Friday 15 September 2017

Connections UK, the Professional Wargaming Conference, Sept 2017

The event was the place in the UK where the great and the good of professional wargaming gather to discuss, wargaming...
The conference was well attended, with people from 18 different countries (not including undergrads and post graduates) and many serving military or reservists. Interestingly, 50% were attending the conference for the first time.

It is clear there is momentum behind wargaming and it is on a roll, but the question is whether we are still on a ‘Peter Perla’s sine wave’ where the perceived value of wargaming goes up and down. OR wargaming has a sustained momentum to keep it going. There have numerous major developments over the last 12 months in the UK and across the world e.g. UK launched its Defence Wargaming Handbook, the RAF doing first large-scale wargame for years, etc.

Wargaming is on a roll.


·         wargaming is far from institutionalised e.g. Connections is self-funding.

·         Change in leaders in USA means there is a counter attack against value of wargaming

The aim Connections Conference is:

1.       Share good practise

2.       Develop international wargaming community

3.       Institutionalise wargaming, including governing and assurance

4.       Develop techniques

5.       Demo utility address real world problems in a safe to fail environment

6.       Show wargames save lives and save money

I was amused to find that the History of Wargaming Project is seen as a sort of FAQ contact centre for questions about who is doing what in professional wargaming. I was also interested to see that of the many professional wargames mentioned at the conference, at least some have been made available via the publications of the project. Hopefully, I will have more published over the next 12 months.

Mega Game

The first day was largely taken up with a large multi-player game, a megagame. It went as expected. It must be first said that the organisers were experienced, unpaid volunteers who put huge effort into the game.

Standing Joint Force HQ Group Wargaming

This is a new HQ that includes Joint Expeditionary Force (which is France and UK thing). Wargaming is a part of what they do. They have been using matrix games (Baltic Challenge, Black Sea Challenge, see the various scenario books on matrix games books published by History of Wargaming Project). They have been playing other games, including one where the blue players found themselves suddenly running the battle from the other side’s perspective.

They have had some problems

·         Last turn madness- where players do something daft as it is the last turn

·         Wrong map scale/size

·         Articulation of risk e.g. calculate the risk, give players a dice and then tell them to roll.

·         Some players find it hard to articulate of effect i.e. what they want to happen

·         Some players find Consequence management hard e.g. thinking about consequences of actions before doing them

·         When to use wargaming

·         Some reaction about the use of name wargaming (some see it as too aggressive)

·         Live military exercises are all fake scenarios, but they are allowed to wargame with real scenarios involving real potential opponents.

Royal Navy starting to use wargaming (again).

Basically wargaming fell out of use in the RN since the early innovations. (You can explore these early RN games in the book 1906 Fred Jane including 1921 RN wargame rules published by me).  However, over the last 10 months the RN has been running wargames regularly again. Attitudes are now changing. However, my advice is they need look at what our NATO allies in their well-developed naval wargames, so we are not reinventing the wheel in the UK.

The navy has used TACEX/OKX which are heavily scripted games (basically to deliver a lecture in a different form). Now RN wants adversarial games with the other striving to win.  

They are finding some problems

·         The RN finding the leap from someone who can play games, to someone who can design games is huge.

·         Players want to win so much, they can cheat or act unrealistically.

·         Not all senior officers are happy with concept of playing games and failing (and learning from this to win next time).

·         Needs to be a culture of wargaming e.g. introducing it in officer training.

·         Current work is Project PROTEUS wargame, with stepped learning through each scenario. E.g. exploring River class offshore patrol vessel (batch 2). RN not used to rolling dice, or game spinning off in completely different direction from the planned path.

·         One of the issues is to capture data during the wargame that is useful afterwards.

RN wargaming is back, but at an early stage of development.

Bringing Wargaming to Training  e.g. for ASW training for helicopter squadron Cornwall, UK.

Basically, it is hard to changing traditional education delivery methods, e.g. a lecture is seen as an effective alternative to a wargame. This ignores modern education practise which is all about doing. One of the problems is finding people with enough skills at a unit level who can be wargaming umpires. Another question is what does remedial training look like for someone who fails at wargaming?  Another question is how often does wargaming need to be carried out?  The basic problem is the lack of academic literature on effectiveness of training using wargaming.

Air Warfare School Wargaming RAF

There is a computer wargame, Storm, but it is used just 3 times a year,

However, they are introducing wargaming as part of their training system. The Winged Exile game is about managing the air battle over the UK and was run for the first time in air warfare course in UK in Sept 2017.. It has been used with air cadets and university officer training corps to raise awareness for recruitment purposes. The game is a bit strange as both sides are the RAF, but this is to teach both sides about RAF capabilities. I was also intrigued by the accompany Control of the Air Card Game. The writing is now on the wall, the RAF going is going to be producing games for training.

UK MOD Wagaming Surveys

UK VCDS wargaming Initiative- UK is trying to discover what its wargaming capability actually is through a series of surveys. The UK MOD is apparently unsure who is doing what and who can do what.

US Ongoing wargaming Initiatives

Phil Pournelle is the chair wargaming for MORS. He told us that MORS is trying hard to develop rigorous analytics wargame practise.


·         Insufficient master game designers

·         Need to identify best practise and improve the art and science of wargaming

·         Need to integrate wargaming into wider analytical effort.

·         How to set up an iterative cycle of games and analysis.

In October 2017, MORS are thinking deeply about these issues at a big conference in Washington.

Matt Caffrey Taking the Long View

This talk illustrated issues in trying to attribute positive outcomes to professional wargaming. Basically good wargames helped in war; wargaming is just one edge in war fighting, but it can be overcome with other edges. Examples of wargaming giving a military advantage were Germans in Franco Prussian Army, WW1, WW2 (early), WWII Wolf Pack tactics, WATU Western Approaches, Iran v Iraq, Gulf War I and II.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office Wargaming

They tried Matrix game ISIS crisis in Sept 2016. This worked surprisingly well at the FCO. Upon reflection, the game did offer some real insights. They also tried an African presidential Succession Game, May 2017, but this has not progressed further. The insight from this was players and umpires were surprised how quickly the game became violent. The FCO has major doubts about using dice to decide the outcome of a meeting or a conference. Currently gaming is limited due to lack of time. i.e. they can spend their time better doing other things than wargaming.

The Defence Wargaming Handbook

Is the UK’s effort to define and justify the use of wargaming. This is available from the web

25th May 2010 Kandahar saw OP HAMKARI wargame, which saw the UK forces playing out their plan to occupy a piece of Afghanistan. The red team in the game were actually ex-mujahedeen who had faced the Russians on the same ground in the past. The UK plan was similar to the original Russian plan that failed. So the UK changed the plan as a result of the wargame. The actual operation worked, UK did not lose anyone killed (but with some casualties). This was a fine example of wargaming working. That wargame was clearly a well spent afternoon, mind you it does help to have ex enemies being the Red team.

MOD Initiatives

Basically, the UK is doing a fair amount of strategic gaming- regional, assisting allies, options if sanctions do not work etc. It would not be appropriate to discuss the subject for games in more detail.

Unprofessional Wargames by Charles Vasey

He has been 1 of the key figures in board game development in UK and he was reflecting on developments in hobby wargaming from the early games hex and counter games.

New hobby games are full of innovations:

·         Highly visual e.g. meeple shape pieces that tells a story. Shape or colour passes information.

·         Stickles- thin kriegsspiel type counters with visual information

·         Cards- full of information, a form of pre-printed EXCON

·         Large number of ideas comes from Eurogaming, where there are no nasty wars but have plenty of aggression. These game are co-operative games e.g., THUNDERBIRDS.

·         IRSEM is an example of the subversion of wargame norms e.g., can attack several times with 1 unit, area movement, uses cards.

·         Brian Train, series of games on e.g. Ur-COIN. Gov players, 2 guerrilla movements and drug cartels.

·         Colonial twilight, French train, garrison, etc… resistance movement do different actions.

·         New techniques mean wargaming and peace gaming are becoming bigger. Twilight Struggle is a huge seller and it is encouraging new people in wargaming.

His message was professional wargaming needs to look very carefully at what the hobby is doing.

Western Approaches Tactical Game

This was the key wargame to help Britain’s campaign against U-boats. The actual place is now a museum the Western Approaches Command – in Liverpool.

Commander Gilbert Roberts- had experience of wargames and could not serve at sea, so he was asked to help develop better tactics against the U-boats. He had a team of 9 wrens and 3 staff. He interviewed those in convoys to understand the convoy battles, then he developed a wargame. The game had 2 mins turn and written orders. Ships moved on floor. U boat moves were drawn in brown chalk on the floor which could not be seen by player captains. Wrens offered tactical advice and no doubt became very proficient at tactics. The games was used to trained 5000 captains, escort and convoy commanders including GB, Ca, Fr and Norwegian. Curiously Prince Philip ran the games for a two week period.

There were a tactical games and operational analysis (OA) games. The OA games changed the tactics e.g. use of Raspberry or the importance of attacking shadowing U-boats, tactics in the face of the acoustic torpedo. More details of the game will be published by the HoWP in due course.

Wargaming in education

This covered the well-established ground of the use of games in education. Games are well established as another learning tool from primary to undergraduate education. It was amusing to hear the story of a 12 year old ‘president’ sack another child for corruption in a game set in a school. Children love games and wargames can be a part of that. However, one must still be careful using the term wargames in an educational school setting.

UCL are using wargames to help teach some aspects of naval architecture e.g. a short course on submarine design. The problem was students were making ridiculous design decisions due to their lack of understanding of naval warfare. So they used wargames to learn about naval warfare, assess military effectiveness of their design choices and teach vulnerability design. They play 3 different games. For example they have a very complex ship design cards, such as the height of the radar determines the range it can detect the enemy. One game is a double blind game on the floor, another is based on a map based game and another uses the CROWS which is a self-coded computer game. They found that students engage most in the floor game with ship models, the games are slower, but hold the students interest more.

The presentation on Class Wargames by Dr Richard Barbrook Univ of Westminster was different by any standard. They are politically left wing, but proud to be wargamers. Guy Deboard was a key intellectual on the left wing, but he made a wargame THE GAME OF WAR, which he said was his most important work. He embedded military principles in his game to teach revolutionaries how to win next time there is a revolution. Basically teaching von Clausewitz to left wingers in the classroom. Class Wargames created a series of games to teach principles of revolution. The undergrads have to produce a game about political conflict. Many of the games were not successful as games, but the learning experience was successful.

Modelling the Human Terrain

The west has been so good at conducting regular war, opponents have switched to irregular warfare to beat us. How to model COIN is now one of the questions. For example, the US Naval Post Graduate school has modelled conflict extensively. There was a lot of detail which is written up on the Connections website They also run wargaming courses around the world.

Simulating the Intangible

This started with a question whether politicians are trained to deal with stress in a crisis. The military are trained, but not those giving the political direction. Actually, in the UK, political leaders are expected to participate in games. I remember the SAS saying that when they played their big annual exercise in the UK, Maggie (the then prime minster) played.

‘Someone’ ran a matrix game, BLACK SEA (see the History of Wargaming project books on matrix games) for important people. The game revealed that players needed a better briefing on hybrid warfare, with more time to create initial plan and then play BALTIC CHALLENGE. The actions in the game were then analysed and actions that improved the situation were classified in green if good, red if bad. Then they modelled the actions against the full spectrum of potential actions. Matrix games were found to increase awareness and understanding, but not so good for decision making. Group think can be a problem, so it is key to offer a full range of game components e.g. military units and civilian infrastructure. If you only have military units on the map, then players will focus on the military.

The megagame: A Methodological Assessment

Strengths and weaknesses are the same i.e.:

·         Lots of people

·         Simple rules

·         Semi-organised chaos

·         Fog/ imperfect info

·         Friction/ imperfect execution

·         Flexible facilitation (making it as you go along)

·         Emergent gameplay i.e. hard to predict what the game will do, but stay within game space players expect.

Swedish Wargaming

There are wargames being run at civilian professional course e.g. crisis in Baltics, low level tactics, irregular warfare. They produce games to answer games with short notice, but also for longer term analysis.

Designing a missile defence and nuclear risk strategic decision game

Research project using gaming as the method. The game defined the aims and objectives, involving UK and NATO officials. The research used games for some problems, but not others. It allowed a topic to be examined where governments cannot do the study. Basically, it was about ABM could affect stability e.g. in Korea. However, the games did not look at Russia as these games could be misinterpreted by Russia and lead to unintended/ unwanted consequences.

Based on naval War Colleges games, using decision analysis and risk analyse tools. The games were kept at the high level and avoided operational detail. Moves were made on forms, but captured why players made the decisions. Some were reluctant to fill in the forms (perhaps they felt they were too important), so they had to employ support to record the decisions. The games found some interesting results, but these results are not going to be reported here. My only other comment, is they need to be using Confrontation Analysis as one of their tools.

Future Dates for Connections Conferences

Netherlands Mon Nov 13th  2017 12.00-22.00

Australia 11-13 Dec 2017 in Melbourne

USA 17-20th July 2018 Washington

UK 4-6th Sept 2018 Connections UK KCL


  1. John,
    Thank you for your summary of the conference. I really enjoyed this one, and it was great to spend some time talking with you as well. Thank you also for taking the time to explain some more about Confrontation Analysis; I will have to return to the book next week once my jetlag has cleared up.

    1. It was good to talk, perhaps we will be working on some project together in the future. Confrontation Analysis is a useful addition to the OA side of wargaming

  2. That is a really good and useful summary, thank you very much for posting.
    A really wide-ranging set of approaches amongst that lot!

    1. It was probably the best connections conference I have been too in terms of the most useful to me personally.