Entering the matrix doesn’t mean exiting from #wargames

Over on Rex Brynen’s excellent PAXSIMS website, he posted a link to BEAR RISING, a Matrix game looking at the Baltic in the post-INF Treaty era. As a wargaming professional, I appreciate that Matrix games can be used to explore policy issues and generate greater insight into the issue. Matrix games are a part of wargaming, but apparently some out there want to distance themselves from that connection. Taking a look at BEAR RISING you find this:

What are matrix games? Matrix games are different to normal Wargames. In most of those games you will probably compare lists of statistics and peer at complicated books of rules containing someone else’s idea about what things are important, before making a decision, checking that it is covered by the rules and rolling dice to see if you succeed. It can take a long time, look really complicated and can be very difficult to explain to a newcomer. Instead, in a matrix game you simply use words to describe why something should happen, the Facilitator or the players (or both) decide how likely it is, and you might roll a dice to see if it happens (but equally, in the face of a compelling argument, you might not need to). If you can say “This happens, for the following reasons…” you can play a Matrix Game. The games themselves are not intended to be fiercely competitive, with obvious winner and losers. Instead they operate with the players working to generate a credible narrative. It is from examination of this narrative after the game that the player gain insights to the situation being portrayed. The player roles have objectives that will place them in conflict with other players, but it is perfectly possible for all of the players to achieve at last some of their objectives by the end of the game.

Let’s take a few of these sentences apart:

  • “In most of those games you will probably compare lists of statistics and peer at complicated books of rules containing someone else’s ideas about what things are important before making a decision, checking that it is covered by the rules and rolling dice to see if you succeed.” I guess you have only played wargames like Advanced Squad Leader, right? You totally have missed out on many “light” wargames like Brave Little Belgium or uncountable others? I hope you are consistent in your views and have the same disdain for heavy Eurogames out there and especially for anything designed by Phil Eklund, right?
  • “It can take a really long time, be really complicated and can be very difficult to explain to a newcomer.” I challenge you to try any of the Academy Games Birth of America-series or Commands & Colors (Compass Games or GMT Games) or a Hold the Line game (Worthington Publishing). If those games are too complicated for you and difficult to teach a newcomer then you have no place talking to anybody about a Matrix game.
  • “Instead, in a matrix game you simply use words to describe why something should happen, the Facilitator or the players (or both) decide how likely it is, and you might roll a dice to see if it happens (but equally, in the face of a compelling argument, you might not need to).” But you just disparaged rolling dice above….
  • “The games themselves are not intended to be fiercely competitive, with obvious winner and losers.” Ah…another bias. Wargames “must” be “fiercely competitive.” Let’s not talk anything about the learning that can come from exploring the situation; it’s war and war is automatically evil! To that I say si vis pacem, para bellum.*
  • “Instead they operate with the players working to generate a credible narrative. It is from examination of this narrative after the game that the player gain insights to the situation being portrayed.” I would argue that some of the best wargames, like the new Tank Duel (GMT Games, 2019) or Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid (GMT Games, 2018) generate a “credible” narrative during the game and don’t need a scribe to explain it to the players afterwards.
  • “The player roles have objectives that will place them in conflict with other players, but it is perfectly possible for all of the players to achieve at last some of their objectives by the end of the game.” Is this not the hallmark of a good game design? A good design will see all players work towards their objective, with the end result being a measure of how well they achieved those objectives. The objectives themselves do not have to the same (for example, who controls the most territory) but can be different like in Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest (Mighty Boards, 2019) where the Revolutionaries try to save civilians while the Soviets try to control the city. Or maybe the designers of BEAR RISING are not familiar with a GMT Games COIN game like Colonial Twilight (see Grant from The Players Aid comments about terror) or the asymmetric Root from Leder Games?

I will repeat what I said before; Matrix games are useful to explore policy issues and generate insight. But they are one tool in the vast kit available to designers. To maximize that insight, I prefer designers and players to have open minds and to avoid/remove as much bias as possible. In the case of the BEAR RISING designers, they show me that they have deep biases that make me doubt the assumptions their game is built on.


* “If you want peace, prepare for war.” In my case I strongly advocate studying warfare to understand – and avoid – military disasters of the past.

Feature image courtesy BEAR RISING.

#Wargame Wednesday: Maybe you can teach Marines – or – Using Next War: Poland (@GMTGames, 2017) for Professional Military Education

Mitchell Land, designer of the Next War-series of modern wargames from GMT Games posted a piece on the Inside GMT Games Blog titled Semper Fi! – The Next War at Marine War College. In the blog he talks about using Next War: Poland (GMT Games, 2017) as a learning exercise at the Marine Corps War College. His experience using wargames in a military classroom tracks closely with mine and highlights the value of gaming as an educational tool.

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GMT Games

According to Mitchell, the key takeaways of the day for him were:

1. They’re playing Next War: Poland at the Marine War College. How freaking cool is that?

2. See #1. 🙂

3. The After Action Review was a fascinating insight into the warfighters’ minds. Sorry I can’t discuss it here, because, then I’d have to shoot you. Just kidding. They’re just like wargamers all over the world. They dissected some of the moves and discussed and considered options in terms of the operational and strategic imperatives driven by both the game and the real world.

4. I heard, distinctly, in terms of the game: “You’re not far off.” That warms the cockles of my heart (whatever those are).

5. The Advanced Game, as much as I love it, is not the right presentation for a learning experience. We switched to the Standard Game about half way through, which was interesting since there were bunch of Strike markers on the map not to mention the HQs. At the end of the day, though, the students improvised, adapted, and overcame (see what I did there?).

6. Overall impressions were favorable. The students could see the operational issues and anticipate and react accordingly.

7. Did you see #1?

Reactions #1, #2, and #7 are exactly why I play wargames; it’s freaking cool! Fun factor aside, I also play wargames for serious reasons. In keeping with #5 I have found that when teaching the best wargames are the most simple ones. As tempting as it it to “play with all the chrome” the reality is that the extra learning burden can obscure the real learning objective. I often find that when playing with non-wargamers, the basic rules often work fine and the scenario can be used to bring out concepts that need to be explored. In the case of military professionals, the students are often very knowledgeable about the subject but when able to visualize it on a map and physically move units (a tactile function) it creates a connection to the subject more powerful than reading it or seeing it passively on a screen.

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A matrix game (wargamingconnection.com)

The best wargames are not simulations, but abstracted models of real (or plausible) events. Although there are many commercial wargames available, sometimes it is best to make your own. As much as I want to call these games professional, they often don’t compare in physical quality to the hobby market segment of the gaming hobby. But that is not necessarily a bad thing; the focus of play need not be simulating the war, but highlighting in the wargame key factors or concepts upon which the battle may turn. Sometimes there is a commercial game that can be leveraged for this purpose; sometimes not.

Mitchell goes on to talk about the best parts of the day:

The best part was the wide ranging wrap up discussion which covered such ground as having the right kind of leader in place in an allied effort, a la Eisenhower, along with a brief deliberation of how Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton all seemed to end up in the right place after all. There was a fairly cogent analysis of how much of that was planning versus just plain dumb luck. Immediately following that “well it was political” argument, there was a review of what might have happened had Lincoln put Grant in command earlier rather than trying to delay his rise because he thought he was a potential political rival.

Naturally, of course, some of the discussion revolved quite a bit around Russian intentions and motivations vis a vis the Baltics as well as what might really happen if this new cold war got hot. Most importantly, we talked about how best to represent those motivations in a game format. Nugget of wisdom here: it call comes down to appropriately defining the victory conditions.

When using wargames for teaching, the most important, and arguably the most educational, part of the “game” is the After Action Review (AAR). This is where the players can reflect on what they experienced in the wargame and draw “lessons learned.” This is also where a good instructor and a strong lesson plan can make a difference. In a professional wargame I recently playtested the instructors first discussed basic military factors before playing the game. After the game, those same factors formed the outline of the discussion. It was very satisfying to see how quickly the players/students connected with the concepts introduced in the lecture and were immediately able to relate them to an event or situation that happened in game.

If you want to see what “serious games” are like (Spoiler Alert – they cover more than just wargames) then the best place to check out is Rex Brynen’s PAXSims. As the website says, PAXSims “is devoted to peace, conflict, humanitarian, and development simulations and serious games for education, training, and policy analysis.” For an example of how the UK Defence Forces are incorporating wargaming into military education, planning, decision-making, and analysis read the Defence Wargaming Handbook.

Read through them, and learn something today.


Feature image paxsims.wordpress.com

The Next Shock in the #Aftershock #Boardgame Saga

Update 08 Feb: Rex & @StrongholdGames have reached an agreement.

If you read my previous blog posts (here and here) about the Aftershock Kickstarter campaign and AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game (PAXSIMS) you might think I am gloating right now.

I am not.

I want to see success in the hobby gaming industry. To see a Kickstarter from a well-established publisher involving a game from a well-recognized designer not make it should make every gamer pause.

I think there is going to be lots of talk about this one. Lots of speculation. Lots of rumor. Lots of innuendo. Maybe even a few accusations.

Just because a Kickstarter fails it is not the end of the world – or the game. Look at Daniel Bullock and his intriguing No Motherland Without: North Korea 1953 to Present. The Kickstarter failed. He subsequently signed with Compass Games.

That said, as the publisher reassesses his campaign I hope he also considers the naming issues raised in the past few days. There is an opportunity to communicate here. That is, if everyone involved doesn’t block it.

#Boardgame Sadness – or – Hey, @StrongholdGames, blocking @RexBrynen or myself doesn’t make your #Aftershock right

Update 08 Feb: Rex & @StrongholdGames have reached an agreement…and I’m unblocked now!


How to lose a customer in three steps:

STEP 1 – HAPPY CUSTOMER APPEALS TO RESPECTED GAMING COMPANY

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STEP 2 – CUSTOMER REALLY HAPPY WHEN RESPECTED GAMING COMPANY ENGAGES BACK

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STEP 3 – GAMING COMPANY DECIDES THAT RESPECTFUL CALL FOR ACTION DOES NOT FIT THEIR WORLDVIEW AND CHOOSES TO IGNORE (NOW UNHAPPY) CUSTOMER

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Hey, @StrongholdGames, I get it; I am a nobody. I am no Tom Vasel or any sort of leading content reviewer for the hobby boardgame industry. I play boardgames. With my boys. At home. I prefer wargames (gasp!).

But when it comes to the name of your Aftershock and AFTERSHOCK: A Game of Humanitarian Crisis, you are wrong.

Let me repeat what I said before:

I understand Stronghold Games needs to make a buck but Stephen Buonocore, you’re better than this.

One suggestion made on the BGG forums is for Stronghold to find some way to acknowledge the PAXSIMS predecessor. This approach was graciously endorsed by Rex. I also believe this is a respectable way ahead. It is an approach that shows support to both hobby gaming and serious gaming.

Stronghold Games, you are a gaming industry leader. Show us that you truly deserve to be.

From conversations with @RexBrynen, I understand that one of the suggestions is to rename the Stronghold Games version to “Aftershocks.” Or include a blurb in the box about the PAXSIMS not-for-profit version. Or a section on actual disaster relief. Rex says so far he has heard nothing back from @StrongholdGames.

Instead, like me his Twitter account is blocked by @StrongholdGames.

Thin skin, eh? You block me after I write one post on a blog with 44 followers that was tweeted to an account with 675-ish followers. YOU LIKED IT! Then I guess you read it. I fully believe my call to action was respectful. I have tried to keep to a higher morale standard. I did not pledge to your Kickstarter in order to post negative comments. I wrote no comments in the BoardGameGeek forums until you blocked me.

Your actions show me you don’t want to engage Rex or anybody else on this issue. Most sadly, your actions show me you don’t deserve to be a respected industry leader.

So go ahead, ignore me. I don’t expect you to read this. It’s OK. Like I said, I am a nobody. A nobody that bought six Stronghold Games titles last year. A nobody that is going to buy zero this year…and conceivably beyond.

Yeah, only six games…small potatoes in your world of $20k Kickstarter campaigns. A microdrop in your Terraforming Mars empire.

But it’s my drop…and you have shown me you don’t deserve to sip at it.

#boardgames versus #seriousgames – or – Hey, @StrongholdGames, #Aftershock is not just a name

Update 08 Feb: Rex & @StrongholdGames have reached an agreement.


This post is a call to action to Stronghold Games to right a wrong, and it all has to do with a name.

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Courtesy Stronghold Games

As I write this post, Stronghold Games is running a Kickstarter campaign for a game from Alan R. Moon  & Bobby West named Aftershock – Deluxe Edition. In the game…

The world has been hit with mega earthquakes. The worst destruction has devastated the San Francisco Bay area. It is a time of rebuilding to restore this area to its former glory.

In Aftershock, players will spend money to acquire planning cards, which are used to increase population, build bridges, and determine where aftershocks occur. Spend money wisely to acquire aftershocks that will allow you to move people into and out of the demolished areas. Planning and careful negotiation are essential in order to maintain your population and score your best-planned cities and bridges.

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Courtesy PAXSIMS

The problem is a game named “Aftershock” previously existed on the market. AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game, is the brainchild of @RexBrynen of PAXSIMS. Most boardgamers and wargamers have probably not heard of PAXSIMS or Rex or AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game because Rex and PAXSIMS are part of the “serious games” portion of our hobby. That is, the niche of our hobby that uses games for education or analysis.

Since 2015, Rex has been selling AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game which…

…explores the interagency cooperation needed to address a complex humanitarian crisis. Although designed for four players, it can be played with fewer (even solitaire) or more (with players grouped into four teams).

The game is set in the fictional country of “Carana,” but is loosely modeled on disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. At the start of the game a powerful earthquake has just struck Carana’s capital city of Galasi, causing widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure. Tens of thousands of people are in need of urgent aid and medical attention. At the request of the Government of Carana, military forces from several friendly countries—operating as the multinational Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force, or HADR-TF—are en route to assist, as are additional contingents of UN and NGO personnel, together with much-needed relief supplies.

Time is of the essence! How many can you save?

AFTERSHOCK is a tense, fast-paced, and immersive game that players will find both unique and informative. Based on real-world events and challenges, it is also used in the professional training and education of aid workers, military personnel, and others involved in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

AFTERSHOCK has been used to teach students at the Pennsylvania State University and medical students in Germany. AFTERSHOCK is an example of a serious game; that is, a game that can be used for analysis or education.

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AFTERSHOCK game in progress at 9th Mission Support Command, US Army Reserve (courtesy BGG.com)

Using wargames as a “serious game” is nothing new. One famous example goes back to the first Gulf War when, in the immediate hours after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Pentagon put Mark Herman under contract to run Gulf Strike (Victory Games, 1983) and play out the US response. Whether you realize it or not, some game companies like Academy Games support military education and training. In this case, Academy’s new Agents of Mayhem: Pride of Babylon game uses game mechanics adapted from a US Marine Corps “Fallujah game.” GMT Games are used by the Marine Corps War College.

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Marine Corps War College Next War Event – April 8-9, 2019
For the second year in a row, The Marine Corps War College is going to be using GMT Games as the basis for a spring event. This April 8-9, they are going to run a two day global wargame using the Next War Series.  Mitchell Land is going to be on-hand to help run the exercise, which involves three simultaneous fights in Taiwan, North Korea, and Poland. Here’s a pic of one of the Marine War College’s teaching games using Mark Herman’s Pericles (courtesy GMT Games)
Think tanks use gaming, like this CNA Talks podcast from CNA.org explains. Serious games cross over into the video gaming world; there is a pro version of CMANO for government organizations to use. Elsewhere, another form of serious games called megagames – massively multiplayer boardgames games – are used for student orientation at the University of Chicago or to entertain (and teach) about disasters.

So why does all this matter?

I absolutely believe in the value of serious games and strongly support what Rex is using AFTERSHOCK for. Rex does not sell this game for his own profit; all profits from the sale of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game are donated to the World Food Programme and other United Nations humanitarian agencies.

Stronghold Games apparently did not exercise even the most simple “due diligence” before Kickstarting their Aftershock. A simple query of BoardGameGeek would of immediately returned AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis. Maybe they were relying on Alan R. Moon (of Ticket to Ride-fame) and Bobby West to do that part for them, but even if so that is no excuse.

So what can Stronghold do? I am concerned that Stronghold is not taking this situation seriously. (no pun intended). In the comments on a recent PAXSIMS post, Rex related that, “We’ve reached out to them to express our concern (especially since ours raises funds for actual humanitarian relief) but so far the response has merely been “sometimes different games have similar names.”

That’s inexcusable. This is not Gettysburg or Panzer Something.

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Courtesy @ellalovesbg

Now, I like Stronghold Games. Terraforming Mars is an “evergreen” title for #boardgamenight in the RockyMountainNavy house. AuZtralia was my boardgame of the year for 2018. I religiously listen to their Board Games Insider podcast every week. I understand Stronghold Games needs to make a buck but Stephen Buonocore, you’re better than this.

One suggestion made on the BGG forums is for Stronghold to find some way to acknowledge the PAXSIMS predecessor. This approach was graciously endorsed by Rex. I also believe this is a respectable way ahead. It is approach that shows support to both hobby gaming and serious gaming.

Stronghold Games, you are a gaming industry leader. Show us that you truly deserve to be.


UPDATE LATE 3 Feb

Now blocked on Twitter by @StrongholdGames.

Feature image courtesy PAXSIMS.