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Monday, 28 January 2019

Desperately seeking live politicians for our wargames

I play wargames as part of my learning. If there is a crisis or potential crisis that takes my professional interest, I print out an A3 map, do some counters and use a variant of whichever set of rules seem to work from my archive. I spend a few hours on the game and as a result my understanding is always moved to a new, deeper level. However, I have noticed that actual politicians are absent and so are missing the opportunity to learn from our professional wargames.

Those operating at such a significant level of decision making are exactly the kind of people you want to be "gamers", those who've played through the situations they're having to handle in the real world many times before.

By wargames, I mean contested conflicts, where the red team is doing their best to win and the outcomes are not pre-scripted. These are different from exercises which are to test/ teach procedures, rather than decision making.

There are three parts to the enigma of the missing politicians. The first is our political system encourages the selection of the popular, which may or may not qualify them to make analytical rational decisions in the unexpected pressure of a crisis. (This is not an argument to suggest an alternative political system. As Winston Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”)

The second part is that games highlight performance issues. Sometimes politician and their political advisors’ performance are inadequate and the spotlight of the game makes this abundantly clear. I ran a game and a really important senior manager’s performance in the game was so bad, even the butler noticed (yes, sometimes I have a butler and domestic staff when running games for a certain level of player). So, I conclude, that sometimes a politician does not want the spotlight on them or certainly not on their advisors.  Not all advisors are appointed for their subject matter expertise in political matters.

The third part is the politicians fear of leaks. Games are just games and can be vehicles to explore all sorts of events, even the unlikely. E.g. what happens if NATO does not support the Baltic Republics against Russian aggression? Obviously, they get occupied, but what are the second and third order effects? A game is an ideal tool to explore this complex situation. However, the media will happily seize any game story and misrepresent it as news. The media understand wargames i.e. they are used to explore, outcomes can depend on chance etc., but they will put a spin on newsworthy games in their continual search for ratings.

Why are their leaks from confidential games? The world of cyber security gives us some clues. Some participants do not believer in leaks, on the grounds everyone they know in life is honest and would never gossip. Some just go to work for money and are not really that bothered about the wider ramifications of a leak. There is also a very small chance of being detected when leaking a story. Journalist sources have some legal protection if the story is in the public interest (journalists interpret this as any story the public are interested in is therefore clearly in the public interest). Secondly, politicians are rightly wary of unleashing the computing forensics dogs of war in a leak enquiry. The thought of Special Branch trawling through email boxes is frightening; who knows what stories of corruption, classified information sent through private email, affairs, harassment, bullying or perhaps just general verbal abuse of colleagues that might emerge?

To my knowledge, the last UK politician to periodically attend and participate in wargames (as opposed to scripted exercises) was Margaret Thatcher. Some might contest her ‘legacy’, but she did occasionally harness the power of games as part of the cycle of learning. For professional wargaming to have greater impact, politicians need to play.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Duke Seifried 1935-2018

Sadly, Duke Seifried, one of the great pioneers of American miniature wargaming has passed away. He was not just a pioneer of American miniature wargaming, he was a key figure in helping raise the status of wargaming with miniatures in the USA. Without his efforts, the American wargaming scene would largely consist of boardgames and computer games. He travelled from show to show across the continent with his huge extravaganzas consisting of beautifully sculptured terrain and thousand of figures. Since publishing the book Duke Seifried and the Development of American Miniature Wargaming in December 2017, I have continually received letters from those who met him and were inspired by his efforts to create their own multiplayer extravaganzas.

While lesser known in Europe, his importance for wargaming should not be underestimated. By raising the profile of miniature wargaming in the USA, he helped create the global market for miniature wargaming that we now enjoy. The UK and Europe were just not big enough markets to enable production of miniature wargames products to move from cottage industries to global brands within our hobby.

Donald Featherstone considered that Duke was "The showman of modern wargaming".Hard to argue with that.

Duke is survived by his second wife, Annette, six children and two adopted boys.

I have included a couple of photos of some of Duke’s 46 extravaganzas


Sunday, 9 September 2018

Professional Wargaming Reaches Escape Velocity in the UK

UK Connections 2018, the professional wargaming conference

Around the western world, there are a series of professional wargaming conferences where the great and the good of that world gather to talk and play games. Involving a complex mix of games and traditional lectures; the conferences aim to promote and develop the use of wargames for education, training and learning. The UK one is held in London at Kings College London in September each year. The History of Wargaming Project has offered me some insights into this growing community, as they routinely ask questions as they buy books from the ever-growing publication list.

Just a few years ago, if you assembled those directly involved in professional wargaming in the UK around a large table, perhaps 6 large pizzas (with stuffed crust) and some garlic bread would have fed them all. Until perhaps 12 months ago, it was possible to more or less keep track of the main professional wargamers in the UK, what they were focussed on and how this work was progressing. This is no longer possible.

DSTL, the scientific arm of the MOD, has a wargaming team and has other staff that also use wargames on occasion. However, there are now wargamers scattered throughout the MOD, individuals and small clusters, working on a range of wargames. The RAF, Navy and the Army have wargaming teams. Individual serving officers, including in the reserves, use wargames on occasions, as just another teaching method. The Defence Academy and Cranfield University use games. The number of academics using wargames for teaching history, international relations, peace and reconstruction studies and business studies is now many dozens, probably over a hundred. Kings College London, sensing financial opportunity, is in the processing of establishing a wargaming centre. Business is using games for financial advantage. Cyber wargames are routine. Emergency planners use them all the time, for example with the emergency services, hospitals and local authorities.

There is now a pool of commercial talent to support professional wargames in the UK, notably computer software from SCS and Matrix/ Slitherine Games. Both of these companies are of a scale to be dynamic and respond to customer needs.

There is a growing pool of accessible wargaming literature and wargames for people to take up and learn from without consulting the existing wargaming community.

Even more shocking is the rise of European professional wargaming, in particular Germany, France, Sweden and boardgames in Spain. They are not just following the lead of the UK and North America, but are building on the former’s games to make their own purpose-built products. I would suggest that these European countries are rapidly developing their own professional wargaming culture that while not completely separate, is more like a distant cousin. I will give just one example, Urban Operations, designed by Sebastien de Peyret. This is published by a French gaming company, Nuts. It is a detailed modern Fighting in Built Up Areas game that is far in advance anything I have seen in from the UK and North America (

My first conclusion is that UK professional wargaming now has a critical mass and so the method will not disappear. It is too well ingrained as a valuable tool to be neglected. As General Sharpe said, once people feel they have permission, their pre-existing inclinations are released and they can move ahead. My second conclusion is the scale of the development means it is impossible for any one individual to blithely assert they have a good working knowledge of professional wargaming. It is now just too diverse. So, if you meet anyone who says they know all about UK professional wargaming, remember, they don’t.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

New book! The Pentagon Urban COIN Wargame 1966

This is an early example of an early professional counter insurgency game written for the Pentagon to explore gaming an uprising in an urban area.
The game is a multi-player megagame representing a growing urban crisis. The government have their police and the general support of the population. The key is to position the guards at the threatened critical urban infrastructure to increase the chance of detecting bomb threats. They also have their secret police to attempt to discover who the insurgents are.
The players representing the public have roles from factory owners to middle class shop keepers.
They have to maintain their income, in the face the growing insurgent threat. At the end of the game, they decide the winner by pledging their support either to the government or the insurgents.
The insurgents have to try and sway the population, but at the same time, disrupting the cities economy. Of course, they can only do this if they remain undiscovered.
Included are detailed briefings for the government, the public and the insurgents. The book also contains after action reviews from the games, along with an analysis of 20 key uprisings.  
This book is published by the History of Wargaming Project as part of its ongoing efforts to document professional wargaming.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

New book: The Matrix Games Handbook: Professional Applications from Education to Analysis and Wargaming

This is the latest book to be published by the History of Wargaming Project
Matrix Games are an established way of running seminar type narrative games in the professional environment. This handbook is the most comprehensive set of papers to date on their use in education, training, research and innovation.
The book starts by exploring the origins of Matrix Games, with contributions on the development of the method.

The second section of the book has a sample game about NATO and Russian posturing on the Baltic Sea. Many wargames explore war in this contested area of sea, but a Matrix Game is used to explore a conflict short of kinetic.
In the theory section, some of the underpinning philosophy of Matrix Games is outlined by Chris Engle, the inventor of the method. Along with some of the emerging themes from using narrative based games.

Education has applied the technique of Matrix Games in teaching. This section includes examples from around the world from language training to military education.
The final section outlines more applications of Matrix Games including operational analysis problems, innovation and using a Matrix Game to explore contemporary conflict by Professor Rex Brynen.

The chapters include

Section 1: The History of Matrix Games

The Early Days of Matrix Games in the UK by Bob Cordery

The American History of Matrix Games by Chris Engle     

The Rise of Professional Matrix Games by Tim Price

Section 2: Practical Advice          

Running Matrix Games by Tim Price

Checklist by Tim Price    

Sample Game: Baltic Challenge: NATO and Russian posturing in the Baltic Sea     

The Australian Perspective by Todd Mason          

Section 3: The Theory of Matrix Games

Walking in the Dark: An Allegory of Knowledge by Chris Engle     

The Intellectual Underpinnings of Matrix Games by Chris Engle   

Verbal Algorithms and the Human Machine by Chris Engle            

Emerging Themes from the Matrix Game Based Narrative Methodology by John Curry    

Section 4: Matrix Games and Education

Gaming Multi-Agency Responses by Helen Mitchard       

Using Matrix Games in the Classroom by Dorian Love

Effective Learning at the Swedish Defence University by Johan Elg

Language Training by Neal Durando

Reflections on Military Language Training by Jose Anibal Ortiz Manrique

Section 5: The Professional Application of Matrix Games

Gaming the Wars of the Future by Chris Engle

Operations Research Tools by Ben Taylor

Building Boyd Snowmobiles: Matrix Games as a Creative Catalyst for Developing Innovative Technology by Paul Vebber

Using a Matrix Game to Explore Contemporary Conflict by Rex Brynen    

Further Reading

Monday, 4 June 2018

Wargaming and UK culture

Wargaming used to be an obscure hobby, but now the UK's population has some awareness of wargaming.
The evidence for this:

The BBC mentions wargames once a month- in the context of cyber wargames e.g. in City of London, military wargames e.g. gaming threat to Baltic Republics.
Over 90% of the 24 to 38 years olds (so called Millennials, Generation Y, Gen Next, were aware of role-playing e.g. Dungeons and Dragons). Sales of Dungeons and Dragons are seeing resurgence.

Practically all large business  run business wargames (i.e. business continuity exercises).

Many UK bookshops sell Euro type board games that are certainly in the wargaming space.

The UK Health Service, local government and public utilities, run wargames in the form of emergency planning exercises at least annually.

Games Workshop and Warhammer are a high street brand image- currently valued at £962 million.
A local wargaming show at Devizes (which is a rural area of Wiltshire, UK) had attendence of 1,100 people.

Wargaming seems to be established in the UK as a cultural norm. Who could have predicted that ten years ago?

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Civil Wars of Wargaming Part II- the cost

Having established the fact that many of the early wargamers were at war with each other in a loud, aggressive and often abusive manner, what were the consequences? When wargaming emerged in the 1970’s as a new hobby, it was considered by some a potential educational tool. One to transform the study of history, politics and international relations. If you played a committee game in French, it could be used in language classes. However, this was not to be. From my random sample of correspondence in the History of Wargaming Project archive, I found that teachers, academics, several clergy and historians had unfortunate encounters with the hobby during the 1970's.

They went along to their local club and were soundly thrashed by competition gamers who were interested in the rules and winning, and with scant regard for history. Perhaps they even took pleasure in shredding an interested academic just to demonstrate that the academic clearly knew nothing about history (and therefore did not deserve their job). These professionals, who could have been champions of the hobby, became the reverse and the hobby suffered. Even RMAS got rid of its wargaming club due its treatment of visiting senior officers and academics.

Fortunately, the hobby has largely changed. There is the competition set, but most wargamers at most clubs play games, enjoy chatting about some history and sometimes they win. At large conventions, there are the battles to win fought by uncommunicative wargamers, but most people putting on a game are happy to stop to chat about the game, the rules, the scenery, the makes of figures etc. Stop by the Society of Ancient’s stand at a show and the people manning the stand will be happy to discuss the detail of ancient warfare with knowledge equal to any undergraduate on an ancient history degree.  These ‘average’ wargamers have finally managed to overcome the historical stigma of the competition gamers of the 1970’s. Wargames are flowing into the curriculum at all levels.

During WWII the Fletcher Pratt game in New York was visited by the Admiral of the South Atlantic and his staff. They took command of one side and their fleet of 45 ships started to get hammered by the female curtain makers on the either side. They were up against a profession that estimated distances in inches for a job. Although only a game, an admiral and his staff + his team of 40, losing a naval wargame would not be a good idea. So, Inga Pratt (her husband being on a carrier in the Pacific) grabbed the RN destroy captain from the bar. The captain took command of the destroyers on the admiral’s side and launched a brilliant and devasting torpedo attack. The Admiral’s side won. Honour and face was saved. Perhaps this tale gives some idea why the fletcher Pratt Naval game attracted 200+ people in the evening in war time New York. Modern hobby wargaming could learn something from this historical example.