Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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CONNECTIONS NORTH 2018 wargaming conference report


On February 24, almost two dozen defence analysts, game designers, academics, and conflict simulation students met at McGill University for the CONNECTIONS NORTH miniconference on professional wargaming in Canada. It was a modest affair, but also a resounding success, I think—possibly the largest meeting of its kind ever held in Canada.  We were also buoyed, of course, by the official message of support and encouragement sent on in advance of our meeting by our British wargaming colleagues at Dstl. A key impetus for the meeting was the presence of a number of professional colleagues from Ottawa and Kingston who had travelled to Montreal for the DIRE STRAITS megagame at McGill on Sunday, which will be the subject of a subsequent report.


Waiting for things to start.

The afternoon started off with three surveys of wargaming and other serious gaming. Ben Taylor (Defence Research and Development Canada) discussed the development of gaming techniques to support and enhance the Capability-Based Planning (CBP) process. DRDC CORA is exploring matrix games as a relatively simple method for exploring scenarios and scenario development, and recent games involving a former defence planning scenario have found considerable receptivity. One advantage of a matrix game approach, he suggested, is that players are not limited by game components, and therefore more likely to think broadly and creatively. In the discussion that followed, participants raised such issues as the need for senior leadership-buy in, possible limitations of matrix games for operation or tactical-level gaming, the strengths and weaknesses of more structured gaming techniques (such as RCAT) and how various gaming approaches might be integrated, and where in the CBP gaming methodologies best fitted. You’ll find a copy of Ben’s slides here.

Next, I offered an overview of various gaming initiatives that I have been involved with, whether in a teaching capacity at McGill University, in support of educational and policy research initiatives elsewhere, or through PAXsims. I also raised the issue of how best to carry forward the momentum we have seen in Canada in the past year or so, marked by the establishment of the CONNECTIONS NORTH email list for professional wargamers/policy gamers, the informal networks that have emerged from the Diplomatic Challenges in the South China Sea game that Global Affairs Canada sponsored last fall, from DRDC initiatives, and now from this conference. You’ll find the slides from my presentation here.

Connections North

Anja van der Hulst (TNO) then discussed some of the game initiatives she has been involved with recently. Of particular interest was her discussion of exploring hybrid warfare using matrix games. She noted that game design and components had a substantial impact on game play, with a preponderance of military assets predisposing players to kinetic methods. Anja also raised the important role that emotions and other psychological factors can play in shaping player behaviour and strategy. This spurred considerable discussion throughout the conference as to how best to encourage players to internalize game narratives and respond in ways that resemble either the psychology of particular actors, or their value systems, fears, and concerns.

A coffee break followed, complete with Timbits. This was a Canadian wargaming conference, after all.

After the break, Jim Wallman (Stone Paper Scissors) offered some perspectives on the UK Royal Air Force’s recent Eagle Warrior exercise, which consisted on one major wargame and  series of associated games. As noted by the RAF:

Exercise Eagle Warrior brought together the best and brightest military minds from the Royal Air Force, British Army, Royal Navy, Joint Force Command, Defence Intelligence, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the United States Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

This operational-level war game was the first of its kind in eight years but was in fact much more than a game alone, it was a platform for conceptual analysis and critical thinking as well as the development of further interoperability with our Allies.

The wargame lasted two weeks with multiple games being played throughout, focussing on how wars might look in 2030.


Exercise Eagle Warrior (picture credit: RAF)

While Jim was constrained to address only unclassified aspects of the exercise, he offered extremely valuable insight into the challenges of senior leadership engagement (both as a positive factor, and as a challenge for game facilitation), rapid game design, and the importance of game design and materials in shaping player experiences.

Grand Designs Design Thinking in Games Graphic Design Presentation

All of this led nicely into a presentation by Tom Fisher (Imaginetic) on “Design Thinking in Games,” in which he discussed how the presentation of a game shaped player experience, above and beyond the formal system represented in the game rules. Specifically, he drew upon Don Norman’s three levels of game design: visceral, behavioural, and reflective. Visceral design addresses the almost unconscious impact of graphic design and game components on how players “feel” about the game, and the intellectual and emotional associations these stimulate. Behavioural design is about usability, and how the graphic presentation of the game enhances, or detracts from, playability. Finally, the reflective element of design concerns how a player rationalizes the game experience, and the impact that it has. Throughout, Tom warned about inappropriate graphic or component choices that force players out of engagement and narrative (and also warned against the danger that beguiling graphics can result in players accepting unrealistic or misleading models of reality). Finally he emphasized the importance of making game designs as simple as possible for a given purpose, the value of “dual coding” (in which text and graphics are mutually reinforcing), and how one can use a player’s preexisting mental model to make something more acceptable and convincing. You’ll find a copy of his slides here.


Some of the participants at CONNECTIONS NORTH.

That ended the formal activities for the day. In the evening, however, we ran a game of A RECKONING OF VULTURES from the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK) for those who wanted to stick around.

A RECKONING OF VULTURES is set in the capital of the fictional Republic of Matrixia. There, in the ornate Presidential Palace, surrounded by his most loyal Presidential Guards, the President-for-Life lies on his death-bed—and various power-hungry factions are jostling to take power themselves. Once the President passes, competition between these would-be successors will escalate into open conflict, until the Central Committee of the Ruling Party can meet and agree on a new leader.

The game was designed to show how matrix games can be used to explore a range of issues and modalities, from political maneuvering through to tactical employment of force in complex urban environments.


In the first phase of our game, the Central Security and Intelligence Directorate (secret police) largely focused on gaining information and leverage, including control over the media. The Matrixian Armed Forces moved potentially disloyal troops away from key power centres, and focused on securing the loyalty of the armed forces. The Ministry of Interior dispatched police units to the potentially rebellious university campus, while the Oligarchs rented thugs and bribed religious leaders. The National Union of Toilers (NUT) infiltrated union organizers into the police unit guarding the prison, as well as a key armoured battalion (which had spent days parading around the city since no one wanted it outside their power base).


Early in the game of A RECKONING OF VULTURES.

When the President-for-Life died, NUT sympathizers in the police seized the main prison, while the tank battalion declared itself a supporter of the proletarian revolution. CSID control of the media and the Oligarchs’ influence with religious establishment allowed both of them to shape public expectations. The MAF commander was successful in both ordering military reinforcements to the city and securing the loyalty of the Presidential Guard, both of which then attacked CSID headquarters with support and encouragement from NUT protesters. Although the CSID spymaster managed to escape this attack, his efforts to relocate to the Central Bank were foiled when his thuggish convoy of black SUVs was shot up by soldiers at a MAF checkpoint. At a critical moment, the NUT-controlled tanks stormed the campus, and freed the students there from the tyranny of police occupation.

Finally, the Central Committee of the Ruling Party met. The Minister of the Interior went into the balloting with a small advantage, for the police had shown the foresight to quietly occupy several key locations in the city while everyone else fought. In the end, however, it was the MAF Commander who emerged victorious and was named the new President.


Connections North AAR


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.


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.


Connections North (Ottawa, February 22)

Join_the_Team_RCAF.jpgThis is rather last minute notice—probably because we’ve put it together at the very last minute—but Canadian readers will be interested to learn that Defence Research & Development Canada and PAXsims will be hosting Connections North, a one day miniconference on professional wargaming, in Ottawa on Monday, 22 February 2016. Among the presenters will be Jim Wallman (Past Perspectives), who is visiting the colonies this week.

Ottawa—deliberately located so as to be beyond the immediate reach of an US invasion, and with its scenic Rideau Canal providing strategic mobility for Imperial troops in the event of American aggression—is obviously the perfect place for such a get-together. You can’t be too careful.

Update—further details

We’ll be meeting in a meeting room at the Lord Elgin Hotel (100 Elgin St, Ottawa). The agenda for the meeting is below.

0930 Arrive at meeting location and set-up
0945 General Introductions: Workshop Overview and Objectives
1000 Presentation on DND matrix game trials

Dr. Murray Dixson (DRDC)

1015 Break
1030 Presentation on DND`s Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset (RCAT) trial

Paul Massel (DRDC)

1100 Gaming the Semi-Cooperative: Peace Operations, HADR, and Beyond

Prof. Rex Brynen (McGill University)

1130 Perspectives on Wargaming

Jim Wallman (Past Perspectives)

1200 Lunch
1315 Round table discussion on the application of wargaming to defence analysis and to support strategic decision making
1400 Demonstration of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game

Rex Brynen (McGill University) and Thomas Fisher (Imaginetic)

1530 Final Points and Conclusion

We hope to see members of the Ottawa wargaming community there, as well as those working on national security issues more broadly and others interested in the use of serious games for education and policy analysis. Pass it on!

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