The following was written for PAXsims by Dr. James Sterrett, Directorate of Simulation Education (DSE), U. S. Army University.
The Directorate of Simulation Education (DSE) at the Command and General Staff College (CGSC), U.S. Army University spent mid-March through early June 2020 to prepare for, and then to conduct or support, three elective courses online using commercial wargames. This article outlines our key lessons learned, and then discusses some details of what we did.
In total, the class events we ran totaled 10 different games, each running from 2.5 to 8 hours, each preceded by at least one 3 hour preparation session. In addition, many of these involved numerous internal trainup sessions with each game, plus many trial runs of many games to assess their suitability for use, or in testing VASSAL modules we built for some of these games. For around 9 weeks, from 30 March through 2 June, we averaged one 3-hour online wargame session a day, for testing, preparation, or classes.
We ran wargames for 3 different courses:
Bitter Woods for the Art of War Scholars Program (2x 4 hour classes)
Aftershock for the Defense Support to Civil Authorities elective (1x 3 hour class)
Eight games for History in Action, which we teach in collaboration with the Department of Military History. (8x 3 hour classes)
Top lesson 1: Online wargaming works, but it’s harder than live. Compared to running wargames live, it requires more manpower, time, effort, and technology from both students and faculty.
Top lesson 2: Success requires scaffolding. Don’t assume students are ready with their technology or that they understand the online engine. Plan for on-call tech support during every class. Plan to explicitly teach both the online engine, and the game itself in that engine.
This is the most surprising outcome to us. Several of us had prior experience with VASSAL and were not very fond of it; we are now converts. VASSAL proved to be simple, reliable, effective, and made lower demands on computing horsepower and networks – and it is free. In addition, it was an easier and more powerful tool to make new game modules for.
(Read the detailed section for a more nuanced view of some of the other options.)
Test your tools in online classroom settings before committing to them.
Our initial impressions of tools were frequently overturned after gaining more extensive experience with them in testing.
Ease of use beats flashy presentation.
The more you can minimize the friction of using the online game tool, the more effort you can put elsewhere. This is why VASSAL became, unexpectedly, our favorite application.
Running a wargame online needs more manpower than running the same game live.
Running wargames live, a skilled facilitator can sometimes run 2 or 3 games. Online, you must have one facilitator per game. When teaching the game, you must have one person doing the instruction while another monitors a chat window for questions and puts them to the instructor at appropriate moments.
In addition, we found we needed to have a separate person as dedicated on-call tech support, every time. Although a few classes did not turn out to need tech support, most did, and dedicated tech support meant that the game facilitators could keep the games running while the students with tech problems got helped.
Running a wargame online requires a higher level of skill across the facilitators than running the same games live in one room.
Running wargames live in one room, one person can be the expert whom the others can rapidly turn to for help. Running online, everyone is necessarily in separate rooms, and even with side-channel communications, the question and answer interchange is much slower. Each facilitator needs to be an expert.
Keeping the game moving is harder online due to the limited communications.
Live, you can see what students are doing. You usually know who is thinking, who is confused and needs help, who is done making a move. Online, you usually have no idea. Is the student silent because they are thinking? Confused and lost? Conferring with their partner? Done but forgot to announce it? Done, and announced it, but failed to activate their microphone or had some technical issue? When do you break in to ask, possibly breaking their concentration and creating more friction?
Everything takes longer online.
Your game is hostage to hardware issues beyond your control.
A bad internet day makes for a bad class day. Students come with widely varying degrees of computer savvy. They also come with widely varying quality of equipment. We had one student whose computer was a low-powered laptop around a decade old, which created frequent technical issues. Another used a Surface tablet, which had no direct technical issues, but the small screen caused usability problems.
Ideally, each participant should have least 2 large monitors.
A reasonably modern computer, preferably with at least one large monitor, and, ideally, with two or more large monitors, definitely worked best. Multiple monitors enabled placing documentation and chat windows on one screen while placing the main game map on the other.
Those with only one monitor, especially if on a small screen, found themselves constantly paging between windows and struggling to manage limited screen space.
Some students and faculty took to using a high definition TV as a second monitor, which worked well.
Technology in More Detail
Ideally, we would have done extensive R&D into both a wargame engine and into a communications solution. However, we rapidly determined that Blackboard, which the Army already had on contract, provided a communications system that was both sufficient for our purposes and that students already knew how to use. While not perfect (the interface for splitting students into small groups can be a pain to use), Blackboard worked well for us. Specific features we came to rely on:
The ability to break students into breakout groups, and to have instructors move easily between breakout groups. Each breakout group was one game. Also, we could easily recall all the breakout groups into one room when it came time to return to group discussion.
Screen sharing to assist in teaching the games. While the shared screens were sometimes very fuzzy (which we worked around by zooming in when details were important), the shared screen allowed us to direct people’s attention to the item currently under discussion. In a perfect world, the game engine itself would provide a means of directing attention.
Multiple chat lines: Direct 1 to 1 chat, alongside breakout room chat, alongside group discussion chat, all at the same time. The major feature we wanted, and did not have, was a direct chat line between any subset of people without creating a new breakout room – so that 3 or 4 people on the same side could coordinate their strategy and tactics, for example. We worked around this by having students use their cell phones.
We spent several weeks testing online game engines, both for running games and our ability to modify or create new games.
As noted above, several of us had prior experience with VASSAL and did not have a high opinion of it. However, those opinions were based on the state of VASSAL in the later 1990s, when it was relatively new. VASSAL has improved a lot in the last 20 years, and those improvements are a great credit to its volunteer coding team.
VASSAL is not the prettiest or slickest engine out there. However, it had several decisive advantages:
Highly reliable, it worked on all the equipment students brought into the classes.
Free, while every other solution required either the instructors, or everyone, to buy software.
Easier for students to learn than other systems.
It was significantly easier for our team to make new or modified modules in VASSAL than in other systems.
Presented the widest variety of ready-to-go games relevant to our courses.
Because it is built from the ground up to support wargames, VASSAL’s standard interaction set is tailored to supporting wargames. The other engines seemed, to us, to have standard interactions best suited to running Euro games or role-playing games (which those other engines chase because those are much larger markets!)
VASSAL doesn’t enforce the rules. We thought this would be a weakness, but when the computer enforces the rules, it prevents the facilitator from fixing mistakes – and with first-time players, it’s very handy to let the facilitator see and do anything they want.
Two key workarounds we used with VASSAL:
Normally only one player can join a specific role. However, if everyone who is going to join that role does so simultaneously, you can pack many players into one role, permitting a small team of students to play the same side while maintaining fog of war. Note that this feature is not officially supported.
Most modules that had fog of war also included a “Solo” player who could see everything, so we used this as a facilitator role. We modified the Triumph & Tragedy module to include this as well. Without the ability to see through the fog of war, the facilitator cannot effectively answer questions and solve problems.
Tabletopia was our initial favorite, with a slick interface and great presentation. Our favorite feature is the ability to see the “hands” of the other players, which makes it really easy to direct attention – “Look at the Blue Hand”. Tabletopia is browser-driven and thus is platform independent, which is a great plus. It is also the only way to play 1944: Race to the Rhine online, which we very much wanted to include in our history course.
However, Tabletopia also had some problems. Running a multiplayer game requires that at least one player has a paid account ($9.99/month), and the Terms of Service for game creation included language that we were wary of. In testing, it was much more difficult to make a new game in Tabletopia than in VASSAL, and essentially impossible to modify an existing game we had not made. We could not figure out how to enforce fog of war in a blocks game in Tabletopia.
The great surprise came when we used it in class. We expected students would find the interface simple. However, students found Tabletopia confusing to use and said they preferred VASSAL. Students with weaker computer hardware or slower internet connections found Tabletopia crashed or refused to start.
While we may use Tabletopia again in order to use the excellent Race to the Rhine, we also know we need to figure out how to work through its issues first.
Tabletop Simulator (TTS) has a very large following, but we wound up bouncing off it. The large number of possible interactions means it also has a large number of controls and possible customizations. We found it confusing, and the physics model got in the way of ease of use as pieces bumped into each other. A friend who likes it admitted it takes at least 10 hours to get comfortable with TTS, which is longer than we can afford to spend for classes. In addition to these issues, TTS is a $20 purchase.
Roll20 is built to support role-playing games. Unlike the other options mentioned here, Roll20 includes fairly robust voice and chat communications. It’s reasonably simple to set up a new game in Roll20 as well.
Roll20 fared well in initial testing, and thus became a strong candidate for running Matrix games. However, in full testing, its communications fell apart under the load of around a dozen people. In addition, we ran into significant issues with allocating permissions to move pieces; as far as we could tell, players needed to join so they were known to the game room, then leave, so the GM could make permissions changes, then rejoin, which seemed like an overly complex dance to go through under time pressure in a class with students.
We suspect that our inexperience with the tool is key in some of these problems and intend to retest Roll20 in the summer. In addition, we know of others who have used Microsoft Teams and Google Sheets to run Matrix games.
No Computer Games – Why?
We avoided computer games for several reasons:
Students would need to buy them, and potentially need to buy many games for one class.
Many games of interest run on only a subset of student computers (only Windows, or only high-end Windows computers, for example).
Each computer game has its own interface to learn, on top of learning the game system, increasing the training overhead needed to get to the learning for the class; this is particularly an issue for our history class.
In many cases, understanding the games’ models is an essential component to learning the wider lessons of the class. In our experience, this is harder to do with computer games, whose models are obscured in comparison to manual games. (This is the price paid for the computer doing the heavy lifting of the model; the payoff of the computer is that it does that work.)
We are not adamantly opposed to computer wargames; we use them in our Simulations Lab during live instruction, and are investigating using them in some courses this fall in DL. However, in the short timeframe we had, the above complications were sufficient to rule them out.
Teaching the Games
In all cases, we learned that it works best to:
Provide a 15 minute introduction to the game at the end of the prior class. Students won’t learn the game from this but the overview helps them learn better from the rules and videos in step 2.
Provide the rules and tutorials as homework. YouTube tutorials were very popular with students, when they existed. Students will not learn the game from these but they will come armed to steps 3 and 4 with a better framework.
Provide a practice session. We routinely ran a practice session the afternoon before class. These lasted 3 hours (the same duration as the class) and included the full teaching script plus playing the game. We warned students that this was partly internal trainup, so they knew to be patient with periodic digressions as we worked out unexpected wrinkles. Because they actually play the game, students learn the game in these. If you control the groups, distribute the students who came to the Practice session across the class day student groups. As time went on, we learned to have internal trainup sessions before the official Practice session, so that our people were ready to run a game on their own in the Practice session.
Teach the game at the beginning of class. We find it always helps to begin by identifying the sides and their victory conditions, because you can tie all the game mechanics in the game back to them.
We establish up front that we will not teach all the details of the game, and thus many of these will pop up as they become relevant. We try to warn people if they are going to hit a special case, and if somebody winds up in a bad position because of a rule not previously explained, we will try to come to a reasonably fair adjustment so they are not unfairly punished by an unknown rule.
Doing all this requires facilitators who are experts on the game, as noted earlier.
We find that putting students into pairs on a given side works well in most cases. Two will tend to plan together, each can compensate for the places where the other finds things confusing, and provide moral support where one sometimes feels confused and alone. Three on a team, however, sometimes means one gets left out.
Teaching the Courses
Bitter Woods for the Art of War Scholars Program
The Art of War Scholars Program is a highly select group of CGSC students who engage in a wider-ranging and academically more rigorous course of study, focused on studying the art of warfighting through a combination of seminars and research focused on the operational and strategic military history of the past century. Each student must write a thesis in the CGSC Master’s of Military Art and Science program.
Dr. Dean A. Nowowiejski, the instructor for the Art of War Scholars Program, wanted the wargame to do three things: introduce the students to wargaming, introduce the terrain of the Battle of the Bulge to students for a follow-on virtual staff ride, and to examine the dilemmas facing the Allied forces in reducing the Bulge.
To support this, we need a game simple enough for new wargamers to play effectively, that covered the Bulge in enough detail to gain an appreciation for the terrain and forces involved, and that could be made to start later in the battle in order to cover the reduction of the Bulge.
We selected Bitter Woods for having the best balance of both a simple system (using only the basic rules) and the ability to run the Battle of the Bulge into January 1945. The runners-up were GMT’s Ardennes ‘44 and MMP’s Ardennes. Ardennes ’44 is more complex and Ardennes is out of print, the latter being a key criterion when we made the selection in January 2020 and expected to run the event live.
In order to highlight the dilemmas in reducing the Bulge, we created a scenario that began on 27 December 1944, and also modified the existing Bitter Woods 22 December ’44 start point to cover the entire map, both accomplished with assistance from LTC William Nance, PhD, of the CGSC Department of Military History. After testing both of these, we concluded that the dilemmas showed up best on 22 December, as Patton’s forces begin to arrive. This start point also made a better set of dilemmas for the Germans, as their offensive is not out of steam on 22 December, leaving them with difficult choices about how to protect their flanks while aiming for victory. We divided the twelve students into three separate game groups that executed simultaneously. We had teams of 2 on each side in each game, and each team was split between a northern and a southern command.
Dr. Nowowiejski told us that the Art of War Scholars students would be prepared, and he proved correct. This group of top-flight students, all very comfortable with technology, had no technical issues. In addition, while we ran the game, LTC William Nance moved through the 3 game rooms, offering both historical commentary and acting as the high command for both sides to ping students with questions about their plans in order to ground those in the wider concerns of their historical counterparts. This left Dr. Nowowiejski free to circulate through the groups, observe the students, and discuss wider points with them.
Dr. Nowowiejski had students discuss their plans and operational assessments with the entire class at the end of each of the two 4 hour classes, for a mid-point and final AAR. As the students in the various Allied and German teams uncorked radically different plans, this provided a chance to compare possible courses of action and outcomes for both sides. Students did find they had more units than they could easily control, but this produced useful discussions on the difficulty of integrating tactics into operations. Overall, Dr. Nowowiejski judged the event “very successful” and hopes to have us run it, live or on VASSAL, next year.
Aftershock for the Homeland Security Planner’s Elective
We have run Aftershock in person several times in the past for Clay Easterling and Joseph Krebs’ Department of Joint & Multinational Operations Homeland Security Planner elective course. Much of the course examines higher level legal and policy issues. Playing Aftershock in the middle breaks this up, and also serves as a reminder of the practical impact of the plans and policies they are discussing. Students regularly name it their favorite part of the course. Now we needed to run it electronically…!
No computer version of Aftershock existed. The designers, Dr. Rex Brynen and Thomas Fisher, readily granted us permission to create a version in VASSAL, and Curt Pangracs of DSE spent around two weeks creating and testing the module in time for the course.
There were 33 students in this elective, divided into pairs for each of the 4 teams in the game, making a total of 4 games run in parallel. Four of us from DSE ran the games, while a fifth stood by for technical support, ensuring the two instructors could circulate between the three sessions to observe and discuss.
We knew that this course tended to have a solid proportion of officers with low levels of experience with computers. Because of this, we set the Aftershock module up with two participant roles: the Facilitator, who controlled everything on the board; and the Observers, who could not change anything, but could see everything and call up the supporting documentation. This matched the way we often run the game in person, where the facilitator can keep the game moving by running the board and presenting the players with the next decision. We figured that with some of the students being less technical, making the students Observers would allow them to concentrate on making decisions instead of trying to puzzle out how to make the game execute their intended course of action.
We had far more technical issues than we expected, possibly because the larger number of students – nearly three times the number in any of our other groups – meant there were more opportunities for problems. As a result, in each of the four games, the facilitators wound up using the backup plan of streaming their VASSAL screen of Aftershock out to some of the students who could not otherwise see the VASSAL screen. This is far from ideal, as those students reliant on the stream could not control the view, and the Blackboard shared screen is often fuzzy, but it was better than not seeing the screen at all.
Despite the technical issues, students found the exercise very useful, and the instructors named it “a highlight of the course”. As one student wrote in their AAR, “Finally a time at CGSC where we are truly talking with one another to get something done and seeing the results of our decision”.
However, a key lesson here is that the event would have gone a lot more smoothly if we had conducted a readiness check at the end of the prior class session, just to make sure that everybody had VASSAL installed, could load the Aftershock module, and could join the online session – and then to help those who could not, so their troubles were fixed before the main event.
History in Action is a joint elective taught by DSE and the Department of Military History, run with the aim of teaching military history through wargaming, and also teaching a better understanding of wargaming through learning the history. Knowledge of history should inform both playing and assessing the game. Equally, playing the game should help better understand the history; while wargaming can’t let you walk a mile in someone’s shoes, it can let you walk ten feet in their socks. In prior years, DSE’s partner in this class was Dr. Greg Hospodor, but he moved away and we now partner with Dr. Jonathan Abel, and were also assisted by LTC William Nance, PhD, when he was available.
To be selected for this course, a game has to pass all of these tests:
It has to be a good game – fun is the hook, though it isn’t the point.
It has to be available for our use (some that pass the other criteria are out of print, or, for online, have no online implementation).
We have to be able to teach and run it within the 3 hour class time while leaving time for discussion.
It must be dripping with history. It has to highlight unique aspects of the historical event it covers, so it both helps teach that history directly, and further helps teach when compared to the other games in the course. This tends to rule out many less complex games because they wind up being functionally generic. For example, if the game system doesn’t help drive home the difference between commanding World War 2 armor divisions and Napoleonic cavalry divisions, or treats the employment of the Roman manipular legion as little different from that of the Macedonian phalanx, then it doesn’t drive the learning we are looking for.
While in past years we tried to sequence the games according to a theme or timeline or the scale of the actions, our test sessions in early April convinced us that we should sequence the games in order of probable complexity to students. While we began with the list of games we use when teaching the course live, but some of them were not available online, while others we would like to use were. We used, in order:
Battle for Moscow (The 1941 drive on Moscow)
Napoleon 1806 (The Jena/Auerstadt campaign)
1944: Race to the Rhine (The Allied drive across France, with a logistics focus)
Drive on Paris (Schlieffen Plan and Plan XVII in 1914)
Strike of the Eagle (1920 Soviet-Polish War)
Triumph & Tragedy (The struggle for Europe, 1936-1945)
Fire in the Lake (Vietnam War)
Nevsky (Teutonic Knights vs Novogord Rus in 1240-1242)
In each 3 hour class, we began by teaching the game, then we ran it in parallel student groups until there were 45 minutes remaining. The next 30 minutes or so were spent in discussions, and the final 15 minutes or so were spent introducing the next game in the class. Between classes, students were assigned material on the history behind the next game, rulebooks and tutorials to learn the next game, and a graded AAR sheet to fill out on the game just played. The AAR sheet asks for paragraph-length answers to these questions:
What was your plan/COA going into the game?
How did your plan/COA work?
How did the game illustrate the specific contextual elements of the period?
Was the game effective in conveying these contextual elements? How or how not?
What did you learn about warfare in the game’s time period? What surprised you?
What specific lessons can you draw from this game to apply to the future?
We were very pleased with student learning in the class. Student AAR papers were full of observations on things they had learned about history, about wargaming, and that they could carry forward to future assignments. As one student wrote in their end-of-course feedback, “more than anything the course provided context and examples that I can use in the future when explaining the challenges at the operational level of warfare”. Success! However, we did have to overcome various issues along the way.
We intentionally began with Battle for Moscow, the simplest game, to ensure we could also teach VASSAL in the same class. This generally paid off, as subsequent games utilized, at most, a few more features of VASSAL each time, and thus the learning curve was well controlled and students seemed comfortable with VASSAL most of the time. This process worked poorly when we jumped to Tabletopia for Race to the Rhine in class session 3, and then back to VASSAL for session 4 and beyond. Some of our issues with Tabletopia likely stem from our assumption that its interface was easy enough to need little direct training, and to the ways in which it is different from VASSAL. Equally, we had a slight uptick in trouble with the VASSAL interface in class session 4, perhaps because the students had been out of touch with it for a time.
We began inviting students to our internal prep sessions once we realized they might be able to attend. Students who had the time to attend these were normally much better versed in the game than their peers. We, in turn, had to recall that those unable to attend the optional prep session should be assumed to have a good reason! We also learned to spread the students who attended the prep sessions across the student groups. Arranging the student teams ahead of time, and publishing them for students, also helped, as some student teams would strategize ahead of the class.
This course charted the middle ground in the level of technical issues. All the students were comfortable with technology, but some had poor internet connections or weak computers, including the roughly ten year old laptop mentioned earlier. This led to those students losing connection to VASSAL or Blackboard. When using Tabletopia, weaker internet connections and weaker computers completely failed. Just as we all have learned that internet meetings go better when everybody turns off their video feed, opting for systems, such as VASSAL, that made less intensive use of network and computing power proved better in practice.
Online wargaming works, but it is more effort than live, because:
Test your technology thoroughly and ensure you have support on hand to run it.
Running wargames online will require a higher level of expertise from all of your facilitators, of technology and the games.
Running wargames online will require more preparation from students, both in learning the game and ensuring their technology is ready.
BoardGameGeek (description) and VASSAL (module) links for all the games mentioned:
James Sterrett will discuss the use of commercial wargames in military education, including selection, employment, and modification of commercial games for the classroom. Leveraging his experience teaching at the Command & General Staff College at the U.S. Army University, he will highlight specific games he has utilized in past courses and provide lessons learned for other educators.
James Sterrett is the Chief of the Simulation Education Division in the Directorate of Simulation Education of U.S. Army University/Command & General Staff College. Since 2004, he has taught the use and design of simulations and games, and supported their use in education. He also earned a PhD in War Studies from King’s College London, resulting in publication of Soviet Air Force Theory 1918-1945. He has also participated in beta test and design teams for many games, notably including Steel Beasts and Attack Vector: Tactical.
Today, James Sterrett made a presentation to the Military Operations Research Society’s wargame community of practice on teaching wargame design at the US Army Command and General Staff College. James is Chief of Simulations and Education in the Directorate of Simulation Education at CGSC, and a periodic PAXsims contributor.
This lecture will feature a discussion of game design within the context of professional military education. DEPSECDEF Work talked to the need to incorporate wargaming into the formal military education system. One approach to executing this issue is to offer a course in wargame design to students at multiple levels of professional development. However, questions on how to implement this approach remain: At what point(s) within an officer’s career should they be exposed to wargaming? What aspect of wargaming should be emphasized? What level of proficiency is desired? What portions, if any, of the remaining curriculum should be dropped or modified to accommodate this requirement?
While the lecture wasn’t recorded, you’ll find his slides here. For previous discussion on this same topic, see his earlier (January 2017) blogpost.
PAXsims is happy to post this request for feedback on behalf of Dr. James Sterrett, Directorate of Simulation Education (DSE) at the US Army Command & General Staff College (CGSC). Comments may be left below or emailed to him directly.
Michael Dunn and I are creating a Fundamentals of Wargame Design elective at CGSC. This course will first run in the spring of 2017, in two iterations. We seek constructive feedback on our course concepts while we still have a little time to correct course.
The students in this course will be U.S. Army Functional Area 57 (FA57 Simulation Operations) officers, plus other interested students attending CGSC. FA57 students will take the complementary elective on Exercise Design at the same time.
Students taking this course will design and create a prototype manual wargame. By doing this, we intend them to learn not only the process of designing a wargame, so they can design other games later, but also to begin to come to grips with the art of wargame design. In addition, we believe that designing wargames will make them better users of wargames, more aware of the design decisions behind the curtain and better able to select the best tool for the task they may have at hand.
We are still debating if it is better to have students do the project alone, or in small groups.
Thus, our current overarching Learning Objective is:
Apply the wargame development process. Application will include:
Students will learn the process of developing a wargame by creating a workable draft prototype. Students will demonstrate the prototype in class along with a presentation explaining their logic for its design choices.
We define “wargame” very broadly, relying on both Peter Perla’s definition:
“A warfare model or simulation in which the flow of events shapes, and is shaped by, decisions made by a human player or players during the course of those events.” (Peter Perla, The Art of Wargaming, p. 280, 2012 edition)
…and on the Army Modeling & Simulations Office’s definition:
“War game: A simulation game in which participants seek to achieve a specified military objective given pre-established resources and constraints”
Thus, we are not limiting the course to Title X wargames, or research wargames, or testing wargames, or Military Decision-Making Process Step 4 Course of Action Analysis Wargaming, or any other subtype… from the perspective of this course, all of these fall inside the big tent of wargaming.
Inevitably, we are operating within constraints of space and time.
We will have at most 16 students per class, and must plan each class being full.
The course will consist of 12 session, each 2 hours long. There will be 2 or 3 sessions per week and the course will last for 4 to 6 weeks.
We recognize up front that we have limited time, and this necessarily limits the quality of the product the students can produce. We have no expectation of a polished, publication-ready project. Instead, the aim point is a workable first draft, with parts in place and comprehensible logic behind them, which would form the basis for ongoing testing and iterative design if more time were available.
Our high level view of the design process is shown below. We intend the students to complete at least one round of design and testing. More would be ideal, but a single round is the necessary minimum.
For our classes, we are treating all wargames as being a system of systems, in a “STARS” model, with those systems being:
Space structuring assets’ positional relation to each other
Time structuring both movement, combat, and decision opportunities
Assets that players control
Resolution of how assets interact
Systems that tie the other four systems together
An overview of our current plan for each of the sessions; this overview will be followed by a more detailed look at sessions 1 and 2.
Introduction to the course and its objectives; explain the project they must complete; introduction to game design process, which is their roadmap to completing the project; and to the STARS model.
ModellingSpace: Discussion of terrain modelling; includes direct examples: hexes, squares, areas, terrain boards, point-to-point, tracks, non-spatial maps. Examples of multiple types in use at once. Issue of scale – need to set to key decision loop and how scale then drives other considerations
ModellingTime: Discussion of turn structures; includes direct examples. How turn structure dictates decision structures and C2 during play; how it relates back to the spatial model.
ModellingAssets: Various ways of modelling commanded assets from the very detailed to the very abstract: tracks & points to subsystem modelling. Numerous direct examples.
Modelling Effects: Various ways of resolving the outcome of actions: CRT, dice pools, opposed die rolls, card draws, card play; modifiers for modeled factors.
Quick Intro To Basic Probability – computations for dice, multiple dice, competing dice, cards with and without replacement; CRTs vs dice pools vs cards.
Putting It All Together: Overarching design paradigms: imposing limits (or not!) on player control of own forces through systems.
Testing & Iteration: Introduction to testing, blind testing, and sorting through feedback.
Consultation & Testing Time – in the classroom.
Consultation & Testing Time – in the classroom.
Final project presentations
Final project presentations
In addition to their other requirements, students in this elective will be required to participate in 75% of the Brown Bag Gaming sessions that are held during the elective, in order to increase their exposure to a variety of wargames and design approaches.
We are considering requiring additional student reading, with titles under consideration being Perla’s Art of Wargaming, Sabin’s Simulating War, and Koster’s Theory of Fun. The potential problem is the lack of time; one potential way around this is to assign a chunk of each to one or more students, and make them responsible for a summary to the class on their piece.
Session 1 in more detail
The room is set up with the games before students arrive and students are expected to have read the rules before the class begins.
10 Minutes: Introduction to the class and similar initial admin
45 Minutes: Play a wargame. We are currently leaning towards Frank Chadwick’s Battle for Moscow, with the expectation that students will complete 3 or 4 turns. Battle for Moscow includes a large number of features we can draw on in subsequent discussion, and is in print through Victory Point Games.
10 Minutes: Break. Students are asked to come up with one change they would make to Battle for Moscow in order to improve it, and to return from the break ready to explain, briefly,
What the change is
Why the change improves Battle for Moscow
Why the improvement makes Battle for Moscow better for a specific purpose
15 minutes: Selected students present their changes. We point out that by going through this thought process, all of them have made the step from players/consumers to designers/creators. Now let’s look at the process.
We intend to select students to comment in class discussions (at least initially – balancing this against getting a wide discussion is important), instead of using volunteers, and to use a different selection mechanism each session. Thus Day 1 would be rolling 1 die, Day 2 rolling multiple dice, Day 3 pulling names from a hat without replacement, Day 4 calling on them by date of rank, and so on; possibly even handing them the cards to bid on who speaks next in the manner of Friedrich. The intent is to ensure the students experience some of the resolution mechanisms we will discuss in sessions 5 and 6, even though some of the demonstrations may take place after session 6.
30 minutes: Present and explain the development model, the STARS model, and the project they will each undertake.
Assignment for session 2:
Come up with your initial concept and email it to the instructor. Answer these questions:
What do you want this wargame to do?
What role will the players have?
What are the key decisions/dilemmas/problems they must wrestle with?
What significant assets will they control?
What kinds of interactions are important?
What kinds of terrain influence those interactions?
How frequently do the players make major decisions?
Start your research: Find and read something relevant to your project.
Session 2 in more detail
We expect each of sessions 2 through 8 to be split roughly in half. In the first half of each session, we will show and discuss various relevant examples. In the second half, students will brainstorm and discuss ideas applying the day’s focus to their project.
Session 2 covers Space.
Opening question: How would you map Wall Street?
A strictly spatial map of Wall Street is great if you want to move troops through it. However, you might also need to map conflict on Wall Street by financial connections, personal connections, Internet links, political influences, and so on. Which of these are more important to model depends on what you want to model.
For the rest of the initial hour of the class, we expect to present, with examples:
Miniatures terrain as direct representation, with a discussion that typical Digital Terrain Elevation Data is essentially the same approach
Hexes and squares, including grain effects
Zones of Control
Areas (including Guns of Gettysburg for incorporating Line of Sight into the area model)
Things inside hexes, squares, and areas
Things on the edges of hexes, squares, and areas
Point to Point
Maps that are not “real space” – VPG’s High Treason courtroom; Sierra Madre’s High Frontier ΔV map (we are looking for more good examples here!)
Why space and time inter-relate:
Scale sets the timing of decisions in conjunction with the Time model
Units per space on the map defines force density model and can be used to create traffic issues
During their break, students are asked to think about how they will model space in their project.
For the second half of class, we discuss student’s initial model concepts.
Assignment for Session 3:
Refine your intended model of space. Start working on your map. (We will provide files and printouts for hex paper, and access to Paint, Powerpoint, and Photoshop.)
Continue your research: Find and read something relevant to your project.
In an effort to explore the benefits of bringing wargaming into the classroom, the US Army War College’s Strategic Simulations Department is conducting a discussion panel and game play event on 27 August, 2016, at the US Army Heritage and Education Center, in Carlisle, PA. The panel will open with discussion from academia and military institutions. Game play will follow the panel and drive home the theories covered by the panelists. The event is open to anyone, educator, gamer, and hobbyist. The event will run from 10:00 A.M until 4:00 P.M.
Speakers (10:30-11:00) will include: Peter Perla (CNA), Rex Brynen (McGill University/PAXsims), James Lacey (Marine Corps War College) and James Sterrett (US Army Command & General Staff College).
Demonstration games (11:00-16:00) will include: Friedrich, Hanabi, 1944 Race to the Rhine, AFTERSHOCK, ISIS Crisis, Triumph and Tragedy, Axis & Allies (modified/blind play), GuerillaCheckers, Kaliningrad 2017, and Artemis.
Further information on visiting the USAHEC can be found here.
PAXsims asked Dr. James Sterrett, Deputy Chief of the Digital Leader Development Center’s Simulations Division at the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College, to review the recent digital game This War of Mine. The review reflects his personal views only, not those of CGSC, the Army, or the United States government.
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Hungry, tired, and depressed, Pavle reloads the rat traps in the hopes of catching a meal.
Perhaps we should have expected this game from 11 Bit Studios, a Polish game company previously best known for inverting the conventions of the tower defense genre in Anomaly: Warzone Earth. In This War of Mine, 11 Bit again turns convention on its head. Instead of controlling combatants, This War of Mine puts you in control of a small group of civilians trying to survive in the besieged city of Pogoren. In place of pretty explosions and adrenaline, This War of Mine delivers a bleak, somber that game may not be fun in the traditional sense, nor is it perfect; but it is an outstanding effort at using a game to make players experience and reflect on a (hopefully) unfamiliar situation.
Your task is to survive the siege, assigning each person in your group various tasks – generally maintenance and preparation by day, and sleeping, guarding your shelter, or scavenging by night. Survival demands maintaining a teetering balance between the need to eat, the need to stay warm, the need to stay safe, the need to stay sane – and the need to gather more materials to enable the other tasks. Whomever is scavenging or guarding at night will be tired the next day, but if you don’t scavenge you won’t be able to get food. Hungry, tired, cold people get sick more easily. Sick, tired, hungry, cold, and/or depressed people are less effective at their tasks – and if left too long, the sickness, hunger, cold, or depression will lead to death. Food, medicine, fuel, and comfort items such as books or cigarettes, are difficult to come by. In This War of Mine, gaining the ability to trap rats for food can mean the difference between survival and death, and you may come to deeply resent your caffeine and nicotine addicts as they consume valuable trade items to slake their chemical dependencies.
No one is feeling very well, but someone has to go out and scavenge for more supplies tonight…
The daylight hours spent in the shelter are generally slow and contemplative, interspersed by occasional events as people come to your door. Some seek to trade, some want to join your group, some want help with their problems – asking for you to give some of your tiny store of food or medicine to help them survive. At night, you control the one scavenger, in the place you chose to go. Depending on the location and its inhabitants, you may be able to scavenge freely, trade, or you may wind up in a fight. Combat is simple, fast-paced, and unforgiving, yet understated enough that even victories feel like survival, not empowerment. You may choose to initiate combat, trying to beat or murder your way through the other civilians or even the soldiers, bandits, and militiamen. However, not only is death sudden and final, it also costs you whatever stuff that person was carrying, including their extraordinarily scarce weaponry. In addition, while successful violence will get you access to more stuff and thus enable your survival, most characters become depressed by murder, especially of other civilians. Depressed, they are less effective, and may eventually commit suicide. Moreover, the game appears to react to your actions. Your violence seems to make the nighttime raids on your shelter (played offscreen) more violent, and can render vital peaceful people, such as the traders in the Central Square, hostile. Likewise, those dilemmas during the daytime can come back to you as well; people whom you helped with food or medicine are likely to return the favor, randomly, when they have a surplus. In This War of Mine, violence is an answer, but it has its costs.
The house has been raided by looters!
I am not an expert on societies in cities under siege (including the game’s clear inspirations, Sarajevo and Warsaw), but This War of Mine seems initially to imply a complete societal breakdown, with bandits everywhere and the player potentially joining their ranks as people comb the city for resources. However, in a long game, scavenging meets its limits, when all the sites have either been picked over or are too heavily defended to attack. At that point, continued survival depends on a social network, fragile though it may be. Neighbors you helped may still help you. People whom you have established trading relations with will still be there, and the time I succeeded in surviving the game, it was trading that got me through. In this subtle way, This War of Mine reinforces the importance of cooperation with groups outside your own, and mingles a slight note of hope into its overall tone of desperation.
Kids at the door, asking for help. Would you spare some precious medical supplies for them?
Even its apparent flaws seem deliberate and work to its advantage. The daytime ticks by too slowly, yet that reinforces the boredom of being cooped up, hiding from snipers. The game has no tutorial, yet the player’s initial confusion reflects the confusion most of us would feel if we were suddenly plunged into such a situation.
Overall, This War of Mine is remarkably successful at being an engrossing game that involves violence yet avoids making the situation seem remotely appealing.
This War of Mine is my current pick for the best game of 2014.
I doubt I will be able to forget the games I’ve played in it.
I don’t know if I will ever want to play it again after finishing this review.
That paradoxical combination is 11 Bit Studios’ triumph.
Trading moonshine and jewelry for much-needed supplies.
Turning away from playing the game as a game, could it be useful in a classroom? Leaving specific questions of its fidelity to real sieges to others more versed in the topic….
Yes: This War of Mine could certainly serve as a spark for political science or history discussions on the experience of civilians in wartime; it has done so with both my wife and my son. Having students compare their decisions could also help drive discussions in ethics, leadership, and the laws of war. Students are unlikely to forget the game or the subsequent discussion.
Maybe: While it would be a powerful concrete experience, This War of Mine is not a fast game to play. Surviving a 42-day siege took me around 6 hours. Some of the subtleties in the interactions between player’s choices and the game won’t necessarily come out in a single playthrough, not least because I suspect most people’s first playthrough ends in disaster before those interactions can fully come to light. As a result, This War of Mine is not a game that could be used during class time. Whether the time spent in homework creates sufficient overall benefit, through driving discussion, will depend on the specific learning objectives of the program of instruction.
…a group of 25 United Nations Disarmament Fellows – young diplomats from all over the world – played out the last hours of the planned Middle East conference during a half-day simulation in New York on October 23, 2012. The simulation’s outcome may be too ambitious compared to what the “real” 2012 MEWMDFZ Conference is expected to achieve, considering that many observers still doubt if it would even convene this year (or ever). Certainly, to run a simulation one has to suspend the disbelief, and in this case, we assumed away one of the biggest perceived obstacles: getting all relevant states to attend. The simulation’s scenario thus was that all the Middle Eastern states, including Iran and Israel, showed up and did so in good faith, working toward a meaningful outcome. Unrealistic as they may appear, such exercises help explore what can be achieved if more political will is in place and, at the same time, highlight some of the more problematic aspects of reality.
Negotiating simulations can provide space for greater flexibility, imagination, and compromise. Specifically, by skipping over roadblocks such as lack of political will and direct communication between the major actors, simulations can help look for practical solutions that otherwise seem completely beyond reach. At the same time, simulations can raise new questions and draw attention to challenges that are overlooked or overshadowed by immediate concerns. In the case of the 2012 Middle East Conference simulation, assuming all parties’ participation and goodwill – the most immediate concern about the conference today – brought to the fore a number of other difficult issues. In this sense, the Middle East simulation held up a mirror to a rather harsh reality but did not leave the participants without hope.
For a more detailed report, check out the link above.
I suspect some FP readers may be a little queasy about “gaming” a war so soon after the fact—even as a rather hardened wargamer who doesn’t blanche at ongoing conflicts, I must admit to a little disquiet at trying to model a conflict in an area I know well, and with the death and destruction still very recent. Still, we’ll try to give the game a try on the weekend and post some thoughts as a way of exploring how design choices might try to capture essential real-life military and political-tradeoffs.
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The PC gaming website Rock, Paper, Shotgun had an interview earlier this month with (past PAXsims contributor) James Sterrett (Digital Leader Development Center, Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth) on professional wargaming. In it he offers some thoughtful reflections on—among other things—the requirements of military simulation and gaming, and the differences between this and most civilian/hobby wargames.
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On the subject of military games/simulations, Defense News (Michael Peck again!) reported on November 26 that TRADOC (Training & Doctrine Command of the US Army) has issued a directive “warn[ing] Army training centers against using unauthorized games, simulators and other training aids.”
TRADOC Policy Letter 21, signed in August by TRADOC commander Gen. Robert Cone, decrees that before any TRADOC organization may acquire or develop any games or training aids, devices, simulators and simulations (TADSS), it must contact the appropriate TRADOC capability manager (TCM) at the Combined Arms Center-Training at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
“The Army cannot afford TADSS that provide singular solutions or cannot be integrated with other TADSS in the integrated training environment,” Cone wrote. “We also cannot afford to have money diverted from other programs to support procurement of non-program of record, school-unique TADSS and high-licensing fees.”
The move has caused some concern:
A captain at an East Coast training installation fears that depriving local commanders of the freedom to procure training aids will stifle creative solutions.
“In the end, the memo will kill innovation and creativity as organizations seek to maintain the status quo within their shrinking budgets. All the letter reinforces is how the higher level managers are out of touch with where education actually takes place,” said the officer.
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BenthamFish’s Game Blog has a report by Alan Paull on a recent two-day workshop on games and systems thinking at the School of Transformative Leadership, Palacky University, in the Czech Republic:
Our focus for the workshop was on the learners learning about systems thinking. We intended to introduce how to play and think about the games through systems thinking techniques and vice versa
We alternated between playing the games and covering the theory illustrated by the games. We started by having plenary sessions for the theory, but found that getting responses from the whole group was difficult, as individuals were reluctant to speak. Therefore we switched to individual and group tasks, followed by discussions in which we could ask individuals to respond for the group. This worked very well.
Essential systems thinking concepts that we covered were:
James Sterrett kindly has provided an after action review for PAXsims on the recent Army Games for Training and Defense GameTech conferences in Orlando. With many thanks to James, we present it below.
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An Idiosyncratic Report on the Army Games for Training and GameTech Conferences
Disclaimer: This article reflects the personal views of the author, not the official views of the US Army or its components.
My apologies to anybody wanting a complete report on everything that took place. These are not huge conventions like E3 or GDC, but they were plenty large enough to ensure I didn’t see more than a slice of the convention.
For the past few years, GameTech and the Army Games for Training Conference (AGFT) have been under the same management. For various reasons, not all known to me but partly a new DoD ban on serving food at conferences, they are now administratively separate. This year they were held in the same location on the same week, with AGFT on Monday and Tuesday and GameTech on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. There’s apparently some discussion of holding them separately in the future, a move which would serve neither conference in my opinion.
Both conferences ran panels by leading lights of industry and/or the DoD in the morning, and papers in the afternoon. I generally did not attend the panels, talking to people instead – for me, this proved to be a very good conference for meeting people. My boss, LTC Chuck Allen, dutifully attended the panels and assured me I had missed nothing.
AGFT runs a mix of tutorials and papers, and has often proven to be the VBS2 Conference in the past. VBS2 still had a very strong showing, but other official simulations got a look in as well. The National Simulation Center provided several demonstrations of the Army Low Overhead Training Toolkit (ALOTT). Unfortunately, the person sent to run the demo sessions needed more backup; the hands-on potion of the demonstration was a good idea but, absent material on how to operate the simulations, it fell a bit flat. PEO-STRI’s Tim Wansbury also taught sessions on editing UrbanSim. UrbanSim does very well at delivering a single-player stability operations exercise, and is easily learned – however, getting far enough under its hood to really alter things such as the population model or the player’s echelon requires recoding parts of the simulation. (We’ve used UrbanSim’s generic-Iraq and generic-Afghanistan scenarios at some of the Command & General Staff College’s courses for years, but there’s mounting pressure for another scenario, which is proving difficult to deliver.)
TCM (TRADOC Capabilities Management) Gaming ran an avatar design competition to get people to try their new VBS2 avatar design tools. The tools proved relatively easy to use, and getting photos of my face mapped onto the avatar ran quickly. Unfortunately, designing an avatar that looks good is harder than using the tools. I felt quietly proud of my attempt at winter camo, using a white background with a sprinkling of brown leaves… until somebody standing next to me at the hallway monitor displaying them labelled it the Dalmatian outfit – and quite correctly so! I confessed to perpetrating it.
GameTech serves a wider audience, so the range of topics suddenly broadened a great deal. I missed a number of talks I wanted to go to. Gametech served breakfast, lunch, and snacks, and arranged for speakers during both meals. The speakers proved a mixed blessing.
AGFT’s keynote speaker for Tuesday was Curtis Murphy, repeating his IITSEC talk on the Science of Learning. It’s a great presentation with an excellent combination of wit and insight. Readers of this blog may be familiar with the content – it’s a basic primer on why games work in educaion, and the primary point is that learning and games work for the same reasons – but it’s packaged so well that my non-gamer boss saw the light.
Michael Jones, Google’s Chief Technology Advocate, delivered a scintillating speech during breakfast on Thursday, arguing for the value and necessity of embedding understanding (as opposed to simply facts), into programs. Apparently, the zoom out – fly over – zoom in feature of Google Earth was put in at his insistence in order to teach a bit of basic geography, because during the fly over part he hoped people would notice where various things were.
Ross Smith of Microsoft spoke about the value of using games to get projects done at work – a great talk despite a dodgy Skype connection. Apparently, in addition to Ribbon Hero, Microsoft has deployed some forms of testing into game frameworks, having people do very small tests to provide checks and feedback on software. This was credited with performing hundreds of thousands of tests and ensuring a successful Windows 7 launch.
Captain Ed Stoltenberg (Maneuver Captain’s Career Course Instructor) – We support Ed, so this is perhaps biased, but his talk woke up a sleepy audience on Tuesday afternoon. Ed has been a major force for integrating simulations into the MCCC classroom, working hard to include them and gather data to prove that they are working to improve student’s understanding.
John Roberts from the Naval War College (NWC) on using iPads instead of printed books. LTC Allen and I spoke on Wednesday about the use of simulations in the classroom at CGSC. We were paired up with John Roberts. Apparently, NWC issues around 6,000 pages of reading through iPads, complete with a special NWC-only section of the iTunes store, and the student response has been overwhelmingly favorable, with 90%+ approval of the project on measures ranging from ease of use and superiority over paper products. To get there, NWC had to overcome a number of administrative and Information Assurance hurdles – John Roberts didn’t really speak to these, but I’m aware of them because they appear to be insurmountable at CGSC. Some CGSC studies suggest it would be tens of thousands of dollars cheaper to issue each student an iPad loaded with all the course reading, than it is to print, distribute, collect – and often destroy – a year’s worth of reading. John Roberts’ paper suggests it is worthwhile to continue to struggle to make the change.
General Edward Rice, USAF, assisted Wednesday’s breakfast with endless repetition of “budgets will shrink, do more with less”, without any vision of how to get there. The “Blackberry/Android/iOS prayer” swept through the room. To cap it all, he proudly did not use PowerPoint – but then spent time verbally describing charts and graphs to us.
Mike Zyga: He’s been involved in many wonderful projects, and he made sure we knew it, because that proved to be the only content of his talk. Information on how or why some of these turned out so well would have been useful; instead, it was an “I love me” talk. Maybe he’s a wonderful individual in person; as it was, this was the talk I had to sit through in order to hear Ross Smith.
Captain Ed Stoltenberg realized that the vendor exhibit hall had empty space, and did a quick deal with GameTech to take some of it and run a Maneuver Captain’s Career Course booth. Since we support him, I supported the booth for most of Thursday, showing off VBS2, Steel Beasts, Crucible of Command, and Decisive Action Brigade Level. We’re hoping paid off for Ed, because the Armor School Commandant, BG James, came by and spoke to him for 5-10 minutes or so.
It proved to be a good conference for meeting people. I’d never before spoken to Dr. Ezra Sidran, an AI researcher whose projects can reliably identify features such as open flanks and then build a plan from them. These haven’t been put into a fully fledged ismulation, but as Ezra is the person behind the Universal Military Simulator some of you may remeber from decades past, he very likely could accomplish that. We renewed our connections to Rob Carpenter, Deputy Director of Simulation Development for the Australian Army, with whom we’ve had some very useful collaboration over the years. By sheer chance, we met Chris Taff, who has recently become the person in charge of simulation support for, among other things, the Canadian Army Command and Staff College — effectively our opposite number in Canada.
Dismounted Soldier is a project to enable individual soldiers to exist in a virtual environment, and move around, without a hamster ball, but without the ability to move through the real building. I tried it out. You wear a helmet, vest, and leg pouch, all with motion sensors, and have an M-4 with motion sensors. The helmet carries goggles that go over your eyes (and worked well with my glasses!) After zeroing the system, you can turn your head to change the view, turn your body to change your facing, and use a thumb-joystick on the back of the M-4’s forward pistol grip to move forward, backward, and sidestep left and right. During my 5-10 minutes with it, this was all remarkably unintuitive. Looking around worked fine until I got out of synch – which happened frequently – and then had to re-zero again. Get the re-zeroing wrong and you have to look off level to see level in the virtual world – time to re-zero again. However, the thing that I found hardest to get ued to was that you cannot put your eye to the sights of the M-4, because the goggles get in the way. I’m told that people get used to all this after about 30 minutes with the system, but I have to wonder if the net result is that you spend a lot of money on a system that teaches bad muscle memory.
Finally a funny story: Captain Ed Stoltenberg and I decided to hook up Steel Beasts for some co-op multiplayer on Thursday evening. The only place we could find that had tables and outlets was an unused section of restaruant in the (very large) hotel lobby. We set up a third computer and networked it in so that LTC Allen could give it a try as well. After he had left, that computer was left running, off to one side, while Ed and I got our asses kicked by various scenarios. Apparently, this setup looked like the internet access point you sometimes find in a hotel lobby. At around 930pm, a family walked over. The kids and Dad looked at our screens, while Mom sat down at Ed’s laptop. Apparently oblivious to the screenshot of a tank interior or the various other icons, she homed in on Internet Explorer, opened it, and was disappointed not to make a connection. We finally began to understand what was going on, and Ed explained, very politely, that it was a personal laptop and had no internet connection. She was quite embarrased, despite our “no harm done” assurances, and the family moved away. Just before they moved out of earshot we heard her say, “That’s OK, we’ll come back here tomorrow morning.” We’ve wondered if she complained to the staff, the next morning, that the internet cafe had disappeared!
James Sterrett is the Deputy Chief of the Simulations Division of the US Army Command & General Staff College’s Digital Leader Development Center, where he has worked since 2004 teaching CGSC’s courses on using games and simulations in training and education. His academic background includes a Ph.D in Soviet military history and several published articles on the educational use of simulations.