The following article was written for PAXsims by Nathalie Marver-Kwon, a sophomore at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service studying geography and Russian. She is a teaching assistant for geography and engages in research on Russian geopolitics. She is the Secretary / Treasurer for Georgetown University Wargaming Society (GUWS) and an aspiring wargame designer. She is originally from Seattle, WA.
From October 24th through October 28th, 2022, I attended MORS and Virginia Tech’s Certificate in Wargaming course. I was able to attend through a scholarship granted to me directly by the program, the first of an annual prize for undergraduate and graduate students with demonstrated interest in professional wargaming. I felt incredibly lucky to be sitting in the same Zoom call as professional wargamers and analysts from all over the world. Through the course, I wanted to learn how to design and develop games in a structured way. More importantly, the MORS certificate represented a significant first step into the world of professional wargaming, an historically exclusive field.
On the first day Peter Perla walked us through his Artist, Analyst, Architect model on game design. He emphasized there is no one-size-fits-all for the design process. Similarly, the players who make up the game are just as important to the gameplay as the design. If a group of experts is playing a game on their expertise, their decision-making in the gamespace will be influenced by their knowledge. A game of non-experts in the same game will engage with the game content more intuitively and less knowledgeably – focusing more on the inherent incentives of the game design. As game designers and facilitators, it is important we keep the audience in mind as we consider the best way to adjudicate and hot-wash. How can we as facilitators maintain positive neutrality in gameplay and still engage the players? “Reading the room” is a necessary soft skill for wargame facilitators, a skill developed through practice and experience. This idea is especially important if we want to diversify the wargaming community by encouraging game participation from newcomers.
James “Pigeon” Fielder explored the idea of the “magic circle” with us– the mental space where the game actually takes place. As Perla explained, the real game is inside the player’s heads, where they make decisions, and assess their role in the whole. This environment of decision-making is what distinguishes a wargame from other forms of analysis or M&S. The physical game is the symbolic representation and medium of that mental space. When players are in the magic circle, they identify with their role in the game and engage with it as if it is real. Understanding player psychology is a key part of the design process as we pick what physical pieces of the game can best hold dynamic play meaning. For example, character cards give players a basis for their role while leaving room for personal injects; movement-constrained player pieces inherently nudge players towards spatial thinking. Anticipating which mode of thinking a player will utilize in the game will inform what pieces to provide them to that end.
Mike Markowitz’s presentation on graphic design answered more of my questions about practical game design. What do colors convey? What implicit meaning does map orientation hold? As a designer, it is easy to burrow into a checklist of necessary game parts– die, board, cards. But if I learned anything, it’s that answering the human-centered questions about a game concept is primary, and the mechanics will follow from there. Asking “what happens in the real world with this concept?” answers the question of “how should my players receive or relay information in the game world of this concept?” From there, we can parse down the information input into simple but significant design components.
The most helpful part of the class was putting the ideas we had learned all week into practice on the last day. Paul Vebber and Dr. Ed McGrady facilitated a brainstorm, and then broke us into small groups to discuss each other’s ideas. My small group outlined a rough plan for how we would execute a game about state capture. Condensing our ideas and understanding of state capture into simple mechanics was difficult. At times, we got caught in details of team size and turn quantity, which felt a bit abstracted from the game concept– picking between two and three people per team felt arbitrary. However, as I reminded myself, the difference between two and three people as a thought-group is vast, and could influence how that team plays and approaches intra-team negotiation. Refocusing our mechanics meant tying team size back to the actual politics of state capture and returning to those fundamental concept questions. I enjoyed the process and learned a lot from the ideas of my classmates. Their different perspectives and experiences were reflected in their approach to game design and analysis. If I could change one thing about the course, I would have liked more time to pick the brains of the other participants after each lesson and activity.
Thank you to the instructors, Dr. Ed McGrady, Peter Perla, Paul Vebber, Phil Pournelle, Mike Markowitz, James “Pigeon” Fielder, and Becca Wasser for their time and expertise. Thank you to the MORS staff for hosting the class. I have so many ideas for game designs I want to pursue now, and the toolkit to approach it. Institutional access to the MORS course and other official forums for wargaming is essential for young wargamers and aspiring designers. Meeting wargamers far into their career and learning the trade from them gave me a view of the path I am following and what lies at the end.
The Military Operations Research Society has established a scholarship programme that will allow one successful recipient to participate in their annual wargaming certificate course for free. Applicants must be currently enrolled in an accredited (graduate or undergraduate) academic program.
The Military Operations Research Society will offer a short online course on gaming cyber and information operations from 30 August to 1 September 2023, taught by Ed McGrady. Further details and registration information are available at the link.
Games are tools that professionals can use to understand complex problems. Problems where there really is no good solution. Problems where there are two opposing sides. Problems of deterrence and belief.
Cyber security and information operations incorporate all of these challenges and more. But cyber games are often seen solely through the focus of computer-based games. Information operations games are thought to be too hard to execute and adjudicate. And while computer mediated exercises and games have a role in cyber preparedness, so do manual games that focus on organization, conceptualization, and experimentation. In this game design course, we will focus on building manual, professional, games designed to explore, train, or educate on issues surrounding cyber security and information operations.
MORS currently offers a one week certificate course in Cyber Game Design in collaboration with Virginia Tech. In this shortened version of the week long course we will focus on how to build the best cyber game for the sponsor’s objectives. We will also add information operations to the mix. Information operations are important to understand because they broaden the conflict landscape to include all types of information, not just information that flows on digital networks and their components.
Our framework for the class will be understanding the types of games that are available to us, and how they relate to gaming at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of cyber. What is the role of matrix games in cyber? How do we build realistic tactical games without becoming overwhelmed with detail? How do we build analytical tools for tactical adjudication of cyber games? How do we handle adjudication of social engineering or deception?
Gaming information operations will focus on practical tips and techniques for either building games that focus on information operations, or incorporating information operations into large game systems.
The class will consist of three primary sections: game design, gaming cyber security at the tactical operational, and strategic levels, and gaming information operations. As much as possible we will incorporate class exercises and engagements as part of the learning process.
The Military Operations Research Society will be offering a three day online course on “gaming emergency response to disease” on 27-29 September 2022, featuring Roger Mason, Ed McGrady, and Pete Pellegrino.
In this three-day course we will focus on the application of professional games to the problems associated with disease response and will cover pandemic response games, both national and international. The objective throughout the course will be to identify unique or challenging aspects involved in designing games involving disease response.
Introduction: The Problem of Disease Response
Game Design Fundamentals
Ways to Apply Games to Disease Response
Basic Biology and Epidemiology in Games
Strategic, Operational, and Tactical Game Examples
Exercise: Nature or Nurture
Exercise: Building a Disease Response Game
Emergency Response Process
Disease and Emergency Response
Emergency Response Games
Exercise: Building Emergency Response Games
Exercise: Practicum and Discussion
More information and registration at the link above.
The Military Operations Research Society is offering a three day online course on designing tactical games on 3-5 May 2022.
In this class, we will focus on building tactical games. Such games require us to represent the details of battle. Whether we do this using computer or manual techniques, it demands no small degree of simulation. We need to simulate the interaction of forces, the effects of human factors and technology, and the effects of the environment on combat. We also need to understand how tactical elements are commanded, and how to incorporate representations of command into our games. Any good wargame strives to produce realistic adjudications and outcomes, but the realism of tactical games is tested even more stringently because the players can more easily relate game mechanics and adjudication to their own, personal, experiences.
All of this can make designing tactical games different—and even more challenging—than designing operational or strategic games. This class will examine some of these challenges and their possible solutions in both theoretical and practical terms.
We will address the subject according to the different combat domains: ground, naval, and air. For ground combat we will discuss how good design must address basic concepts such as mission, time, space, forces, and command relationships. How do you bring all these variables together to create a realistic tactical environment for players to engage in ground warfare? We will review the development of different ways of representing ground combat based on a wide range of commercial and professional games and explore future challenges and innovative approaches.
Naval and air tactics are even more technically complex and interactive, involving systems from space to cyber and beyond. Games must represent not only putting ordnance on the target, but also the entire kill chain from identification to battle damage assessment. We will also explore requirements for gaming ground tactics primarily using manual games. Although these sorts of games lend themselves to digital simulation, digital simulations can limit designer and player creativity in the game design and execution processes. We will focus on designing exploratory games—games to create or test new tactics, weapon systems, or operational concepts. Our discussion of naval and air games will focus on the mid-to-high tactical level—more concerned about formations of multiple units and systems rather than individual ships or aircraft. This will allow us to examine games that incorporate multiple tactical options for the players and integrate the joint kill chain.
Participants will be able to influence the topics and detail covered depending on their interests and desires.
For example, we can go beyond traditional ground, naval, and air to delve into less common types of tactical games, such as tactical special operations games, requiring the representation and simulation of actions by individual operators. As part of these, we expect to draw from concepts in miniatures gaming to examine the challenges of micro-detailed games. We could consider as well the tactical issues in emergency response, cyber operations, technology assessment, humanitarian assistance, and disease response.
The course will be taught by Ed McGrady, Peter Perla, Phillip Pournelle, and Paul Vebber. Additional details and registration at the link above.
The Military Operations Research Society is offering an online certificate course in gaming homeland security on 14-18 March 2022.
The course will consist of lectures and exercises designed to help build confidence in the topic of homeland security game design.
Game Design for Federal, State, and Local Response, including the HSEEP program
Games for Homeland Security and the National Exercise Program
Terrorism, Bio-security, and Public Health
Student Game Design Final Project
Our instructors have years of experience with designing homeland security games at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Combined, they have worked for multiple government agencies and have experience with a wide range of homeland security challenges.
The course will be taught by Roger Mason and Ed McGrady. For more information, see the MORS website.
The Military Operations Research Society will be offering its Wargaming Certificate Course online on 24-28 January 2022.
This course is designed to increase Analyst capability and knowledge in research, design, development, execution, analysis, and reporting of professional games for analytical and training purposes. Analytical games entail the development/execution of a research design through problem discovery, data gathering, scenario development, experiment design and execution, and results interpretation and documentation. Training games emphasize the development of learning plans and objectives to provide experiential learning for student retention.
Day 1: The Architect: What is a Wargame, How Wargames Relate to Red Teaming, and How the Architect Designs Games
Day 2: The Artist: Wargames as a Design Activity
Day 3: Special Topics: Strategic Gaming, Game Facilitation, and Constructing Game Materials
Day 4: The Analyst: How Does the Analyst Design Games? How do we Analyze Them?
Day 5: Practicum
Lt Col James “Pigeon” Fielder, USAF (Ret) Mr. Michael Markowitz Dr. Ed McGrady Dr. Peter Perla Mr. Phil Pournelle
Philip Sabin retired a year ago as Professor of Strategic Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and is now Emeritus Professor. He worked closely with the UK military for many years, especially through the University of London Military Education Committee, the Chief of the Air Staff’s Air Power Workshop, and KCL’s academic links with the Defence Academy and the Royal College of Defence Studies. Professor Sabin specialises in strategic and tactical analysis of conflict dynamics, with a particular focus on ancient warfare and modern air power. He makes extensive use of conflict simulation techniques to model the dynamics of various conflicts, and since 2003 he taught a highly innovative MA option module in which students design their own simulations of past conflicts. He has written or edited 15 books and monographs and several dozen chapters and articles on a wide variety of military topics. His books Lost Battles (2007) and Simulating War (2012) both make major contributions to the scholarly application of conflict simulation techniques. Besides co-organising the annual Connections UK conference at KCL, he has taken part in several defence wargaming projects, and he worked with the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research on the initial design of the Camberley Kriegsspiel with which officers may practise battlegroup tactics. Professor Sabin was also co-director of the King’s Wargaming Network, which is taking forward KCL’s leading role in the academic study of wargaming after his retirement. He is continuing to design a succession of innovative games modelling the grand tactics of combat (especially air combat), and to lecture internationally on aspects of wargaming and airpower.
See the link above for more details. A copy of Prof. Sabin’s paper can be found here:
Games are a way to develop disease response plans, to rehearse organizational processes and relationships prior to an event, and to build an understanding of the challenges involved in an actual response. While the current pandemic highlights that large-scale disease outbreaks can create some difficult policy, medical, and communications choices, response to smaller disease outbreaks is something that happens all of the time. And the implications of deliberate use of disease in war or terrorism has been the subject of much research in the past few decades. All of these topics give professional game designers a rich set of topics and questions to incorporate into organizational, research, and rehearsal games.
In this two-day, class we will focus on the application of professional games to the problems associated with disease response. We will cover pandemic response games, both national and international. We will also examine problems of novel or unique organisms, biological warfare and terrorism, and public health response. The objective throughout the class will be to identify unique or challenging aspects involved in designing games involving disease response. We will also incorporate emerging lessons from the current pandemic response into our discussions.
The instructors have designed, developed, and executed a wide range of disease and pandemic response games at the organizational, national, and international level. They have extensive experience in the areas of response to biological terrorism and the planning and coordination required in that response.
The current pandemic is a reminder that disease can produce unusual, unique, and difficult challenges for decision-makers at all levels of government. Games provide an opportunity to bring those decision-makers together and let them understand the challenges before they actually happen. In this class we will consider how to build games that help decision-makers with those challenges.
The registration fee varies from $700 to $800. You will find additional details at the link above.
The Military Operations Research Society is conducting a certificate course on Cyber Wargaming from 27-31 January 2020 at the MORS office in Arlington, VA.
How do we go about understanding operational and policy decisions about cyber? They involve a complex mix of human decisions, technical capabilities, and social interactions. As we have seen from recent events, peoples’ reaction to cyber can be as important as the capability.
One way government and industry professionals go about understanding the complex linkages in cyber operations is through gaming. Games allow you to bring together all of these diverse aspects of cyber policy. Games place people in decision-making roles during a simulated real-world problem—historical, contemporary or projected into the future. These “professional games” are used by decision-makers within government, industry and academia to examine policy issues and potential outcomes. They also allow operational professionals to assess requirements, plan budgets, and practice response procedures. Professional games on cyber policy and operations are run by a variety of agencies as part of an effort to develop national strategies, permissions, and capabilities.
In this course we examine the challenges of gaming cyber. How do you develop games that address the challenges associated with cyber? Why are cyber games inherently difficult to do well, and how do you match technical layers of game play with the operational and strategic layers? What is the role of computer simulation in cyber games, and how do cyber games differ from exercises? How do you assess player actions given the potential political, social, and technical impacts of game play?
We will do this through a combination of lectures and practical exercises. Lectures will focus on games and game design, along with the application of game design to cyber issues. We need to understand how to think about cyber technology and processes in order to build effective games. So cyber security will be discussed in this course: but this is not a course on cyber security. Practical exercises will give students the chance to experience different types of cyber gaming, with the expectation that students will research, design, and present their own cyber game as part of the course.
Successful students will learn how game design can be used to address challenges of cyber operations and policy. They will build an understanding of how to represent cyber capabilities in games, as well as build games directly addressing cyber operations. The goal is for students to become aware of the gaming tools available for cyber, and to begin to associate specific game techniques with various cyber gaming requirements.
It’s pretty pricey, though, at up to USD$3000 (!). Details and registration at the link above.
I delivered a (virtual) presentation today to the Military Operations Society wargaming community of practice on the importance of “chrome, fluff” and other finer touches in promoting better game outcomes through enhanced narrative engagement. Having forgotten to set a calendar reminder I was a fifteen minutes late for my own talk, which only served to reinforce the stereotype of absent-minded professors. Apologies to everyone who had to wait!
The full set of Powerpoint slides is available here (pdf). Since the content may not be entirely self-evident from the slides, I’ll also offer a quick summary.
First, I argued—in keeping with Perla and McGrady’s discussion of “Why wargaming works“—that narrative engagement is a key element of good (war)game design and implementation.
In addition to their experience-based, qualitative argument, I adduced some quantitative, experimental data that shows that role-playing produces superior forecasting outcomes…
..and that the way we frame and present games has profound effects on the way players actually play them.
I also noted a substantial literature on the psychology of conflict and conflict resolution that points to the importance of normative and other non-material factors in shaping conflict and negotiating behaviour.
In other words, if your games don’t have players feeling angry, or aggrieved, or alienated, or attached to normative and symbolic elements, they’re acting unrealistically. Since the selling point of wargaming is that it places humans in the loop, you need those players playing like real humans, not technocratic, minimaxing robots.
Doing that, I suggested, requires nudging participants into the right mindset. One has to be careful one doesn’t overdo it—some participants may recoil at role play fluff that makes it all look like a LARP or game of D&D.
What then followed was a discussion of some considerations and ways that I had done it, but which was also intended to spark a broader conversation. Specifically we looked at:
How player backgrounds and player assignment will influence how readily participants internalize appropriate perspectives.
Briefing materials should designed to subtly promote desired perspectives and biases (without being too obvious about this). Things like flags, maps, placards, and so forth can all be used to make players more closely identify with their role.
In repeated games—for example, some wargames in an educational setting that might be conducted every year)—oral traditions and tales from prior games can make the game setting richer and more authentic (although at the risk of players learning privileged information from previous players). Participants might also contribute background materials, chrome, or fluff that you can use in future games—such as the collection of songs from Brynania that my McGill University students have recorded over the past twenty years.
Very explicit objectives and “victory conditions” should often be used sparingly, lest they promote both an unrealistic sense of the rigidity of policy goals and promote excessively “tick-off-the-objective-boxes” game play.
Physical space should be used to subtly shape player interaction, whether to foster interaction, limit it, or even create a sense of isolation and alienation.
Coffee breaks and lunch breaks should be designed NOT to pull players out of their scenario headspace. The last thing you want is Blue and Red having a friendly hour over lunch talking about non-game matters in a scenario where they are supposed to distrust or even hate each other.
Fog and friction should be promoted not only to model imperfect information and imperfect institutions/capabilities, but also to subtly promote atmospheres of uncertainty, fear, crisis, panic, frustration, and similar emotional states, as appropriate to the actors and scenario.
The graphic presentation of game materials should encourage narrative engagement and immersion. Avoid inappropriate fonts and formats, make things look “real,” and be aware that game graphics can very much affect how players (and analysts) perceive the game and it’s outcomes.
A variety of other issues came up in the Q&A and discussion. Many thanks to everyone who participated—I hope they found it as useful as I did.
The 87th annual symposium of the Military Operations Research Society will be held at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO from 17-20 June 2019:
This year’s theme, “Advancing Analytics to Support National Security,” emphasizes the Society’s goal of leading the national security analysis community in the development of cutting-edge tools, techniques, and best practices. The 87th Symposium will include hundreds of presentations across 7 Composite Groups, 34 Working Groups, and numerous Distributed Working Groups, Focus Sessions, Special Sessions, Demonstrations, Tutorials, and Continuing Education Unit Courses over the four-day program. Sessions will be conducted at the classified and unclassified level.
New Working Group:Data Science and Analytics, being led by Mr. Ian Kloo of the U.S. Military Academy. This working group will pave the way in this very active field of research and applications.
Abstracts are now being accepted through 15 February 2019.
This year’s sessions will be conducted at the classified and unclassified clearance level with FOUO options. Corresponding portions of the Symposium are open to U.S. Citizens with or without a clearance and cleared “Five EYES” (FVEY) participants with some restrictions.
The 86th Symposium will include 500+ sessions taking place in 33 Working Groups, 7 Composite groups, Distributed Working Groups, Special Sessions, Demos, Tutorials and CEU Courses over the four-day program.
Take advantage of this unique opportunity at the 86th Symposium to present your work and get valuable feedback from your colleagues across the National Security community. The submission deadline is 16 February 2018. MORS Service Sponsors are actively working on conference approvals for the 86th Symposium.
I won’t be there, alas—the clearance procedures and restrictions for FVEY participants are just too much of a hassle—but it is a great place to interact with others in the national security gaming community, as well as to learn about relevant insights from military operations research more broadly.