Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: COIN

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!


 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.


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.


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).


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].


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.

hybrid warfare

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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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.)


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.


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.


Back home, with my mug.


Twas the night before PAXmas…


The PAXsims team of gaming and simulation elves is pleased to present our latest compilation of items on conflict simulation and serious games. Ryan Kuhns and Corinne Goldberger contributed to this latest edition.

Happy holidays!


According to an article in The Independent, China has decided to use gamification to help monitor and encourage political compliance:

As Extra Credits explains on YouTube: “If you post pictures of Tiananmen Square or share a link about the recent stock market collapse, your Sesame Credit goes down.

“Share a link from the state-sponsored news agency about how good the economy is doing and your score goes up.”

Similarly, Sesame Credit can analyse data from online purchases.

“If you’re making purchases the state deems valuable, like work shoes or local agricultural products, your score goes up.

“If you import anime from Japan though, down the score goes.”

Most insidious of all, the app will have real world consequences. According to Extra Credits, high scores will grant users benefits: “Like making it easier to get the paperwork you need to travel or making it easier to get a loan.

Although the ratings are currently optional, the social tool will become mandatory by 2020.

There have even been rumours about implementing penalties for low scores: “Like slower internet speeds, or restricting jobs a low scoring person is allowed to hold.”

The system could also become a powerful tool for social conditioning, as users could lose points for having friends with low obedience scores.

An earlier report by the BBC in October paints a slightly different picture, noting that Sesame Credit is being developed by Alibaba, the Chinese e-Commerce company as both a product linked to their online shopping portals. However, these seems little doubt that Beijing is monitoring such experiments, and hoping to use its own fusion of “big data” from scores of government and other databases as a mechanism of social control.


The latest issue of Infnity Journal 5, 1 (Fall 2015) contains a valuable article by Adam Elkus on “Strategic Logic and the Logical of Computational Modelling:

Computational theories, models, and simulations are revolutionizing countless areas of research.[i] Could they do the same for strategy? Yes, but only if strategic theory’s core concepts and questions can be captured within the logic of computational modeling. This article justifies this argument by exploring why previous attempts at modeling strategy have failed and why different assumptions about modeling could yield more positive results. The article investigates this debate by first examining challenges in strategic theory and why mathematics and models have not been attractive to strategic researchers. Next, it is explained how computational modeling may be of assistance to inquiries in strategic theory. Finally, the theoretical insights of the prior section are practically outlined by a comparative analysis of how research concerns in strategy can be best matched with different styles of computer program design.


Two recent discussions of the GMT COIN wargames have appeared in interesting places: Michael Peck reviews Fire in the Lake (Vietnam) at Small Wars Journal, while on the GrogCast podcast, James Sterret of (Simulations and Exercise Division, Digital Leader Development Center, US Army Command and General Staff College) discusses the COIN system and a number of other wargaming topics.


The folks at Decisive Point have been contracted by the US Army to produce a new game intended to crowdsource the testing and evaluation of future Army combat systems and doctrine:

Decisive-Point was awarded a contract to develop a computer wargame for the U.S. Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC). The purpose of this wargame is to provide an Early Synthetic Prototyping (ESP) environment for the exploration and assessment of future doctrinal concepts and potential organizational and material solutions. While playing the game, users will role-play tactical unit commanders of future combat units at the brigade level and below. They will have the opportunity to explore future operating capabilities as they conduct simulated offensive and defensive operations during a hypothetical future conflict. The potential effects of next generation weapon systems including robotics, electromagnetic rail gun and laser technologies can be explored. The game system will facilitate the collection of combat development data generated by soldiers, analysts, and researchers as they play various user-created scenarios. The game data and player feedback will provide concept developers quick insights into the feasibility, acceptability, and supportability of future combat systems.

h/t Jim Lunsford


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An article by Ruibiao Guo and Kevin Sprague on Replication of human operators’ situation assessment and decision making for simulated area reconnaissance in wargames appears in the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology (online first 2015).


At ExPatt (the Patterson School magazine of foreign affairs), Maddie Higdon and Lee Clark and discuss diplomatic strategy according to the videogame Mass Effect.

…Welcome to the world of intergalactic relations. This is just one example of the countless nuanced situations that the Mass Effect games ask players to navigate. It’s challenging, it’s fun, and it has intellectual value for developing diplomatic abilities. Think of Mass Effect as a really creative training simulation for negotiators.

The Mass Effect franchise is made up of widely successful video games, books, and comics. A feature film is rumored for the near future.  The franchise explores an incredible universe in which countless alien species interact, negotiate, and wage war with one another. The Mass Effect universe is based on the premise that as alien and human societies develop and begin to explore space, they eventually discover technology left behind by a long-extinct race of all-knowing beings that allows faster-than-light travel. By using this technology, the various species are able to conduct large-scale economic, social, and military relations with one another.

The series focuses on Commander Shepard, a space captain fighting to save humanity from a myriad of existential threats by negotiating alliances with amenable alien organizations. The video games in the franchise gained widespread popularity in large part due to the freedom of choice offered to players. Players can customize everything about the hero, from appearance, gender, and abilities, to personality and diplomatic approach. By customizing the character, the player creates a unique gaming experience because every decision in the game affects the events that unfold.

Shepard must navigate a nuanced and interconnected world where NGOs, representative bodies, militaries, corporations, and militant groups all compete for conflicting goals. Every species has a representative at an intergalactic Council, tasked with making and enforcing galactic law. But beyond this, every species has splinter groups and diverging interests that make cohesive negotiation difficult. Bioware, the game’s developers, really went for the gold in creating a complex diplomatic world to navigate….


On 3-5 March 2016, the Mellon Foundation Project on Civilian-Military Educational Cooperation and the US Air Force Academy conducted a crisis simulation on implementation of an Iran nuclear deal. You’ll find some details here.


At the blog Stohasmoi: What do we Know about IR?, Konstantinos Travlos discusses the use of the classic game Diplomacy in teaching international relations.


Don’t forget that AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game is on sale until December 31. Order now, and save $10!

Simulating insurgency and counter-insurgency

In the latest issue of the Training & Simulation Journal, Michael Peck examines the simulation of insurgency, counter-insurgency, and irregular warfare within the military and broader national security establishment:

Counterinsurgency, vast and nebulous, has long been intellectual quicksand for the defense modeling and simulation community. But the sands may be firming up.

“Frankly, the best modelers in the Army were uncertain what could be accomplished and at what pace, in the face of many new and different challenges to the modeling of military operations in [irregular warfare],” said Garry Lambert, director of the U.S. Training and Doctrine Command Analysis Center (TRAC) at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

Steve Goodwin, director of the strategy and operations division of National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning, echoes Lambert’s assessment. “The exercise community has not generally been successful in developing COIN models and simulations that can predict outcomes with a reasonable degree of confidence,” he said. “This is particularly true of games looking at complex contingencies, where psychological and social lines of operation, such as information operations and political negotiation, are hard to capture in mathematical models.”

But in just the past few years, the mood has changed. Don’t call it optimism. Call it realism, a sense of what is possible and what isn’t. Irregular warfare models and simulations are coming. But if you’re hoping for a computer program to tell you how to beat the Taliban, don’t hold your breath.

In the piece, Michael discusses a number of recent COIN simulations, including the Army’s Irregular Warfare Tactical Wargame, NDU’s Gemstone, and UrbanSim. He also highlights the evolution of simulation modelling in this area, such as changes to the military’s Joint Non-Kinetic Effects Model (JNEM).

One of the problems he identifies concerns both the absence of sustained engagement with social scientists working in these areas and uncertainty among scholars of insurgency themselves as to how best understand the dynamics of insurgency:

While there has been progress in modeling irregular warfare, the obstacles remain daunting. At the top of the list is a lack of social science theory. Put 10 political scientists in a room, and you’ll have 10 theories of what causes insurgencies or why people support certain political parties. If political scientists, economists and sociologists can’t agree, then the theoretical foundations of COIN models will always be shaky. But the defense modeling community is adapting.

“We haven’t in the past reached out to social scientists, and we need to do so,” said Jeff Appleget, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and the former head of TRAC’s effort to improve irregular warfare analysis. “Think of us analysts as kinetic guys. We understand the physics behind shooting a tank round. We don’t need social scientists to understand that. If we’re talking about how a foot patrol in Baghdad affects how the populations view their government and the insurgents, I’ve got no idea how to model that.”

Part of the problem here is that social science is generally talking about causal relationships that seem to be common among large numbers of cases, but which only explain part of the variance across cases. Moreover, they tend to focus at upper levels of analysis (regions, countries) and longer time frames. Military simulation modelers are often interested much more specific, tactical relationships, at lower levels of analysis (province, village, clan, individuals), and over shorter as well as longer time periods. Plus, on top of that, yes—the academic field is very far from having an agreed theoretical model of either insurgency or counter-insurgency.

In this context, the T&SJ article also notes that part of the challenge of modelling COIN is communicating to senior leaders what simulation can, and cannot, provide:

In the end, modeling and simulation can only make a difference if users trust it. Much will depend on whether the military accepts the new wave of irregular warfare simulations.

“Most interesting to me is how this will play out with senior leaders,” Lambert said. “They are used to the kind of results we portrayed in the past, the combat simulations where you get X percent of goodness via metrics like the number of threats killed. It will be interesting to see how they respond to these softer assertions where we say, ‘If you put five more civil affairs teams in, it changes how company commanders conduct operations.’”

Appleget agrees. “Our senior leaders were spoiled by the way we did combat modeling. We came up with numbers that they could use to support acquisition decisions. Then we became involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and DoD said, ‘OK, where are my models? You’ve been at this for six months. What’s taking you so long?’ Ignoring the fact that our physics-based combat models took years and years to develop, and if you look under the hood, they’re not perfect, either.”

Perfection is the last word Appleget would use to describe COIN simulations.

“In irregular warfare, we’re never going to get there,” he said.

“The best you’re going to do is get insights and give senior leaders a kind of probability space of different outcomes if they do this or that.”

Have any thoughts on the piece? If so, post them below and we’ll try to get Michael to respond to them.

Boardgaming (counter) insurgency

The latest (June-July 2011) issue of the online strategy gaming magazine Battlespace has a short article by yours truly on the challenges of designing insurgency/COIN-based boardgames. Have any comments? Feel free to post them here to the blog.

Review: Hearts and Minds (Vietnam, 1965-75)

Hearts and Minds. Worthington Games, 2010. Game designer: John Poniske. Game developer: Stan Hilinski. $49.95

As with all game evaluations on PaxSims, this review will examine both game play as well as the question of potential adaptability for educational purposes.

Game Contents and Play

Hearts and Minds is a card-driven, map-based strategy game that covers up to ten years of the Vietnam War, from the growth of US involvement in the mid-1960s through to the “Vietnamization” of the conflict and withdrawal of US troops in the early 1970s. Movement is zonal, with the (25.5″ x 11″) map board showing most of the provinces of South Vietnam, plus the border areas of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Military forces from South Vietnam (ARVN), the US, Korea, other allies, the Viet Cong (VC), North Vietnam (NVA), Cambodia (royalist and Khmer Rouge) and Laos (royalist and Pathet Lao) are represented. All units are abstracted, with most representing generic (untried or veteran) regular infantry, plus some additional artillery, armour, helicopters, and naval support units. (Click images below to enlarge.)

The “Red” (communist) and “Blue” (allied) players alternately play a card out of their hand, with four rounds of such card play representing a year in the conflict. As with several card-driven games, each card indicates both a resource point value and a possible event. Resource points are used to “buy” the event on the card (ranging from the Paris Peace Talks to a visit by Jane Fonda) and/or to enable movement, combat, and shifts in the political control of provinces. Combat is straight-forward, undertaken by totalling combat factors, adding a die-roll, and consulting a combat results table. VC units may also ambush allied players entering their zones.

Each year, South Vietnam is at risk of a military coup if its combat losses are high (and exceed the number of pacified provinces), although this risk can be offset through the expenditure of resource points to prop up the shaky Saigon government. A coup has effects on combat units (all ARVN units become “untried” again) and on ARVN deployment. As in the real war, the Ho Chi Minh trail plays a key role, allowing NVA units to slip into South Vietnam from border areas of Laos and Cambodia. After 1969, cards on both sides give players the option of escalating the war in these neighbouring countries.

Victory in the Hearts and Minds is achieved either by securing control of a certain number of provinces, or by achieving a certain number of hawk/dove points. Some of the cards are “campaign cards” that facilitate combat operations in one or more regions of the country and also yield bonus hawk/dove points for control of the area. More generally, the allied player also loses points for taking US casualties, as well as when the Red player gains control of too many South Vietnamese provinces, or when a South Vietnamese coup occurs.

Casualties therefore have political as well as military consequences. Although both sides receive replacements from year to year, high US losses will rapidly bleed political support for the war, while heavy ARVN losses will destabilize the South. The North gets quite high numbers of replacements, making it difficult to secure a military victory through attrition alone. Famously, military analyst Col. Harry Summers is said to have remarked in 1974 to a NVA officer “You never defeated us in the field” —to which the latter is said to have responded, “That may be true. It is also irrelevant.” In Hearts and Minds too, the Red player can lose battle after battle yet still win the war.

Because VC units are more effective at gaining political control, and are replaced more slowly, targeting these can be more effective. They are often able to evade contact, however, and slip away to other areas. Key to victory is careful use of the campaign cards, which if used to greatest effect should be preceded by some stockpiling of resource points as well as moving units into appropriate jumping-off positions for the impending military operations. The Tet Offensive card can be particularly devastating if Red uses it well. It is a gamble, however: if things go poorly, Red can find his NVA troops chewed up by superior allied firepower and his VC infrastructure in the south devastated.

The rules are fairly well organized (although some important information is to be found in the playbook or players’ charts), and the game plays quite easily. We weren’t entirely happy with the combat system (which depends on differentials rather than ratios), and it seemed a bit odd that US forces were more mobile but no more effective than ARVN or NVA troops. Also, the lack of any combat steps (units are either alive or dead), together with the replacements and reinforcements system used in the game, results in whole units being eliminated—only to (re)appear in large numbers again at the start of the new year. A smoother and more incremental system of losses and replacements would have added to a more realistic sense of historical flow. Pacification can only be undertaken by US units and yet has more positive effect on regime stability than anything the South Vietnamese can do for themselves, which runs rather counter to most COIN assumptions.  Conversely, we did rather like the “fog of war” built into the way VC units are used: deployed face-down on the map, some of them are not guerillas at all but rather “bad intel” that generates a random event when revealed.

Overall, Hearts and Minds is certainly a very solid, well-designed game. For some reason we couldn’t quite put our finger on (and despite the Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival we had on as soundtrack in the background) our playtest game lacked a certain excitement. Most of that was probably probably personal taste and/or the dynamics of that particular game, however—it certainly has a high rating (8.0/10) on GameBoardGeek, and it is certainly a game I intend to play again.

Instructional Potential

Because the game mechanisms are quite straightforward, Hearts and Minds is likely to be more playable by gaming neophytes than other larger and more complex wargames. (you’ll also find a rules summary and after action report form on BoardGameGeek that could be quite useful in a classroom setting.) The game does highlight the importance of political factors (through the use of hawk/dove points, the process of political control and “pacification” of provinces, and the endemic political weakness of the South Vietnamese government), as well as the pressures that caused a wider regionalization of the war into Cambodia and Laos. All of this would provide openings for discussion in the classroom. The cards depict key events of the era, which could also be explored with students. Unlike Labyrinth, there is no more detailed explanation of these included other than the brief text on the card itself. It would be fairly easy, however, to put a study guide together that offered additional information.

The rules and cards in the game tend to somewhat tilt the play in certain directions, and provide only limited opportunities to explore alternative strategies. There is no lasting way to strength South Vietnamese governance so as to undercut the underlying appeal of the insurgency, for example—while the Blue may “pacify” provinces, this renders Saigon less vulnerable to a coup rather impacting on the ability of the VC to recruit cadres or exert political control. Equally, there is no political cost to the collateral damage that would inevitably accompany Blue military actions. The possibility of implementing a stepped-up CORDS-type civic action programme would have provided an interesting “what if” option, especially viewed through the lens of the contemporary debate between “COINdinistas and “COINtras” over the relative merit of population-centric and enemy-centric counterinsurgency strategies. Diplomatic options in the game are limited to a  few event cards with modest effects—there is little scope to influence regional or other foreign policies, to step-up coercive force against the North (as with the Linebacker raids), or otherwise seek to reshape the broader political context within which the war was fought.

Of course, no game can contain everything, and from an instructional point-of-view it doesn’t need to. Students could be encouraged to propose house rules and game modifications, based on their own research into the dynamics of the conflict. Believe that host country efforts are essential to building legitimacy? Allow ARVN units to engage in pacification. Think that local attitudes matter to COIN operations? Perhaps NVA/VC units should suffer a penalty when fighting in pacified areas. Want to model more substantial US efforts to strengthen South Vietnamese governance? Allow some stability to cumulate over time, rather than resetting the coup marker to zero each new year. Want to reflect the impact of US domestic politics on the war? Have the status hawk/dove marker somehow affect the cost of US replacements or the pace of reinforcements. The possibilities are endless, and each proposed tweak of the game system could be made into a class discussion and learning experience. More broadly, the sorts of choices made by the designer, examined against the history of the conflict, can be used to encourage student reflection on what policy options would have been available to US, Vietnamese, and other decision-makers in this era and with what possible effects.

Concluding Thoughts

While not my favourite insurgency-based game, Hearts and Minds does have good potential in an instructional setting because of its straight-forward game mechanics, relatively clear rules, and appropriate level of abstraction. It is probably best played after students have read some of the major works on the conflict, thus enabling them to compare those portrayals with the one offered by the game. In reflecting on the similarities and divergences, students can thereby be encouraged to develop their own thoughts as to the the key social, political, and military dynamics of the Vietnam conflict, as well as the lessons that might be drawn from this for a broader understanding of guerilla campaigns, insurgency/counterinsurgency, stabilization operations, and regionalized warfare.

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Update: John Poniske, the designer of Hearts and Minds, has contributed some thoughts of his own on the game and the use of games in educational settings. You’ll find them here.

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