giving themselves points for the duration of the game. It was not until week 2 – 3 turns into the game – that the NGOs began to send resources out into the field. Instead, they concentrated on placing individuals inside the “Rescue” boxes on the districts. This way, the NGOs would be represented should the media move. This tactic worked well for them as at the end of the game, the NGO was well ahead of everyone else in terms of Operations Points.

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At the end of the game, we asked the room what they thought of the game. Overall, they liked what they played. They felt that the tensions were realistic even if the act of what they were doing was not. They felt a little distressed that they began to think about what they were doing in terms of points. The selfishness of what they were doing left them quite shocked. From my perspective as a facilitator, they were noticing that their role as leaders of a particular organization was clouding their ideas about what it was that they were doing. Along those lines, I didn’t start using the expansion cards until Week 2. I have a feeling if I had started using them at the beginning of the game, things would have been very different as the expansion cards concentrate on empathy and vulnerability instead of simply numbers.

Along with that selfishness, they also notice that they didn’t speak to other teams. Each turn, the active player would walk up to the game board to discuss their move. When each team was at the table discussing their possibilities, the other teams whispered among themselves what they’d like to do. Often, they ignored most of what the active player said.

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As facilitator, I tried to get them to work more together but it only really occurred once when the Carana player drew the Coordination Card that allowed them to resolve an event at the end of their turn. The Carana group fared the worst out of all of the players as they were the target of Locally Engaged Staff as well as inundated with mostly Shelter for the duration of the game. At one point, they stood at the front of the table looking at the UN and the NGOs in the Media Outreach box and said something to the effect of,

“You know, we should put someone there to force them to actually play the game.”

The role of the media in this game influenced what the players did far more than any game I have played, solo, team-based, or with my wife. That it came to matter for a room full of students in a technology-based course was not surprising.

PaxSims concentrates on wargame and simulation use within those disciplines that concern themselves with conflict, peacebuilding, and development. However, there is incredible opportunity outside those realms with AFTERSHOCK Rex’s game a unique opportunity for teaching and learning. The tensions, the randomized interaction between the groups, and multi-dimensional thought processes the game requires will loosen up that undergraduate fear of speaking aloud. AFTERSHOCK will help your students see unique perspectives that cannot be taught or learned in a book.

Nick LaLone 

Gaming foreign policy (at the FSI)

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On Monday I spent the day at the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Alexandria, VA, where the Foreign Service Institute trains State Department personnel and others.

The Institute’s programs include training for the professional development of Foreign Service administrative, consular, economic/commercial, political, and public diplomacy officers; for specialists in the fields of information management, office management, security, and medical practitioners and nurses; for Foreign Service Nationals who work at U.S. posts around the world; and for Civil Service employees of the State Department and other agencies. Ranging in length from one day to two years, courses are designed to promote successful performance in each professional assignment, to ease the adjustment to other countries and cultures, and to enhance the leadership and management capabilities of the U.S. foreign affairs community.

This is the second time in two months that I’ve had the opportunity to speak to foreign ministry personnel about the potential use of games-based methods for both training and analysis—in September, I also made a presentation at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This time I offered an overview of the why, what, and how of foreign policy simulation and gaming, and then took some of the participants through games of both AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game and the ISIS Crisis matrix game. You’ll find the slides I used in my presentation here..

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In the game of AFTERSHOCK, the score initially plunged deep into the negatives. However,  effective priority-setting and coordination during mid-game play ultimately resulted in a  very solid victory (especially for the apparently very popular government of Carana).

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The Government of Carana rushes large numbers of security personnel to District 2 to deal with mounting social unrest.

Our game of ISIS Crisis reflected the current situation, with Iraqi and Kurdish forces undertaking operations against ISIS in Mosul. These made gradual progress, but were slowed by ISIS use of chemical IEDs, a scandal over Iranian arms shipments to Iraq, and an Iraqi cabinet crisis that resulted in the return of Nouri al-Maliki to the position of Prime Minister of Iraq—much to the dismay of Iraqi Sunnis, Washington, and Tehran alike. Despite pledges that Shiite militias would not play a role in the Mosul campaign, they did so anyway—aggravating sectarian tensions. ISIS sought to organize simultaneous mass casualty attacks in the US, but the FBI managed to insert an informant among the plotters and arrested everyone involved before the attacks could be carried out. The game ended with ISIS still in Mosul, and military operations still underway. Afterwards much of the discussion focused on how best to debrief matrix games so as to best attain the desired learning outcomes.

Many thanks are due to Walker Hardy and the FSI for organizing and hosting my visit.

Gaming talks at Duke University

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Today I have been a guest of colleagues at Duke University, giving a couple of talks on serious games.

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Discussing the design of AFTERSHOCK.

The first was a session with students from an interdisciplinary seminar on “Games and Culture: Politics, Pleasure and Pedagogy,” where I discussed Designing AFTERSHOCK. In this I drew upon an earlier presentation to Dstl on designing a humanitarian assistance/disaster relief game, as well as my keynote address to Connections UK 2016 on the social science of gaming and a talk at the RAND gaming Center on semi-cooperative games.

In the evening I spoke on Gaming in Support of the (late) Middle East Peace Process. You’ll find the slides for that talk here.

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I would like to express my gratitude to Shai Ginsburg and Leo Ching for inviting me to Duke and their generous hospitality, and to the students and other participants for very productive and stimulating discussions.

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Demonstrating ISIS CRISIS.

US AWC: Wargaming in the classroom— panel discussion and demo games

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In an effort to explore the benefits of bringing wargaming into the classroom, the US Army War College’s Strategic Simulations Department is conducting a discussion panel and game play event on 27 August, 2016, at the US Army Heritage and Education Center, in Carlisle, PA.  The panel will open with discussion from academia and military institutions. Game play will follow the panel and drive home the theories covered by the panelists.  The event is open to anyone, educator, gamer, and hobbyist.  The event will run from 10:00 A.M until 4:00 P.M.

Speakers (10:30-11:00) will include: Peter Perla (CNA), Rex Brynen (McGill University/PAXsims), James Lacey (Marine Corps War College) and James Sterrett (US Army Command & General Staff College).

Demonstration games (11:00-16:00) will include: FriedrichHanabi1944 Race to the Rhine, AFTERSHOCK, ISIS Crisis, Triumph and Tragedy, Axis & Allies (modified/blind play), Guerilla Checkers, Kaliningrad 2017, and Artemis.

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Further information on visiting the USAHEC can be found here.

AFTERSHOCK gender expansion now available

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It’s finally here! With the generous support of the National Defense University Foundation, we are pleased to announce the release of AFTERSHOCK game expansion #1 on the gender dimensions of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

We’ve previously discussed the development and playtesting of the expansion set here at PAXsims. For those of you don’t know about AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game, you’ll find additional details here. A free copy of the expansion set rules is available from The Game Crafter website, as are the rules for the main game.

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The game expansion is priced at USD$14.99. To make it more accessible we are also permanently reducing the price of AFTERSHOCK to USD$84.99. Now there’s absolutely no excuse not to buy both—and thereby incorporate gender analysis into your efforts to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to the desperate, earthquake-afflicted people of Carana!

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All net proceeds from the sale of AFTERSHOCK and its expansions are donated to United Nations humanitarian agencies. Order a copy now!

 

Dstl wargaming trip report (or, I visited Portsdown West and all I got was this lousy mug)

Last month I visited the UK for a week of discussions on professional wargaming. My trip report has now been cleared for publication (public release identifier DSTL/PUB097079), and I’m pleased to present it below. It was a terrific visit as you’ll see!


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 Dstl Day 1: Wargaming and its challenges

In late June I spent a week as a guest of Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), at their Portsdown West campus near Portsmouth. Dstl is an executive agency, sponsored by the Ministry of Defence. Dstl ensures that “innovative science and technology contribute to the defence and security of the UK.”

Dstl responsibilities include:

  • supplying sensitive and specialist science and technology services for MOD and wider government
  • providing and facilitating expert advice, analysis and assurance on defence procurement
  • leading on the MOD’s science and technology programme
  • understanding risks and opportunities through horizon-scanning
  • acting as a trusted interface between MOD, wider government, the private sector and academia to provide science and technology support to military operations by the UK and her allies
  • championing and developing science and technology skills across MOD

I was hosted by Dstl’s Wargaming Team, the team having recently been described in a memo to the UK MOD Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff as: “an MOD S&T asset responsible for enabling MOD’s wider wargaming activity”.

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Since WWII, Dstl and its predecessors have had a good track record of delivering wargames, mainly in support of decision support and operations. One of the current challenges for the team is determining how best to reinvigorate, and grow, a wargaming capability (a combination of people, processes, and tools) that can respond to the high levels of customer interest and demand. One of the ways that the team is tackling this problem is by capitalising on external expertise, in particular academic staff who specialise in, and have a passion for, topics such as political science coupled with game design.

They certainly kept me busy, with four and a half full days of lectures, workshops, and discussions on various aspects of wargaming.

I started on Monday with a presentation on The Social Science of Gaming in which I presented ten sets of findings from social science research that I thought had important implications for wargame design and implementation. Since this was a first draft of my September keynote address at the Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference, I won’t spoil the surprise by posting the lecture slides here—instead, you’ll have to come to King’s College London in a month’s time.

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Next, I was asked to give a brief on A Personal Journey Through (Sometimes) Serious Gaming, in which I discussed may own background first as a wargaming hobbyist and later as a social scientists using serious games to support teaching and analysis. [slides here]. Among the highlights was a satellite photo of the exact location in a British schoolyard where, in the autumn of 1975, I met my first two fellow teen wargamers, David Knowles and Matthew Hayward. The legendary (to us) Lymington and District Wargames Club would be born soon thereafter.

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In the afternoon attention turned to a presentation entitled Blessed are the Cheesemakers: The Challenges of Gaming Information Operations [slides here]. The title of the talk was a reference to a memorable scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and I was happy to be speaking in a place where most of the audience recognized it. I offered some thoughts on gaming IOs: either as an adjunct to another, generally, kinetic process, or as a primary focus (focusing either on their employment, as part a process, or in an effort to develop content).

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Information and influence, I noted, were part of highly contextual social and political processes that were often poorly understood, so I was a bit dubious about placing a great deal of weight on the specific outputs of IO-focused games.

Instead, I suggested, such games should largely be valued for their heuristic value in generating greater critical awareness of the role, potential, limitations, and difficulties of information and influence operations. Members of the audience also offered a great deal of useful insight into the issue, based on their own experience. As with almost all my sessions at Dstl I may have taken away far more from the conversation than I ever contributed.

The final session was devoted to Managing Player and Client Engagement: Skeptics, Seekers, and Enthusiasts [slides here].

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I had more to say on the player end than with regard to clients, since in many cases I’m my own client or have been given very free reign to design a game as I see fit. Much of the discussion ended up focusing on problems—such as unwillingness of players, especially senior players, to risk losing—and how they might be dealt with. Not for the first time I argued that managing players and game facilitation was a skill more closely related to roleplaying games than conventional hobby wargaming—a point that I really need to develop into a full PAXsims post sometime. I learned a lot from the experiences and approaches that were shared by members of Dstl, and there were certainly several ideas that I’ll add to my game design and facilitation toolkit.

 

Dstl Day 2: Daesh and matrix gaming

The second day of my visit involved a game of the ISIS Crisis matrix game, followed by an extended discussion of the potential use of matrix game methods for educational and analytical gaming. Major Tom Mouat—who developed most of the materials for the game—was there too.

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The game itself was insightful. The Iraqi government tried to launch a systematic campaign to advance north towards Mosul, but found itself stymied by poor coordination with supposed allies, ISIS terrorism, Iranian heavy-handedness, and internal tensions. The Kurds did well and finally manage to secure some extra heavy weapons from the US, but advanced little beyond their start positions. One US air strike in support of the Iraqi government went very wrong, exacerbating Sunni anger and causing a brief hiatus in the tempo of American operations. Iran, concerned that the Iraqi cabinet was insufficiently compliant, sponsored a proliferation of Shiite militias under its direct control. Although ISIS lost some of the territory under its control, it was able to use US and Iranian actions to spur additional recruitment. Finally, the Sunni opposition eventually rose up against ISIS and supported the central government’s military campaign, but at the cost of increasing tension with the Shiite militias. This finally erupted into open sectarian fighting when Iranian-backed militias undertook security operations in the capital against suspected Sunni insurgents.

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After lunch, the post-game session was perhaps the richest and most valuable discussion of matrix gaming methods and applications that I’ve ever participated in. Among the topics we collectively addressed were:

  • Variations in format, including larger games with team dynamics (as I used last month at MIGS), games where a team leader selects from multiple potential courses of action proposed by team members (thus increasing the number of possible COAs (Course Of Actions) generated), distributed games, interlinked games, and matrix games used as an element of other, more traditional wargames.
  • Facilitator skills and requirements for subject matter expertise.
  • Suitability for various audiences.
  • Variations in adjudication methods.
  • Representation of kinetic and non-kinetic activity in matrix games.
  • Suitability for various topics recently wargamed by Dstl.
  • The value of developing a generic “matrix game construction kit” with basic components.

 

Dstl Day 3: AFTERSHOCK , humanitarian assistance, aid, and stabilization

The third day of activities at Dstl revolved around gaming issues of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). We started with a game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis. The players secured a modest success in dealing with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in fictional Carana. The NGO team did particularly well in racking up “organization points” (reflecting public profile and political capital), although their single-minded focus on shelter projects caused some friction with other teams. The HADR Task Force had successfully withdrawn almost all their personnel by the time the game ended, and the government—although politically vulnerable to the end—utilized its informal aid distribution networks to good effect, while managing to contain or defuse any social discontent. Needs assessments proved particularly important in identifying emerging needs and challenges.

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Later that same day I made a presentation on the considerations that had informed the design of AFTERSHOCK, as well as the various ways in which in might be used [slides here].

My other presentation this day was on Aid, Stabilization, and COIN (COunter INsurgency) [slides here]. In it I warned that many of the key assumptions of COIN doctrine—namely that victory is about legitimacy; poverty and unemployment generates support for armed opposition; legitimacy is about the delivery of core government services; patronage and corruption is bad; and that we know what we’re doing—were contingent relationships. Because of this, COIN doctrine, while a useful guide to what might work most of the time in most places, does not always provide useful guidance all of the time in all places. This suggests a vital need to promote critical thinking and a willingness to modify views and approaches. I particularly stressed the importance of avoiding hubris, and the powerful (often overriding) effects that politics among local actors has on outcomes.

 

Dstl Day 4: Hybrid Warfare and Measures Short of War

Thursday was hybrid warfare day at Dstl. I offered some thoughts [slides] on the notion of hybrid warfare, arguing that most warfare was hybrid and that conflict activities across a broad spectrum were hardly new. (Later I suggested that the term had come to mean “challenges from opponents that we did not anticipate, plus things we once did that we’ve forgotten how to do.” We also identified some of the things that are commonly identified as part of hybrid warfare.

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After this, we spent the rest of the day playing a few turns of three different games. Each of these explored the topic from different perspectives using a different gaming system: LTC David Barsness’ Kaliningrad 2017 (a matrix game), Brian Train’s Ukrainian Crisis (a more traditional rules/assets/area-movement wargame), and Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth (a card-driven game).

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Kaliningrad 2017

In the matrix game, players were limited only by real-world capabilities in taking potential actions across the diplomatic/information/military/economic (DIME) spectrum. This approach certainly encouraged greater innovation by players, although at the cost of a single action per turn. Kaliningrad 2017 uses a number of marker tracks to measure the game effects of global opinion, nuclear escalation, and a refugee crisis, and this sparked discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach compared to the simpler design of ISIS Crisis. Generally I’m of the view that “less is more” in matrix games, and that marker tracks can risk excessively focusing player activities in a certain area.

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Ukrainian Crisis

Ukrainian Crisis builds on more explicit models and assumptions than does a matrix game. Here the analytical value is not in thinking of new applications of power (since these are predetermined in the rules), but rather discovering how the subsystems and constituent parts of a conflict might interact. Labyrinth also contains an established game model, with the cards being used both to drive these and to insert various capabilities and events. Conventional wargames can certainly do a better job of modeling combat operations than an argument-based matrix games, although they may have difficulty addressing innovation adaptation, or complex political and economic consequences arising from kinetic actions.

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Labyrinth

Because of this, I am of the view that a matrix game often offers the best way of exploring broad issues of hybrid warfare, although more detailed examination of particular domain areas could benefit from a more rigorous rules- and models-based approach. A matrix game could also be combined with another gaming approach, with the former perhaps best suited for the diplomatic/information/economic aspects, while the latter could address kinetic military activities. I also think the nature of the topic lends itself well to multimodal examination, whereby the same scenario is explored using several different gaming methodologies, each offering somewhat different insights.

Ironically, one of the problems of a matrix game approach is that it does not require a great deal of preparation, nor need it involve a great deal of materials and complexity. This makes it an unattractive proposition for defence contractors and consultants since product creation and delivery generates relatively few billable hours. Similarly, a sponsor may feel that it does not seem enough of a tangible product compared with a more complex, traditional wargame.

 

Dstl Day 5: Gaming wicked and messy problems

During my final day at Dstl we looked at gaming “wicked” and “messy” problems, with a particular emphasis on mass migration and refugee crises. The concept of wicked problems (first developed in 1973 by Rittel and Webber) addresses planning issues that are characterized by ten key characteristics:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

“Messy problems,” on the other hand, are rooted in complex adaptive systems wherein the key variables and the relationships between them are unclear or poorly understood, and in which adaptive subsystems seek to survive environmental change.

After a very brief introduction to the topic [slides], I highlighted a number of refugee and migration games I have either (co)designed or played:

Two of these (marked * above) were not really proper games or simulations, but rather had used game mechanisms to help motivate players.

Thereafter, we turned our attentions to identifying a migration-related topic that could be usefully gamed. After identifying the audience and purpose of such a game, we spent the duration of the session brainstorming game ideas. Some very good ideas emerged for a matrix game involving major European actors (Germany, Italy, the Balkan republics), possibly Turkey, the United Nations, an “other actors/subject matter expert” player, and the migrants themselves.

The migrant player would start the game with a “migrant deck “of economic migrants and refugees that they would seek to move into Europe. These would be played face down, with the identity of the migrant revealed only when they reached a final destination , were otherwise prevented from doing so, or died—the purpose being to personalize the otherwise faceless statistic of migrant numbers. (Tom Mouat subsequently made up a set of these, which you can download via PAXsims here.)

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Source: Business Insider, 15 September 2015.

Other players would react to migrant flows in appropriate ways. National politics would be addressed by having each country played by a team representing political parties with differing interests and objectives, so that team members were essentially in competition with each other. Much like MIGS versions of ISIS Crisis, this would allow for a game-within-the-matrix-game approach.

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Left to Right: Ruby Tabner, Stephen Ho, Me, Colin Marston and Mike Bagwell

The final day ended with a visit to Southwick House to visit the D-Day map room, followed by a pub lunch.

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All-in-all it was an absolutely terrific visit that generated some excellent discussions and ideas regarding (war)gaming methodologies. Colin Marston and the others at Dstl were excellent hosts, and I even got a Portsdown West Wargaming Suite coffee mug out of the deal! I’m very grateful to Tom Mouat for helping out too. I’ll certainly look forward to seeing many of my UK counterparts again at the Connections UK conference in September.

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Back home, with my mug.

 

CKNW on ISIS Crisis

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This morning I did an interview with Vancouver radio station CKNW about the ISIS CRISIS matrix game . We also briefly discussed AFTERSHOCK.

You can listen to the discussion here.

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CBC on ISIS Crisis and AFTERSHOCK

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The CBC has published a report today examining the use of games by the Canadian government, including our work with Defence Research & Development Canada using both ISIS Crisis and AFTERSHOCK:

Canada’s military has been experimenting with a tabletop game inspired by the war against ISIS to help plan what tanks, planes, ships and people it needs to fight effectively in the coming decades.

The ISIS Crisis uses dice, markers and a large map of Iraq and Syria, and is the latest twist in a government-wide effort to use more games in the workplace for training and education.

“This certainly does have potential to add additional rigour to our process,” said Col. Ross Ermel, in charge of a directorate that plans how the Canadian Forces must evolve.

“It does show some promise.… It’s one of the things that we are certainly considering.”

The ISIS Crisis is known as a matrix-type game, a concept dating from the 1980s, with minimal rules and using debates and arguments, unlike traditional war games with complex rules and drawing on probabilities.

Matrix games allow complex, multi-sided issues to be explored, often by up to six players who don’t need particular expertise in the subject matter.

The ISIS Crisis was created by Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University, who developed the roles and scenario rules, and by a British major, Tom Mouat, who created the map and counters. Brynen also acted as a kind of referee for the Canadian military sessions.

Last month, Brynen ran another board-game session for the military to explore responses to a humanitarian crisis caused by an earthquake in the fictional country of Carana.

The game, called Aftershock, is designed for up to eight players and takes about two hours to play.

As always, Chris Engle should be credited for first developing the matrix game approach.

Those interested in looking at the game materials should check out Tom Moaut’s matrix gaming page. In addition, the latest version of the ISIS Crisis team (and role) briefings can be found here at PAXsims.

 

AFTERSHOCK in Ottawa

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Today I had an enjoyable day running two games of AFTERSHOCK for colleagues at Defence Research and Development Canada. The first game involved four DRDC/DND analysts playing, while second game included one from DRDC, a very experienced humanitarian aid worker, and two staff from Global Affairs Canada. Both teams eked out a narrow win in the closing turns of the game, with the second group scoring a little higher (in large part because of better coordination).

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Although AFTERSHOCK was designed as an educational game for university students, military personnel, trainee humanitarians, and junior diplomats and aid officials, the purpose here was to assess whether it might offer a differing perspective on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations than the one generally adopted in military planning scenarios for capability-based planning. In particular, the game highlights not the hardware of platforms and assets, but rather the software of coordination and inter-agency synergies.

In any case I think everyone found the game enjoyable, and certainly the fictional, earthquake-afflicted population of Carana was grateful for their help.

I’ll be running one more game of AFTERSHOCK in Ottawa this weekend, in the very different setting of the CanGames gaming convention. Come and join us in the Sunday 2pm slot!

 

 

AFTERSHOCK back in stock!

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AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game has been unavailable for the past few weeks because the publisher (The Game Crafter) had temporarily run out of one of the game components.

I’m happy to announce that the piece is is back in stock and the game is available again. Order soon, though, before they run out of anything else!

Connections North AAR

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On February 22, a small group came together in Ottawa in what will hopefully be the first of many “Connections North” interdisciplinary wargaming meetings. The miniconference—organized at the very last minute by Defence Research and Development Canada and PAXsims to take advantage of a visit to Canada by the one and only Jim Wallman—attracted eleven participants with expertise in wargaming, operations research, medical and humanitarian simulation, virtual simulation and training, higher education, and game design.

Following introductions and introductory remarks, Murray Dixson (DRDC) made a presentation on the MAGIC (“Matrix Games for Improvement of CBP”) project. This has involved a series of trials of the matrix game method to explore how it might be used to enhance capability-based planning at the Department of National Defence. To date they’ve run several games of the ISIS Crisis scenario, and found that the approach could be helpful for scenario testing and validation, although less so for identifying specific capability gaps. Analysis suggests that subject matter experts and non-SMEs take similar lengths of time to make a game move, and that the ratio of political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, information, and cultural (PMESII-C) actions was broadly similar across games. Both the presentation and the subsequent discussion highlighted the importance of game facilitation skills, and the risk that facilitators/adjudicators might insert their own views into the game. It was noted that the game materials also potentially cued players into making certain types of moves—a map with military assets displayed, for example, tends to encourage military actions. Game participants expressed some frustration at the difficulty of pursuing a coherent long-term strategy in ISIS Crisis. While this is partly a function of the sequential turn sequence, it likely has even more to do with the nature of the scenario, with its multiple conflicting actors and objectives. Future trials will likely involve a different scenario, thus allowing analysts to determine what game dynamics may be scenario-specific.

Paul Massel (DRDC) then made a presentation on a recent playtest of the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset (RCAT), which is being assessed by DRDC as a possible mechanism for stress-tresting defence planning scenarios, as well as a campaign planning tool. Given that the Canadian military is most likely to deploy as a “plug-and-play” component of much larger coalition efforts, other tools (such as the Peace Support Operations Model) have proven less useful for this task. As a member of the playtest group (and the nefarious Red commander), I had been impressed by RCAT’s flexibility and adaptability. Interestingly it sometimes uses a matrix game-like approach to resolving contextual circumstances and other issues that lie outside the normal rules, including those at the “fuzzy edge” of wargaming (ie, non-kinetic dynamics).

Next, I offered a slightly revised version of the presentation I made a few weeks ago at RAND on “Gaming the Semi-Cooperative: Peace Operations, HADR, and Beyond.” My key argument here was that extrinsic rewards and victory conditions were not the sole method to elicit semi-cooperative behaviour among players in a game. Player psychology is also important, and players can be influenced in a variety ways so as to introduce friction and tension in otherwise cooperative games, or to encourage a degree of cautious cooperation in otherwise largely adversarial ones.

Jim Wallman (Past Perspectives) offered some insightful remarks of his own on “wargaming for insight.” The key elements of such gaming, he argued, were the developmental or analytical requirements; relevant scenarios/vignettes; adoption of an appropriate game type and structure; resolution of the inevitable tensions between the time needed, the time available, and the time actually spent on a wargame; skilled facilitation; effective recording and reporting of the game; and post-game analysis.

With regard to the former he emphasized the need to define the scope of the investigation, and clarity as what was to be stress-tested or compared. He warned against the “kitchen sink” syndrome where sponsors attempt to encumber a wargame with too many components or questions. He warned against using off-the-shelf scenarios, or reusing those from different games, as they were rarely as effective as those that had been purpose-designed. Indeed it was important to recognize that insights were usually scenario-dependant. Game design and implementation should reduce the temptation and ability of players to “fight the white (cell)” by arguing against the scenario, rules, or adjudication. Game structures could be open or closed, rigid or free, and manual, digital, or a synthesis of both. Throughout he stressed that wargaming, while a very useful analytical tool, was not always the best tool to explore a particular issue—and that game designers needed to be clear about this.

A group lunch at Nandos was then followed by a general discussion of gaming issues, followed by a demonstration session of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. Here the players found the first days of the earthquake extremely challenging, with their collective (relief point) score approaching -20. However, by the second week of the disaster their position had improved considerably due to increasingly effective interagency coordination. The HADR Task Force and the government of Carana took the lead in repairing the port and airport, thus enabling a greater volume of relief supplies to flow into the country. Social unrest proved to be very limited, and was dealt with through community mediation and the occasional government security operation. The UN and NGO teams had begun to repair critical infrastructure, and thereby support a transition from emergency relief to early, sustainable recovery. We had to stop the game before it was finished, but the players seemed well on their way to a successful humanitarian assistance operation.

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All-in-all, I thought it was a very successful day. There seemed to be considerable support among participants for making Connections North a somewhat larger annual event that brings together an interdisciplinary group of those involved in the serious application of national security gaming methods in Canada. In the coming months the next steps will be to determine the best time of year for this, expand the network of serious gamers who could be involved, and to find an institution (ideally in the Ottawa area) to host such an event. If you’re interested in becoming involved, drop me a line.

AFTERSHOCK and Connections North

As I write this, Tom Fisher, Jim Wallman and I are en route to today’s Connections North professional wargaming “mini-conference” in Ottawa. As has become the tradition with Connections events, that means that AFTERSHOCK will be on sale this week. Save $10 off the regular price and get your copy now!

AFTERSHOCK discountAll net proceeds are donated to United Nations humanitarian organizations.

 

Gendering AFTERSHOCK

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Playtesting the AFTERSHOCK gender expansion at National Defense University.

Ever since AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game was published last year we have had numerous suggestions for modifications and expansions. One particular request came from Neyla Arnas, who works on women, peace and security at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University. Would it be possible, Neyla asked, to design a variant of the game that would help to highlight the ways in which gender can shape humanitarian need and humanitarian response?

We were happy to take up the challenge. In doing so we were driven by several key design considerations:

  • First, it is important that players understand that because men and women (and boys and girls) may be affected by disaster in different ways, their needs and vulnerabilities may differ too. Accordingly, effective programme delivery requires recognizing and addressing this. In presenting a gendered perspective as an integral element of operational effectiveness we hope the expansion set neither seems preachy (which might turn off some) nor treats gender as an add-on or side issue.
  • Second, we didn’t want to imply that all gender issues are about women, or that programs that address gender are always the most important priority. Indeed, in a disaster where humanitarian need is intense, urgent, and overwhelming, there may not be the time and resources to address some issues. A central part of the AFTERSHOCK experience is identifying priorities and trade-offs.
  • Third, any supplemental rules or procedures in the game has to be clear and straight-forward. It is essential that they not confuse, excessively complicate, or slow down game play.
  • Finally, any system used for introducing gender issues into the game must be fully compatible with any other expansions we might introduce on other topics in the future. Indeed, ideally all expansions would use the same mechanic, allowing a game to be customized with material from multiple expansions sets.

Initially we thought about simply introducing new events into the Event deck. However, there are limits to this sort of approach. If too many new cards are introduced it distorts the game balance. There is also no guarantee that issues will arise in any given game.

In the end, we have added a few new Event cards, and one new Coordination card. However, the main mechanism of the expansion set is a new “Challenge Phase” that takes place at the end of each game turn. During this phase, players draw a Challenge card, which outlines a problem or need that they can collectively try to address during the coming turn. If they succeed certain benefits will accrue. If unsuccessful, there are costs.

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A sample Challenge card.

As he did with AFTERSHOCK itself, Tom Fisher worked his graphic magic to make the new gaming components clear and engaging.

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Another sample Challenge card.

When we playtested it with volunteers at McGill University the feedback was very positive. This week I took it on the road and tried it out with a playtest group at NDU. There too there seemed to be agreement that the expansion did a very good job of raising issues without distorting the flow of the game.

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Playtesting the AFTERSHOCK gender expansion at McGill University.

We’ll be tweaking the design more in the near future, and hope that the expansion set will eventually be available later this year.

Facilitating AFTERSHOCK

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From time to time I get asked what the best way is of teaching new players how to play AFTERSHOCK, and facilitating a game for a class or other participants. There are probably many ways of doing this, but here is the way we’ve typically done it—and it seems to have worked well with audiences ranging from gamers to university students to military folks to humanitarian, development, and diplomatic personnel.

  1. First and foremost, we don’t try to teach the entire rulebook, or even let players see this before or during the game. Even for a low-medium complexity game like AFTERSHOCK, a book of rules or a long “rules lecture” can be daunting, especially for newbie players or non-gamers who feel pressured to remember everything.
  2. Instead we provide a brief 15-minute overview of the game using this powerpoint presentation. As you’ll see, we break the games into three primary elements: assigning teams to tasks; delivering appropriate assistance; and managing supply and logistics. When going through the presentation, the emphasis is on concepts, themes, and how they are represented in the game (avatars for teams, boxes for supplies, disks for infrastructure, the meaning of the various displays, etc.) rather than on detailed rules. We also point out to each team their specific strengths, weaknesses, and goals. These are also summarized on the player hand-outs.
  3. Make sure that throughout the game players follow along phase by phase. The turn sequence is listed in each player briefing, but we usually also project it on a screen or write it on a whiteboard to make it even easier to view. If players can come to understand the tasks and choices in each phase, they’ll understand the game.
  4. Players are asked to assign their initial teams. They’ll be confused, but simply tell them that a major earthquake has just hit, confusion is to be expected, they’ll get a chance to change things later, and there are only a few good choices anyway (relief in a district, rescue in a district, or a cluster meeting). Give them a minute or less to do this, ideally while urging them to hurry.
  5. We then start playing, with the facilitator being clear to the player what their options are in each phase. I talk them through their choices at each point, but also hurry them up if they dawdle. The timed game/clock does a great job of reducing analysis paralysis, and I’m not above making sound effects of desperate survivors if they need a further push to make up their mind and act.
  6. When Event and Coordination cards are drawn, it usually works best to have the player quickly hand them back to the facilitator to read them to the group and explain, rather then the current player trying to read the card and work it the implications while everyone else stares over their shoulder. The cards are also designed to be teachable moments, so I’ll often expand on what the card says or relate it to actual incidents or real-life challenges.
  7. Don’t bother with explaining any of the Special Operations until they become relevant/available to the players, which is often not until the latter half of the game. Indeed, in general our philosophy has been not to introduce a rule or option until the players need to know it.
  8. In most games we offer limited advice—enough to prevent an early disastrous failure, but not enough to ensure victory.  In particular players need to be aware of the importance of opening up the port/airport, as well as the potential value of coordination meetings.

In our experience, 95% of players will more-or-less understand the game mechanics by the the start of the second game turn, and by the fourth turn or so they’ll often correct me if I forget something. It is absolutely key to step through each game phase in a methodical way, however—as understanding and enthusiasm grows, the table will get noisy and there will be players who are eager to skip ahead to do something.

While it wasn’t initially intended as part of the game design, this psychological transition from initial confusion (“What’s happening? How do we play?”) to an increasing sense of initiative, self-confidence, and control very nicely mirrors actual humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations. In the early phase, first responders are overwhelmed and struggling to cope. With prioritization, teamwork, and planning, however (coupled with quite a lot of self-help by the affected population, which is also included in AFTERSHOCK) they can slowly get on top of the situation.

If they do so they’ll win the game—or, in a real HADR situation, save actual lives.

AFTERSHOCK holiday discount

AFTERSHOCK discount

What better way could there be to share the holiday spirit with friends and family than to gather around the gaming table in a desperate race to save lives in the wake of a devastating natural disaster?

To mark both the approaching holidays and the Connections Australia wargaming conference (December 14-15), AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game has been reduced in price to $89.99 through to December 31.

You can order AFTERSHOCK from The Game Crafter.

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