Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Matrix Games Come of Age


“Does anybody know when the Geiger counter were last serviced?”

The war in the Ukraine has changed the discussion of modern warfare to include the use of nuclear weapons. An option for Russia is to use nukes to try to introduce shock and awe into the campaign, to turn Ukraine into a failed state and/ or to shock NATO into not supplying more munitions. This does not suggest the idea is sensible, but it is possible. Russia has them and Putin might order their use.

When Putin said he was putting the Russian nuclear forces on “special alert” a lot of things starting happening in the UK, including wargames. After the initial shock, bewilderment and checks whether Putin’s words were just fake news, local authorities started to leap into action (relatively speaking as local authorities are somewhat ponderous concerns). They started asking questions and finding old dusty plans on the shelves at the back of the archives. “How long does fallout last for?” “Where can we house a hundred thousand refugees?”. Local authorities are starting to consider questions from the last Cold War in some hasty exercises.

Our armed forces have also reacted; submarines went to sea. Establishment guards had their pistols put back in the armoury’s and replaced with assault rifles (plus 80 rounds). They even went to the firing ranges to zero their weapons and put some rounds down. Pistols look good, are nice and light, but do not cut it if you think enemy special forces might actually assault your position.

On the wargaming front, a lot has been happening as well. The method of Matrix Games has been challenged on the grounds of the lack of scientific rigour (not enough rules, maps, hexes, combat results tables etc…), but also by those who prefer unstructured discussions as the path to understanding (all wargames are rubbish brigade). The academic evidence is that the various variants of matrix games help impose a structure on narrative gaming, and are therefore better than unstructured narrative games.

Despite the detractors, some hastily developed matrix games are being used. They are fast to develop and take less than 2 hours to play. Useful to crystallise the stakeholders aims and objectives. Scenarios rotate around how NATO should react to: nukes being used in Ukraine, nukes being used adjacent to the Polish border with fallout over NATO member’s territory, a nuke being dropped in the North Sea, Wolverhampton being destroyed etc…

Reality will always different from any wargame, so how are they useful?

1.       Playing them iteratively develops a playbook of options that can be used in such crises.

2.       It builds the relevant language of conflict amongst the advisors.

3.       It develops the crises team in time efficient manner.

4.       It practises the decision maker’s advisors with unfamiliar scenarios.

5.       It can also be used to signal Russia about bad things that would be triggered by their actions.

In short, playing some Matrix Games increases the change of the right people making the best choices in incredibly difficult situations. As always, though, so much depends on the quality of players and facilitators. Who would have thought that a method of gaming in the hobby space some 34 years ago would make the transition to the professional space, and is a (small) part of our conflict response? Matrix Games have come of age.


  1. John,

    I absolutely agree. The MG is a helpful way to create teams, share ideas, examine possible outcomes, identify what you know, what you don’t know, and what you need to know. They are NOT predictive, which is why the fall into that part of the wargaming spectrum that people who want absolute answers dislike so much.

    Is wargaming an art, a science, a combination of the two, or a form of academic alchemy?

    All the best,


    1. I am thinking of publishing a book about whether wargaming is an art or a science. Matrix games can be predictive if they identify best strategies that rational actors are likely to take. of course, Putin is not rational.

    2. Is the science vs. art ‘schism’ a reflection of the origins/background of the various proponents? For example, Stephen Downes-Martin seems very much at the science end of the wargaming spectrum, and comes from a science background (nuclear physics, I seem to remember) where experiments should be repeatable and produce results that can be analysed using scientific methodology.

      My own approach is closer to the alchemy/combined science and art part of the wargaming spectrum. I apply lessons learned from writing computer programs to create a logical structure to my wargame designs, allied to my study of military history. Add in a pinch of mathematics and statistics … et voila!, the Cordery approach to wargame design.

    3. Googling "The Art of War" gives about 25,400,000 entries, "The Science of War" lists 6,330,000. That feels about right - 80% art, 20% science.

    4. This is an interesting debate. Comparing google entries is a good metric for the starting point of the discussion.

  2. Any new books in the pipeline?