Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: MORS

Setting the (wargame) stage


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.




87th annual MORS symposium


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.

For further information, to submit an abstract, or to register, visit the MORS website.


Military Operations Research Society 86th symposium


The 86th annual symposium of the Military Operations Research Society will take place on 18-21 June 2018 at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California:

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.

MORS: Validity and utility of wargaming


Stephen Downes-Martin (organizer and chair of Working Group 2 at the October 2017 Military Operations Research Society special meeting on wargaming) has passed on to PAXsims the group’s extensive (173 page) report on the Validity and Utility of Wargaming  (pdf). It is an outstanding piece of work, and should be essential reading for anyone working in the field. I’ll certainly be assigning it as required reading in my small conflict simulation design seminar next term.

Validity and Utility of Wargaming Working Group Report Final rev.jpg

In part because of the structure of the MORS working groups, the report tends to devote more attention to game design and execution than it does to game analysis and interpretation. One of the interesting issues to arise out of the DIRE STRAITS experiment in September, however, was that different groups of analysts can both assess the validity/utility of a game differently, and draw different sets of lessons from the same wargame event.

Building on the excellent work of Stephen and his WG2 team, this is a challenge that I hope to explore more fully at the Connections US wargaming conference in July 2018—conditional, of course, on acceptance of my presentation proposal!

Rubel: Wargame rules as intellectual catalysts

Phalanx 50-3The most recent (September 2017) issue of the Military Operations Research Society’s Phalanx contains a thoughtful piece by CAPT Robert (Barney) Rubel on the role that wargame rules and adjudication can play in encouraging—or stifling—creative thought:

One of the more trite phrases one hears today is the injunction to “think out of the box.” The intent of the phrase is to stimulate creative thinking; to come up with ideas that perhaps do not conform to existing frameworks. This, of course, is easier said than done, the attempt to do so being akin to trying to make a list of things you would never think of. There are any number of individual and group techniques that have been developed to facilitate the process of brainstorming, but perhaps overlooked in the literature is the potential for wargame rules to act as catalysts for out-of-the-box thinking.

The subtle, nonintuitive, and perhaps threatening information and ideas that can emanate from a game can be termed “whispers.” Games often produce more information than their designers intended or expected, often equivocal and open to interpretation. When that threatens organizational equities, ears are deadened to the whispers. Game sponsors, players, umpires, and even analysts are almost never objective about their games, so it requires an appreciation of how novel thinking can emerge from a game in order to take the steps necessary to achieve sufficient objectivity to detect the whispers (Rubel 2006).

You’ll find the full piece here.


MORS wargaming workshop III

The Military Operations Research Society will be holding its third wargaming workshop on 17-19 October 2017 at the DoD’s Mark Center in Alexandria, Virginia.


You’ll find additional details at the MORS website.

Note that access to the Mark Center by non-US nationals will require submission of a visit request well in advance of the event, even to attend the unclassified sessions. MORS is working on a process to streamline this, which will be announced closer to the date.

Since most embassies will only process visit paperwork for their citizens if they are on official business, non-Americans may be out of luck if they hope to attend in a private or academic capacity (whether or not one holds security clearances).

Phalanx: More MORS wargaming

Volume 50 N 2

The most recent (June 2017) issue of Phalanx, the magazine of the Military Operations Research Society, contains a couple of wargaming items.

Phil Pournelle contributes an article on “designing wargames for the analytic purpose,” drawing upon the insights of last year’s MORS special meeting on wargaming as well as his own extensive experience. Specifically, he discusses what a wargame is, what it can be used for, and the characteristics of different wargaming approaches.



He also highlights several key elements of a good wargame:

Wargaming is most effective when people are making decisions under uncertainty, in a fair competitive environment, with adjudication to generate consequences of actions taken. Such games should be repeated in an iterative process complementary to other techniques. These iterative efforts can enable organizations and individuals to gain insights into competitions. Wargames identify potentially successful strategies and diagnose the key competitive elements.

Game designers should borrow techniques and methods from existing games, particularly the vast body of knowledge in the commercial gaming community. They should also be aware of limitations and pitfalls of using methods without understanding the purpose of the game from which the methods are being taken.

There are different categories and styles of games each with their own purpose. While this essay was focused primarily on analytic and exploratory style games, it acknowledges there are similarities between such games, commercial games, and training games. Each has their own purpose and it is important to recognize that using one category for a purpose different than their proper design has certain pitfalls. Different styles of games exist within a continuum of games addressing generalities to specific, from creative to rigorous. To be the most effective in the cycle of research, games should move from the general to the more rigorous design during each iteration of the cycle. Movement may not, and does not have to be, uniform through the continuum, particularly as new aspects are discovered.

The core attributes of a good wargame is an adversarial environment where the game focuses on the players and the decisions they make. It is important to record the decisions of the players and why they made them. Good wargames are small and have an aggressive and dynamic red team. They avoid adjudication processes that conceal why decision or results occurred.

They are best when they are iterative in nature. Wargames do not validate or prove anything, they provide insights into competitions, and allow players and observers to think through the complexities of operations within those competitions.

Wargaming can be extremely valuable, but gaining full value will require a long view of the practice. Wargames can provide the means for generating potential strategies and solutions to challenges facing the department and leaders ready to meet them. Their best bene t does not occur with one-off games, but in series as part of the cycle of research. To harness the best benefits from games and analysis within the department will require identifying the questions and challenges and a committing to iterative efforts to identify and re ne the solutions.

The same issue also contains a brief report on the 29 individuals who received the a MORS professional Certificate in Wargaming, following the programme launched last autumn. Four of the group were women (13.8%), which is far from where we want to be, and well behind Phil Sabin’s MA course in wargaming at King’s College London, but still far better than the wargaming hobby (or the PAXsims readership) has managed. The next certificate programme will begin in September.

Teaching wargame design at CGSC


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.

MORS wargaming AAR


On 17-20 October 2016 the Military Operations Research Society held a special meeting on wargaming. PAXsims’ very own Tom Mouat was there both to help facilitate the event and to bring us the report below.

Additional details from regular PAXsims reader Paul Vebber follow after Tom’s report.


I was privileged to be invited, along with colleagues from the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), to the MORS Wargaming Special Meeting on 17 to 21 October 2016 in Alexandria, VA. Rex couldn’t make it, so again I was deputised to provide PAXSims readers with a report.

It was clear in the lead-up to the event that this was to be a more in-depth look at a few things, rather than the usual conference offering of a shallow look at a large number of things. This was unusual and I’m not entirely sure that it provided the best fit for the stated aims for the workshop:

  • How best incorporate rigorous and well-designed wargaming into the department’s larger analytical and acquisition focus.
  • As the demand for wargaming continues to grow we need to increase the pool of wargamers and wargame designers to meet those needs now and into the future.

If you were a beginner, unsure as to the role and range of wargame tools and techniques, you might have got lucky in choosing the workshop sessions that met your requirements; but if you weren’t it is perfectly possible you would get stuck in a session unsuitable for your needs. This wasn’t helped by the descriptions issued prior to the event being a little less than clear and a number of session being classified and NOFORN (no foreigners). This was exacerbated when there were a number of last minute changes to programme aims, the sessions and their classification.

I had originally intended to look at a number of the sessions and provide assistance to the “Project Cassandra, Envisioning Possible Futures” session. However one of the wargaming sessions (when I say “sessions” it was actually four half-day sessions spread over three days) had the organisation running it (US Army Training and Doctrine Command/TRADOC pull out. I was invited to stand in and run the session on matrix gaming instead—which I was delighted to do.

Travel and subsistence budgets being what they are, the cheapest flights from the UK are on a Saturday, giving us the bonus of recovering from jetlag as well as the opportunity to do some additional professional development in visiting the battlefield of Gettysburg. This is a quite outstanding battlefield, well preserved and with an excellent visitor centre. There are a large number of different lessons that can be gained from looking at details of the large battle, over the two days of the fighting. The Dstl staff, led by their own historian, took advantage of this. Sadly I was unable to participate as I was doing last minute preparation for the sessions.

The hotel recommended for the event was excellent and ideally placed for the subsequent events which were held in the hotel and at the nearby Institute for Defence Analysis (IDA).

Monday, 17 October 2016

The first day included a course, “Wargaming Introduction and Theory,” run by Dr Peter Perla and Dr Ed McGrady, which lasted all day. In addition, a shorter course, “Executive Overview of Military Wargaming,”  was run by Mike Garrambone. I attended the first of these because the UK Defence Academy is intending to run its own “Introduction to Wargaming” course, and watching how two of the foremost experts in the field do it was likely to be extremely educational.

Peter Perla started and covered wargaming history, from the earliest games and models used for training and education, through to the birth of modern wargaming. This included Kriegsspiel, Johann Hellwig’s wargame, the introduction of geomorphic maps, real topographic mapping and the use of experienced umpires in order to reduce complexity and include military common sense. He also covered the rise of the hobby game, sparked off by H G Wells’ Little Wars; the crossover from RAND’s use of hexagons to regularise movement; and the game company Avalon Hill and its success in publishing games for the hobby market.

Cu-VSBhWIAACEQP.jpg large.jpg

Peter Perla reviews the evolution of wargaming.

The course went on to cover the rise of wargaming as a fundamental part of the analytical process in the inter-war years, particularly in the US Navy War College. This is probably one of the most innovative periods of concept and doctrine development which helped shape the conflict to come, not just in the USA but also among the German General Staff.

I noted that from this period that there were two observations that emerged from these wargames:

  • Some people are dicks.
  • Innovation takes time.

Some of the participants in the wargaming process are unable to see the value of exploring a situation or problem through a game, fail to take it seriously and behave inappropriately. This is not helpful, but wargame facilitators need to be aware of this, and develop mitigating strategies to deal with it or valuable opportunities will be lost. (I would also offer that this phenomenon is not limited to manual wargaming – computer simulation is also afflicted with personnel who seem unable to grasp what the process is trying to achieve and are negative or disruptive, however well run the game.)

Innovation is not a simple process with a short timescale. It takes time to breed the open minded and intelligent organisational culture where ideas are valued from wherever they arise and where change is embraced. It is only from this basis that sustained advances can be generated and genuine advantage realised.

We then moved on to Dr Ed McGrady who covered the theory of games, how they work, what approaches work best and the human response to games. He started with a warning that, while efforts are improving, there is still no proper epistemology of wargaming and no coherent theoretical treatment—especially of manual games although there is a reasonable amount of work dealing with computer games.

Diversity in this area is a challenge and there is no simple one definition to cover all wargames.

He went on to cover the elements that make up a game, wargames vs peace games, what is not a wargame and some of the foundations of the concept of “play.” In many professional and analytical games the designers seem to want to eliminate the “play” aspects of the wargame. This is wrong, fails to get buy-in to the process, followed by a lack of understanding of the problem space and ultimately results in a bad game.He covered the elements of play, the role of making them enjoyable in a defence analytical context, their internal structure and most importantly the psychological and neurological concept of narrative (leading to engagement, and the “entre deux”, the in-between space where disbelief is suspended and insights are gained).

This included the significant observation: Lunch is important! If you are going to the time and effort in order to involve the participants in a game, where future possibilities are envisaged, disbelief suspended, and the players fully engaged, it is foolhardy to jeopardise the event by refusing to provide lunch—forcing participants to disperse, lose the game immersion and focus, and ultimately much of the value of the process.


Some of my notes from “Wargaming: Theory and Introduction.”

I have made many pages of notes, including the dramaturgical aspects of games, the concept of “flow”, games vs simulations, hard vs soft assumptions, the big questions about the effect games have, sociological work, and theoretical principles. Indeed, it was all much too much to be able to present a coherent commentary here without significant additional thought and the risk of boring you!

Which brings me to a concern. This was not really an introduction to wargaming. Instead, it was a masterclass in the theoretical underpinnings of the art, that included some really deep stuff. I found the day incredibly useful (and I am anxiously awaiting copies of the slides because I’m afraid that my hurried notes may well have missed something), but I am also a wargaming practitioner of many years, including running and designing games used by defence as well as the wider community. I suspect that a novice, seeking an initial understanding, might well become lost and confused…

…until they decided to demonstrate what they meant, by the use of the matrix game “Lasgah Pol” dealing with peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan (available as part of Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming). Since I designed the game , and was asked to demonstrate an example move, they are obviously geniuses!.


Tuesday, 18 October 2016

This was the start of the special event proper, and followed the more usual format of a plenary keynote and panel sessions until shortly after lunch.

Following introductions and the US national anthem, we started with a keynote from Andrew Marshall, former advisor to the Secretary of Defence for Net Assessment. At first glance it looked like the organisers were rolling out someone from an earlier era, but he quickly contradicted that impression, demonstrating sharp and timely insight. He gave a brief history of the Office of Net Assessment and pointed out that reading long papers on a subject can take time and are likely to only explore the subject from a single point of view. Games, in contrast, were very quick at distilling issues to their essential fundamentals, but he also underlined the importance of a proper opposition (the Red players).

An example he gave was dealing with the Strategic Bomber programme. This was during the Cold War—strategic bombers were expensive compared to ballistic missiles, and there were calls to make cuts in the bomber fleet. Looking at the problems through a series of wargames demonstrated that the bomber fleet forced the enemy to invest in large quantities of air defence weapons. Since the enemy was resource limited, this was advantageous to the US. On the other hand, cutting the bomber fleet would permit an enemy to switch in investment from weapon systems that were essentially of limited use, to areas that would present more of a threat. This lead to the conclusion that when thinking about a subject it is often essential to look widely at the problem to ensure a holistic solution

Marshall also pointed out, from his vast experience, that if you want innovation you should select the best players and if you want good games you should use the best facilitators. Choose the best for the most important problems.

This was followed by the Defense Wargaming Alignment Group (DWAG) Quad Chair panel. This covered the initiative resulting from DEPSECDEF Robert Work’s February 2015 memo to institute a repository for wargames and their reports. It currently includes some 550 high level games on a wide range of topics, as well as including funding for additional games and wargaming projects (including funding the US DOD and foreign government attendance at the MORS event). They issue a monthly report including a listing of upcoming games, highlighting previous games that are in the depository, the usual statistics about the depository, and other areas about DOD wargaming.

I was initially very cynical about the value of such a depository, but it appears to have access at the highest levels and is being managed effectively. I was particularly impressed by the definite focus on innovation, increasing the decision space for the leadership, and the particular emphasis on “so what?”—that is, proper explanation of the value of the work done and links to real change. Of course, the repository is a US-only classified capability, but it certainly sounds useful. I’m now jealous!

The panel also covered the intriguing idea of using wargames to educate members of Congress. This was, of course, difficult, and would probably have to focus on their direct staff, but it still looks like a really good idea. They also mentioned the lack of value gained from games that generated obvious conclusions: “Don’t tell me we have a lack of a particular resource —we already know that. Tell me what you did to compensate for it and did it work!” which is, of course, intrinsically more useful.

The Services Panel followed, with a number of useful observations:

  • An understanding that putting on more, smaller sized, games helps frame specific problems.
  • Wargames and quantitative analysis are not enemies – they are complimentary, depending on each other.
  • There needs to be robust cost modelling in games – stop inventing stuff with ridiculously cheap costs.
  • Wargames help frame a problem properly for greater understanding (a recurring theme across the ages).
  • Wargaming as a discipline encourages plagiarism – get the best ideas to work for you from anywhere.

I was interested to see the Department of Homeland Security present, happy to learn from the mistakes of others and present with a sense of humour. They hope to avoid the OODA loop problem where it ends up as “Observe, Overreact, Destroy, Apologize,” instead of what it is meant to be.

The Combatant Commands were next and I was impressed at the real efforts to reinvigorate wargaming after decades of decline. It was acknowledged that the efforts were a little patchy in places, but equally there seemed to be a real appreciation of the value to be gained.

This was followed by the Allies panel, with contributions from the UK, Holland, Sweden and Canada. These showed that wargaming efforts were in place in each nation, even if at a vastly different level of effort to the USA. The UK chose to highlight the essential work of Dstl and the Connections UK conference, and Canada mentioned publishing a wargaming doctrine publication, something the UK are also working on.

Lastly we had a panel on Red Teaming from specialists in that discipline. They were initially surprised to be invited and explained the aim of Red Teaming is to get “better decisions and better plans”, through knowing oneself, mitigating group think, fostering empathy and through applied critical thinking.

Working Groups, Courses and Wargames

At this point we broke up into smaller groups to spend the rest of Tuesday, all day Wednesday and Thursday morning in our respective session. Because of this I lost sight of what else was going on, although Paul Vebber provides some additional insight at the end of this report.

The sessions were:

  • Working Group 1: Analytic Process with Paul Davis and Matt Caffrey. Classified. NOFORN.
  • Working Group 2: Communication and Implementation, with Paul Vebber.
  • Working Group 3: Adjudication, with Tim Wilkie.
  • Course 2: Red Teaming, with Steven Rotkoff.
  • Course 3: Structured Analytic Techniques, with Joseph Cyrulik.
  • Wargame 1: Project Cassandra – Envisioning Possible Futures, with Yuna Wong.
  • Wargame 2: Phase Zero Baltic Operations with Scott Simpkins. Not Classified, but NOFORN.
  • Wargame 3. Matrix Gaming, with Tom Mouat.
  • Synthesis Group: This was an oversight group with Peter Perla looking for common themes and best practices.


Matrix Wargaming

Since I had 4 sessions of about 4 hours each, and one of the benefits of matrix gaming is that games are quick to design and play, we did a different game in each session.


Matrix game materials ready for play.

We started the game with a presentation on matrix wargames looking at different approaches and the value of roleplay in predicting the outcome of conflict. This was followed with “Kazhdyy Gorod” a game about a city in a former Soviet state on the border with Russia.

The game started extremely well, with everything looking on track to being sorted out with the minimum of trouble or bloodshed. Well, that was until the Chief of Police acted against orders from the Mayor, who promptly assassinated her in a scene of the finest “Godfather” tradition in front of the rest of the city council. Chaos ensued (not least for the facilitator) but soon resolved itself with the Rebels kidnapping and murdering the Mayor, the Militia Commander sitting neatly on the fence and the Protest Leader ably supported by the power of international media (in the shape of the Press player) being elected the new Mayor of the city.

I was quite shocked and wondered if anyone was going to turn up for the following session after the adjudication difficulties, but with hindsight it was a good stress test of the system and showed the participants that the game can cope with wild play.

Wednesday, 19 September 2016

The following morning began with a short presentation on my guidance tips for facilitating Matrix Games, followed by the Cyber game “All Your Secrets Are Belong To Us“, a game about stealing the next generation stealth fighter plans.

This game went extremely well with very good participation all around and it was quite rewarding to see that the flow of the narrative was appreciated by the players. This meant the consequential requirement of detailed formal adjudication was much reduced, now that the players were more familiar with the game and gameplay.

That afternoon, after another short presentation, this time on some facilitator techniques that could be helpful for facilitators, we decided to design and run a complete matrix game on a subject chosen by the participants within the time available.

Baltic Challenge

The subject chosen was the current crisis in the Baltic States, especially as we had a Swedish and Dutch participant in the group. The game was entitled “Baltic Challenge” and the game design followed the following steps:

  • Define the game scope: modelling the current crisis in the Baltic States.
  • Define the “Actors” involved in the crisis and the order of play.
  • Define the Objectives for the Actors (simple bullet point objectives).
  • Design possible “triggers” as pre-conditions to possibly upset the current equilibrium.
  • Generate a suitable visualisation (map) for the area.
  • Allocate markers representing effects in the game (DIME/PMESII/FRIS).

We had a long discussion about who to represent as players (required to influence the game) as opposed to being mainly there to be influenced by others. In the end, we chose the following “Actors”:

  • Russian separatists in the Baltic States.
  • The Baltic State Governments as a single actor:
    • Estonia
    • Latvia
    • Lithuania
  • Poland as a separate actor.
  • The USA as a separate actor.
  • The Nordic States as a single actor:
    • Sweden
    • Finland
  • NATO

We generated the objectives for each party quickly and then commenced play. A number of possible “triggers” were also discussed:

  • Iskander deployment to Kaliningrad.
  • Russian troop movements on the border.
  • An economic report demonstrating ethnic disadvantages for Russian speakers in the Baltic States.
  • Airspace violations.
  • Soviet fleet manoeuvres in the Baltic.
  • Soviet ship breakdown on the way to Kaliningrad (assumed Iskander missiles and S-400 air defences on board).

The preferred option was a mix of an economic report indicating Russian speakers have a justified grievance and the Soviet resupply ship breaking down off Tallinn on the Estonian coast.


A later version of the “Baltic Challenge” map.

The game worked very well, highlighting a large number of points to the participants that they were unaware of. The chief insights from the game were that the Baltic States may well try to “do the right thing” for the Russian speaking minority, but they were largely pawns in the game between Russia and the West. There were a number of treaties that affected the participants (the 1997 Founding Act, EU sanctions against Russia, and NATO relations with Sweden) that were important and needed to be understood. The fact that Poland has a right-wing government keen to demonstrate that it will not be bullied by Russia might not necessarily be a good thing as NATO depended on Poland to play a key role in the area and felt limited in the sort of pressure it could bring to bear.

It was also noted that the Inkander missiles, with a range of 500km, may violate the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty (missiles with a range of 500-5,500km) and there was speculation as to why the USA or NATO governments have not challenged Russia about them. The following morning, this was the subject of a Wall Street Journal article, neatly showing the game was on the right track highlighting this issue.


Gaming the headlines!

We felt that the game would have benefitted (as would any game) from a specialist subject matter expert in the region to assist the facilitator with the briefings, objectives, consequence management, and adjudication but nevertheless we felt that three hours of work had demonstrated the value of the game and wider regional understanding.

The game is now available via a link at PAXsims.

Thursday, 20 September 2016

On the final day, we elected to have a game run by the participants as, given the level of experience they had achieved with the game process and mechanics, they should be able to run and facilitate their own game. The game chosen was “ISIS Crisis“, with updated briefing and dispositions to reflect the current situation.


Playing ISIS Crisis.

The pre-game discussion indicated a strong feeling that if the game was to be wider than just Iraq, it needed the involvement of Turkish and Russian actors, even at risk of slowing down play, so these roles were included.

The game ran well, even if the most up to date developments were not reflected in the initial set up. The inclusion of Russian and Turkish actors, did change the balance of the game and showed just how far things had changed in the years since the game was designed. It was felt that it would benefit from updated quality briefings for these actors to match the other briefings.

Closing Plenary Sessions

Finally, there was a closing session in which back brief were given on the different workshops, courses and wargames as well as a keynote by DEPSECDEF Robert Work.

The Deputy Secretary of Defence commenced his remarks with the inevitable senior officer’s joke and seemed, at least initially, to be a straightforward explanation of what he was trying to achieve. After a few minutes though, when he had warmed to his subject, the presentation was transformed into an inspiring call to arms that was quite different to the usual rhetoric. Having your DEPSECDEF being quite so disarmingly clear that he wakes up every day thinking of ways that he can mess up the plans of potential adversaries was a breath of fresh air from someone who clearly knows his stuff. He gets my vote and I’m not even an American.

The final thing that stuck in my mind was the realisation that we are facing a new “inter-war period” with all the implications that this brings, and that we need to develop new ways and means to give decision makers strategic choices for the future.

I am looking forward to seeing the presentations being posted on the MORS website so that I can have an understanding of what went on in the other sessions.

Friday, 21 September 2016

The following day the UK delegation (Dstl and I) visited the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at John Hopkins University in order to take a look at the work of APL and the Collaborative Analysis Centre. This was an utterly inspiring visit, generating a raft of ideas and possibilities.


Visiting JHU APL.

The MORS event continued with additional sessions about Research Design by Dr John Compton, but sadly we were unable to attend those.


Despite the minor administration problems, mainly affecting us foreigners, the trip was extremely worthwhile. Being able to practice my craft with experienced and knowledgeable participants at this level was very valuable for my personal development and a significant contribution to the UK Defence Academy plans for the future.


I got a shiny MORS challenge coin too!

I still have reservations as to the value for an inexperienced beginner in this subject area, given the level at which many of the instructional participants were operating. This needs to be addressed if we are to generate replacements for the increasingly old expertise we have in the field (myself included).

Tom Mouat


Additional Details from Paul Vebber:

I was a co-chair for a working group looking at the issues of “Communication and Implementation” and the relationship of those issues with technology. First, what information needs to move within the “game world” and between the players? Second, what information needs to move between the game world and players and the adjudicators? Third, what what information needs to move out of the “game world” to the observers and analysts?

Ed McGrady and I sliced the group of about 30 we had into subgroups a couple different ways, and discussed these issues in the context of the sort of problems they typically used wargaming techniques to explore. We then focused on two different types of games—Ed the more POL-MIL type, and I a more high tactical/ low operational—and walked through a game design exercise considering where it made sense to use technologies of different levels of sophistication in this communication focused design approach.

Interestingly the team looking at the more qualitative POL-MIL type of game went “high order” on technology to address the “inside the game world” communication issues linking large numbers of players dealing with a high degree of “interactional complexity”.

The group dealing with a more operational problem (exploring the decision space associated with maintaining a long term—many weeks to a few months—naval presence in a location where an ambiguous adversary occasionally lobs missiles at you, or potentially threatens you by other means, AND you have to deal with other emergent operational requirements nearby) started with a “low tech” representation that developed into a card-driven board game.

Despite initial thoughts that some fairly sophisticated M&S tools may be required, it turned out the tech requirements were more about communicating between the game world of manual game play and observer/analysts to capture situational information about why decisions were made and the risk calculus was assessed. The “high fidelity M&S” tools were then used in analysis efforts fed by information from the game and did not have to integrated into the gameplay directly.

This provided a simpler, quicker playing game which feeds M&S efforts focused on digging into the “structural complexity” of weapon system interaction in a well understood operational context that is emergent from and traceable to player decision making.

There were two other working groups, three opportunities to play in different types of games, and five different classes. Check the MORS website for more info on those events—I’m not sure how much of the material and outbriefs will be made available, my understanding is at least some of it will be.

Paul Vebber

Call for Participants: MORS Wargame Adjudication Working Group 17-20 October 2016


Working Group 3 (“Adjudication”) at the MORS Wargaming Special Meeting (17-20 October 2016) is seeking participants!

For details of the special meeting and the registration page, see here.

Working Group 3 will address the questions “what are the barriers to doing the best possible job of adjudicating wargames?” and “how can we best overcome those barriers?” using a disciplined group methodology known as “Language Processing”™ in two sessions. Working Group Participants are expected to be competent and experienced wargame adjudicators. The Working Group will produce two linked products corresponding to the two questions in a format similar to a mind-map.

If you are interested and an experienced wargame adjudicator please contact the two Working Group Chairs, Timothy Wilkie and Stephen Downes-Martin, to discuss your participation as soon as possible, but before Friday 30 September at the latest. Thanks!

Stephen Downes-Martin

Lacey on wargames in strategic education (MORS wargaming CoP)

Lacey slide

Today James Lacey of the Marine Corps War College offered his thoughts on wargames in strategic education to members of the Military Operations Society’s wargaming community of practice. Dr. Lacey had previously written a pithy article on wargaming in the classroom for War on the Rocks (which in turn provoked an equally pithy rejoinder in National Interest from some colleagues at the Naval War College).

The slides from his presentation can be found here. I’ll summarize some of the highlights from his verbal comments that I found especially useful:

  • Students do not retain large amounts of reading. Wargaming is experiential learning par excellence. Student response to using wargames in the classroom is very positive (see student comments on his slides), and they talk about it for weeks and months afterwards.
  • The use of wargames in the classroom is shaped by how much time is available for courses, and how much autonomy instructors have to experiment.
  • The adversarial nature of wargaming gives participants “an entirely different appreciation of how difficult it is to execute a strategic plan.” Students begin to see that sometimes the “best strategic options are terrible.”
  • You need to think about who your students are. Colonels are competitive, and don’t like to lose. Military officers tend to regress towards their comfort zone of kinetic operations, and need to be pushed to examine strategic issues and non-military elements of national power. Students should be left with “no place to hide.”
  • The wargame is the capstone event of a series of interrelated activities: audio tapes, readings, lectures and discussions, and staff rides.
  • Wargame maps can be more useful than conventional maps for highlighting the strategic importance of terrain, lines of communication, and resources (since they tend to depict those elements that are most influential on the conduct of strategy and military operations).
  • Initially he did not allocate sufficient time for post-game debriefing, which was a mistake. Also, it would have been more useful to examine why and how students had made their decisions, and let students develop criticism, rather than to have the instructor critique them directly.
  • In terms of where future help is needed, he identified:
    • video tutorials to teach game mechanics
    • experienced gamers in-class to assist with games
    • more strategic-level games than integrate across the DIME spectrum
    • simple/elegant game designs which involve complex decisions
    • games on the “ungameable” that are suitable for a PME audience
    • funding to make these things happen
  • Next steps will include: refining game selection; adapting games to highlight strategic dimensions; building a repository of appropriate games; developing a megagame that focuses on the conduct of operational-level battle; experimenting with fast-playing matrix games; using more SMEs during gameplay; running several games simultaneously; and encouraging out-of-class gaming.

A number of interesting issues were also raised during the subsequent discussion.

  • How can imperfect information and fog-of-war be incorporated into tabletop classroom wargames? Does it always matter?
  • Allowing students to replay a game, and therefore refine and tests their plans and approach, can have substantial educational benefits.
  • What is the role of digital games in the classroom, and what is the potential value of emerging VR, AR and other technologies?
  • How useful are matrix games? Barney Rubel (NWC) suggested that a well-designed matrix game can work well. I argued that if one wants to experiment with matrix games it is probably best to do so for conflicts that involve multiple stakeholders and coordination challenges, examine a broad range of capabilities across the DIME spectrum, and in contexts where you want to encourage innovative approaches that aren’t limited by a predetermined ruleset and game model. There was also discussion of Kaliningrad 2017 and other matrix games in development at the US Army War College.

All-in-all it was a very useful and informative session. It also seemed to be very well attended, thereby underscoring the resurgent interest in wargaming as well as the role of MORS in supporting this.


MORS wargaming news

Vol 49 N2 .jpg

The latest issue of the Military Operations Research Society magazine Phalanx (June 2016) contains an article by Michael Garrambone (InfoScitex Corporation), Lee Ann Rutledge (Air Force Resesearch Lab), and Trena Covington Lilly (Johns Hopkins University/APL) on “Wargaming at MORS for Another 50.”

MORS has been involved in military wargaming for most of its existence. There were wargaming working groups in the symposia of the early 1970s, and various members of the operations research community have made many presentations on gaming through the years.


The same issue also contains an announcement of the MORS special workshop on wargaming to be held in the fall:

MORS will hold a special workshop on wargaming in support of the Department of Defense on October 24–27 at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. The Fall 2016 Wargaming meeting will be the second recent MORS meeting on wargaming and is in response to the continued interest in wargaming from senior levels in the Department of Defense (DoD). It will serve as a venue for the services and others to share wargaming best practices and wargaming insights that have impacted service programs. It will also focus on how wargaming and other forms of analysis should best complement each other. This meeting will have portions at the SECRET/NOFORN level, as well as some unclassified sessions. Unclassified tutorials will be held October 24.

This workshop will focus on wargame execution and will provide senior officials leading the wargaming efforts within DoD a forum to provide guidance and answer questions. The workshop will showcase how wargames have been, are being, and will be employed in analytic processes within the department. During the workshop, working groups will discuss wargaming design, methods, and best practices, and provide hands on training for participants.

For details of last year’s MORS special meeting on wargaming, see my report for PAXsims. Information on the MORS Wargaming Community of Practice can be found here.

The Chief of Staff of the Army game


The most recent Military Operations Research Society (MORS) Wargame Community of Practice “brown bag” lecture involved a presentation by Kenneth Long of the US Army Command and General Staff College on “Appreciating complexity: The Chief of Staff of the Army game.”

Dr. Long started his talk (slides here) by noting the challenge of teaching Army officers—who might be used to operating in more certain and clearly-defined contexts—about the fuzziness and uncertainty of the world at the strategic level. He argued that lecturing “at” officers was often not a very effective way or promoting critical thinking about such topics.

The game therefore emerged out of using more interactive methods to promote discussion about the role of the Army Chief of Staff and the importance of budget, investment, research, and deployment issues. In it, players make decisions about investing and maintaining various types of force, and potentially forward deploying these to several different strategic theatres. Different forces have different costs, and different capabilities in different environments (major combat, irregular warfare, peacetime operations). There are also costs associated with building and refitting forces, deploying and maintaining these, investing in research & development, and gathering intelligence about the opponent’s interests and assets. A commercial version of the game—Future Force (2011), designed by Jim Lumsford—is available from HPS Simulations.


In addition to the slides linked above, this article from Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning 38 (2011) provides a very good overview:

When Army officers are promoted to the rank of Major, they become field grade officers with the responsibility of planning, organizing and leading large unit formations, working on high level staffs and running the Army day to day. The “Future Force” game is an experiential learning simulation designed to introduce them to the complexity of supporting the current force in its world-wide missions while simultaneously designing and shaping the force for all possible mission profiles for the next 20 years. Played early in their change management curriculum, the game provides a common frame of reference for further detailed technical lessons. This paper describes the game design process from conception to application.


I was particularly impressed by the explicit way in which he addressed curriculum integration and practical constraints such as available time (a point I’ve often made myself).


All-in-all it was an excellent presentation, and it is a shame there was not more time to discuss it.

(UPDATE: Added link to commercial version of the game.)

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 8 October 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers. Nikola Adamus, Ryan Kuhns, Christian Palmer, and Swen Stoop contributed items to this latest edition.


Vol48 N3The current (September 2015) issue of Phalanx—the journal of the Military Operations Research Society—has an article by Virginia “Robbin” Beall (Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations) on “Defense innovation through wargaming.” Highlighting the recent US DoD emphasis on reinvigorating wargaming, she warns that “some of the wargaming in the Department of Defense is not done well and has no or little lasting impact.” She goes on to highlight three areas for improvement: game design, game adjudication, and appropriate application of analytic techniques. I’ve excerpted some of her key comments below.

Game Design

Many games appear to depend upon the notion that if you just get the right players together in a room, you will achieve the desired intellectual breakthroughs. This approach underestimates the importance of game design and does the players a disservice.

If the objectives of the game are too broad or ill defined, the likely game outcomes are either vague generalities or obvious solutions, no matter how talented the players may be. It may not be apparent to players or stakeholders that the game was poorly designed until it is too late to recover.

Rigorous attention to game design in a manner that forces the players to confront one or two essential dilemmas can focus that talent on specific areas of deficiency that may lead to innovative strategic or operational approaches or technological solutions.

Game Adjudication

Some form of adjudication is often necessary to keep games progressing, and a game timeline is generally not compatible with the real-time use of rigorous quantitative modeling and simulation. For that reason, most games are adjudicated either through simpler quantitative methods or by BOGSAT (bunch of guys and gals sitting around a table). Both of those approaches, like any other analytic endeavor, need to begin with the basic tenets of good research:

  • a review best performed by reaching out to an extensive network of analysts to understand what previous work has been conducted; and
  • unyielding technical rigor in fully understanding the technical capabilities of assets or technologies examined.

Too often these basic research steps are shortchanged.

I would suggest that an overarching principle for adjudication is, as with the Hippocratic Oath, to above all else, do no harm. Players may be taking a single day away from commanding the same units that are represented in the game. Decision makers may be formulating the arguments for or against an investment. Poorly conducted adjudication creates a risk of leaving players with a fundamentally mistaken belief in the viability of a CONOPS, tactic, system, or technology and in doing so, fails to advance the state-of-the-art of our knowledge base or support good decisions.

Appropriate Application of Analytic Techniques

It will be tempting in an environment where there is an intense focus on wargaming to assume that it is always the analytic technique of choice.

However, as analysts we should realize that no single technique is suited to addressing all problems or questions. As the members of the defense community with the most comprehensive training and knowledge in analytic techniques, it is up to us to lead the discussion on what the appropriate analytic technique should be for a given application.

Her article is very similar to the presentation she made at the recent MORS special meeting on professional gaming, and is well worth reading in full.



Although PAXsims wasn’t able to attend the recent Connections Netherlands interdisciplinary wargaming conference last month, Swen Stoop has kindly passed on a summary prepared by the organizers (as well as some artistic impressions by Yuen Yen).

You’ll find further details at the Connections NL website, including a few of the conference presentations.




My PAXsims coeditor Devin Ellis quite literally posted a report on JadedAid while I was typing this, so go see what he said. You’ll find more on the game at Foreign Policy, The Guardian, and WhyDev. Via YouTube you can also hear co-creater Jessica Heinzelman talk about the genesis of the game at Nerd Night Phnom Penh.


At Nautilus, Jonathon Keats asks “Could war games replace the real thing?” His starting point is Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for a global peace game as a tool for conflict resolution and international cooperation:

As the Vietnam conflict spiraled out of control, Fuller had a solution. His idea was simple: Instead of playing secret war games deep inside the Pentagon, the United States should host a world peace game out in the open. The concept was an elaboration on his proposal to build a geoscope inside the U.S. Pavilion of the 1964 World’s Fair. An animated Dymaxion world map would show all the resources on the planet, as well as all human and natural activity, from troop deployment to ocean currents. On this map, the world’s leaders and citizens of all nations would be invited to publicly wage peace. He cast the world game as a political system, a completely democratic alternative to voting in which people collectively played out potential solutions to shared problems.

“The objective of the game would be to explore for ways to make it possible for anybody and everybody in the human family to enjoy the total earth without any human interfering with any other human and without any human gaining advantage at the expense of another,” Fuller wrote. “To win the World Game everybody must be made physically successful. Everybody must win.”

He then offers a broader overview of the development of modern wargaming, ultimately suggesting that modern synthetic and digital worlds might now make Fuller’s dream possible:

Crucially, these virtual worlds would not be neutral backdrops in the vein of Second Life. Like SimCity and war games, they’d be logically rigorous and internally consistent. There’d be causality and consequences, and there’d be tension, drawn out by constraints such as limited resources and time pressure. Also like SimCity and war games, these virtual worlds would be simplified, model worlds with deliberate and explicit compromises tailored to the topics being gamed. There could be many permutations, so that none inadvertently becomes authoritative. The only real guideline for setting variables would be to adjust them to breed what Wright has described as “life at the edge of chaos.”

Within these worlds, scenarios could be played out by the massive multiplicity of globally networked gamers. Players wouldn’t need to be designated red or blue, but could simply be themselves, self-organizing into larger factions as happens in many MMOs. Scenarios could be crises and opportunities. Imagine a global financial meltdown that destroys the value of all government-issued currencies, provoking the United Nations to issue a “globo” as an emergency unit of exchange. Would the globo be adopted, or would private currencies quash it? And what would be the consequences as the economy got rebuilt? A single universal currency might be a stabilizing force, binding the economic interests of people and nations, or it could be destabilizing on account of its scale and complexity. It could promote peace or provoke war. Games allowing players to collaborate and compete their way out of crisis would serve as crowdsourced simulations, each different, none decisive, all informative.

As the number of players increased through the evolution of world gaming, the outcomes of these games would inform an increasingly large proportion of the planet. At a certain stage, if the numbers became great enough, gameplay would verge on reality—and even merge into reality—because players would collectively accumulate sufficient anticipatory experience to play their part in the real world more wisely. Whole aspects of game-generated infrastructure—such as in-game non-governmental organizations and businesses—could be readily exported since the essential relationships would have already been built. Games would also serve as richly informative polls, revealing public opinion to politicians.

Or they could play a more direct goal in governance. One of Fuller’s ideas—that gaming could serve as an alternative to voting—could potentially be realized with a plurality of people gaming national and global eventualities. For any given issue, different proposals could be gamed in parallel. As some games collapsed, gamers would be able to join more viable games until the most gameable proposal was played through by all. That game would be a surrogate ballot, the majority position within the game serving as a legislatively or diplomatically binding decision. Provided that citizens consented from the start, it would be fully compatible with democratic principles—and could break the gridlock undermining modern democracies.

When Fuller presented the world game as a method of reckoning how to achieve world peace, he wasn’t ambitious enough. The act of gaming must make peace in its own right. Operating at the scale of reality, the game that everybody wins must build our future world.



One of the challenges we encountered when publishing AFTERSHOCK was finding images for the game that weren’t restricted by copyright or the need to pay royalties. In our case the folks at the UN photo archives, United Nations Development Programme, and World Food Programme helped us out by making photographs available.

Another new and useful source for game images would be Konflictkam:

Konflictcam is a free and independent new media site dedicated to curating and archiving images related to human conflict and presenting them to the public in a transparent and accessible manner. We were founded in the summer of 2014 by a group of young professionals passionate about history, politics, human rights and conflict resolution. Recognizing the absence of a platform dedicated to the systematic curation of global conflict imagery, past and present, the Konflictcam platform was developed with the aim of filling that void. In our capacity as a non-profit, apolitical public archive, we hope to build awareness of the critical events shaping our world and encourage users to gain a broader understanding of human conflict.

Many of the images are covered by a Creative Commons license, and are available for reuse within the terms specified by the original image owner.


This is the Police is a game being developed by Weappy Studio in which you try to survive as a corrupt chief of police amid a morass of crime and seedy local politics.

This Is the Police is a strategy/adventure game set in a city spiraling the drain. You’ll come face to face with the ugly underbelly of Freeburg, taking the role of gritty Police Chief Jack Boyd (portrayed by Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem).

Immerse yourself in a controversial tale of corruption, crime, and political intrigue. Manage your staff, respond to emergencies, and investigate crimes in a city on the brink of chaos. The mafia underworld maneuvers behind the scenes, sinking their claws ever deeper into the city, even as the mayor is ready to exploit every situation to his political advantage — even if it means hanging his police chief out to dry, or plunging the city into riots and protest. Choose your approach to each situation as it unfolds. Sometimes you’ll be responding to a developing crisis at a crime scene, or negotiating with Freeburg’s crime bosses. Sometimes you’ll find yourself dodging questions in the press room, or even the occasional cross-examination in the witness box. Can you keep this pressure cooker from exploding, at least for long enough to stash away a nice retirement nest egg? Or will you land yourself behind bars — or worse?

It seems to be intended more as a (Sim City-meets Tropico-meets Grand Theft Auto) game than social commentary, but it is an unusual project nonetheless.


economistMeanwhile in the yet-another-mainstream-media-article-on-the-renaissance-of-boardgaming department, The Economist (3 October 2015) features an article on, well, the renaissance of boardgaming:

The market for such “hobby games” is booming. ICv2, a consulting firm, reckons it is worth $880m a year in America and Canada alone. “We’ve seen double-digit annual growth for the past half-decade,” says Milton Griepp, ICv2’s boss. Some of the games at Spiel will be aimed at children, but grown-ups are doing most of the buying. There is something for every taste, from “Fluxx”, a lighthearted card game whose rules change with every card played, to “Power Grid”, a fiendishly tricky business game featuring aspiring electricity tycoons, to all-day chin-scratchers such as “Twilight Imperium” (pictured), a game of galactic civilisation-building.

Steve Buckmaster of Esdevium Games, a British distributor, says that far from diverting people, video games—especially ones on smartphones—have brought gaming to a larger audience. App versions of popular games often boost sales of their physical counterparts. The internet has helped fans organise get-togethers, tournaments and the like, while crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter have made life easier for aspiring designers. They, in turn, are integrating computers into their games. “X-COM”, a board-game tie-in to a popular video-game series, uses a smartphone app that takes the role of the incoming aliens which players must battle on the table top.

Meanwhile bricks-and-mortar game stores have adapted, running tournaments and providing the face-to-face sociability that online gaming lacks. And with “Game of Thrones” on TVs everywhere and cinemas packed with superhero films, the general triumph of what used to be mocked as “nerd culture” has made the fantasy and sci-fi themes featured in many games less of a turn-off. Not every analogue pastime is suffering in the digital age.


In a not entirely dissimilar vein, Wired magazine thinks the media still owes Dungeons & Dragons an apology:

TODAY DUNGEONS & Dragons is flying high, gushed over by movie stars like Vin Diesel and Wil WheatonDan Harmon plays D&D live onstage, and popular podcasts like Nerd PokerCritical Hit, and The Adventure Zone take listeners on regular D&D adventures.

But David Ewalt, author of the recent book Of Dice and Men, remembers when things were different. When he first started gaming, back in the early ’80s, the very idea of fantasy role-playing terrified parents and teachers.


Want to know what Brian Train is working on? It’s not all counterinsurgency! Check out his summary of forthcoming wargame designs at Ludic Futurism.

Report: MORS special meeting on professional gaming

PGW IconThe recent Military Operations Research Society (MORS) special meeting on professional gaming set itself the following task:

The meeting will produce initial content for a Professional Gaming Practitioner’s Handbook and bring together members of the community of practice to consider best practices, design, existing applications and appropriate analytic methodologies in an effort to codify the fundamentals of game design and analysis. The meeting is designed for information exchange and participant exposure to professional practice.

The main conference started off on Monday with several plenary presentations.

George Akst (Senior Analyst, Marine Corps Combat Development Command) highlighted the value of wargaming as a midpoint between large exercises and operations research analysis. Wargames are, he suggested, are generally a single/deterministic (n=1) approach to a stochastic problem, illuminating one possible plausible scenario. He pointed to the value of wargaming in identifying capability gaps, developing doctrine, and experiential training and learning. They can also help narrow the scope of problems for subsequent (OR) analysis. He also noted weaknesses in many wargames: analytical follow-through, adjudication rules and procedures. Operations analysis can address some of these shortcomings by bringing additional analytical rigour, including sensitivity analysis. Analysts should be integrated into the process early to make the combination of wargaming and OR analysis most effective. I thought it was a useful presentation on the strengths and weaknesses of analytic gaming, although I would prefer to see as gaming as a tool in the analytical toolset, rather than something performed by the gaming tribe to which OR analysts must somehow relate.

Robbin Beall (Head, Campaign Analysis and Modeling at Assessment Division, Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations) stressed the growing appreciation of wargaming as a tool to help identify innovative approaches (and to weed out those that may be less useful). She also identified three areas of concern:

  1. More attention need to be devoted to innovation in gaming and game design. Designers need to be smarter, effectively pinning players into the puzzle they are expected to address. A cadre of good game designers needs to be fostered within DoD. This year’s US Navy Title X game is an example of greater innovation, with a traditionally large and monolithic game being broken into a series of smaller, more highly focused games.
  2. Adjudication remains a challenge. If a game has weak adjudication, the game fails and participants leave with a wrong impression.
  3. Despite the current renewed emphasis on wargaming, it needs to be remembered that wargaming is only one tool in the analytical toolbox. Games are not always the best approach.

E.B. Vandiver III, former Director of the Center for Army Analysis, delivered the keynote address. He focused many of his comments on CAA experience and some of the problems of wargaming. He summarized some of the most common objections to wargaming: it is too subjective, too qualitative, they aren’t repeatable, they learning effects overwhelm functional effects, and they are too time-consuming and resource intensive.

He also discussed the development of a training wargame at CAA to train junior analysts with little or no background in military history or the military decision-making process. The initial version was too complex, so they designed a new, simpler, faster, and more strategic game—but never ran it, because they were tasked to develop a front end analysis for a new Korea operations plan (building in part on the prior game development).

He also discussed using games in 2006-07 to analyze the security force requirements of the Iraqi government in the context of the US withdrawal from that country. The questions asked required specific answers: force size, deployment, and so forth. A computer-assisted, open player game was developed, based on research, COIN doctrine, data on violent acts, and assumptions vetted by the sponsor. The processes highlighted the value of participation from the actual theatre, that there was a need to address speed, efficiency, and errors in the game process; and that the game really required a precursor training game. The game was later refined and used for drawdown risk assessment and a range of other questions. It was even modified top examine Afghan drawdown risks.

Overall he suggested that many or most of the shortcomings of gaming could be mitigated.


Given the abject failures of the Iraqi security forces in recent years, it would have been useful to more fully discuss why the games Vandiver described fell so short of anticipating these shortcomings. I would argue that the poor performance of the ISF has more to do with leadership, patronage, corruption, morale, sectarian polarization, and internal politics and similar social and political “intangibles” than it has with capabilities, deployment, or formal organization. I asked Vandiver about this, and he responded that the games had not explored political context and effects, or even force motivation and morale. To my mind, that’s rather like wargaming without physical terrain or weather or visibility effects, and underscores Beall’s point about the need for more innovative approaches to gaming. (As one colleague noted in a side-comment, hobby wargame rules have long addressed morale issues, so it isn’t exactly an impossible challenge.)

Mark Gallagher (Studies and Analyses, Assessments and Lessons Learned/A9, USAF) emphasized the human-in-the-loop, adversarial character of wargaming, and suggested it ought to be seen as part of analytics. He distinguished it from military exercises. He argued that the “single output” nature of wargaming didn’t necessary limit its usefulness. The particular decision points in games can be examined, for example.

Bill Lademan (Director, Wargaming Division, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory) made a very lively presentation in which highlighted in the ways “next generation” wargaming could be done better. He noted that the Marine Corps will be developing a state-of-the art wargaming center (adjacent to their intel facilities, to enable access to TS/SCI SAP material). He stressed the need to “wargame at the speed of thought,” rather than being handcuffed by developing powerpoint presentations. Knowledge needs to be “maneuvered, not managed,” in a way that effectively addresses problems. He emphasized human intellectual input into wargaming, and was critical of relying on computers. Analysis, he suggested, was all about the decomposition of a problem and striving for precision. Wargaming, he argued, was about many variables, and what emerges from their dynamic interaction with player decision-making: “what comes out the soup” of a complex situation.

Addressing the purposes of the MORS special meeting, Lademan expressed the view that wargaming should not be preoccupied with achieving rigour and repeatability, in which the manipulation of data becomes a substitute for wisdom.

He pointed at length to the Vietnam War, where “analysis replaced strategy” and failed to appreciate that the war was not about kill ratios but rather about winning over people. Later, the bodycount became the analytical measure of success. The disagreed that wargaming ‘was an analytical methodology,” arguing it was an assessment methodology. Analysis, he argued, was about exact conclusions, while wargaming (and assessment) is about a judgment. “Assessment is to analysis the way philosophy is to science,” he suggested. He disagreed that wargaming struggled for acceptance. Wargaming, he argued “isn’t broken”—and efforts to fix it with greater supposed analytical rigour would be counterproductive, since it could squeeze out creativity. Because of human learning and cognition, wargames are never truly repeatable. They’ll also never be rigorous, and models will never be adequate.

It was a powerful and stimulating presentation, and a credit to the bluntness for which the Marine Corps is known. It was also something of a riposte to the earlier OR-focused comments by Akst and Beall. In a dialectic sense I suppose the clash of views of useful. Or, perhaps, Lademan’s comments only reinforced the view in some of the OR community that gaming is a sort of nebulous witchcraft claiming insight into the free will and the human soul. Towards the end of his comments he offered more conciliatory comments, calling for a productive union of wargaming and analysis where each offset the weaknesses of the other.

I enjoyed it a great deal, but I’m concerned by the absolutism of some of it. Analysis and gaming, I think, have very fuzzy boundaries. Drawing sharp dichotomies between quantitative and qualitative analysis is counterproductive. Sharpening tribal divisions around these issues only contributes to hedgehogism.

Wargaming for analysis within DoD

Wargaming for analysis within DoD (from the back of the room).

After lunch an OSD panel discussion examined “wargaming for analysis within DoD.” The session was chaired by Mike Ottenberg, and featured the quad chairs for the current initiative on wargaming and innovation: COL Mark Gorak (OSD CAPE), Jacob Heim (OSD Policy), COL Neil Fitzpatrick (JS J8 SAGD), and CDR Phil Pournelle (ONA). Among the many points that were made:

  • Small games are often more useful than large, complex ones for some purposes. (Phil)
  • “Blackbox” modeling and simulation can alienate players from a game, as they are unable to understand cause-effect connections. (Phil)
  • The professional military education process needs to develop wargaming experience and skills. (Phil)
  • The style and design of a game needs to be selected according to the problem to be addressed. (Phil)
  • In the past, the senior leadership hasn’t necessarily seen their questions and priorities being addressed by wargaming. (Mark)
  • Given the natural biases of the services and the combatant commands, how can gaming help to develop DoD-wide perspective and priorities? (Mark)
  • Wargaming needs to explore left and right boundaries of issues. (Mark)
  • When inputting data into the new (OSD CAPE-managed) wargame repository, please put greater thought into significant key insights generated. (Mark)
  • SAGD is high demand for POL-MIL games, for clients such as the NSC. (Neil)
  • The next DoD-wide wargaming summit is scheduled for early November.
  • There appears to be less capacity within D0D for multi-move, adjudicated games with an active Red side. (Jake)
  • The DEPSECDEF is especially interested in games that offer insight into key challenges as well as programmatic issues. (Jake)
  • How wargaming initiatives by the services will be integrated with DoD-wide efforts? (Mike) The first step is dialogue, and trying to understand what is going on out there, and who is doing what. The DoD wargame repository is one important element of this. (Neil) Most current games address the “big five” potential adversaries—it is important to examine how to develop insights and synergies across those wargames. While resisting the temptation to impose a single set of metrics to assess the utility of games, there is a need to think about how to differentiate a good game from a bad one. (Mark)
  • How should best practices be recognized, taught, and promulgated within DoD? (Mike) We don’t want to be in a situation where a formal standard is established and wargamers are “certified.” Instead we need to invest in analysts and PME. (Phil) We also need to also educate sponsors. (Jake)
  • One audience comment challenged the anti-quantitative thrust of Lademan’s earlier comments. Phil warned about the false precisions of much M&S work.

Following these plenary sessions, we broke into several working groups:

My hotel roommate (and former fellow UVic wargaming club alumnus) Brian Train and I served as cochairs/facilitators for WG8, along with Joe Saur (Georgia Tech Research Institute), Eric Greenburg (JHUAPL) and Clyde Smithson (JHUAPL). This was primarily intended as a continuation of yesterday’s training course intended to further develop wargame design skills by actually designing a wargame.

Working Group 8 at work.

On Wednesday we started the day with another plenary address by Robbin Beall, this time on “challenges in design and execution of wargames.” She identified several of these:

  • insufficient initial research
    • lack of situation awareness of similar or complimentary supporting analytic efforts
    • lack of authoritative data on capabilities
  • flawed game design
    • overly broad scope leading to shallow conclusions
    • lack of innovation
    • failure to focus players
  • unsound basis for adjudication
    • linked to shortcomings in initial research
    • conclusions reached on anecdotal evidence
    • lack of qualified subject matter experts
    • overly simplistic wargaming tools
  • team/player issues
    • player fear of failure
    • game too short for team cohesion
    • one or two strong personalities dominate game play
  • no objective post-game evaluation of game effectiveness

I thought her points were excellent. Her final point is a particularly important one: far too much of the serious games community—wargamers included—are far too willing to assess the value of the game based on anecdotes, game enjoyment, or the designers’ own confirmatory self-evaluation.

She also discussed the synergies between wargaming and quantitative analysis. Game objectives, she suggested, should be set to utilize the particular strengths of wargaming. Game designs should focus players on a limited number of dilemmas unresolved by previous analysis. Game execution should inform players with what is known from previous analytic efforts. Game adjudication should mine what goes on in the analysis world to support adjudication decisions. Finally game lessons should be determined and new ideas should be incorporated into quantitative analysis.

The implicit thrust of some of her comments seemed to be to frame wargames as adjunct to quantitative operations research, addressing those areas that quantitative analysis could not easily answer. I would tend to view things rather more broadly, arguing for qualitative research as a more equal partner, and also suggesting that findings are most robust when they are triangulated by variety of methods. Indeed, much of the discussion at MORS has struck me as akin to the quantitative vs qualitative skirmishes that afflicted political science a decade ago, but which in that case have now largely been superseded by widespread appreciation of mixed and plural methods.

Interestingly, the one wargame she did praise—a simple, apparently largely conceptual game that modeled a basic guns/butter or kinetic/nonkinetic tradeoff—doesn’t appear to have been particularly rigorous by OR standards or anchored in research and data, but rather intended as a spur to discussion and reflection.

Much of the rest of the day was spend with the working groups. In WG8 the participants divided into two groups:

  • One group (Marcus Tregenza, Shawn Zackey, Christophe McCray, and Bob Turner, aided by WG cochair Eric Greenburg) set about designing a naval platform and technology acquisition game.
  • The other (Stacie Pettyjohn, David Maxwell, John Montonye, Stephen Mackey, aided by Brian Train and I) decided to develop a game that would explore how ISIL balances its strategic options, and how it might respond to coalition efforts in Iraq and elsewhere.

In the afternoon there was also a games expo. PAXsims had a display booth, featuring AFTERSHOCK, ISIS Crisis, and various other simulations I’ve run at McGill and elsewhere.


The MORS game expo.


AFTERSHOCK, with Brian Train in the background displaying his many game creations.

I also had an extensive discussion with Stephen Ho (Dstl) about the potential impact of llamas on modern special forces operations. This is clearly an area ripe for exploration through good game design.


Special forces combat llamas, one of the great military topics yet to be gamed.

The final afternoon we all reassembled to hear brief-backs from each of the working groups.

  • WG2 (wargame objectives). The group emphasized the importance of initial problem identification and research design. They also addressed educational wargame objectives. There was substantial discussion of the relationship with game sponsors, and what to do about sponsors who don’t know what they want, who want a game to address a non-gameable problem, or who are inclined to micro-manage. A long list of “wargame pathologies” were identified.
  • WG3/7 (game design, development, and execution). They reviewed the typical game design process: concept development; research; identification of game elements; building components, prototyping, and initial rules concepts; playtesting; finalizing components… and only after all this, the game itself. Feedback and critical evaluation needs to be continuous throughout all steps of the process. They also noted that analysis must be persistent through the design process, and that execution considerations need to be incorporated into the design and development process.
  • WG4 (data collection, analysis, and tools). The group ran through a revised and abbreviated version of the ZEFRA wargame, which was used to spur a discussion of data collection and analysis issues. Among other issues, they argued that the analysis team needed to specify player requirements (qualifications and other characteristics); the value of a GICOD (“good idea cut-off date”); to consider constraints, limitations, and assumptions; and the need to regularly review collection during the event. The game design and game analysis teams should be an integrated part of an overall project team, rather than entirely separate. The Data Collection and Management Plan (DCMP) should specify what data will be collected on each issue and sub-issue of interest; where in the scenario the data might be generated; what methods and tools will be used; and when during the game such collection needs to occur. If data looks wonky, corrective action should be taken sooner rather than later. A list of tools that can assist in data collection and analysis can be found here.
  • WG 5 (adjudication). The group reiterated Robbin Beall’s point that adjudicators should “do no harm.” Adjudicators need to be facilitators too, need to communicate with players to reduce frustration. Adjudication issues are often intimately tied to game design. Adjudicators need to be well trained and prepared, aware of the dangers of overtasking. Players must feel their choices make a difference. Overall the WG suggested it was hard to identify universal best practices.
  • WG 6 (aligning games with other studies). This group explored how to best integrate various decision analysis methods with wargames, especially in the context of various “wicked problems.”

As for our own WG 8 (quick turn-around game design) presentation, Bob Leonhart presented some overall impressions from our collective game design efforts. He noted how time pressures sparked considerable energy and enthusiasm. He also underscored how much one learns about a topic from designing, and not simply, a game. The two game design groups then presented their games.

In Buying Victory: Budget Battle Wargame the Red and Blue sides invest in hulls and various (surface, subsurface, and air) technologies. Mature technologies are cheaper and safer investments, while potentially more effective future technologies involve more time, risk, and resources. The combat power of the Red and Blue fleets then confront each other three times during the game to determine the overall winner.

Buying Victory: Budget Battle Wargame

Buying Victory: Budget Battle Wargame

Countering ISIL: The Board Game pitted ISIL against a US-led coalition. ISIL has six possible lines of kinetic operation:

  • In the Anbar/Fallujah/Ramadi area, against the Iraq security forces
  • In the Baji/Takrit/Samarra area, also against the Iraqi security forces
  • In the Irbil/Kirkuk area, against the (Iraqi) Kurdish Regional Government
  • In northeastern Syria/Kobane/Hassakeh, against the Syrian Kurds
  • In Aleppo province, against various rival Syrian armed groups
  • Around Damascus, against the Syrian Army.

It also has two possible non-kinetic lines of operation:

  • Building governance, which generates resources and helps to respond to potential governance challenges in the events deck.
  • Building prestige, which helps attract recruits and facilitates international terrorism.

The design was partly inspired by the solitaire States of Siege games by Victory Points Games, although in our case the system is adversarial and provides players with a far more complex set of options and constraints.

Players start the game by selecting several game objectives from a list of possible options. Subsequent game play is very straightforward, consisting of four sequential phases:

  • Event phase, in which an event card is drawn. This may present the players with challenges or opportunities, or otherwise affect game play.
  • Resource phase. ISIL gain recruits and resources from control of territory, effective governance of the “caliphate,” and prestige which attracts supporters and donations. The coalition gains material resources at a steady rate, but political capital is only slowly replaced.
  • Card selection phase. The players select five cards to play from a large deck of possible options. Most have a cost associated with their play: resources and/or recruits for ISIL cards; resources and/or political capital for the coalition.
  • Card play phase. The players take turns playing their cards, each of which has an effect (and possibly an associated die score to succeed). Some cards may be played to augment the effects of other cards, or complicate those of an opponent. Still others represent key decisions or investments in major initiatives, which are prerequisites to the play of other cards in the future. When both players have run out of cards or choose to pass, the next turn begins.

We took a video of one turn of game play, which you’ll find below. Overall I thought it was an excellent design, and if time allows I may put some further work into developing it, in conjunction with other members of the team.

The MORS special meeting on professional gaming ended with thoughts from the synthesis group, members of which had floated from WG to WG during the meeting. With regard to WG8, the synthesis group (and in particular, Richard Phares, who had been the primary synthesis group spy in our midst) quite rightly pointed to the differences between wargame design for serious purpose versus wargaming for fun. They also noted that game designs are living things that can evolve over time, the key linkage between research and game mechanics, and the critical value of repeated playtesting.

Overall I thought it was an excellent conference. While I regretted missing out on the discussions in the various working groups, I very much enjoyed the design work in WG8, and certainly benefitted from the excellent plenary sessions. MORS—and even more so chief organizer Scott Simpkins (JHUAPL)—did outstanding work. I look forward to the wargaming handbook that should eventually emerge from this effort.

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