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Tag Archives: Connections UK

Experimenting with DIRE STRAITS

As PAXsims readers will know, the recent Connections UK professional wargaming conference featured a large political/military crisis game exploring crisis stability in East and Southeast China: DIRE STRAITS. This is the second time we have held a megagame at Connections UK, and—judging from last year’s survey—they are popular with participants. This year we organized something that addressed a series of near future  (2020) challenges, said against the backdrop of uncertainties in Trump Administration foreign policy and the growing strategic power of China.

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We also conducted an experiment.

Specifically, we decided to use the game to explore the extent to which different analytical teams would reach similar, or different, conclusions about the methodology and substantive findings of the game. If their findings converged, that would provide some evidence that wargaming can generate solid analytical insights. If their findings diverged a great deal, however, that would suggest that wargaming suffers from a possible “eye of the beholder” problem, whereby the interpretation of game findings might be heavily influenced by the subjective views and idiosyncratic characteristics of the analytical team—whether that be training/background/expertise, preexisting views,  or the particular mix of people and personalities involved. The latter finding could have quite important implications, in that game results might have as much to do with who was assessing them and how, as with the actual outcome of the game.

To do this, we formed three analytical teams: TEAM UK (composed of one British defence analyst and one serving RAF officer), TEAM EURO (composed of analysts from the UK, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands), and TEAM USA (composed of three very experienced American wargamers/analysts). Each team were free to move around and act as observers during the games, and had full access to game materials, briefings, player actions and assessments, and could review the record of game events produced during DIRE STRAITS by our media team.

We were well aware at the outset that DIRE STRAITS would be an imperfect analytical game. It was, after all, required to address multiple objectives: to accommodate one hundred or so people, most of whom would not be subject matter experts on the region; to be relatively simple; to be enjoyable; and to make do with the time and physical space assigned to us by the conference organizers. It was also designed on a budget of, well, nothing—the time and materials were all contributed by Jim Wallman and myself. From an experimental perspective, however, the potential shortcomings in the game were actually assets for the experiment, since they represented a number of potential methodological and substantive issues which the analytical teams might focus on. To make it clearer what their major take aways were, we asked each team to provide a list of their top five observations in each or two categories (game methodology, and substantive game findings).

And the results are now in:

All three teams did a very good job, and there is a great deal of insight and useful game design feedback contained within the reports. But what do they suggest about our experimental question? I have a lot more analysis of the findings to undertake, but here is a very quick, initial snapshot.

First, below is a summary of each team’s five main conclusions regarding game methodology. I have coded the results in dark green if there is full agreement across all three teams, light green for substantial agreement, yellow for some agreement, and red for little/no agreement. The latter does not mean that the teams necessarily would disagree on a point, only that it did not appear in the key take-aways of each. I have also summarized each conclusion into a single sentence—in the report, each is a full paragraph or more.

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A Venn diagram gives a graphic sense of the degree of overlap in the team methodological assessments.

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One interesting point of divergence was the teams’ assessment of the White House subgame. TEAM USA had a number of very serious concerns about it. TEAM EURO, on the other hand—while noting the risks of embedding untested subgames in a larger game dynamic—nevertheless concluded that they “found this modelling fairly accurate.” TEAM UK had a somewhat intermediate position: while arguing that the White House subgame should have have been more careful in its depiction of current US political dynamics to avoid the impression of bias, this “obscured the fact that there were actually quite subtle mechanisms in the White House game, and that the results were the effects of political in-fighting and indeed, it could even show the need to “drain the swamp” to get a functional White House.” The various points made by the teams on this issue, and the subtle but important differences between them, will be the subject of a future PAXsims post.

Next, let us compare the three teams’ assessment of the substantive findings of the game. TEAM USA argued that the methodological problems with the game were such that no conclusions could be drawn. TEAM EURO felt that the actions of some teams were unrealistic (largely due to a lack of subject matter expertise and cultural/historical familiarity), but that overall “the overall course of action seemed to stay within reasonable bounds of what can be expected in the multitude of conflicts in the area.” TEAM UK was careful to distinguish between game outcomes that appeared to be intrinsic to the game design, and those that emerged from player interaction and emergent gameplay, and were able to identify several key outcomes among the latter.

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As both the table above and the diagram below indicate, there was much greater divergence here (much of it hinging on assessments of game methodology, player behaviour, or plausibility).

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Again, I want to caution that this is a very quick take on some very rich data and analysis, and I might modify some of my initial impressions upon a deeper dive. However, I do think there is enough here to both underscore the potential value of crisis gaming as an analytical tool, and to sound some fairly loud warning bells about potential interpretive divergence in post-game analysis. At the very least, it suggests the value of using mixed methods to analyze game outcomes, and/or—better yet—a sort of analytical red teaming. If different groups of analysts are asked to draw separate conclusions, and those findings are then compared, convergence can be used as a rough proxy for higher confidence interpretations, while areas of divergence can then be examined in great detail. I am inclined to think, moreover, that producing separate analyses then bringing those together is likely to be more useful than simply combining the groups into a larger analytical team at the outset, since it somewhat reduces the risk that findings are driven by a dominant personality or senior official.

One final point: DIRE STRAITS assigned no fewer than nine analysts to pick apart its methodology, assess the findings in light of those strengths and weaknesses, and we have now published that feedback. Such explicit self-criticism is almost unheard of in think-tank POL/MIL gaming, and far too rare in most professional military wargaming too. Hopefully the willingness of Connections UK to do this will encourage others to as well!

KCL War Studies podcast: Using Wargaming to Avoid Real-World Conflict

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Ivan Seifert at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, has put together a podcast on “Using Wargaming to Avoid Real-World Conflict.”

What is a wargame? Who should be playing wargames and why? How can simulating real-world events help to avoid real-world conflicts?

In this podcast, we are bringing you five exclusive interviews with organisers and participants of this year’s Connections UK conference. The interviewees are Major Tom Mouat, Professor Philip Sabin, Patrick Kwasi Brobbey, Dr Anja van der Hulst, and Commander Matt Payne.

The Connections UK is a conference dedicated to wargaming. This conference was hosted by the School of Security Studies and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

For more information about the conference, visit www.professionalwargaming.co.uk/ or read this BBC article goo.gl/iUYhyA.

You’ll find it here.

Dissecting DIRE STRAITS

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The DIRE STRAITS megagame was held on September 5 at King’s College London, and formed part of three days of activities, panel discussions, and break-out sessions at the Connections UK professional wargaming conference. You’ll find my overall report on the conference here, and a BBC report on the game here.

In this blog post I thought I would reflect a little on the exercise: the rationale and objectives for the game, the scenario, game design choices, how it all went on the day, and what (if any) substantive policy lessons we can draw from it.

 

Game Objectives

Connections UK first held a megagame as part of the conference programme in 2016, when Jim ran War in Binni—a civil war scenario set in a fictional country. It proved very popular with participants, who expressed a desire that the conference organizers do something similar for 2017.

However, since Connections is about improving the art and science of wargaming, and most of the participants are folks who participate in, design, or facilitate professional wargames (or other serious games), we thought that this time we might try to simulate a real, near-future situation. This is a more difficult challenge: the game designer needs to accurately reflect reality, and cannot play around with that reality solely to create more interesting game dynamics.

Complicating all this were the practical requirements of the event:

  • There would be more than 100 participants, and so the game had to accommodate this many roles and sub-roles. Everyone needed to be engaged and involved.
  • Related to this, we wanted people to enjoy themselves. Quite apart from whatever insight the game might offer into wargaming and its subject matter, it also served as a conference ice-breaker and networking opportunity.
  • Participants would have a wide range of subject matter expertise and wargaming experience.
  • The game would take up much of the first day, involving around 6 hours of game play (including briefing and lunch).
  • Physical space was rather limited: one large room, and two smaller rooms.
  • There would be no time for pre-reading. The game briefings had to be sufficiently straight-forward to enable everyone to assume their roles with minimal preparation.

As if that wasn’t enough, we later decided to raise the bar a bit higher still by adding an experimental research component to the game. This would examine issues of convergence and divergence in wargame analysis. Specifically, would three different groups of analysts, each observing the same game and with access to similar materials and documentation, reach similar conclusions about the validity of the wargame methodology adopted and the substantive findings of the game? The megagame would give us an opportunity to explore this important question.

 

Scenario

Our very first thought was to do a China-Taiwan crisis, which gave rise to the title DIRE STRAITS. However, it soon became apparent that this would not easily sustain 100+ participants. Consequently, we expanded it to include other potential regional crises: North Korea’s development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons; China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea; and growing tensions between India and China. Virtually all of these issues were in the news, and indeed were increasingly so as the summer progressed.

At the same time as we were developing the scenario, we also settled on a central question that the game would address: how would the unpredictability of US policy under the Trump Administration, and the growing strategic power of China, affect crisis stability in East and Southeast Asia? In order to make any such effects clearer, we set the game in early 2020. The Trump Administration was said to have survived the Special Counsel investigation, but suffered political damage. Parts of the Republican Party were in open revolt, and Trump faced a Republican challenger for the 2020 presidential nomination. North Korea was on the verge of resuming major weapons tests, and suffered from growing internal unrest. In Taiwan, revelations of Chinese (PRC) efforts to hack the island’s January 2020 elections had spurred a strong pro-independence backlash there. Just to push things along, we also planned an assassination attempt against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for Turn 2 of the game.

Marc Lanteigne (Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Massey University)., who specializes in Chinese and East Asia security issues, was kind enough to review our scenario ideas and confirm it all seemed plausible.

 

 

 

Game Design

Although he might disagree and break into post-traumatic twitches at the mere mention of DIRE STRAITS, it was (as in the past) a sheer joy to be working with Jim on this project. We quickly divided the work between us. I handled the scenario development and team/player briefings, the White House and North Korea subgames, and the “Connections Global News” media unit. He developed the overall game system for the deployment and use of military units, the maps, and most other game components.

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We took pity on the Royal Navy and let them have the F-35Bs operational on HMS Queen Elizabeth a few months early

In developing the game system we very much emphasized relatively simple rules, with a very general combat model. With one week turns, large aggregate forces, and large areas of the region depicted, there was little need to model individual platforms and weapons system. Moreover, given that we were dealing with a series of crises that might involve more signalling than actual use of force, we decided to stress posture (how prepared and mobilized military forces were) and commitment (willingness to use force in a confrontation).

The maps used a simple system of zonal movement. Again, with one week turns, fine detail was unnecessary.

Teams were typically subdivided into a national leader, a foreign minister, a senior military commander, an intelligence chief, and one or more ambassadors. Each team would issue military orders (movement of forces, as well as changes in posture and commitment) using a  Military Operations Form. Other major decisions (including options presented in the team briefing) were recorded using a Major Decision Form. In order to provide greater insight into goals and perspectives, we also had each national leader complete a Strategic Assessment each turn, while each intelligence chief completed an Intelligence Assessment to identify threats and likely future developments.

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The Koreas map. Other game maps depicted the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the Chinese-Indian border region.

The White House subgame was an essential part of the design. In particular, we needed to recreate the uncertainties and internal power struggles of the Trump Administration. We decided early on not to have a participant playing the President himself, for fear that excessively crazy (or reasonable) behaviour might adversely affect the entire game. Instead, potential presidential policy directions were represented by various Tweets, most of them based on previous statements.

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Members of cabinet and the White House staff each had different policy preferences (anti-globalism, defeating the Republican challenger, confronting China, encouraging diplomacy, projecting American military strength, promoting the Trump brand, achieving a well-run White House, or “Making America Great Again”), and sought to influence the policy by moving various ideas up a snakes-and-ladders -type game board using White House Politics cards. Some of the latter are displayed below.

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White House players who had their favoured policies adopted by the President received Trump points. Amassing these was essential, for periodic staff shake-ups could result in the ouster of the lowest-scoring player. Once a policy was in place in a given issue area, it remained there until replaced. Of course, just as in the real world, US players would have considerable latitude in how to interpret President Trump’s statements.

The North Korea subgame took a very different approach: we didn’t really establish much of a game at all, and asked North Korea Control (Tom Mouat) to improvise if need be. At the DPRK table we placed various displays indicating the various key power centres of the regime, onto which the players placed pawns indicating their loyal cadres. Not surprisingly, the Supreme Leader had the most cadres, and controlled the key positions. However, in the event that the assassination attempt succeeded, we envisaged using matrix-game adjudication to determine the success and outcome of any internal actions. Party Politics cards added some additional richness to this.

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Some of the North Korean Party Politics cards.

It was important that lesser players retain support in the Central Committee lest they be purged. Kim Jong-un was also given—partly for fun, but also to simulate the demonstrative displays of public support that sustain authoritarian regimes by projecting omnipotence—a number of Obsequious Loyalty Forms. With these he could set his minions a task each turn, with rewards and punishments for those who exhibited impressive or disappointing revolutionary enthusiasm.

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One of the North Korea power structures displays, in this case depicting the Korean Workers’ Party. The others depicted the military, the intelligence and security services, and the civil government.

The presence of a complex-looking internal politics game on the North Korean table was also intended to generate a sense of uncertainty and confusion among other teams as to what exactly was going on in Pyongyang.

The US and North Korea subgames might seem a little satirical, and indeed were designed to allow the players to enjoy themselves. However, we were fairly confident that their actual outputs would be quite realistic. Statements from the US President would be rhetorical and unpredictable, reflecting his own views and the intense ideological, political, and personality battles within the White House. Indeed, most were simply restatements or tweak of previous statements made by Donald Trump during the election campaign or since assuming office. North Korean politics would be complex, but opaque to outsiders. This was also a case of designing for our audience, who we knew could appreciate the humour while remaining focused on their simulated tasks.

With regard to our media team (Connections Global News), this Jim and I recruited outside the conference from among experienced megagame players and some of my former political science students (all of whom were veterans of my own intense, week-long Brynania simulation). The media play an absolutely essential role in such games, making sure that players are well-informed by providing a stream of generally reliable information. Jim was able to staff the various Control positions from among experienced gamers attending the conference.

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More game materials. Photo credit: Jim Wallman.

When assigning players to teams, we did our best to match subject matter expertise and experience to roles. We were fortunate to have several people with expertise in the East and Southeast Asian security issues among the conference participants.

 

Game Play

Both Jim and I were very pleased with how it all went. The players remained extremely active and engaged. Team behaviours were all plausible. The Control members did an excellent job, and Connections Global News managed to tweet no fewer than 365 news reports in five hours of play, at a rate of more than one per minute.

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The initial CGN game briefing underway. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

The North Korean crisis attracted the most international attention. Kim Jong-un, who survived the assassination attempt thanks to his loyal secret police, approved testing of a multiple warhead version of his ICBM, and then deployed a basic SLBM system on modified conventional submarines. The missile tests took place over Japan, moreover. Each of his decisions was met with rapturous applause from members of his government (although one overly ambitious ambassador did have to be disciplined).

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North Korea’s Supreme Leader practices his very best resolute-stare-in-the-face-of-capitalist-neoimperialism.

South Korea, Japan, and the US responded by placing forces on alert. South Korea decided to undertake covert efforts to promote peaceful change in the North. While the DPRK’s Supreme Leader (ably played by Brian Train) projected the revolutionary self-confidence one might expect of the vanguard leadership of the Korean Workers’ Party, I think that as they saw the build-up of military hardware in their neighbourhood they might have been a little anxious as to whether they had overstepped a little.

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Players react as CGN reports on a North Korean missile test. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

Unknown to most (except the CIA), South Korea also began secret preparatory work to enable it to launch an accelerated nuclear weapons development programme at some future point, if the need arose. The growing strategic threat from the North was the primary reason for this. However, Seoul was also concerned that US commitments were perhaps less reliable than in the past. This was a concern for Japan too.

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Things heat up around the Korean Peninsula. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

Indeed, within the US Administration there was a lively, and often confused, debate over how to respond. Some felt it was essential to send a strong message of US resolve, and indeed at one point US Pacific Command recommended that the US consider sinking a North Korean SSB to send a message. That was quickly ruled out by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense. Others argued for caution, arguing if too much pressure was placed on Pyongyang the regime might respond in dangerous ways.

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The White House. Photo credit: Connections UK.

When Pyongyang briefly hacked Donald Trump’s Twitter account, however, the President was furious. The NSA and US Cyber Command responded by briefly shutting down North Korean radio and television.

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Inside the White House. Photo credit: Ivan Seifert/KCL.

A key point of difference within the American Administration concerned the role of China. Some favoured diplomatic outreach to Beijing to coordinate policy regarding the Korea crisis. Others felt China’s interests were too different from those of the US. Still others, with an eye on US domestic politics, were eager to advance the President’s trade policy by putting pressure on “#cheatingChina” to make economic concessions. The result was that US policy signals were mixed at best, reflecting as much the tug-of-war within the White House as the evolving strategic crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, the situation grew increasingly fraught, and a subsequent review of national intelligence estimates showed that several countries assessed the probability of war in coming weeks at greater than 50/50.

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Everyone on alert. Photo credit: Paul Howarth.

US diplomats in their region, however, did their best to pursue a steady course, downplaying some of the President Trump’s more provocative statements and working with regional actors. China, Russia, and the US met to resolve the crisis, while both North and South Korea took steps to de-escalate the situation. The US also took the decision to expand and accelerate deployment of a range of ant-ballistic missile (ABM) systems (THAAD, Aegis, and GBD/GBI) to offset North Korea’s growing capabilities.

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Game play underway at CGN headlines are displayed on the room monitors. Photo credit: Paul Howarth.

While all this was going on, the Taiwanese team—angered by the “Chrysanthemum Conspiracy” election hacking scandal—pushed for greater Taiwanese independence from the People’s Republic of China. When efforts to win observer status at the United Nations were blocked by China in the Security Council, efforts shifted to the General Assembly. At the same time, a constitutional reform process was announced, with considerable public support. Taipei hoped that Beijing would be too distracted by the Korea crisis to respond forcefully to these moves. France was particularly outspoken in supporting Taipei’s efforts, including a promise of arms sales.

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Tensions grow in the Taiwan Strait. Photo credit: Paul Howarth.

The PRC’s response was rather less severe than one might have expected, Nonetheless, it did begin a build-up of naval forces in the Taiwan Strait, and sent a warning shot in the form of a massive cyberattack that disrupted internet traffic across the island. The US dispatched a carrier task force to the area, and President Trump at one point tweeted apparent support for Taiwan’s UN bid. However, back in Washington another heated debate was underway. Some favoured supporting democratic Taiwan. Other advocated abandoning President Tsai to win greater support from Beijing on the Korea issue. In the UN, the US refrained from actively supporting Taiwanese efforts.

In the South China Sea, ASEAN countries found common ground in resisting Chinese maritime claims. Such enhanced regional cooperation seemed to be spurred on by a feeling that American support would be uneven going forward. France and the UK joined several regional countries (Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines) in naval exercises, while Indonesia announced that it would be upgrading military facilities and constructing an airbase in the area. Several countries announced more active measures against Chinese fishing in disputed waters, resulting in a couple of incidents between fishing vessels and coast guards.

Vietnam—adjacent to China, still smarting from China’s 2017 threats against an offshore oil project, and with bitter memories of the 1979 war between the two countries, was especially active in reaching out to other partners. It signed a secret agreement with the US to establish a joint signals intelligence facility to monitor Chinese military communications, concluded an arms deal with Russia, and allowed a Russian naval visit in conjunction with planned joint oil exploration in the area. Beijing was none too pleased by all this, but was preoccupied by other events.

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The Vietnamese team issues new military orders. Photo credit: Ivan Seifert/KCL.

Amid all this, border tensions between India and China were quickly resolved. Although military forces were briefly placed on somewhat higher alert, the two countries quickly agreed to accept the status quo and reduce tensions. Thereafter India largely focused on economic development and pursuing amicable relations with its neighbours—except Pakistan, where tensions over Kashmir flared.

And so it was that DIRE STRAITS ended with a few incidents at sea over illegal fishing and a some major cyber-attacks, but no open warfare. This, I think, was a very plausible outcome—although the Chinese response to signs of greater independence by Taiwan were rather less forceful than I imagine their real-world response would be. While it all might seem surprisingly peaceful in retrospect, many countries spent much of the game expecting war to erupt at any minute.

We also saw the President’s beleaguered Chief of Staff dismissed from his post amidst White House intrigue, and his overwhelmed Secretary of State resign at the end of the game rather than be fired.

 

Broader Lessons

After all of that, what conclusions might be drawn from the game concerning both the topic under examination, and the use of megagames as a serious gaming method?

Despite the various requirements imposed by the conference and venue, I do think the game generated some insight into current policy challenges. Specifically:

  • US policy under the Trump Administration is much less predictable than under any other president in modern times, a function of both the President’s mercurial and populist political instincts, and the clash between differing priorities and world-views within the White House. True, we had designed the game system to encourage this, but none of it was predetermined, and players could have taken a more cooperative route (as they did when deciding to increase the American investment in ABM systems). As White House Control, I was pleased to see how realistically and enthusiastically participants role-played their roles. Debate centred around different political views and goals, and not the manipulation of game mechanics. Domestic political concerns often trumped geopolitics. In short, if one builds a game system that models the existence of factions, rivalries, and differences within the current White House, one gets game outputs that look very much like current US foreign policy.
  • The mixed and sometimes wildly oscillating signals coming out of Washington do less damage than might be the case because they are quietly spun, nuanced, and moderated by cabinet officials and ambassadors in the field. In DIRE STRAITS the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State, and various ambassadors played a key role in this. Indeed, it was precisely because he spent so much time trying to patch over problems arising in Washington that our simulated Secretary of State found himself with little influence in the Oval Office and was ultimately sacked.
  • Despite this, uncertainties in US policy generate anxiety among American friends and allies. Neither South Korea nor Japan seemed to feel they could fully rely on Washington, as evidenced by the former secret decision to prepare a potential nuclear weapons programme. Taiwan was never quite sure how much latitude and US support it had, and Beijing was also left guessing about American commitment to the “One China Policy.” ASEAN countries increased regional security cooperation in part because US backing seemed uncertain. Several countries diversified their relations to counterbalance China and hedge their bets regarding American support.
  • The game clearly showed that there are no good policy options regarding North Korea’s nuclear capacity, only less-bad ones. Everyone was wary of pushing Pyongyang too far. Toppling the Kim Jong-un regime was seen by most (but not all) as dangerous, since it risked retaliation or chaos in a nuclear-armed state. In this sense, Pyongyang’s nukes demonstrated their value as a deterrent. Rather than punitive strikes or intervention, a messy mix of threats, deterrence, sanctions, and diplomatic dialogue appeared to offer the best path to crisis management. US-Chinese cooperation was important, but undermined by mutual suspicion, as well as tensions between Washington and Beijing on other issues (such as trade or the South China Sea). Overall, the game seemed to suggest no meaningful path to denuclearization, a real risk that South Korea (or even Japan) might consider a future nuclear weapons option, and the reality of having to live with a nuclear-armed DPRK while mitigating the threat and deterring North Korean adventurism.
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Some of the media team (and me). Photo credit: Patrick Brobbey.

Regarding the game method, there’s not much I would change. There were a few cases where misleading information circulated (CGN initially reported Taiwan was successful in its bid for UNGA observer status, and had to correct this—no such vote was held, and they would have likely lost), but overall the information flow and quality was excellent. The subgames worked well, and it was noteworthy than many/most non-American players were unaware that “Donald Trump” was a game system rather than a human player until after it was all over. Jim’s decision to dramatically simplify the military/combat system, and to emphasize issues of posture and commitment, was absolutely right. The map displays had just the right amount of simplicity and detail.

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The US analytical team. Photo credit: Connections UK.

Longer turns would have been nice—I think we would have had better briefing back to leaderships as well as more considered strategy discussions. However, longer turns would have also meant fewer turns, and we thought it important that there be ample opportunity for players to see the consequence of their actions. We also surprised players by ending the game one turn early to prevent “last turn madness.”

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More analysts analyzing. Photo credit: Tom Mouat.

We could have had more effective data collection, but here we were limited by the realities of the exercise. Teams did complete our military and major decision forms as required, but strategic and intelligence assessment forms were sometimes forgotten (or lost) in the hustle and bustle. All the news reports were archived, and pictures were taken of each game map each turn to provide a record of the military situation. Members of the three analytical teams freely circulated around the game during play, and were able to listen in on strategy discussions, negotiations, and sundry plotting. I’m eager to see what they will have to say.

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At the moment, it looks like we will be designing another megagame for Connections 2018 (pending the results of the participant feed-back forms). The subject matter, however, has yet to be determined. Ideas, anyone?

BBC: Can war games help us avoid real-world conflict?

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The BBC has a report on the recent Dire Straits wargame at King’s College London, part of this year’s Connections UK professional wargaming conference.

North Korea has just fired off an intercontinental ballistic missile over Japan. Japan is uncertain as to whether the US wants to start a war.

It’s trying to find out why a massive American naval fleet has just arrived in the region. But it’s not getting any answers. There’s chaos in the White House as various factions try to influence the president.

Some of this might sound familiar. But this is not real life. It’s the scenario in a war game called Dire Straits, set in 2020.

And it’s being acted out, not on the world stage, but in a lecture theatre and seminar rooms at King’s College, London.

I’ll be posting a full report on both Dire Straits and Connections UK in the coming days.

Dire Straits live at KCL on September 5!

…not Dire Straits the iconic 1970s/80s/90s UK rock band, that is—but rather, Dire Straits the megagame of East/Southeast Asian crisis stability.

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Approximately 100 participants will spend much of the day examining a series of near-future (2020) challenges—North Korean nuclear weapons development, cyberattacks and an election scandal in Taiwan, conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea, disputed areas of Chinese-Indian border—in the context of growing Chinese strategic power, and an unpredictable and uncertain US administration.

How the US would respond in a major crisis is unclear, given both the unpredictability of the President and uncertainty within the US political system. Although cleared of any direct collusion with Russia by the Special Counsel investigation, a few Trump associates were indicted for lesser offences. This, coupled with political reversals in the 2018 Congressional midterm elections and several major policy missteps, has left the Trump Administration politically weak. President Trump faces opposition within his own party to his re-nomination for the November 2020 election, an issue that will only be resolved at the Republican national convention this summer. His main Republican Challenger has accused him of failing to deliver a resolute defence of US national interests, while the current Democratic Frontrunner has warned that desperation might lead the Administration to adopt a more reckless foreign policy.

Jim Wallman and I are designing the game, and we have an elite Control group ready to make it all that emergent game play magic work. We’ve even brought in an outside SWAT team  of experienced megagamers and former McGill students to play the role of Connections Global News. If you’re not attending Connections UK, we’ll let you know how it all went!

Connections UK 2016 AAR

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The main conference component of the 2016 Connections UK professional wargaming conference started on Wednesday, with a record 160 participants registered—the largest Connections UK meeting to date, and the second largest Connections ever.

In the opening session Graham Longley-Brown highlighted the renewed interest in wargaming across the UK military and in the public realm. Among the many things he pointed to were the Sandhurst Kriegsspiel, the various Connections conferences, and the recent publication Zones of Control, edited by Pat Harrigan and Matthew Kirschenbaum. Having done so, however, he raised the question of how best to institutionalize wargaming and build further capacity—the question at the heart of this year’s conference. Phil Sabin echoed these points, welcomed participants on behalf of King’s College London and the Department of War Studies.

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The first panel, chaired by ED McGrady (CNA), explored the psychology of successful wargames. Graham Longley-Brown (LBS Consultancy) started off by addressing high-engagement wargames. Wargaming, he argued, was about people, the decisions they take, and the resulting story-living experience. He went on to identify the various components that can contribute to this, including the need to keep players in a game flow that avoids both boredom and excess frustration, and inside the “bubble” of narrative engagement and suspension of disbelief.

Next, Nick Hare (Aleph Insights) offered an excellent presentation on creativity in ludic decision-making. He noted that arriving at a solution involves a mix of both creative and critical (System I and System II) thinking— a cognitive process that we may not be well aware of when it is underway. “Analysis paralysis” tends to occur in the transition between initial assessment and deeper understanding. He noted that much of the literature on analysis focuses on shortcomings in critical thinking (such as failure to fully use information because of cognitive bias) rather than weaknesses in creative thinking (“failures of imagination”). He identified a number of games that encourage creative thinking (Pictionary, Dixit, Codenames, Diplomacy, A Distant Plain, D&D, Megagames). He suggested that (game system) complexity and legibility (maps, clear game concepts, theme) contribute to ludic encouragement of creative thinking.

Finally, the ever-cunning Stephen Downes-Martin (US NWC) talked about wargaming to deceive the sponsor. Wargame sponsors, he argued, often have an interest in deceptive wargames that validate preconceived notions. Wargamers therefore need to learn how to deceive sponsors as a way of inoculating wargaming against sponsor manipulation. This can be done at the game development stage to directly deceive sponsors, or deceiving players during game play in order to deceive the sponsor and other stakeholders. Stress, over-confidence, and career pressures can be exploited to directly manipulate sponsors. Loopholes can be designed into a game that players will exploit in order to generate the desired findings. Having identified how wargames can be deceptive, Stephen then moved on to ways of dealing with all this in order to safeguard game quality: game peer review; monitoring player stress; engaging the sponsor; punishing but learning from cheating; matching game flow to level of war being gamed; identifying and monitoring ambiguous game rules and procedures; and rotating game roles.

I asked about the dangers of too much creative thinking, whereby powerful narrative engagement leads players to forgo critical thinking about real-world feasibility. (This, for example, was a serious problem in my view with the Jane McGonical/World Bank EVOKE social entrepreneurship game.) Nick responded by stressing that the game model needs to root players in the plausible. Graham noted that he more often encounters the challenge of too little engagement rather than too much, but that the game controller should play a role in nudging players back to game objectives. Another questioner asked about the perennial issue of using dice in games, and the discomfort many military participants have with this. All panel members defended the integration of uncertainty through stochastic process. A member of the audience also asked about how one might deal with a situation where a sponsors insists on a scenario that is unwinnable (but isn’t intended to be).

After a coffee break, we were given a brief one minute overview of each of the many games that would be available for play during the later demonstration periods.

After lunch, we returned to discuss non-combat wargames, with the session chaired by Anja van der Hulst. Russell King started us off with an NHS emergency planning exercise. This began with a video announcing a plane crash onto the M-1 near Kegworth, Leicestershire. We were then presented with a series of challenges. Russell used this to discuss the approach he uses, which he sees as facilitated peer review rather than a game with a game control adjudicating outcomes. He noted that it can be hard to get senior people together to participate: they are busy, they are experienced, and they may view a major disaster as a remote possibility compared to day-to-day challenges. However, it is important and necessary that they prepare—indeed, in the UK, this is a professional and legal requirement. If the simulation is snappy, fun, respectful of professional expertise, and tailored to organizational needs it is easier to secure engagement.

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Russell King talks us through a brief emergency planning exercise.

Mark Stoop discussed scenario-based policy discussion. Scenarios4Summits designs scenarios for senior (ministerial, head of government) audiences. This presents particular problems: senior leaders and their staff don’t like to be surprised, there are multiple political sensitivities, and the scenario needs to be very up-to-date.

They work with professional actors and high-quality video, using realistic scenarios, detailed scripts, and considerable fact-checking. The scenarios are intended to act as a prompt to discussion. He stressed the importance of audience acceptance.

Michael Lee discussed one approach to wargaming wide area persistent messaging in information operations. They did this by identifying technologies and approaches, grouping them into categories, and then developing comprehensive sets. The cells were given a chance to develop hypothetical capability sets, which were then tested against a scenario. The sets were then refined, and tested against new scenarios. Actual game play involved technology and platform cards: each Blue cell was allowed to select from a pool of these. The local population groups were profiled for literacy, ICT access, population density, and so forth. Set refinement and multiple scenarios encouraged innovative combinations.

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WAPM cards on display during the games fair.

Much of the subsequent discussion addressed similarities and differences between the approaches presented by the speakers, as well elements of commonality (or differences) with traditional wargaming. One question regarding summit scenarios involved the tension between making scenarios simple enough for senior leaders yet complex enough for staff with subject matter expertise. Mark noted that while the vignettes were really designed for senior (ministerial) participants, the scenarios nonetheless provided an opportunity for technical staff to more fully inform seniors on the intricacies of the challenge presented. It occurred to me that a related problem might be that of senior participants posturing: that is, behaving in ways intended to impress counterparts, rather than more cynically pursuing national or political interests.

The conference then moved to the first of two “games fair” sessions. In part years I’ve been running games, leaving little chance to see what other games were on display. This time I opted not to sign up for any so that I could tour the demonstrations. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get pictures of them all.

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Camberley Kriegsspiel (Andrew Sharpe and Ivor Gardiner)

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Dilemma Analysis (Michael Young)

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TacCyber Wargame (Roke, photo by Tom Mouat)

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Urban Ops (Sebastien de Peyret, photo by Tom Mouat)

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Cyber wargame (Andreas Haggman, photo by Tom Mouat)

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Bellum Baltica matrix wargame (Johan Elg, photo by Tom Mouat)

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Teamwork BG (Swen Stoop)

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Wargame 2020 (Jim Wallman)

I’ll admit that I ended up volunteering myself to join Jim Wallman’s Wargame 2020 as part of the Red Team rebels holding Folkestone against a Blue attack. I think we did well in blunting the enemy’s offensive.

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Our MRL and artillery batteries, after they flattened Blue’s rear echelon support units and just before they were hammered by Blue counter-battery fire. Clearly the crews should have practised their shoot-and-scoot.

The final plenary session of the day was my own keynote address on Ten (Not Entirely Randomly-Generated) Reflections on the Social Science of Wargaming. I won’t summarize what I had to say, since you can find the slides here, and the video below.

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There was a second opportunity to play games after dinner. I ended up running a hastily-organized game of AFTERSHOCK for a couple of officers from UK Standing Joint Force Headquarters and a few conference attendees.

Thursday morning started of with a panel on computer simulation and technology, chaired by Éric Jacobin. Dave Robson and Samantha Black (NSC) presented on technology in support of wargaming, focusing on professional military educational wargaming. Dave argued that technology allows a platform to include communication tools, extensive information, and a common operational picture. Samantha argued that computerized simulations had several strengths, in that they supported rapid calculation (useful for calculation-intensive aspects such as line-of-sight, etc.), avoided emotional bias, facilitated record-keeping and analysis, and are not always expensive. Validation of an educational simulation could be achieved through repeated use, and in many cases simulations only need to be “good enough” since they can be overridden by the White Cell. Digital simulations also can support humans-in-the loop to address aspects that aren’t easily modeled. Simulations are data-driven, which is both a down-side (data preparation) and a strength (supporting multiple use once the data is in place). Mistakes will be made, even by the computer and its model. These can often be treated as “fog of war,” although one can also roll back the simulation or override the digital simulation.

  • Hide the simulation from the users, if possible.
  • Choose an appropriate simulation.
  • Reduce complexity (and be prepared to use subject matter expertise).
  • Emulate the functionality of C3I

Next, Mark Gould (Dstl) discussed CAEn—Close Action Environment, a digital wargame intended primarily for analytical purpose. CAEn allows detailed terrain and unit/platform simulation for platoon and company actions in a simulated area up to 5x5km. He discussed human-in-the-loop digital wargaming, and the issue of corrective human intervention in game outcomes (versus trying to develop sophisticated AI). Analytically, the CAEn team will follow through the critical elements of the wargame, and replicate this with a focus on critical junctures. This allows them to assess how plausible these are. He concluded by identify key strengths of CAEn:

  • Honest (if low-res) graphics.
  • Unique blend of rigour and creativity.
  • Relatively quick or cheap (for what it does).
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CAEn in action during the games fair.

He suggested that CAEn should not be used if you are short on time and money, if large scales (terrain and/or forces) are required, or if large amounts of quantitative data is required.

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The next plenary session featured Stacie Pettyjohn (RAND) speaking on strategic gaming—why it is languished, and how it can be improved. She started by defining strategic gaming, and contrasting this with operational-tactical gaming. Operational games vary in terms of both structure (low/high) and transparency (low/high). However, strategic games tend to be loosely structured, and most are (low structure/low transparency) seminar games. Indeed, she suggested, most seminar games are BOGSATs in which players “admire the problem” and many players arrive with their own “pet rock” talking points, resulting in few innovative ideas. She suggested that manual boardgames are often more useful (when a problem is well understood), since they provide a structure that focuses player attention. However boardgames do risk being dismissed by some audiences as juvenile. There was also a risk that the game rules might distort or misrepresent key strategic dynamics or interests.

As an example of a strategic boardgame Stacie pointed to the Countering-ISIL game she is developing at RAND, based on ideas that emerged from the rapid game design session at last year’s MORS wargaming meeting. Having cofacilitated that session with Brian Train, Robert Leonhard and others I was particularly happy to see how those initial seeds of idea had developed!

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Stacie Pettyjohn discusses strategic wargaming.

The next panel, chaired by Colin Marston (Dstl) looked at successful real-world wargames. Jeff Appleget (NPGS) offered a presentation, coauthored by Rob Burks, on wargaming at the Naval Postgraduate School. He offered several examples: wargaming hybrid warfare in the Arctic (as part of a course on the topic); countering ISIL’s foreign fighter recruitment; exploring the distributed lethality operating concept; defence support to civil authorities (using AFTERSHOCK as part of game design process); wargaming the US Army Pacific CONPLAN (which required considerable security vetting); undersea communication and other technologies; and mass atrocity response. On occasion they’ve done wargames for foreign sponsors, including Norway (hybrid threats) and the Royal Canadian Navy (non-lethal weapons for boarding parties), and also delivered wargaming courses in the US and abroad.

Roger Mason addressed wargaming in the intelligence community. One challenge, he noted, is that once one designs a game it is rarely really clear what is done with it after you hand off the game. National intelligence agencies design their own games, use commercial games, commission games, and monitor other people’s games. Publicly-funded think-tanks (like RAND or CNA) are wargaming too, as are commercial intelligence providers (such as Wikistrat and Stratfor) and academic institutions. Even the Vatican uses scenario planning.

Ivanka Barzaska (KCL) discussed understanding how missile defence affects nuclear deterrence and stability through gaming. She argued that Cold War era modelling of nuclear exchanges are outdated, since contemporary use would like be more limited and constrained. Her research proposes three strategic gaming events, using NATO and (ideally) Russian participants. The games are not intended to test hypotheses, but rather would form part of a mixed-method exploration of highly uncertain issues, acting as a semi-structured interview of sorts. The games could also serve as an informal Track 2 or Track 1.5 process to help educate official about the impact of BMD.

In the subsequent Q&A it was questioned whether wargames were actually having any effect on policy, or whether they had simply become trendy tick-the-box processes.

After lunch, Stephen Downes Martin (NWC) chaired a session on wargaming innovations. Paul Vebber (Naval Undersea Warfare Center) discussed wargaming for innovation. He identified several types of innovation, and emphasized that wargaming ought to form part of the broader cycle of research. Wargaming is particularly useful for issues that involve substantial human decision-making. He spoke of the value of gaming at the various stages of addressing a problem: problem framing, problem exploration, solution framing, synthesis (and game design), solution exploration (playing the game).

Ellie Bartels (RAND) then explored resolving hidden information in open adjudication. Specifically she argued that open adjudication can be a key way of gaming emerging issues (especially when Control doesn’t know more about the issue than the players). However, many emerging issues (deterrence, hybrid warfare, cyber, terrorism, etc.) involve hidden information. Games may hide motivations, actions, capabilities, or effects. Masking actions, capabilities, and effects is more challenging than masking motives. She went on describe how to capture fog of war effects with limited map visibility, separate maps,  or flipped counters, as well as the use of cards to keep information private. She also addressed alternative models for hidden information such as face validity (whereby players challenge processes when results seem implausible) and zero-knowledge protocols (where results are validated by repeated partial observation). There were a couple of interesting suggestions from the audience on additional approaches during the Q&A.

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Ellie addresses the challenge of hidden information in open adjudication games.

Laura Hoffman (KCL) offered her perspective, as a former student, on wargaming at KCL. She was very enthusiastic about Phil Sabin’s conflict simulation course (and indeed disagreed with some of the cautionary notes I had sounded during my keynote address), although initially she felt out of her depth. She noted that she playtested and revised the game so many times that her friends grew sick of it, and was forced to play with family members over Skype. Laura found game design changed her perspective, offered an opportunity for a deep dive into her topic (the war in Darfur), and was a different learning approach. Subsequently she served as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate course, which provided a further opportunity to understand the educational value of gaming. She argued that megagaming and other wargaming was a better learning experience than model United Nations, and that there is genuine student interest in conflict simulation. One interesting question from the audience raised the potential difficulty of grading a game design.

The last part of the conference was taken up breakout sessions devoted to the challenge of how might we institutionalize wargaming and build wargaming capacity? Different working groups addressed this in the context of particular groups and audiences:

  • frontline (military, emergency service) personnel
  • defence science and technology
  • military education and training
  • historical analysis/conflict analysis
  • academia
  • industry
  • hobby gamers

I co-facilitated the academic breakout group with Phil Sabin (KCL). Much of the discussion focused on the need to establish professional respect and validation for educational wargaming. I was struck how the challenges differed across disciplines and university settings. In my own field of political science, there is widespread support for games-based learning, and games-based analysis wouldn’t be difficult sell either. Conversely, Phil has often commented on the resistance he sometimes encounters from fellow military historians. In civilian university, especially in North America, instructors have considerable latitude as to what and how they teach. In the military, however, there are often hierarchies and institutional requirements that deter or inhibit pedagogical innovation. We also addressed labelling (“wargaming” vs “conflict simulation”), student interest, whether there ought to be an academic wargaming journal (I’m dubious), and how best to support the sharing of ideas and experiences (in part, to encourage others  who might be interested in gaming but reluctant to try it to “come out of the closet”). There might also be scope for using new technology—for example, YouTube videos—to provide lessons in game design and facilitation.

The hobby game group noted that they were an “expendable and deniable” resource for more serious gaming, able to bring historical knowledge, a different subculture, and extyensive experience in game design and mechanics. Their contributions might include support to Red and Blue (and other teams), playtesting, and facilitation expertise.

The industry group addressed both the industry as a resource and gaming within the business sector. They noted the importance of having access to senior people. The concept of red teaming sometimes provides a hook which can lead on to wargaming. They also noted that interest among individuals doesn’t necessarily translate into continuing  institutional support.

The historical analysis group identified a lack of resources (time, money, people) as the major obstacle to institutionalizing wargaming and creating a safe space for experimentation. There was a general feeling that new officers were not necessarily well-prepared for the uncertainties of future war, and that getting at officers early in their careers and exposing them to quick (possibly recent-historical) wargames could be very useful. Those with experience in recent campaigns could be a valuable resource for this. There was also a need for outreach to, and sharing with, the broader wargame community.

The professional military education group also stressed the need for accessible games, and the value of having games recommended on military reading lists. There needed to be more outreach and publication in appropriate venues, and more collection of evidence as to the effectiveness of wargaming as a teaching and learning technique. Student feedback is essential.

The defence science and technology group raised the need for more cumulated knowledge, and the value of better understanding client needs. They pointed to a degree of disconnect between wargamers and technology. There was interest in, but debate about, an accredited professional society. Publication in peer-reviewed journal was also seen as valuable.

Finally, the “front-line” military and civil group  reported. They noted that wargames were occurring at various points in the planning cycle: risk assessment, planning, training, and exercise/response/capacity development. Wargaming is a planning tool that offers insight into how groups of people will respond to a challenge. Ivor Gardiner enthusiastically emphasized the value of wargaming as a cheap, highly effective training method that saves lives.

Phil Pournelle made some overall comments. He identified one key cross-cutting theme was that of credibility: of the method, with superiors, and among participants. He also emphasized the importance of games being somewhere where it was “safe to fail,” and he also emphasized the importance of “catching them young.” Phil noted the vast reservoir of knowledge in the hobby and industry. He challenged the wargaming community to better understand the analytical needs of the US DoD, UK MoD, and other clients, and thereby be better able to make the case for wargaming. Matt Caffrey offered three more observations: first, the professional wargaming community does want the support of hobby gamers and industry; second, that we needed to document and archive wargaming more carefully, lest it be lost to history; and finally that no matter what wargamers do, young men and women will die—but if we wargame well, perhaps fewer lives will be lost and fewer resources spent.

In summing up the conference, Phil Sabin said he thought it was the best yet. I have to agree. The presentations and discussions were excellent, the atmosphere was enjoyable and productive, and the networking opportunities were outstanding.

Slides and recordings will be have now been posted soon to the Connections UK website. You’ll also find an account of the conference at Bob Cordery’s blog, Wargaming Miscellany.

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Connections UK 2016: Civil War in Binni

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The serious conference component of the Connections UK 2016 professional wargaming conference starts tomorrow, with two days of plenary presentations, working groups, and game demonstrations. Today, however, many of the participants gathered to play the Civil War in Binni megagame, designed by Jim Wallman.

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The fictional country of Binni featured a dictatorial President, sectarian divisions, multiple rebel groups, terrorism, refugees, humanitarian crisis, conniving neighbours, a concerned and often divided  international community, covert intervention, and UN agencies. New elections were held, but under the regime’s old electoral laws which strongly favoured the incumbent. When the President was reelected in a dubious ballot, Christian militias seized the capital. The President was killed, and the country seemed poised to collapse deeper into chaos.

I served with Stephen Downes-Martin as the UN Control team, and my after-action review slides can be found here (although they will likely make little sense to anyone who wasn’t there). The photos below are courtesy of Tom Mouat. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves a great deal, and some serious points were also made about wargame design and execution.

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Initial conditions.

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Moves underway at the map table.

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Global News Network at work.

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News headlines.

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Influence-peddling.

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UN Security Council meeting.

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The UN SRSG checks the map table as various negotiations continue.

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Christian militias seize the capital.

Connections UK 2016

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The Connections UK 2016 conference for wargaming professionals will be held at King’s College London on 6-8 September. Registration is now open. The conference will last three days: Tuesday 6 September is devoted to a hands-on “megagame” active learning experience, and the main conference is on Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 September.

Purpose. The purpose of Connections UK, the original US Connections and Connections Netherlands and Australia, is to advance and sustain the art, science and application of wargaming. Connections brings together stakeholders from across the field (military, defence, scientific, hobby, commercial and academic) to exchange information, ideas, requirements and best practice.

Programme. The latest programme is attached and also available on the Connections UK web site.

Key topics and events are:

  • The psychology of successful wargames.
  • Non-combat (non-map and counter) wargames.
  • Strategic gaming.
  • Wargaming innovations.
  • Institutionalising wargaming and building the wargaming capacity.
  • Professor Rex Brynen is the key note speaker, talking about Advancing and Expanding the Craft of Wargaming.
  • The highly successful two-session Games Fair will again take place on Wednesday.

Cost. Connections UK is non-profit; it is a service to the wargaming community. Charges are as small as possible, sufficient to cover food, venue and whatever minimal administration is required. Serving UK personnel can use Learning Credits when attending Connections UK. The ‘megagame’ day has been costed separately from the main Conference days, so the costs for Connections UK 2016 are:

  • Megagame day: £60.
  • Main days: £135.

Location. The Connections UK 2016 location will again be Kings College London, The Strand Campus, in the Great Hall and Edmond J Safra Lecture Theatre.

Registration. Registration is open, but please note that the last booking date is 15 August, so do not leave this to the last minute! Register now at the KCL e-store web site.

Accommodation. Finding accommodation is an individual’s responsibility, but there are two Connections UK-specific deals to be aware of. The Strand Palace offers reduced rates for Connections UK delegates (approx £135 per night depending on room type), and KCL has cheap and cheerful student accommodation available (approx £50 per night). Details are on the KCL estore web site at the ‘More Info’ tab.

Points of Contact and further information. See the Connections UK website  for the periodically updated 2016 programme, content of former conferences, etc. Coverage of previous conferences can also be found here at PAXsims.

Please send general questions to graham@lbsconsultancy.co.uk or detailed queries concerning registration and administration to Bisi Olulode at  olabisi.olulode@kcl.ac.uk.

Connections UK 2015 slides, audio, and video

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The slides, audio, and video from September’s Connections UK wargaming conference has now been posted to the Connections UK website.

Yes, that's me live-blogging on my laptop at Connections UK.

Yes, that’s me live-blogging on my laptop in the audience at Connections UK.

In addition, you’ll also find a summary of the conference at Bob Cordery’s blog Wargaming Miscellany.

Connections UK 2015: Day 3 AAR

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The third and final day at this year’s Connections UK wargaming conference started with a panel discussion on wargaming best practice. David England, (Niteworks) talked about gaming, experimentation, and force development; Jeremy Smith (Cranfield) presented on validation and verification of a manual simulation, specifically the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset (RCAT); I talked about political-military (pol-mil) gaming; and Capt Ed Farren (British Army) made an excellent presentation on wargaming and officer training.

In my own presentation I made a series of points:

1. The very first step in political-military wargaming is to decide what you are doing and why. Is the game intended to generate ideas, stress-test existing ideas, horizon-scan for possible future developments, or as an experiential and learning exercise?

2. Is a game really the best approach to the problem?

3. Is a big or complex game the best solution to the problem, or can it be addressed as effectively with simpler gaming techniques, like matrix games?

With regard to all of these observation I made the point that we should adopt a “toolkit” approach in which game design components are matched to purpose, rather than promoting a one-size-fits-all approach. I also argued for “responsible games evangelism” in which we addressed the weaknesses as well as the strengths of game techniques.

4. Everyone doing political military wargames ought to read Robert Levine, Thomas Schelling, and William Jones, Crisis Games 27 Years Later: Plus c’est Déjà Vu. RAND Corporation Report P-7719 (1991).

5. How you structure participation, and who is represented in the game, dramatically affects many game outcomes. In many pol-mil games it is difficult to know who to incorporate and how to incorporate them.

6. Idiosyncratic factors can have heavy influence on game play. Partly this is a positive thing, reflecting the ways in which games can generate emotional and personal engagement by players (a point made at the conference by ED McGrady, Peter Perla, Graham Longley-Brown, and others). However, it may also mean that personalities—unconstrained by institutions and politics in quite the same way as real world policy-makers—distort game outputs.

7. Considerable attention must be given as to how to capture and record game play, debrief players, encourage reflections, and carry ideas and findings forward into the policy process.

The subsequent audience discussion of the panel presentations addressed such issues as the value of commercial off the shelf wargames in officer training; the impact of professional subcultures on the behaviour of game participants; and the relationship between learning styles and games-based learning.

The third day of Connections UK 2015 had obligatory diagrams too--this one by Philip Sabin.

The third day of Connections UK 2015 had obligatory diagrams too–this one by Philip Sabin.

After the coffee-break we came back for a panel on the synergies between hobby and professional wargaming. Phil Sabin explored the contemporary use of historical wargames, highlighting their value both in educational and academic settings and well as within the national security community. He placed particular emphasis on how wargaming and learning about conflict simulation helps (future) analysts to better understand and model current and future conflict. At the same time, he also noted that many contemporary hobby games are too complex or too unrealistic to be readily used for analytical or training purposes. John Curry (History of Wargaming Project) also looked at professional use of recreational wargames. He cited a number of examples of games that have been used by both hobbyists and the military, or which might be. He, like Phil, highlighted some of the limitations of commercial games too (accuracy, complexity, duration, process, topic, umpire roll-back). In response to a question about how well commercial wargames explored hybrid warfare, Phil made some excellent points about the way in which rules and victory conditions could incentivize players to engage in realistic behaviours, or be used to assess otherwise incommensurable costs and rewards.

The last part of the conference was devoted to a “skinning the cat” session on wargaming for innovation, in which participants were divided into groups, and each asked to select a topic and develop game ideas around that theme. The potential topics were:

  • conflict in the Ukraine
  • an election
  • mercenaries/private military corporations
  • national power cut
  • influence operations
  • a terrorist attack against a school
  • urban warfare
  • refugees and migration

My group chose the last three of these, and I facilitated the design discussions for Thomas Crook: A Game of Human Trafficking. In our game proposal—intended as a professional red-teaming resource for those dealing with forced displacement and migrations issues—a half dozen or so players would assume the role of smugglers, and would compete to move migrants to Europe using a variety of possible routes and techniques. It was a great session with excellent input from everyone, and the emerging game design seemed very sound indeed.

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And so it all finally came to an end. Overall, this year’s Connections UK was outstanding—indeed, the best ever. I very much look forward to next year’s meeting.

Connections UK 2015: Day 2 AAR

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Today is first day of the main programme of the 2015 Connections UK wargaming conference, and the second day of the event.

Frans Berkhout (Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy, King’s College London) welcomed the participants. He highlighted the broad and growing interest in the social sciences in simulation and the development of “synthetic worlds” for experimentation and exploration.

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The largest Connections UK conference ever.

The first panel of the day addressed global wargaming developments. Peter Perla (CNA) discussed developments in the US in the wake of renewed interest in wargaming by the Department of Defense. He suggested that for wargaming, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” He examined four recent memos on wargaming by former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, by US Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, on implementing the initiative, and by the Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. He welcomed the renewed attention, but warned that we needed to capitalize the moment or lose a golden opportunity for many years. He expressed concern that everything would now be called a “wargame” as everyone jumped on the wargaming bandwagon with little attention to quality. Peter also expressed concern at the idea of “systematizing” wargaming and the development of a wargame repository. Discussing the Navy’s efforts in this area, he noted some of the potential problems and sources of resistance. On a very positive note he observed that the Deputy Secretary of Fefense appears to have picked up on the point—strongly made at the recent Connections US conference—that wargaming needs to be integrated into curriculum of professional military education from an early point in officers’ careers..

Matt Caffrey (USAF) highlighted how the original US-based Connections conference has gone global, with annual conferences now being held in the UK, Australia, and the Netherlands too. He started by making the general case for wargaming, then discussed the ways in which the Connections conferences could support both the general advancement of wargaming and skills development by new wargamers.

PAXsims’ own Devin Ellis (ICONS Project) discussed wargaming with the Chinese, drawing upon his experience with a decade of political-military crisis management gaming initiatives with China. He noted that the People’s Liberation Army has placed increasing emphasis on wargaming. PLA gaming tends to be kinetic, more operational than strategic, and rather doctrinal. Chinese “blue teamers” who might play the American side in a PLA pol-mil games often poorly understand US military doctrine and foreign policy. Chinese game participants tend to place a great deal of emphasis on establishing guiding principles. They appear strongly committed to not taking the first shot. Moral judgments are often applied to pragmatic behaviours, although this seems to be changing. Legal standards are important, but selectively interpreted. Chinese players tend to be suspicious of US intentions, and misunderstand US alliance relationships and force posture. Chinese interagency processes and knowledge are limited. Overall Devin suggested that while the Chinese seem increasingly committed to improving the quality of their wargaming, the learning curve is steep and there are many institutional obstacles to be overcome.

This panel was followed by a games fair briefing, in which quick three-minute overviews were provided of each of the fourteen games on display today.

After lunch attention turned to UK wargaming developments. Rob Solly, the Division Head for Defence and Security Analysis (DSA) at Dstl, discussed putting wargaming back at the heart of analysis. He suggested that the renewed interest in wargaming was due to the nature of human-centric, complex nature of contemporary problems which are less amenable to conventional analysis; because it is sometimes better to help a client learn about themselves, rather than simply being taught; and because divergent thinking mechanisms are needed to help open the minds of decision-makers. Dstl’s wargaming skills into a new wargaming hub at DSA amid a growing appetite for wargaming across the UK defence and security establishment.

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The new commandant of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst talked about the need to educate young officers for future uncertainties, while also training them for the enduring aspects of combat. Staff colleges place a great deal of emphasis on planning, but not enough in exploring execution, adaptation, and adversarial competition. Currently, wargaming at Sandhurst largely consists of some COA (course of action) (quasi)wargaming, TEWTs (tactical exercises without troops), and BOGSAT-type discussions. However, there has been little or no substantial, adversarial wargaming. They have newly introduced a map-based post-TEWT kriegsspiel, and there may be other places where they can introduce wargaming too. While there is a wargaming club at Sandhurst, there hasn’t been widespread participation from cadets.

The map for Tom Mouat's tactical kriegsspiel design for RMAS.

The map for Tom Mouat’s tactical kriegsspiel design for RMAS.

In chairing the session, Gen Andrew Sharpe (retd) suggested that Army officers would be more willing to wargame if there were senior signals that it was a good thing to do. He also noted that often large exercises or games are sufficiently rare that no one particular wants to face a creative enemy that might defeat them. He stressed that there needed to be more wargaming to see if a plan will work, as opposed to confirm that it will work.

The first games fair session was a busy one. One of the drawbacks of demonstrating a game, however, is that you have no opportunity to examine the other games on display. There were a great many that looked very interesting, with a broad range of topics, approaches, and game mechanics in evidence.

Participants get ready for the game fair.

Participants get ready for the game fair.

Part of David Vassallo's extremely impressive HOSPEX field hospital simulation game, first developed in Philip Sabin's MA class in conflict simulation at KCL.

Part of David Vassallo’s extremely impressive HOSPEX field hospital simulation game, first developed in Philip Sabin’s MA class in conflict simulation at KCL.

Kestrel's Hover, an air assault game developed for 16 Air Assault Brigade by Dstl.

Kestrel’s Hover, an air assault game developed for 16 Air Assault Brigade by Dstl.

Phil Sabin's CHACR Camberley Kriegsspiel.

Phil Sabin’s CHACR Camberley Kriegsspiel.

AFTERSHOCK set up and ready to play.

AFTERSHOCK set up and ready to play.

I did get a chance to play a few turns of The Great Crossing, Jim Wallman’s simple but elegant game of refugee flows and economic migration. Fa theced with a growing flood of migrants, noble country of Silvania (that would be me) worked out an understanding with several other regional countries on managing the flow, including offering asylum to refugees and some integration to economic migrants. Others, however, pursued more of a beggar-thy-neighbour strategy of blocking refugees and trying to push them towards the borders of other countries. Sadly, some refugees were even lost at sea.

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The Great Crossing.

I also ran a game of AFTERSHOCK. The players did well, despite some periodic tensions between them—indeed, at one point the UN and host government threatened to hold a press conference denouncing the NGOs unless they cooperated on mobilizing donor support.

AFTERSHOCK underway.

AFTERSHOCK underway. The stress and horror of the disaster can be seen etched into their very souls.

A keynote address by ED McGrady followed on why wargaming works. He emphasized the importance of both narrative and play, stressing the “art” of gaming. Rationalists, he suggested, are uncomfortable with game play since it creates new, imaginary worlds. Games, he suggested, are indeed different and special territory, allowing us to explore the non-rational aspects of behavior (in war or otherwise) as well as unanticipated associations and unexpected narratives. For games to work they need to be grounded in rationalist behavior, but they become irrational once the game starts. More research was needed, he suggested, on how the play element of games affects individual and collective decision-making in serious games.

After dinner there was a second games fair session—and a second demonstration game of AFTERSHOCK. This one was fairly close, with the players suffering heavy losses in the first week of the disaster. However very effective coordination helped them to achieve considerable improvement thereafter, resulting in a comfortable collective victory by the end of the game.

Connection UK 2015: Day 1 AAR

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The Connections UK 2015 interdisciplinary wargaming conference started today at King’s College London, with two of your PAXsims correspondents in attendance—Devin Ellis and myself. This is the largest Connections UK ever, with up to 130 registrants (and, I think, the second largest Connections conference ever).

We started off with lectures on “Wargaming 101.” Tom Moaut (Defence Academy of the UK) provided a general overview of basic gaming approaches, while Jim Wallman (Past Perspectives) discussed how to design a wargame to meet particular requirements. In the latter presentation Jim stressed the importance of determining game objectives and purposes at the outset, noting that the client may not always be clear exactly what they want. Next, he stressed, you also need to establish game constraints and boundaries: participants (numbers, skills, enthusiasm), time, space, level, game resolution, equipment needs, and so forth. Having done this, one can consider initial elements of structure: scope (what does the game explore), structure, time/scale, and how open or closed the game is (that is, whether information is public, or private with “fog of war” represented). Next are game mechanisms. He suggested that this was a somewhat easier step than those prior. A key challenge here is balancing complexity/detail/granularity with simplicity and design elegance. In terms of playtesting, he identified three stages: the “unbaked” session in which one brainstorms initial ideas’ “half-baked” when you have some of the initial ideas translated into game mechanics; and finally playtesting the “baked,” near-final game design.

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Jim Wallman’s obligatory design diagram.

Jim correctly stressed that games needed to be assessed against their design aim, and care should be taken that this is not lost sight amid in the enthusiasm of design and play. He warned too that “defensiveness is the enemy of good wargame design”—that one has to be prepared to discard ideas, approaches, and mechanisms.

After coffee, we returned to hear Stephen-Downes-Martin (Naval War College) examined “How NOT to analyse wargames.” Stephen emphasized the importance of using professional analysts, and warned against the influence of senior officials who lack analytic expertise but who do have the power to press their views. Analysts need to be partners with the game designer, thinking from the outset about how they will extract the necessary data from the players and their interaction. Immediate hot-washes, conducted amid the continuing buzz of a recently-completed game, may be inadequate to collect impressions and feedback. He noted that the decisions made in the game are typically less important than the reasons behind those decisions. He stressed the analytic need to treat the White Cell/adjudicators as participants, and understand the rationale for their decisions too.

Stephen too had an obligatory wargaming diagram.

Stephen too had an obligatory wargaming diagram.

Stephen also highlighted the challenge of having the right players in the game. I’ll admit this is an increasing concern of mine, since I’m of the view that game outcomes are heavily shaped by the profile of participants (domain knowledge, risk aversion, interpersonal skills, etc.).

Following on from this there was an excellent panel of analysts from the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) on using data (and models) in wargames. Mark Pickering looked at trials and experimentation as a data source for wargames. Dan Ledwick explored systems and performance modeling, looking at lethality and effects. Stevie Ho addressed the use of historical analysis to generate wargame data. He noted that the Falklands War highlighted how different combat experience was from earlier field trial weapons and performance data. Finally, James King (who had also introduced the session) suggested ways of checking wargame data, and underscored the importance of doing so.

The presentation panel from Dstl. Being Dstl, they had many diagrams.

The presentation panel from Dstl. Being Dstl, they had many diagrams.

After lunch we all engaged in a large participatory wargame, New Dover Patrol. This revolved around a vicious separatist insurgency against the rightful government of Silvania by Kippist religious extremists. Faced terrorist gangs seizing parts of the southern city of New Dover, the government had been forced to call upon the United Nations and the powerful country of Freedonia to assist. (Of course, my perspective in all of this may have been distorted somewhat by playing the role of the President of Silivania.)

Jim Wallman presents the game.

Jim Wallman and Tom Mouat present the game.

My government was anxious to get as many Freedonian troops on the ground as quickly as possible, both to combat the extremist menace and to assure their continued commitment. To this end, Freedonian marines seized the port district while our own battered forces performed gallantly and liberated the airport from Kippist terror gangs. This allowed the rapid follow-on of additional forces.

As evidence of their treachery, Kippist extremists tried to assassinate me. Although bloody, I was unbowed, and called upon the country to redouble its efforts. At the same time I held out a hand of reconciliation to moderate rebels who might wish to abandon violence and seek a political settlement. Sadly our efforts were rebuffed by the fanatics.

The enemy was steadily pushed back, but not without heavy collateral damage that began to eat away at Freedonian political support for intervention. This was compounded by the sometimes less-than-cautious activities of the Freedonian air contingent, as well as a second amphibious landing to the west that captured the area around the New Dover water treatment plant—but at the cost of damaging the facility and risking an outbreak of disease. We pressed for the UN to address the humanitarian emergency, and as the game ended we had also called for a local ceasefire in the area around the water treatment plant so that we could effect repairs.

Following the game we then had an analysis session in which we discussed both how the campaign had been fought as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the game design. I thought the game went very well indeed, despite the difficulty of having scores of players all in one tiered lecture theatre.

For the penultimate session of the first day we broke into three groups: Tom Moaut discussed “wargaming effects;’ Jim Wallman explored “developing insights from wargaming;” and Graham Longley-Brown (LBS Consultancy) led a session on “fully engaging the player.” I took part in the latter. Graham stressed the many ways in which truly engaging play supported games-based learning. He did an especially good job of suggesting how we ought to frame the gaming experience so that students remain in both the flow of game play and the “bubble” (or the “magic circle”) of narrative setting. I absolutely agree, and in my Brynania simulation I spent a great deal of effort immersing students in a fictional conflict in a way that generates enthusiasm and emotional commitment to role and interaction. However, I raised the concern that engagement ought not be allowed to substitute for clarity about learning objectives—after all, it is possible to be enthusiastic about learning the wrong lessons. This, I think, was a problem with the Jane McGonigal/World Bank EVOKE social entrepreneurship game. It is, in a somewhat different way, a problem also explored by Anders Frank, who has written about military cadets entering “gamer mode” wherein they are so motivated to win that they exploit game mechanics in ways that undermine realism.

Graham's impressive diagram.

Graham’s impressive diagram.

Finally, we had a hot-wash discussion of how the day had gone.

Both here and at the US Connections conference these first day lecture/course/introduction sessions face a couple of challenges. The first is how to pitch them: although they are intended to aid relatively new wargamers develop their skills and knowledge, a great many of the people in the room are actually very experienced gamers. That may skew the discussion. Second there is the risk that we all tend to discuss the approaches we habitually use, which may mean that some techniques receive more emphasis than others. Nevertheless I thought it was all very well done.

Tomorrow the main session program starts in earnest, with discussion of wargaming developments in the UK and around the world, as well as a games fair (including a demonstration of AFTERSHOCK: A humanitarian Crisis Game).

AFTERSHOCK: conference discount for Connections UK

AFTERSHOCK discount

To mark this week’s Connections UK 2015 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London, we’ll be offering a discount on the sale of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. Buy it now at The Game Crafter for $89.99 (MRSP $99.99)—but hurry, the sale ends on September 12.

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I’ll be running a demonstration game of AFTESHOCK at Connections during the evening of Wednesday, September 9. I can save one or two places for outside participants with a professional interest in the game—if you are in London and would like to take part, email me.

I’ll also be running a demonstration game in the Washington DC area (Fairfax VA) on September 29, and possibly in Rome, Italy on or about September 21. Email for more information.

Connections conferences 2015

PAXsims is pleased to present an update on the various forthcoming Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conferences to be held around the world this year.


27-30 July 2015

Connections (US)

This year’s Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference—the original version, and still the largest—will be held at National Defense University in Washington DC. The updated website (including registration) can be found here.

Held annually since 1993, the mission of Connections is to advance and preserve the art, science, and application of wargaming.  The conference works each year to facilitate a useful exchange information on achievements, best practices and needs of all elements of the field of wargaming, from military, to commercial, to academic applications.

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PAXsims reports on last year’s conference can be found here, here, here, and here.


8-10 September 2015
Connections UK

The third annual Connections UK conference will be held at King’s College London. The current version of the programme is below. For updated details and registration, visit the conference website.

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PAXsims reports on last year’s conference can be found here and here.


14-15 September 2015
Connections Netherlands

The Connections Netherlands conferences is sponsored by SAGANET ( Simulation And Gaming Association: The Netherlands), and will be held at Fort Vechten near Utrecht. You’ll find full details in this brochure.


14-15 December 2015
Connections Australia

Australia’s second annual Connections wargaming conference will be held again at the University of Melbourne. Details can be found here.

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Connections UK 2015 confirmed for 8-10 September 2015

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The 2015 edition of the now annual Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference have been announced for 8-10 September 2015, at King’s College London. Day 1 is likely to involve a full or half day of introductory and possible advanced classes in wargaming, while days 2 and 3 will be devoted to plenary discussions, panels, a breakout session, and a hands-on games fair.

Further details will be announced as they become available on the Connections UK website. For information on the conference in 2013 and 2014, see our earlier PAXsims reports. I’ll be there again in 2015!

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