Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Connections UK

Connections UK 2016: Civil War in Binni

Connections UK.jpeg

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.


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.


Initial conditions.


Moves underway at the map table.


Global News Network at work.


News headlines.




UN Security Council meeting.


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


Christian militias seize the capital.

Connections UK 2016


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 or detailed queries concerning registration and administration to Bisi Olulode at

Connections UK 2015 slides, audio, and video


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


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.

* * *

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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

_Connections UK 2015 1

_Connections UK 2015 2

_Connections UK 3

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.


Connections UK 2015 confirmed for 8-10 September 2015


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!

Connections UK 2014 presentations now online

Business1If you missed the Connections UK 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London earlier this month, you’ll now find a very full account at the Connections UK website—including details of the “Wargaming 101” session, biographies of all conference speakers, powerpoint slides, downloadable game materials, and recordings of some of the presentations and discussions.

Our earlier PAXsims account of the conference can be found here and here.


Connections UK 2014 final report


(For a report on the previous day of the conference, see here.)

The final day of the Connections UK 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference started today with a panel on the use of seminar wargames in defence. Katherine Banko (Canadian Army Land Warfare Centre) discussed the application of a mixed methods, pretest/post-test methodology to a course of action seminar wargaming. Specifically, her case study focused on the Canadian decision to acquire new tactical armoured patrol vehicles (TAPV), and the use of a seminar wargame to explore optimal force structures and associated TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) for the proposed TAPV. Game preparation took five months, including pilot testing. Participants were asked to pretest rank-order five proposed courses of action for each scenario. COAs were also rated against the “principles and fundamentals of war” as taught in Canadian military doctrine.

After the game, post-test rankings showed a change in participant evaluations of the various COAs. There was also some difference between a first and second post-test. The subsequent discussion addressed some important technical issues, including the use and aggregation of ordinal ranking scales, possible anchoring effects caused by administration of the pretest, and an experimental design that would one to assess the effects generated by the moderator/umpire.

IMG_2299Next, Hans Steensma (Military Formats in Business) and Steven van Agt (PWC Netherlands) provided an example of a business wargame, Operation Fleet Street. In this, we all assumed the role of members of the Guardian Media Group, forming groups of eight or so and tasked with identifying the characteristics of the media battlefield (potential threats, allies, and other relevant characteristics). We then identified a major threat to our company, and then developing a proposed course of action. Each team’s COA was then briefed back to the full conference, and a winner chosen. Obviously we were working much more quickly than a real group would be, and we lacked the knowledge of the UK media market that actual corporate participants would likely have.

On the sidelines of this I had an interesting discussion with John Curry, Matt Caffrey, and Hans on whether this was “real” wargaming, or simply a wargame overlay applied to what was basically a BOGSAT. I’m not sure I much care what is, or is not, wargaming—what really matters is whether gaming approaches can address issues in a useful way. Indeed, I’ve used a somewhat similar format to address humanitarian policy planning, without any reference to wargaming at all. Some of the brief-backs from the session seemed quite good—so yes, it did seem quite useful.


After a break a panel addressed manual wargaming in defence. Graham Longley-Brown started it off with some initial comments on course of action wargaming, and also underscored how manual and computer wargaming could be linked (drawing upon the example of a project he had recently been involved with in Qatar). Paul Strong (DSTL) emphasized how important it was that game design must always keep the study requirements in mind. Manual games were, he suggested, were very flexible, and can be modified on the fly. His very rich presentation (far too rich to be summarized here) looked at DSTL support for strategic (POL-MIL), operational, and tactical games. Seminar games are often used, even as part of preparation for larger wargames. Thematic games focus on particular issues, such as IEDs and casualty evacuation. Experiential wargames are used where player’s response to unfolding events is of greater interest than the end-state. Wargames are also used to explore possible future trends and futures. he briefly discussed the Peace Support Operations Model (PSOM) too as a computational support for wargames.

Roy Benda (TNO) discussed wargaming of land-based operations. PSOM is used for training and education. MARVEL is a model-building and simulation system focused on system behaviours and relationships, rather than being geographically based. GO4IT is a tabletop roleplaying game used for training battalion and senior commanders about civil-military cooperation in complex environments. TACTIS is a digital tactical combat simulations. TNO also uses the commercial mid- to low-fidelty digital wargame Steel Beasts. CDEG (the Concept Development & Experimentation Game) has been used to explore IED and counter-IED measures.

After lunch attention turned to digital wargaming. Paul Pearce delivered a presentation on the evolution of analytical and experimental wargaming at DSTL. He framed this in the context of Operational Analysis, and the importance of repeatability, independence, grounding in reality, objectivity of process, uncertainty in data, and robustness of results (RIGOUR). Modern OA/OR started in WWII. Into the 1960s wargaming was still manual (with terrain models or maps), but computer assistance was introduced. Map-and-computer games were the norm by the 1980s, using discrete event simulation rather than turn-based moves. Databases became more sophisticated, allowing fuller post-game analysis. From the 1990s fully computerized games were also common, often with linked satellite simulations. Perception-based modeling and C2 issues assumed greater importance. In recent years there has been a return of 2D manual games (such as RCAT) with computer assistance, in part because of the flexibility of this format and in part because of the diverse range of challenges and contexts that the contemporary UK military faces.

photoTom Mouat examined computer simulation in defence. He noted that the UK Ministry of Defence had many simulators—but relatively few real wargames. Simulators are favoured because they save money. UK military training expenditures are about £7 billion per year, of which over £2 billion spent on running costs—the area where simulations save money. He gave an overview of several systems: CAST (Command and Staff Training, using simulated troops in a simulated environment to train battlegroup command), CATT (Combined Arms Tactical Trainer), TES (Tactical Engagement System, a laser tag system for exercises). BCT, JOCAST, MTWAS, and especially VBS2 are used at other locations. Because live exercises are so expensive, it is essential that soldiers first be trained and tested on lower-cost simulations. The UK has many individual air simulators, but few that are linked (in large part because simulators are aircraft and manufacturer specific). While in theory linked simulators can be used for wargames, generally simulators are used more for scenario role-play. The situation is similar with maritime simulation, although simulators are more flexible and Royal Navy officers has a better sense of how to get the most out of their simulations.

In discussion, one participant noted that the increasing sophistication of mapping and imagery meant that truly immersive training required more sophisticated data presentation. This raised the question of the cost effectiveness of imagery and data immersion for training purposes. In turn, this led to a broader discussion over how much training could occur in synthetic contexts, and the extent to which this could truly replace real-world training and exercises.

Next, the conference divided into four break-out groups on the future direction of wargaming. These addressed:

  • balancing simplicity and accurate simulation
  • preserving and passing on design expertise
  • increasing the educational use of wargaming
  • involving and influencing decision-makers

With regard to the first of these topics, the group noted that complexity was not the same as accuracy, nor was simplicity necessarily the same as playability. Starting with simple games can be a useful way of encouraging players to try more complex simulations. On audience member noted that many wargamers start at the complex end of the spectrum, and only belatedly recognize the value of simple, elegant design. The second group noted that designers have both domain knowledge and game design knowledge. The former is easier to pick up. However, the ubiquity of computer and other entertainment wargaming may make it easier to develop game and game design skills to the current generation. This led to some discussion of how Connections conferences might do more to teach game design skills. The question was also raised of whether there had been much outreach to universities with strong digital game design programmes.

The third group accidentally met in two different rooms, and so there were two brief-backs. One (from the subgroup I joined) highlighted the importance of buy-in from students, who needed to see its relevance. This didn’t necessarily involve earning grades, but could also include relevance to their future careers, or even the simple social fun of participation. Instructors also had to be convinced, but the point was made that at even in the military (notably at Sandhurst) there may not be any local wargaming culture. Buy-in is also needed at a higher level. Networks of support can empower game advocates. The second sugroup highlighted the need to offset biases and stereotypes against wargaming. They also noted that gaming had weaknesses as well as strengths, and these needed to be recognized. Political dynamics, they noted, might be harder to game than purely kinetic military action.

The fourth breakout group noted that involving and influencing decision-makers required that one demonstrated the utility of wargaming as a training/education or analytical tool. It is also helpful to emphasize that wargaming has and is being used by others for similar purposes. One conference participant noted that if an interest in, and competence in, wargaming can be established at lower levels, these individuals may prove to be future senior leaders. There also a need to establish that losing at a wargame is a useful learning experience, and not a professional liability. As Phil Sabin noted, perhaps we should emphasize that the real choice may not be between “winning or losing,” but between “winning and learning” (or “you can’t really lose a wargame.”) I noted that we, as game designers and facilitators, have a responsibility to pre-orient game participants to the inevitability of mistakes and the value of learning from them. Stephen Downes-Martin thoughtfully suggested that the emotional commitment of not wanting to lose was valuable in driving a game—but that losing shouldn’t necessarily have negative career consequences. (I might also add that there may well be circumstances where a game really does reveal individual deficiencies that perhaps should have career consequences—I can certainly think of a few games which have, quite appropriately, shaken my confidence in operational colleagues.)

In his final conference comments Phil Sabin emphasized that Connections UK had highlighted the diversity of wargaming approaches and experiences. He also noted, however, that we remained a self-selected group, and that we needed to continue to promote outreach. Tom Mouat noted that a Connections UK LinkedIn group would be formed, and conference feedback elicited via an online survey. Graham Longley-Brown noted that the ability to effectively use wargames ought to be something on which military officers (and perhaps some in business too) were assessed, and that Connections should work towards promoting that long-term goal.


 Concluding Thoughts

Overall, this was a really excellent conference. I found both the panels and many side-discussions extremely valuable. Participants were eager to break out of professional and disciplinary silos, learning from and sharing with others. Almost everything was impeccably organized. The Connections conferences continue to serve a very useful role in facilitating the exchange of ideas and the development of professional networks.

The attendees of the conference tended to be white, male, and middle-aged. Only 8% or so of the participants at this Connections UK conference were female, which is about the same as the recent Connections conference in the US too. Part of the reason for this lack of diversity is the low proportion of women in the military and national security establishment. That has changed significantly in the diplomatic, intelligence, and aid communities and among defence social scientists during the past two decades, but more slowly in the uniformed branches. Part of the problem also has to do with the preponderance of men in the wargaming hobby.  I suspect that this gender imbalance can be daunting for neophyte female gamers, creating a self-perpetuating barrier to entry. (It also doesn’t help when a male conference participant, describing the accessibility of a particular piece of technology, deemed it so simple that “even a woman could use it…” Arghhhh! Fortunately that outdated attitude seems to be an extreme rarity.)

I’m not convinced that female (war)gamers necessarily bring different perspectives to the table, but it is clear that the field is denying itself insights, wisdom, and contributions from a very large demographic. The same could be said about others who are underrepresented. Coming from a context where typically 60% of participants in my serious games are women (and from diverse ethnic and other origins too) I’m acutely aware how unfortunate that is.

PAXsim’s own Archipelago Annie has raised the issue of women and professional gaming in the past, and we’ll continue to examine what can be done to further encourage a more representative, inclusive, and diverse professional wargaming community. It is also a topic that might be very usefully addressed at a future Connections or Connections UK wargaming conference.

Connections UK 2014 SITREP


The 2014 edition of the Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference began yesterday with a half day of Wargaming 101 (an introduction to the topic for non-experts). Today the main show got underway with the opening of the conference itself. Some 111 persons registered this year, making it the third-largest Connections conference ever. Of these, almost 30% were from outside the UK:

  • UK 79
  • Netherlands 11
  • Sweden 6
  • US 5
  • Canada 3
  • France 2
  • Germany 2
  • Italy 1
  • Norway 1
  • Finland 1

photoPhil Sabin and Graham Longley-Brown started off the conference with a few comments. Graham highlighted the “fragility” of wargaming within the UK defence sector, arguing that at the moment expertise was too shallow and too dependent on key personalities. Consequently there is a need to deepen and institutionalize wargaming competency. Judging from a show of hands in the room, about one-third of those attending were from outside the UK. While a large number of those in the room were involved in the defence sector in some way (for example, through DSTL), only three or four were currently serving, uniformed members of the services.

The first panel, chaired by Major General (Retd) Andrew Sharpe, examined how the British Army uses wargaming. He agreed that wargaming in the UK military was weak. Effective wargaming, he suggested, usually involves an adaptive opponent, elements of chance and uncertainty, and repetition—although he implied that wasn’t always true of British military wargaming. He also suggested that wargaming was very useful in developing the ability to officers to provide leadership and concepts in warfare.

He also suggested that last year’s Connections UK conference had contributed to greater interest in, and momentum for, wargaming within the British military.

Maj Mark Nooney (Royal Military Academy Sandhurst) noted that Sandhurst did little or no wargaming, but had decided to bring it into the syllabus as a third way of training, to reinforce lessons taught in the classroom, challenge preconceptions, and to provide experience with Clausewitzian “friction” and an adversarial opponent. The Sandhurst Wargame will be a very simple hex-based wargame that will be linked to tactical exercises. Wargames will linked to historical analysis too. RMAS has also restarted the Sandhurst Wargaming Club, although at present it seemed as if only a small number of cadets participated in this.

Maj Marcus Myles (Directorate of Land Warfare) discussed Course of Action wargaming as part of the military planning process. He argued that this often took place amid time pressures, an unfamiliarity with the process, and an unwillingness to unpick one’s own plan. Efforts are underway to familiarize officers with a broader array of wargaming techniques, including the use of stochastic processes (including the use of dice) to represent risk and uncertainty.

Lt Col Ivor Gardiner (CO, 2 R Irish) highlighted a continuing problem of credibility. Wargaming is still viewed as immature, and officer cadets do not always take military history and war studies very seriously. Wargaming can be a very effective, immersive, experiential method, and (hobby) wargamers tend to come into the military with an innate sense of tactics, operations, and the estimate process. He argued that traditional adversarial wargaming had significant advantages over TEWT (tactical exercises without troops), CPXs (command post exercises), COA wargaming, and digital wargaming. He discussed his own use of Advanced Squad Leader to teach platoon- and company-level operations, as well as a few other games, including A Distant Plan to explore the complex operational environment in Afghanistan (“more insights into Afghanistan than all the reading material we are given”). It is good for officers to lose from time to time, in an atmosphere of competitive fun. He also argued that wargaming needs to start at Sandhurst, it needs to be simple, standardized, adaptable, and immersive.

Colin Marston (DSTLstressed the need for UK MOD to establish a Wargaming Hub.  The Hub would act as the primary point of contact for customers within UK MOD.  It would be a one stop shop for collating, understanding and developing wargaming requirements.  The Hub would have the necessary wargaming expertise and networks (e.g. through events such as Connections) to provide both advice on how to meet the requirements and what links to draw from within UK MOD, industry and academia to deliver wargaming activities.  The existence of a Wargaming Hub would create a place to develop and maintain a corporate knowledge base, and record observations, insights and lessons from the delivery of numerous wargaming activities.  He also stressed that more was needed to be done to sustain and develop a cadre of experienced professional wargamers within UK MOD – and any advice on how to do this would be welcomed.     

In subsequent discussion there was some argument for “gamification” and peer rankings as a way of increasing participation and engagement, although others noted that it could create perverse incentives to participate.

Some of the panelists made arguments in favour of board wargames, arguing that military audiences are more open to using maps and counters than tabletop figure wargaming. One also argued that boardgames had an advantage over digital games in that rules and concepts were evident in the written rules and game system, rather than hidden is software code.

After a coffee break, the conference split into two groups. One (by invitation) explored wargaming requirements in defence. The other provided hands-on experience with a wargame. As an introduction to the latter, Phil Sabin discussed his own use of wargames, including a recent WWI game that formed part of a conference on the war. He focused on the challenge of gaming with many players. Does one use an umpired kriegsspiel model? Or simplify the games and rules so that players can play the game with minimal assistance?

This led into the simple double-blind wargame of the WWI Schlieffen Plan that we all played. I was up against Jim Wallman—the first game (as the Germans) I narrowly lost due to my failure to properly garrison Liege. On the second game my Allied forces retreated all the way back to the gates of Paris before launching a devastating counteroffensive that routed several German Army corps and left much of the enemy’s remaining forces spent and unable to hold their ground.

After lunch, Jeremy Smith (Cranfield University) chaired a panel that examined business wargaming. Arnoud Franken (Cranfield University) discussed “crossing the chasm” to regular use of wargaming. One recent study found that while 17% of major businesses might use wargaming or scenario development as an ad hoc analytical process, none use it regularly. Businesses, however, face risks, challenges, threats, opportunities, etc.—the sorts of things that militaries face too, and which wargames can be useful in exploring. Wargaming can thus be sold in the business world as a tool for risk or crisis management. In selling wargaming to business, the latter will want to know about relative cost and advantage (compared to other techniques); the compatibility of the tool with the way the business operates; how simple (or complex) is it to use; whether the tool be tried before full adoption (trialability); and finally, how observable is the technique (and how does the activity look to others)?

Sara Ulrich (Deloitte) discussed the use of wargames in business, especially by Deloitte. Such games have addressed everything from health care policy, to new product launches, pricing and market strategy, cyberattacks, the Eurozone crisis, nuclear energy safety, the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the London 2012 Olympics, and the World Cup. In 2010 Deloitte acquired Simulstrat, KCL proof-of-concept company that applies wargames techniques to business and other analysis. I was particularly interested in the multi-sector humanitarian crisis wargame done for the Humanitarian Futures Programme at KCL. The scenario was set in a future (fictional) humanitarian crisis in the Ferghana Valley in 20135. Her very rich presentation noted, among other things, that experiential pay-offs from games often have to do with human interaction.

Hans Steensma joined the subsequent panel discussion. There was some discussion of who suffered more from hierarchical constraints (most seemed to think business could be even worse than the military). A couple of speakers mentioned the value of designing games around the potential problems or challenges that keep (businesses, managers, etc) “awake at night.” One audience member asked about the pricing of business wargaming, and whether it was within the reach of small and medium businesses. (I must admit, some of the discussion convinced me that I really need to charge a lot more as a wargame consultant/designer…)

Next, the conference participants took part in one of five breakout sessions. After an hour or so of discussion, these returned to brief back to the full group.

The first breakout group looked at the objectives and payoffs of wargaming. They identified a number of these, including anticipating impact (“what’s possible?”), clarifying resources needs, clarifying goals and objectives, examining trade-offs and opportunity costs, team-building, identifying what one doesn’t (yet) know—and having fun (as a way of increasing participant engagement). The second breakout group discussed game facilitation and umpiring. They highlighted the importance of emotional intelligence and self-awareness, the need to be seen to be unbiased (but not passive), the importance of maintaining the aim of the event (which requires sufficient domain knowledge and the possible aid of a subject matter expert, but too much expertise risks an imposition of umpire bias). The third group examined existing commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) versus purpose-designed wargames. Here the central point they emphasized was the need to first know what it is one wanted a game or simulation to do. They discussed the potential use of hybrid games, in which commercial games are adapted for particular professional uses. The game needs to be adaptable to, and relevant to, real-world situations. The fourth group explored the challenges of validation and verification. This highlighted the problem of players “playing the game/software” to elicit a win. The group also pointed to the importance of clarity of purpose, good quality data, and repeatable outputs. They noted the challenge presented by classified data that may not be releasable. Finally, they emphasized the importance of “fitness for purpose” and end-user credibility. Finally, the last group reported on BOGSATs versus expert opinion vs. scientific analysis vs. gaming. This group decided that all of these approaches could be useful, and that much depended on context (resources) and objectives. Planning and facilitation was very important in making best use of subject matter expertise, but one needed to be careful of the “factualness of facts” and experts who seemed excessively confident of their insight and knowledge. It was suggested that BOGSATs, rather than being a rival to gaming, might be a useful entry point for the introduction of gaming methodologies.

Overall, all groups came to the conclusion that there was little fundamental difference between military and business wargaming. There also seemed to be agreement that games needed to be designed around objectives, and that there was value in breaking out of disciplinary and organizational silos to link tools to needs and purposes.

Matt Caffrey (USAF) chaired an afternoon panel on how other militaries use wargaming. A presentation by Erik Nordstrand examined wargaming in the Swedish military for training, education, planning, and decision support. Johan Elg then provided an overview of wargames in military education and training. One such game was a board/map game on battalion mechanized operations; another was a simplified naval surface warfare digital game; a third was a digital air operations game. Students play these games (and others, such as VBS2) at the cadet, staff college, and senior staff college level. The presentations certainly left the impression of more wargaming in Swedish military education than had previously been described as being the case in the UK. Lt Col Sébastien de Preyet talked about wargaming in French military education and training. France has been using more and more wargaming and simulation tools, in part to reduce training costs. Industry-provided digital simulations are used, as well as adapted COTS software (with adaptation often involve enhancing its after action review capabilities). He noted the cultural confusion that can exist with regard to serious gaming and gaming, such that senior leaders associate “wargaming” with popular entertainment video games. Boardgames are rarely used in France and are often unfamiliar to French officers. He warned that for too many senior officers and officials, “heavy and expensive systems look serious,” and “3D looks smart” but that officers who will be planning and operating in 2D (map) environments need to be trained in that context. He mentioned the tension and biases involved in the boardgame vs digital game communities, and stressed that the two should not be bifurcated. Games, he stressed, were excellent supports for operational self-training. He also discussed Urban Operations, a boardgame he has designed to address the particular challenges of urban combat.

Matt himself talked about wargame use in the US military. Games were used to develop strategists (education and training), embedded within decision cycles (such as national strategic planning, theatre campaign planning, and Title X service-level force planning), or might be one-off games to address particular issues. Games could be deterministic or stochastic, rules-based or judgment-based, and constructive, virtual, or live. Stephen-Downes Martin (US Naval War College) addressed why we should care about how others wargame, arguing that it was a useful intelligence insight. He argued that we didn’t know enough about how some countries (such as Russia, China, North Korea, Iran) and even non-state actors wargame, and suggested some very useful ways in which we might think about how different actors game.

SPW-B101-2The final session of the day was a keynote address by COL David Schroeder (Schroeder Publishing and Wargames). He suggested that stories are powerful teaching tools, and that stories about military operations are often applicable to business—a point that he makes in his book Business in the Trenches. However, stories can only take us so far. Wargaming offers deeper insight, helping to identify strength, weakness, and best options—all in a competitive environment of pressure and limited time and information. Businesses can thus benefit from wargaming techniques in developing winning strategies. However, effective business wargaming requires instruction, mentorship, and practice. Both military and business wargamers, he suggested, needed better training, and make it a requirement for senior leadership. The core issues for many simulations include critical or bottleneck resources, fundamental cause/effect relationships, core processes, and having a clear picture of the operating environment. He examined these in the context of his Der Weltkrieg series of WWI games.

After dinner it was time for the games fair. I once again demonstrated the Humanitarian Crisis Game, ably assisted by two former McGill University students now living in London, Elizabeth Campbell and Nadimah Mohammed. The game went very well, with the players doing a very good job of providing humanitarian assistance to the earthquake-stricken population of Carana, and the government (led by Paul Strong) quick to respon to emerging political and security challenges. Everyone was a winner except for the unfortunate NGO player (Colin Marston), whose had difficulty attracting press attention and hence the necessary public support and donations for his relief programmes.

Playing the Humanitarian Crisis Game.

(For a report on the final day of the conference, see here.)

Connections UK 2014 dates announced


The dates for the Connections UK 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference have been announced: 2-4 September 2014, at King’s College London.

Details will be posted in the near future on the Connections UK website. In the meantime, you can find the PAXsims report on Connections UK 2013 here and here.

AFTERSHOCK: A humanitarian crisis game (beta release)

aftershock available

The final production version of AFTERSHOCK is now available! For information, see the AFTERSHOCK information page. The blog post below describes the conceptualization, beta release, and development of the game.

* * *

It is still soon after the EMERGEMNCY phase, soon after earthquake. District 2 needs 2 medical supplies (red cubes), 2 water and sanitation (blue cubes), 1 food (green cube), and a team assigned to rescue. It meets those requirements, so aid efforts here will be successful.

It is still the EMERGENCY phase, soon after earthquake. District 2 needs two medical supplies (red cubes), two water and sanitation (blue cubes), one food (green cube), and a team assigned to rescue. It meets those requirements, so aid efforts here will be successful.

September 2013: After some additional playtesting and a few more tweaks, I am now making available a fully-playable beta version of the Humanitarian Crisis Game. The Humanitarian Crisis Game is a four (to eight) player game that explores the interagency cooperation needed to address the emergency and early recovery phase of a complex humanitarian crisis. The game is set in the fictional country of Carana, but is loosely modeled on disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

 Carana has suffered years of sometimes violent turmoil, and has only recently taken the first steps to tentative steps to national reconciliation and reconstruction. Poverty is widespread, government capacity is weak, and ethnic and political tensions remain high. Nongovernmental organizations and United Nations specialized agencies are active in the country, including a moderately-sized UN civilian police contingent. At dawn today, a powerful earthquake struck the capital city of Galasi, causing widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure. Tens of thousands of people are in need of urgent aid and medical attention. At the request of the Caranan government, military forces from several friendly countries—operating as the multinational Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force, or HADR-TF—are en route to assist, as are additional contingents of UN and NGO personnel together with relief supplies.

The game files required for the beta version are as follows (all in pdf format):

  • The complete game rules (updated as of 28/02/2015)
  • The various game displays
  • The event cards used to generate random events during the crisis
  • The at-risk cards used to denote humanitarian needs in each district
  • The cluster cards used to generate positive effects from coordination
  • Markers for supplies (optional, if no other tokens available)

Note that if you are currently thinking of using the game, you are strongly advised to contact us for a final production version. It looks much better, and contains a number of tweaks and revisions. For the various game markers I use wooden tokens purchased online from Game Crafter, but the file also includes cut-out markers if you wish to use those instead. I have distributed the files in their original (.pptx and .docx) formats to facilitate modification by users, but if you have trouble with any of them let me know and I’ll provide .pdf versions. I’ve now play tested the game extensively with students at McGill, and it has also been used in the classroom at Texas State University. If any PAXsims readers try out the game, please drop me a line with any thoughts and feedback you have.

Design Notes


Playing the game at McGill University.

No game can capture all aspects of a process, and humanitarian assistance is no different. A key design choice from the outset, therefore, was what elements needed to be most emphasized, and how those might best be represented. First, the game needed to highlight humanitarian assistance as a cooperative endeavour, but one in which different actors have slightly different perspectives and priorities. This was done by measuring assistance efforts both collectively (relief points/RP) and individually (operations points/OP). Addressing humanitarian need is a central priority for everyone, and if RPs are negative at the end of the game everyone loses. However, humanitarian actors also need public and political support to function, and failure to maintain this can result in losing for that reason too. The game also needed to highlight that different humanitarian actors have different strengths and weaknesses. This is difficult to do, because each of the four actors identified in the Humanitarian Crisis Game are, in the real world, themselves composed of many different elements with different skills and capabilities. However, for game purposes the rules give the local government primary responsibility for security, and some comparative advantage in local distribution; depicts foreign militaries as having strong logistics and security capabilities but with limited staying power and little capacity to promote sustainable development; and represents UN agencies and NGOs as having comparative strength in relief and development. The combination of differing goals and capabilities, in turn, sets the stage for the coordination challenges in the game. This has been treated in two complimentary ways. Players need to play cooperatively and coordinate their actions to win, both in terms of allocating their human resources and in deciding what kinds of assistance to deliver, where, when, and how. However, coordination is also an activity that they can invest game resources into, by participating in the various coordination clusters. Doing so delivers benefits, but these are not wholly predictable, and the process can even be a bit frustrating. Indeed, the game forces players to even cooperate in coordinating, since some activities may require that multiple parties prioritize the same sectors at the same time. Yet coordination involves opportunity costs too, since resources invested in coordination are not available for other tasks.

Playing the game at King's College London (Connections UK 2014).

Playing the game at King’s College London (Connections UK 2014).

The game uses “at risk” cards to indicate where humanitarian assistance is needed, and “event” cards to generate a challenging operational environment. The sudden and unpredictable operation of these is somewhat different, of course, than the steadier loss of human life in a humanitarian crisis. The mechanism was adopted, however, because it does generate some of the sense of chaos and limited information of a major disaster. It also reflects the extent to which humanitarian actors are struggling to deal with an array of challenges beyond their immediate control. The Humanitarian Crisis Game, like with real humanitarian operations, rewards risk assessment and contingency planning. It also forces players to make difficult decisions about priorities and triage: given limited resources, do they focus on those who are most easily saved, or those most in need? The first few turns of the game are likely to be overwhelming, with the players lacking sufficient resources to meet needs. The importance of randomly-drawn event cards also means that every game is likely to be quite different, and some will be much more difficult than others. In this sense, the game isn’t “fair” and in some cases players may be faced with an almost impossible sequence of events. However, real humanitarian crises aren’t “fair” either. All that anyone can do is to do their best (and do no harm).


Playing the game at Texas State University.

There is a considerable amount of politics represented in the game.  Actors need to maintain public and political support, generated both by their performance in the field and through media outreach. Carana itself is politically fragile, and a failure to address basic needs can be dangerous, especially in the latter part of the game after the initial shock of the disaster has worn off. I didn’t want to overemphasize the element of social unrest and insecurity, however, since it is often rather less than pundits anticipate (in Haiti in 2010, for example). Still, some risk is there. Badly handled the government of Carana—and, by extension, the other players too—could find themselves in serious trouble. The media is a significant presence in humanitarian emergencies, important to the various actors yet beyond their control. In the Humanitarian Crisis Game it moves across the country, highlighting some areas while ignoring others, and variously boosting or damaging the standing of players. Later it is likely to leave altogether as the broader public loses interest, or as other news stories command greater attention. Players of more conventional wargames will immediately notice that the game does not include a map, or more accurately doesn’t include map-based representations of spatiality. Part of the reason is that the design is intended to prioritize processes and thematic sectors over geographic space. Part of the decision was a practical one, too—I wanted the game to be easily reproduced with nothing more than a printer and standard paper, and a larger mapboard would have complicated that. Geography isn’t entirely absent in any case. As players will soon find out, transportation and logistics play an absolutely key role in providing relief in Carana. Unlike most conventional wargames, the design also uses a fictional case and country. This is to allow a broader range of issues to be explored than in any one single real-world case, and to relax some of the pressure to depict historical events with a high degree of fidelity. It also allows students to get past their knowledge and horror of, say, the Haiti case to focus on the broader processes at work in humanitarian crisis response. The Humanitarian Crisis Game can be played in about 3 hours, which is the upper limit for an educational game. It is probably best played in an educational setting with an experienced facilitator, rather than expecting students to self-teach themselves the rules. However, once play starts the game is fairly straightforward, with the various cards providing clear explanations of game effects. The cards themselves are designed to provide large numbers of “teachable moments,” highlighting issues drawn from actual humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations.

Game Strategy

While players might initially focus on getting vital supplies to hungry, thirsty, and injured survivors, it will soon become apparent that logistics are key. If resources can’t be brought into affected areas, they are almost useless. Carana and the HADR-TF have a comparative advantage in opening up transportation routes, and should do so early. Coordination through the cluster system is important, especially since it allows players to transfer resources amongst themselves. Without this sort of cooperation there will be duplication of effort on the ground. It is also impossible to deal with challenges like cholera without coordination. Earning operations points matters, but so too does using them. While they may be necessary to “win” the game, players should also remember that they can be  “spent” to acquire additional resources. Carana is often both the weakest, most over-stretched player and the most important one: it has a network for local delivery of supplies, it is primarily responsible for security, and if it does poorly all players suffer. Social unrest is usually not a major problem unless players perform poorly in the later weeks of the crisis. However, if problems do arise don’t leave them to fester. Finally, be mindful that local needs will shift between the emergency and recovery stages. Medical care and WASH tend to be the priority in the first few days, while food and shelter become more important as time moves on. Other than logistics, most infrastructure activities are better reserved for the recovery stage when needs are less acute and the opportunity cost of infrastructure is reduced.


The initial ideas for this game were drawn from participants in the Connections 2012 Game Lab, with special thanks to my co-facilitators David Becker, Brant Guillory, Ty Mayfield, Gary Milante, Joshua Riojas, and Brian Train. I also drew on the inspiration from the subsequent Crisis Response humanitarian assistance card game developed by Gary Milante, and from the Zombiton NHS zombies-in-a-hospital game developed with Jessica Barton. At McGill, the design of the game was refined and play-tested with input from Sean Anderson, Chloe Brynen, David Brynen, Islam Derradji, Bushra Ebadi, Thomas Fisher, Benjamin Foldy, June McCabe, Beth McKenna, Émilie Noël, Adriana Willms. I also benefitted from feedback from players and other participants at the Connections UK 2013 and Connections 2014 professional wargaming conferences.

Revision History and Updates

18 January 2014: Revised cluster cards uploaded

20 July 2014: A substantially revised version (beta4.0) has been uploaded. The major change is to do away with the dual “emergency” and “recovery” sections on each at-risk card (depicted in the older graphic at the top of this page). Instead, cards are now one or the other, and the deck is prepared before play to assure that the top two cards in each district always depict the “emergency” stage of the disaster, with greatest need for WASH and medical supplies, and the need to assign some teams to disaster rescue. This has the added advantage of pushing some of the more complicated cards (like Cholera or Squatters) deeper into the deck to ease player learning. Several rules have also been simplified, notably with regard to logistics. Several of the Cluster and Event cards have been changed. Finally, the game has been been shortened from eight turns to seven, in an effort to make in playable within two hours.

11 August 2014: I’ve made some small changes (beta4.1) as a result of feedback at the Connections wargaming conference. In particular, players now draw one Coordination card for each cluster they are attending, and then select which one of these to play. There have been a few other minor tweaks too. The game works well with a 15 minute introduction, 7 periods (turns), and 2 hours of play time. All changes have been uploaded.

12 December 2014: Some minor rule-tweaks based on recent playtesting. The game is now names AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. We plan to make the game available for purchase via GameCrafter in the second half of 2015.

15 January 2015: We’ve received permission from WFP and UNDP to use images from their photo libraries for the production version of the game.

15 March 2015: Due to the magical graphics skills of Tom Fisher, we are very near to completing the production version. You’ll find some of the (almost-final) game elements below. E6 CO7 AR1 airportdisp6 clusterdisp10 district1 1 April 2015: We ran four simultaneous games of AFTERSHOCK for students of the Canadian Disaster and HumanitarianResponse Training Program. It all seems to have gone very well indeed!

1 July 2015: We’re in production! See the AFTERSHOCK page.

British Forces News on the Connections UK wargaming conference

British Forces News has broadcast a short report on the recent Connections UK professional wargaming conference:

At the conference, several current and former British military personnel had rather critical comments about the under-utilization of wargames in the British military today. The fact that the title of the report hints at a certain degree of surprise that “War Games Still Used in Modern Warfare” may be an inadvertent confirmation of that concern..

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