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Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: McGill University

Connections North 2020 conference report

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On February 15, McGill University hosted the annual CONNECTIONS NORTH interdisciplinary conference on conflict simulation and other professional/serious gaming. This was the fourth such conference—and the largest yet, with 79 registrants. Of these, over half were a mix of national security professionals, game designers, and researchers, and the remainder were university students (mainly from my POLI 452 Conflict Simulations course). Participants came from Canada and three other countries this year (US, Japan, Finland), and just over one-quarter were women. Some of the slide presentations are linked in the summaries below, and the full conference programme (and presenter biographies) can be found here.

Following weldoming remarks by Ben Taylor (Defence Research and Development Canada) we started off with a panel reviewing the past year or so in Canadian (war)gaming.

In the military domain, Scott Roach (Canadian Joint Warfare Centre) provided an overview of the work of the JWC’s small but growing wargaming section. This included joint wargaming (a series of a capability-based planning wargames, as well as games for the Canadian Joint Operations Command), joint experimentation (notably concerning information operations, electronic warfare, cyber, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), and joint simulation (using KORA, MASA Sword, JCATS, and others). He noted that they hoped to expand their staff, establish a resource/data library, and move towards more digital gaming. Jonathan Evans (Canadian Army Simulation Centre) spoke about the work of CASC, together with Brian Philips (Calian). CASC is headquartered in Kingston, with distributed locations in CFB Gagetown, Valcartier, Petawawa, and Edmonton. It provides support to the Canadian Army (both digital simulation and tabletop and other exercises), as well as Canadian Joint Operations Command, the RCAF, and other organizations. The major activities of CASC include support for Divisional Simulation Centres, UNIFIED RESOLVE, the Army Operations Course and Canadian Army Command and Staff College, and the Army Experimentation Centre. He also provided an overview of current Canadian Army simulation capabilities: ABACUS, JCATS, and VBS3, linked together and to command and control systems through the Virtual Command and Control Interface (VCCI). Murray Dixson (Defence Research and Development Canada) presented on gaming force planning scenarios, reviewing the work that DRDC had done with the Joint Warfare Centre on capability-based planning. This took the form of five wargames conducted in the spring and summer of 2019 to support Department of National Defence strategic planning. Three of these were conducted as matrix games (stabilization, peace enforcement, and peer combat), one as a combination seminar and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) game (humanitarian assistance), and one as a seminar game (domestic security and pandemic operations). He also discussed future work by DRDC’s Centre for Operational Research and Analysis (CORA), which includes continued support to strategic planning, as well as gaming for concept development and developing a DRDC wargaming community of interest.

In the foreign policy field, Anna Bretzlaff (Global Affairs Canada) discussed several games that GAC has run in recent years (on topics ranging from diplomacy in the South China Sea to global pandemics), as well as outreach efforts within GAC. The response within the department, she noted, had been very positive: this was clearly a foresight and analysis technique that officials wished to make use of. Finally, I added a few comments about gaming at McGill University, as well as some other PAXsims initiatives, including game development with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada on the African Swine Fever threat.

Subsequent discussion addressed how to better connect up the various gaming initiatives and interests across the government of Canada.

After a coffee break (kindly supplied by local serious game developer Imaginetic), our next panel explored methodological reflections on wargaming.

Stephen Downes-Martin (US Naval War College) presented on reversal effects and wargames—part of his “malign wargames series” whereby he seeks to inoculate game designers and participants against game-distorting techniques. Here he argued that the outcome of a game could potentially be distorted to suit analytical or policy preferences at the outbrief and after-action review stage. One way of doing this, he suggested, was to use insights from psychological research into probability, risk assessment, and loss aversion. Framing game outcomes in different ways could subtly render options more or less appealing. Because of this, he suggested, just “playing the game” was not good enough. It was important to also be familiar with social science and psychology theories, discuss subjective likelihoods of success using “high” through “low” text scales, describe alternatives in terms of advantages and disadvantages, use both selection and pricing techniques when framing outcomes, use both gains and losses, and identify biases of participants. Next, Andy Lee (McGill University and DRDC) reviewed methods of adjudication in matrix and seminar games. His presentation was based on a review of the available wargaming literature, together with interviews with a range of practitioners. Multiple systems were assessed (umpired, weighted probabilities, probability, voting, consensus, rigid) and he offered an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each. Finally, David Redpath (Canadian Joint Warfare Centre/BI-5 Inc.) offered extensive thoughts on refining wargame methods, focusing on four essential “problem” areas: fog of war and situational awareness, player level and expertise, and the orders they can give in the game; move/countermove and turn order; and who loses—and why. He argued that in all four of these areas, many hobby and professional games alike suffered from serious deficiencies. He then offered a series of suggestions and techniques whereby each might be addressed.

Following lunch, Tom Fisher (Imaginetic) chaired a session on gaming civilians in conflict. He briefly reviewed the enthusiasm for gaming techniques in evidence at the recent Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week in Geneva. Matt Stevens (Lessons Learned Simulations and Training) then talked about serious games for humanitarian capacity building, offering an overview of a current research project being undertaken by  Save the Children, Lessons Learned Simulations and Training, Imaginetic, and Kaya. This research asks whether serious games contribute to training for local humanitarian aid workers, exploring the extent to which digital or in-person tabletop exercises prompt changes in behaviour and/or attitude. They are also examining the potential barriers to engagement with mobile-based and tabletop serious games as a learning tool, as well as the practical requirements necessary to roll-out mobile and/or tabletop serious games to learners working in an emergency setting. To do this, they have undertaken experimental workshops in Amman and Nairobi using both manual games (AFTERSHOCK, The Day My Life Froze) and digital games. Participants were very positive about the use of games for humanitarian training. Manual games were preferred by participants, but it is not yet clear which is the better learning tool. He also noted that “digital games cause digital problems” (interface, bandwidth, system incompatibilities, and so forth). 

Patrick Robitaille (Laval University) then presented on the annual SimEx humanitarian field exercise organized by Laval University. He discussed how they challenge and assess participants, and changes they have made over time.

The keynote address at Connections North this year was provided by Yuna Wong (RAND), who spoke on “gaming and the unknowable future.” She addressed the challenges of gaming the future, and the difficulty game participants have in imagining the truly new. In the end, she suggested, we had to recognize that the futures we game are unlikely to come to pass in quite the way that we play them, although that does not invalidate games-based reflection and exploration.

Our final panel of the day addressed an important and sensitive topic: expanding the community. It was chaired by Matt Caffrey (US Air Force Research Lab), the founder of the worldwide Connections conferences, and the man who has probably done more than anyone to build global networks amongst professional wargamers. Many of the presentations focused on the challenges facing a field that has historically been dominated by middle-aged (and increasingly older) white males drawn from the military and wargaming hobby. Yuna Wong highlighted her own experiences as a woman and visible minority whose background was in the social sciences, not hobby gaming: while many veterans in the field have been generous with their time and support, she said, all too often she still encounters subtle biases and presumptions. Brianna Proceviat (PAXsims)—who recent graduated from McGill University and who will soon be joining the wargaming team and the Canadian Joint warfare Centre—dressed in pink to ask the rhetorical question “what does a wargamer look like?” She highlighted how subtle gendered pressures during childhood (for example, steering young girls away from conflict-themed toys and games) could leave them having to catch up with male counterparts who had a different experience of childhood socialization. Matt Shoemaker (Temple University) explored the history and design of war games in relation to gender. Independent game designer Roberta Taylor then followed up by discussing a game that she and Matt are developing which depicts the final military conflict in the French conquest of the Kabyle region of Algeria (1854-1857). This will look at the dynamics and effects of war across the entire local (Amazigh) population, and will also reflect the key role played by resistance leader Lalla Fadhma N’Soumer.

The discussion that followed was especially interesting. Several conference participants noted that the wargaming hobby—which is, surveys suggest, is more than 98% male—has had trouble reaching out to younger and more diverse demographics. A few even detailed incidents of outright misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia in online (hobby) wargaming communities. Several students made the point that they would not have even been aware that wargaming—and especially professional wargaming—existed, had they not encountered it in the classroom or through events like Connections North or megagaming. A few noted the popularity of model UN (which takes place on an impressive scale these days: the annual McMUN at McGill University involves more than two thousand participants and X days of programming—all organized by students). Several experienced professional wargamers even went so far as to say the hobby was increasingly less important as a source of new talent for professional wargaming. What was needed, they suggested, were those with social sciences backgrounds, familiar with both POL-MIL issues and rigorous analytical methods.

And this the conference came to a close. As I was busy chairing sessions and otherwise conference organizing, I’m afraid that I never did get around to taking pictures. If you attended and had any to pass on, please send them on! Feel free to many comments below too.

The following day, February 16, was our annual McGill megagame. That was a separate event, but many participants stayed on for it. A report will follow shortly!

McGill Library: Play On!

0.pngThis event has now been postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In light of recent developments regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, including bans on travel and large assemblies, we regret to inform you that we are forced to postpone the PlayOn! colloquium until early October 2020. We understand that many of you have been preparing for this event for many months and the coordinators will be happy to assist with any inquiries you may have.

We will be sending further information within the coming weeks to propose a rescheduled date, and we hope that many of you will still be able to attend. Please expect that we will be able to extend the same offers for travel-related funding, and that the general organization and structure of the colloquium will remain intact.


McGill Library will be organizing a series of speakers and other events throughout 2020 on the topic of serious play. This includes a Play On! colloquium at McGill University on 13-15 May.

To meet the needs of students reared, nurtured, and cultivated by video games since childhood, as well as the needs of faculty instructing them, the McGill University Library seeks ways to support the increasing presence of Serious Play in higher education. Serious Play incorporates creativity, innovation and cooperation as the foundations of new forms of immersive, intellectual engagement. In addition, novel interactive strategies in education, information literacy, and instruction are emerging daily. As dynamic spaces that foster and reward intellectual curiosity, 21stcentury academic libraries can continue to be hubs of interdisciplinary collaborative experimentation by evolving to match the pedagogical demands of students educated in increasingly interactive and ‘playful’ environments.

Running throughout 2020, our program of events will bring together a cohort of interdisciplinary thinkers and industry leaders to convey best practices for academic research libraries in supporting Serious Play. Together, we will reach across disciplines to explore how play and games fit in the serious and goal-oriented adult world of the 21st century research library, and what services academic libraries can, could, and should offer.

You will find additional details and the full schedule here.

McGill megagame 2020 ticket sale

Atlantic Rim

Do you feel the urge to save Atlantic Canada from the gravest threat in its history? Then you will want to participate in the ATLANTIC RIM megagame at McGill on Sunday, 16 February 2020.

Megagame tickets are discounted until January 1. After that, you’ll have to pay the regular admission price. Students receive an additional discount.

More more details, or to purchase a ticket, go to our Eventbrite ticket page.

If you want to be assigned to the same team as a group of friends, email me everyone’s name and your role preferences after you have all purchased a ticket.

McGill: Gaming humanitarian crisis

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On Wednesday, November 20 I’ll be speaking to the Games and Gamification for Human Development and Well-being (GHDW) working group at McGill University on “Gaming Humanitarian Crisis” (17h30-18h00). This will be followed by a demonstration game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game (18h00-20h30).

The event will take place on the 1st floor of the Education Building (3700 McTavish).


Please take a minute to complete our PAXsims reader survey.

 

ATLANTIC RIM registration now open

Atlantic Rim

Registration is now open for the 2020 McGill megagame—ATLANTIC RIM.

A mysterious meteor shower has struck the Atlantic coast of North America. Many coastal communities, including parts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, have been devastated by the resulting tsunami.

Police, fire departments, medical services, municipal workers, public utilities, Canadian Armed Forces personnel, and the Coast Guard are mobilizing to address the emergency. Roads are damaged. The electrical grid has been shattered. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Survivors are fleeing to safety.

Can local, provincial, and federal officials pull together to coordinate an effective response?

Will Atlantic Canada rise to the challenge?

…and are they prepared for the deadly peril that might now be lurking offshore?

ATLANTIC RIM will take place at McGill University in Montréal on Sunday, 16 February 2020. Further information and tickets can be obtained via Eventbrite (and they’re cheaper if you register before January 1!)

Save the date: McGill megagame 2020

The 5th annual McGill megagame will be held at McGill University, Montréal on Sunday, 16 February 2020.

The 2020 McGill megagame will be ATLANTIC RIM.

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A mysterious meteor shower has struck the Atlantic coast of North America. Many coastal communities, including parts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, have been devastated by the resulting tsunami.

Police, fire departments, medical services, municipal workers, Canadian Armed Forces personnel, and the Coast Guard are mobilizing to address the emergency. Roads are damaged. The electrical grid has been shattered. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Survivors are fleeing to safety.

Can local, provincial, and federal officials coordinate an effective response?

Will Atlantic Canada rise to the challenge? And are they prepared for what might now be lurking in the Grand Banks?

Registration information will be posted to PAXsims in November/December.

McGill end-of-term gaming update 2019

Classes are now over for the Winter 2019 term at McGill University, and it is exam-and-grading season. I have also now had a chance to review the various projects produced in my conflict simulation course (POLI 422). There are many very interesting and well-executed game designs.

The course was supported this year by Dr. Ben Taylor from Defence Research and Development Canada. The students and I were very grateful for his assistance.

 

ADVANCED OPERATIONS

Advanced Operations is a two map blind/closed game of tactical urban operations at the platoon level. The map depicts an urban neighbourhood, including vantage points, doorways, fields of fire, street clutter, and multi-story buildings. The basic combat system is straight-forward, intuitive, and quite effective. The Blue player can equip themselves before a mission with a range of new technologies and capabilities in order to assess their impact on urban tactics, ranging from small drones to power-assisted armour to robots (all based on weapons in development of field-testing).

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CARTEL

Cartel is a multi-player game examining the drug trade in Mexico, focusing on the era of large criminal syndicates. Players generate money through smuggling drugs from Central/South America into the United States and from other illegal activities. To move drugs through the country, however, they need to establish control and influence over a chain of key cities, and once the drugs have been delivered need to launder their illicit proceeds. The winner is the drug lord who amasses the most luxury items. However, be careful: as your notoriety grows, you become more of a target (and might even be arrested and extradited to the United States).

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FALLEN REPUBLIC

Fallen Republic is a semi-cooperative game in which South Korea, the United States and China struggle to stabilize North Korea after the collapse of the communist regime there. To do so they need to provide security, deliver food and medical supplies to needy populations, build local public administration, restart the economy, and win local popular support. Asymmetrical and semi-secret victory conditions can make it difficult to cooperate, while a fourth player—Chaos, representing all the fog, friction, and wicked problems of stabilization operations —wins by preventing the others from achieving their objectives.

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INTELLIGENCE COLLECTION

Intelligence Collection explores the ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance) and HUMINT requirements of counterinsurgency campaigns. It is a three map closed game, meaning that players only know the location of their own assets and enemy assets they have detected. Various Red actions, such as training insurgents, bomb-making, and smuggling—all have detection probabilities attached, which in turn are affected by patrolling, HUMINT collection, and other Blue actions. Interrogation of captured insurgents may also reveal information, such as who recruited them or where they were trained.

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LITTLE GREEN MEN

Little Green Men examines the war in Ukraine, and Russian hybrid warfare. The game combines both map-based area movement/combat with card-based policy initiatives. Russia needs to be careful that it’ support for opposition forces doesn’t become too obvious, or it risks stepped-up NATO assistance to the Kiev government.

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MELTDOWN

As the Arctic ice slowly melts, Canada, the US, Russia, the Scandinavian countries, and China are faced with new challenges and threats. Should new oil, mining, and fisheries resources be exploited? How should this be balanced against environmental management? What are the implications of transpolar shipping? Meltdown is both competitive and semi-cooperative—at the end of the game, the more heavily the Arctic is being exploited, the larger the chance of ecological collapse. The game allows for players to collectively change the game rules during play, through the mechanism of the Arctic Council. The map mechanic is cool too—as the ice melts you remove blocs of it from the game board, revealing the now-accessible resources beneath.

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MISSION RECONSTRUCTION

Mosul has been liberated by ISIS control, and the Baghdad government must reconstruct the areas of northern and western Iraq ravaged by the extremist group. However, ISIS seeks to disrupt such efforts, mobilize new recruits, rebuild its forces, and undermine local security. In MISSION RECONSTRUCTION the two sides each select their actions from a menu of options each turn. Event cards may also produce other crises that must be resolved if the stability of the country and the legitimacy of the government is to be enhanced.

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This is the first time I’ve taught the course as a lecture course, with 31 students—last year it was run as a seminar with only nine, which gave me more opportunity to work with a smaller number of game projects. It is also ambitious to fit it all into one term—Phil Sabin’s former wargaming module at King’s College London was a full year graduate course. Nevertheless, I think things generally worked well.

This year the teams were groups of five. Next year I think I’ll reduce that to four. While larger teams means more human resources to work on game design and playtesting, it also aggravates coordination and communication problems. I’ll also introduce a system whereby student evaluate the relative contribution of other team members. I have never been fond of these since they can be abused, but I think it will be worthwhile on balance. While most groups worked well, there were a few that generated complaints that a member wasn’t pulling their weight.

Despite constant nagging from me that the teams needed to move rapidly to prototyping and hence playtesting, I think all but one of the groups wished they had started on their project earlier than they did. Indeed, some did not do so until shortly before their interim “status report” was due. Next year I’ll require two such reports, with one of them even earlier in the term.

Finally, I’m pleased to announce that the 2019 Defence Research and Development Canada wargame design award (awarded by DRDC to the best project in the class) went to the team that produced ADVANCED OPERATIONS. Well done!

 

McGill gaming (Winter 2019 edition)

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The view from outside the Education Building today, where POLI 450 meets.

This time of the year is always a busy one for gaming activities at McGill University—so busy, in fact, that I’ve been a little remiss in updating PAXsims with all of our goings-on.

I teach two courses with a significant gaming components during the Winter term. POLI 450 is a course on peacebuilding, exploring topics ranging from forced displacement and humanitarian assistance through to negotiation, peacekeeping and stabilization operations, DDR (demobilization/disarmament/reintegration of ex-combatants), reconstruction, coordination, transitional justice, and a host of other issues. There are 87 students in the class, plus another six in the POLI 650 graduate seminar. Over the term they will experience a few short, in-class simulations, an optional tournament of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game, and the massive, week-long “Brynania” peace operations simulation in late March/early April.

POLI 422 is a “selected topics” course on conflict simulation design with 31 students. This is the first time I’ve taught a full lecture course on the topic, although last year I did teach a very successful seminar on conflict simulation and a shorter professional course on serious games (at Carleton University), and a few students have previously undertaken independent studies courses with me that involved game designs on topics such as the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war. Moving forward this will be a regular course, taught annually at McGill from now as POLI 452.

Lectures so far have focused on the history of wargaming, the principles of serious game design, and modelling conflict through game systems. The course text is Phil Sabin’s book Simulating War, developed from his experience teaching a graduate wargaming course at King’s College London.

Students were also asked to come up with game proposals. Ten students chose to make a pitch, on topics ranging from Chinese-Vietnamese naval conflict to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Dr. Ben Taylor from Defence Research and Development Canada joined the class on presentation day to help assess them all, and in the end six were chosen as our projects for the year:

  • Fallen Republic (stabilization operations in a future collapsed North Korea)
  • Cartel (Mexican drug cartels)
  • Conquering the North Pole (Arctic cooperation and conflict)
  • Little Green Men (Russian interference in Ukraine)
  • Operation Breakpoint (impact of new and emerging technologies on asymmetric warfare)
  • Collateral (intelligence collection and high value targeting)

The various team leaders then formed groups of five students to work on each project. I’m quite pleased with the way we did this. First, students were each asked to fill out a “game design CV” detailing their areas of expertise and interest (gaming experience, graphic arts skills, research and documentation, rules-editing). Team leaders were then given a copy of these CVs, plus $1 million in fictional “game designer dollars.” Each team leader made secret bids for those they wished to recruit to her or his team. Unclaimed students were assigned by me based on skills and interests. No one was informed how much they had attracted in bids, of course—I didn’t want anyone to feel bad if they hadn’t been bid on. The result is that the teams each seem to include an appropriate mix of skills, and most people ended up in a project they wanted to work on.

Ben will be coming back to the class on February, to offer advice on game design, and then will help pick the winner of an informal DRDC design award for the best design at the end of the term.

In addition to class lectures, POLI 422 also features a series of optional games and other course activities through the term that contribute to course participation grades.

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1812: Invasion of Canada is a very good introduction to wargaming for neophytes: it is easy to play, does a nice job of illustrating the general contours of the conflict, and is an effective introduction to both area movement and card-driven mechanics. We Are Coming, Nineveh is a block game first developed by my students last year, examining the 2017 liberation of West Mosul by Iraqi security forces. Not only is it a terrific game (and one that will be commercially published), but because it was a student design it is a real inspiration to other students. The STRIKE! Battlegroup Tactical Wargame is in the mix because it is both a very straightforward hex-and-chit tactical game, and also because it was developed by serious folks at Dstl for serious training applications in the British Army. Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? is used to demonstrate card-driven political-military games, and Urban Operations is another tactical game that features mixed hex/area movement as well as some modelling of 3 dimensional urban terrain. Black Orchestraa is included because I think it is a really beautifully-designed cooperative design, while ISIS Crisis and A Reckoning of Vultures help to demonstrate matrix games. Students can also gain activity credits for playing certain digital games, attending certain events, or organizing their own gaming sessions.

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1812: Invasion of Canada

Speaking of We Are Coming, Nineveh, it is 99% done, including the solitaire system. The latter allows a single player to play against Daesh, with the actions of the latter determined by a card draw. We continue to do more playtesting, but this really only results in slight tweaks of cards and rules for clarity. We were especially pleased to learn last month that, along with a number of previously published commercial games, Nineveh will be examined as part of a Dstl-supported project on modelling urban warfare.

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We Are Coming, Nineveh!

Part of the reason things are so busy at the moment is because we have the Connections North (serious) wargaming conference coming up on Saturday, February 16. It looks like we’ll have about sixty people attending Connections North, about one-third professionals and two-thirds university students (including a group coming up to Montreal from Tufts University).

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The following day, on February 17, about a hundred of us will be engaged in some rather less serious wargaming: the APOCALYPSE NORTH megagame. While the zombie Armageddon isn’t a terribly plausible national security threat, the actual game is a pretty solid emergency management simulation, which models pretty much every Canadian Forces regular and reserve component in southern Ontario and Quebec, as well as emergency services and other relevant assets. The federal-provincial politics of it all should also be fun, and rather distinctly Canadian. If all goes according to plan—and it might not, since it depends on IT and AV things working as they should on the day—we should even have a (simulated) CBC television studio live-streaming reports to the players and beyond.

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In early March, I’ll be joining fellow PAXsims editor Major Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK) in Norfolk, Virginia for a week, as we will co-teach a wargaming course at NATO Allied Command Transformation. You will get a PAXsims report on that after the week is done, of course.

Late March will see me tied up in the recurrent civil war in Brynania, reading 10,000+ emails, and monitoring dozens of simultaneous chatrooms and Twitter. After that comes the end of term in mid-April, along with final exams—and game projects—to grade.

 

 

McGill gaming seminar: three projects

This week the students submitted their game projects for my POLI 490 game design seminar, finally bringing the term to an end. One lesson I learned this year is the need to force students into building a prototype earlier, and therefore allowing more time for play-testing. Constant exhortations weren’t enough, and I think all three teams were surprised to discover how long the play-test/revise/play-test/revise cycle can be, and how many bugs there can be to work out.

Still, I was very happy with the results. The conceptual foundations and core game mechanics of all three games were excellent—indeed, there are some potential commercial designs in here. All three teams want to continue to development over the summer and beyond, and possibly show them off at Connections US and/or Connections UK. What’s more, Brian Train has offered to assist with game development—pretty much a dream come true for neophyte political-military game designers.

 

One Belt One Road

One Belt One Road is a semi-cooperative game that examines Chinese grand strategy, focusing on its current efforts to deepen trade and investment ties in Asia, Africa, and onwards to Europe. Players represent the Ministry of Finance and Commerce, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the People’s Liberation Army.  Using financial, diplomatic, and military resources they seek to improve China’s bilateral relations, develop trade agreements, secure military facilities, and—most important of all—secure trade and investment opportunities. An events deck constantly generates new challenges to be overcome, however. Moreover, the three players have slightly different interests, which can impede cooperation.

 

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OBOR Game materials.

 

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Players have a menu of game actions they may take each turn, plus they may also support projects and respond to event cards.

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A game underway.  Eligible projects can be seen at the bottom, current events in the top right. The country displays show current relations with China. India doesn’t seem to be very happy!

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Sample event cards. 

 

 

The Logic of Atrocities: The War in Darfur

This is a mixed area/point-to-point wargame with a twist: the game is designed to show how and why governments and insurgent groups might engage in war crimes, and what might constrain them from doing so. In the game, atrocities can aid military operations, or impede rebel recruitment and resource generation through terror and forced displacement. However atrocities can backfire too. Refugees might themselves become a new source of rebel recruits. Moreover, there is a risk that they could provoke international condemnations, sanctions, or worse. Certain event cards, if triggered, are moved to the “Warn” and “Action” boxes, and if these fill up international action becomes possible. The intended audience here is those interested in mass atrocity prevention. the current version of the game is for two players (Sudan and Darfuri rebel groups), but a planned three player variation will introduce a United Nations player too.

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Game materials for The Logic of Atrocities.

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Sudanese Army (green) and pro-regime Janjaweed irregulars (white) commit atrocities as they advance towards rebel JEM forces that have just seized the town of el-Geneina.

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Sudanese war crimes have provoked condemnation from the United States and African Union—but no real international action action (yet).

 

We Are Coming, Nineveh

The third game is a tactical/operational wargame of the battle for West Mosul in February-July 2017, pitting the Iraqi security forces (and coalition support) against the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS). It too uses a mix of zonal and point-to point movement. Before the game starts, each player invests in capabilities and defensive preparations. On the ISIS side these include such things as tunnel networks, human shields, makeshift drones, primitive chemical weapons, IEDs and VBIEDS, bomb factories, weapons stockpiles, enhanced media capability, spy networks, improved training, human shields, and so forth. Units are depicted by blocks, thus providing for some fog of war, and blocks are rotated to show losses and reduced combat capability. Iraqi headquarters units enable loss recovery, additional movement, or combat bonuses. The terrain is both shaped and coded for urban density, which affects stacking and combat: armoured units, for example, are very effective in open areas, but cannot penetrate the narrow alleyways of the Old City. Major roads provide for faster movement—but only if you’ve cleared the neighbouring areas.

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Game materials for We Are Coming, Nineveh. The Iraqi government offensive has just begun.

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ISIS preparations for this game include human shields, tunnels, improved training, and simple chemical weapons.

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The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (Golden Division) advances towards the Old City while elements of the 9th Armoured Division try to clear the major roads and flank ISIS positions to the west.

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Amnesty International raises concerns that coalition drone strikes are causing excessive civilian casualties.

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Meanwhile, advancing Iraqi forces are harassed by makeshift ISIS drones.

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Iraqi forces begin to break into the Old City along the southern bank of the Tigris River (right), while the 9th Armoured Division continues its flanking operations to secure the major roads and cut off ISIS supplies (left). ISIS fighters continue to appear in Iraqi rear areas (bottom), where they are engaged by troops and police.

McGill gaming update

Previous McGill gaming updates for the Winter 2018 term can be found here (March 22) and here (February 3).


The regular school term at McGill University ended on Monday, and final exams are just starting. At the moment I am in the process of grading ninety or so student debriefs from our recent week-long (April 4-11) peacebuilding simulation in POLI 450/650. They are always interesting to read, encourage students to reflect on the simulation experience, and often contain insights from the game that had not otherwise occurred to me.

This year’s conflict in Equatorial Cyberspace saw months of tortuous negotiations between the government of Brynania and the Popular Front of the Liberation of Zaharia, finally resulting in a ceasefire and agreement on principles for a future peace deal. A small United Nations peacekeeping/observer mission, composed of Ethiopian, Indian, Canadian, and German personnel, was deployed to monitor and support the ceasefire at the most critical flash-point, the contested southern port city of Mcgilldishu. In the north, a ceasefire was also agreed with the diamond-smuggling warlords of the self-styled “Free People’s Army.” Elsewhere in the country, however, conflict continued: in the south, the radical Zaharian People’s Front conducted a series of successful hit-and-run guerilla attacks against government forces near Diku, while the western city of Aiku was seized by Icasian paramilitaries. A bloody, urban-type fight to recapture it followed, looking very much like the recent  Iraqi campaign to liberate Mosul.

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The government of Brynania and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Zaharia sign a peace agreement. Left to right: brutal defence minister, genocidal dictator, nice lady from the UN, scheming insurgent, ruthless guerilla.

The result—a ceasefire and preliminary peace agreement, supported by a UN force—has been the most common outcome we have seen over the 17 years I have been running the peacebuilding simulation at McGill, although certainly not the only one. Military casualties were the highest yet, however, due to the intense fighting around Aiku and with the ZPF. Civilian casualties were also very high, with the aid community slow to respond to the complex humanitarian crisis in the south.

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More than two hundred thousand refugees fled the area during the seven months the simulation covered, although the United Nations High Commission for Refugees did well in addressing their immediate needs—inspired, perhaps, by a real message of support sent by the actual High Commissioner of UNHCR at the start of the simulation (thanks again, Filippo!).

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Students and CONTROL alike were active on Twitter throughout—sometimes seriously, sometimes less so. One of the nice things about running this game in a university setting is that the participants can be very witting in their public statements (and Titter trash-talk), without in anyway distorting the fundamental dynamics of game or undermining the learning experience.

 

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The Brynania simulation is something of a labour of love: it took up around 18 hours a day of my time for a full week, during which I read or sent 6,438 simulation emails and simultaneously monitored 118 Facebook or other online messaging forums/chats—plus Twitter. You will find a couple of video documentaries on Brynania SIMs here and here.

My POLI 490 seminar in conflict simulation has also wrapped up, although the game projects are not due until the end of the month. The seminar this year was a practice run for a full class I’ll be teaching on the topic next year, and one thing I have learned is to add some graded milestone reports to the evaluation schema to make sure that each of the design teams gets a prompt start on developing a physical game prototype and playtesting it.

This year, there are three teams, one working on a game of the Darfur conflict, another developing a semi-cooperative game focusing on China’s One Belt One Road economic initiative, and a third exploring Iraqi military operations against ISIS in west Mosul in 2017.

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The game board for One Belt One Road.

Yesterday I was involved in a playtest of the Mosul project (“We Are Coming, Nineveh”). It is simple and elegant to play, but there is a lot built into the game design:

  • pre-game planning and capability investments (especially for ISIS, which needs to decide how to defend the city before the Iraqi assault)
  • fog-of-war via blocks and dummy counters
  • area movement that coincides with actual neighbourhoods and street grids
  • terrain types (open, urban, Old City) with effects on combat, and major thoroughfares (which allow for more rapid movement if cleared of enemy forces)
  • IEDs and VBIEDS
  • coalition UAVs (and ISIS modified quadricopters)
  • snipers
  • artillery and air support
  • bunkers and fortifications
  • tunnels
  • command and control issues, including coordination difficulties between different Iraqi units and organizations
  • combined arms
  • hastily-trained ISIS recruits and child soldiers
  • information operations, propaganda, and public opinion
  • civilian casualties/collateral damage

We will see how they all pull it together when it is finished—as they are finding out, there is a lot of detail to be ironed out before a game concept becomes a polished, final reality.

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Playtesting We Are Coming, Nineveh. At McGill University, our conflict simulation course teaches the pointing skills so essential to serious wargaming.

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Advancing forces of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services towards the IED-strewn alleys of the Old City.

At our final POLI 490 seminar meeting last week, we explored the issue of “in-stride adjudication”—an issue that will be examined in detail at this summer’s Connections US professional wargaming conference in Washington, DC. Since the students have acquired considerable experience this term participating in games with some degree of in-stride adjudication (Brynania is primarily adjudicated that way; February’s DIRE STRAITS megagame involved large doses of it, and they’ve all played in matrix games that often involve a subtle sort of in-stride adjudication by the game facilitator) I thought it would be useful to get player perspectives on the issue. It turned out to be an excellent discussion, and one of the students has offered to write it all up as a white paper for the Connections conference.

Now, back to grading papers!

 

McGill gaming update

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Looking forward to the eventual arrival of Spring at McGill.

At McGill University, the annual, week-long Brynania peacebuilding simulation is fast approaching. Most of the role assignments have been made, and materials will be distributed to members of my POLI 450 peacebuilding class on Monday. The actual simulation will run from April 4-11, and during that period I’ll pretty much vanish—I will be deep in the Brynania CONTROL bunker in suburban Montreal, fuelled by endless coffee as I monitor the activities of almost one hundred participants.

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Yes, Galasi (the capital of Carana) looks suspiciously like a remodeled Copenhagen.

Two weeks ago, I ran the “Crisis in Galasi” simulation at a conference on the urban dimensions of religious conflict organized by Prof. Mick Dumper (University of Exeter). This seemed to go well, with participants welcoming a break from the usual academic workshop process to periodically assume the roles of actors in a fictional scenario of rising religious and political tensions. The simulation saw sectarian rumours circulate on social media; a protest march that turned violent, with barricades, arrests, and mysterious gunfire; and splits between soft-liners and hard-liners in the cabinet, resulting in a political crisis and the formation of a new coalition government. At the end, there was some effort by local Catholic and Muslim officials to find a way forward that might be acceptable to all sides, but the situation remained fraught and fragile. The Matrix Game Construction Kit was used to support the simulation.

This Tuesday, I took part in a simulation run by the folks at the ICONS Project, examining corporate response to potential armed conflict in their area of operation. I can’t share the details, but the event seemed to go well.

Finally, my POLI 490 seminar on conflict simulation design continues to be a pleasure to teach. This month we’ve looked at the design of negotiation simulations (drawing upon Natasha Gill’s excellent book on the topic), as well as best and worst practices in professional wargaming (using the UK Ministry of Defence/DCDC Defence Wargaming Handbook for the former, and CNA’s 2004 study of wargaming pathologies for the latter). Students have played Islamic State: The Syria War, and Brian Train’s recently published game Chile ’73.  Next week we will look at matrix game design, and we’ll play through the Reckoning of Vultures scenario from the Matrix Game Construction Kit. Since this (like Chile ’73) is also a game about coup plotting with pre-coup and coup phases, it will provide an interesting opportunity to contrast the relative strengths and weaknesses of more rigid, rules-based approaches and more free-form techniques.

 

McGill gaming update

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It has been a good week for McGill University gaming-related activities.

On Monday and Tuesday, I had a very enjoyable (and, I hope, very productive) couple of days at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Alexandria, VA. Much of the time we were discussing the ethics and crisis management simulations IFES is developing to bolster the capacity of election commissions, with the view that it is best to practice these sorts of issues in a safe-to-fail game environment. I also had time to make a more general presentation on the use of simulations and serious games (pdf here). They are a terrific group of skilled and dedicated folks at IFES, and kept me well supplied with coffee and sugary treats.  As you might expect, any place that names its conference rooms after the murder locations in the board game Clue is going to be simulation-and-gaming friendly.

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Wednesday was my weekly conflict simulation design seminar at McGill. We discussed aspects of game design (drawing heavily upon Phil Sabin’s excellent book Simulating War), and the students provided an update on the three group projects they are working on:

  • A wargame examining urban warfare in Mosul (2016-17). We had considerable discussion of how best to represent urban terrain, building types and density, urban population, transportation routes, ISIS defences (tunnels, fortified positions, various types of IEDs, human shields), and other elements in the game.
  • A wargame of the war in Darfur. This is intended to educate human rights workers, diplomats, development workers, and military personnel about the political and military logics of mass atrocity, with an eye to developing appropriate ways to deter and respond to them.
  • A strategic diplomatic/economic/military game of China’s One Belt One Road initiative. This is shaping up to be a semi-cooperative game, in which players represent different Chinese actors (for example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Liberation Army, state-owned enterprises, and the Chinese private sector).

We also heard a student presentation on gaming international humanitarian law. This largely looked at efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to promote greater IHL compliance in video games, including the partnership between ICRC and Bohemian Interactive which saw the release of IHL-themed downloadable content for the ARMA series of tactical first person shooters.

At the end of each seminar, we play a game (or at least part of one, since there is rarely time to finish). This week it was the 3 October 1993  “Lead the Way” scenario from Urban Operations, in which US Rangers and Delta Force personnel try to fight there way through hostile Somali militias to secure the crash site of Super 61 of “Blackhawk Down” fame. The game does a terrific job depicting urban terrain using a combination of hexes (for outside areas) and polygons (for buildings), which is why I had selected it as a demonstration game.

While all seemed to be going well at first for the Rangers, angry Somali crowds began to slow the Americans and growing numbers of Somalia National Alliance militia began to engage US forces. The Combat Search and Rescue team grimly held on at the crash site, using the helicopter wreckage to fortify their position as they drove back waves of attackers. Eventually they started to take casualties and run low on ammunition. Overhead, AH-6 Little Birds provided much-needed fire support, but found it increasingly difficult to get a clear shot at gunmen as the streets grew more crowded with angry local residents. Finally, Somali forces closed in on the Rangers from the west, and a lucky RPG shot took down one American platoon commander and forced the rest of his unit to take cover well short of Super 61.

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The Rangers advance towards the crash site, harassed by angry crowds and SNA gunmen. Minutes later, however, additional militia reinforcements would arrive from the west (left), engaging the rear of the American force.

This week we also finished the annual McGill AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament. This was a optional activity for students in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course, and 28 of them chose to take part as one of four teams. There are class participation bonuses for taking part, for being part of the highest-scoring winning game, and for being a member of the highest scoring individual team. In order to provide a similar level of challenge, and also to optimize teachable moments, the Event deck was prepared before each game to present an identical sequence of challenges and opportunities for each group.

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The results of the 2018 McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament.

This year, two of the games were wins, one was a narrow loss, and other was a more substantial loss. This is the third year I’ve run the game for the class–you’ll find last year’s results here.

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This year’s winning team at work in the 2018 McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament.

Finally, we’ve sold most of the tickets for the DIRE STRAITS megagame at McGill on February 25 (although there are still some available, if you’re interested). The scenario video for the game was posted earlier today here on PAXsims.

DIRE STRAITS: the video

On February 25, McGill University will host its 3rd annual megagame: DIRE STRAITS, a game of crisis and confrontation in East and Southeast Asia. The video we will be using to introduce the game scenario is below—assuming, that is, that no one starts a real nuclear war on the Korean peninsula in the next three weeks.

While most of the tickets for the event have been sold, there are some remaining via Eventbrite. We hope to see you there!

UNSOC Northland

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No, it’s not the latest UN peacekeeping force. Rather, UNSOC is Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos, the latest megagame from the fevered mind of mad genius Jim Wallman.

UNSOC is nor ordinary megagame, you see—instead, it is the world’s first wide-area megagame, with interlinked games being played simultaneously in eleven cities in five different countries. In Montreal, we’ll be playing the peaceable country of Northland, faced with a sudden and terrifying menace spreading from South-of-the Border:

Northland is a generally nice (if sometimes smug and self-righteous) place, known for its cold winters, hockey, doughnut shops, poutine, and polite do-gooders prone to apologize for the slightest transgression. As the country celebrates its birthday on July 1, however, this peaceable place may face its greatest threat ever.

South of the Border, something is happening. There are reports of violence, chaos, and panic well beyond the violence and chaos of daily life there. Military units are being mobilized, and this time not to invade some foreign country. Some even claim that undead hordes have taken to the streets in search of human brains—or, at the very least, free national health care. How much longer will it be before the urban nightmare moves north?

The game happens to fall on Canada Day, so that’s appropriate. Our game will be rather smaller than our last two games (New World Order 2035 and War in Binni). However it should be just as enjoyable for those many Canadian gamers who enjoy the complex interplay between federal-provincial relations and an impending apocalypse.

In the Montreal area on Canada Day, and interested in participating? Email me for more details, or buy a ticket at Eventbrite. We’ll be getting an early start, of course, to synchronize with the various European games.

Reflections on (another) McGill megagame

Last year (in)famous megagame designer Jim Wallman made a trip to frozen Montréal to run New World Order 2035 at McGill University, with some one hundred or so players taking part. It was a big success.

Last week Jim made a return visit for War in Binni, this year’s McGill megagame. Again, approximately one hundred persons participated in the day-long event, most of them McGill students. The event was cosponsored by PAXsims, the International Relations Students’ Association of McGill (IRSAM), and the McGill Political Science Students’ Association (PSSA).

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War in Binni has been run several times before elsewhere, notably at last year’s Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London. The theme of a civil war in a fictional country in West Africa was of particular interest to students, including those in my POLI 450 and POLI 650 peacebuilding courses. We’ll be running our own even larger, week-long Brynania civil war simulation later in the term. However, unlike the Connections/KCL version, the game at McGill included a significant “weird science” component, with a touch of both Lovecraft and Indiana Jones. The event was held in excellent space New Residence Hall, including a large ballroom, two conference rooms, a foyer (and cloakroom), an integrated audio and data projectors. The staff were helpful as ever.

I should also note that almost half (41%) of our our participants were women—and, moreover, they all paid to participate. This was similar to last year. Those who argue that women are somehow uninterested in political-military gaming clearly have no idea what they are talking about.


We started off with a basic orientation to the game from Jim. Rules and maps had been posted online before the game, and individual role briefings had been emailed to all players about a week beforehand.

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Action at the map table, as the Clewgists celebrate a victory.

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Map Control (me), pointing.

While the government, various rebel groups, and regional actors vied for territory and influence, shady international arms dealers sold weapons to the highest bidder, the UN Security Council met in emergency sessions, and humanitarian aid workers struggled to cope with a growing flood of refugees.

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The United Nations Security Council meets.

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Heavy fighting takes a heavy toll on civilians, forcing many to flee.

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The Clewgists mourn the destruction of their sacred grove by a rival militia.

Three archaeological digs were also at work in the war-torn country. These soon uncovered increasingly unusual findings. These included evidence of alien technology, and various occult items with mysterious powers.

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An archaeologist briefs the French ambassador.

Little did the players know that, hidden among the participants were a small group of secret cultists. This group managed to obtain key objects from the digs, perform a dark ritual, and summon an Elder God of unspeakable power. The huge creature appeared atop Mount Clewg, and began to rampage through the country, destroying everything in its path.

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An extradimensional creature appears atop Mount Clewg.

The international community responded with a barrage of cruise missile attacks and bombing strikes, but these did minimal damage. Researchers at McGill University utilized one of their archaeological finds to slow the thing’s progress. Regional powers revealed that they had all been secretly researching WMD, and unleashed chemical weapons and radiological missiles. However it was the Kingdom of Gao, in alliance with Christian and Muslim rebel groups and the local Clewgist tribal insurgents, that inflicted the most damage, severely damaging the creature with an alien death ray before a suicidal charge by the Clewgists destroyed the evil abomination.

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Militias (and Gao) unite to destroy the terror.

As all this was happening, the government of Binni—afflicted by plummeting domestic political support and the assassination of the President—finally agreed on peace terms with the main opposition alliance. Peace had come… but at what cost? And what does the future hold for Binni?


Overall I thought that Binni went even better than NWO 2035. There were, perhaps, several reasons for this.

First, everyone seemed to internalize their roles very quickly, and game play was generally credible and “realistic” (or as realistic as it can be in a game featuring alien technology and an Elder God).

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The Global (later, Galactic) News Network at work.

Second, our Global News Network team did a terrific job of getting information out to the players. The GNN website contained a few in-depth stories, most of which had been written in advance by the Control team to be released during the initial game turns.  Most news was carried on the GNN Twitter feed. Special “breaking news” announcements were made over the audio system, sometimes only a few seconds after the event had occurred. The GNN team also did an excellent job of investigative reporting, using covert reporters and in-country teams to considerable effect. They resisted the temptation to report rumours as facts, or believe or print everything they were told.

I know from previous large games how important the media role is. It also requires players who understand their importance in the game process (acting, in some senses, as an element of the Control team), and enjoy acting as journalists: verifying, investigating, uncover secrets, and breaking important stories.

Third, War in Binni had fewer rules than NWO 2035, and game systems were generally more simple and straight-forward. This allowed players to focus on role-playing and interaction rather than understanding rules, and facilitated the sort of creative, emergent gameplay that is at the heart of a successful megagame.

We’re already thinking ahead to next year’s game…

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