A Distant Plain: Designers’ Interview on Grogheads

Brant Guillory, mover and shaker behind the gaming forum Grogheads, recently did an e-mail interview with me and Volko Ruhnke about A Distant Plain:



And, should you be moved to ask a question, Volko and I will be answering them in a discussion thread here:


So far, 396 pre-orders for the game as of today!

Connections 2012 AAR


 DATE: 9 August, 2012

SUBJECT: After Action Report – Exercise CONNECTIONS 2012

FROM: Brian Train

TO: Dear Readers

CC: Dear Linkers


 CONNECTIONS is an annual conference on civilian and military wargaming. 2012 marked the 19th consecutive year this conference had been held. This year the conference was hosted by the Centre for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL), a department of the National Defense University located at Fort McNair, Washington DC. The general purpose of the action was for this writer to deploy from home station in Victoria, Canada, participate in the Connections 2012 annual wargaming conference with host nation (HN) personnel in Washington DC, and to redeploy to Victoria.

 Key tasks during the exercise were to:

  • Attend and participate in presentations and discussions during the conference;
  • Meet new people and strengthen connections with prior acquaintances;
  • Conduct a major “show and tell” of the relevant design work I have been doing over the last year;
  • Facilitate a working group in the Game Lab event, wherein conference participants collectively discussed the opening stages of how to design an educational game on a disaster response situation (for these purposes, the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti).


 This exercise was conducted in five phases:

 (i) Pre-deployment Phase: 1 June – 16 July 2012

 In the pre-deployment phase, the focus of training was on logistical preparations for deployment and redeployment, and preparing game designs for the “game demos” part of the conference. Some time was spent doing preliminary reading and planning for the Game Lab event.

  (ii) Deployment Phase:  17 July – 22 July 2012

17 July –  On arrival at the Victoria Airport  at 0dark30, it was discovered that the flight to Los Angeles was cancelled. After considerable time spent waiting in line and with an agent, emplaned for Vancouver BC, where I sat for several hours before emplaning for San Francisco, followed by a flight to Los Angeles. Arrived over six hours late; however, the rail portion of the deployment was the following day so there was no worry about making a connection.

 18-20 July – travel to Union Station in Los Angeles to catch the afternoon train to Chicago, called the Southwest Chief. Travelling with Joe Miranda (editor of Strategy and Tactics, World at War and Modern War magazines, the world’s most prolific wargame designer, bon vivant, raconteur and inveterate punster). I’d never taken a long train trip before. Accommodation on the train was a roomette, which consisted of two chairs facing each other that converted into a bed at night, while a second bunk could be swung down from the ceiling. It was awfully hot so it was not easy to get enough sleep. And finally, 28 miles short of Chicago after travelling over 2,600 miles from Los Angeles, the engine packed it in – I think we just ran out of gas but it’s Amtrak, they don’t have to explain what happened. We waited three hours in a stifling hot car that we could not leave with no power and windows that did not open, until they sent out an engine to push us into Chicago very slowly.

 After a pre-planned night and day in Chicago, we took the train the rest of the way to Washington DC. After crossing the Mississippi everything was much greener and bumpier than the West, which looked fairly badly affected by the drought. The hotel in Washington was a block from the Navy Yard Metro stop, which was convenient, and a bit more than a mile from the National Defense University. We usually caught rides though, as it was over 95 degrees and humid all the time we were there it would have been a pretty hot walk.

 (iii) Employment Phase: 23 July – 26 July 2012

 Conduct of the conference at National Defense University, Washington DC. I’ve outlined the entire agenda, with comments and rambling from my notes (in italics) on the parts I attended.

 Day 1, Monday, 23 July

 1200-1600       Optional

  • Wargaming 101”, Mr. Matt Caffrey, Col USAFR (ret), AFMC
  • “U.S. National Defense 101”, John Gresham, author
  • “Wargame Design 101”, Joseph Miranda, wargame designer, editor (I attended the latter part of this seminar – Joe introduced the process he goes through in designing a game, from concepts to counter graphics, using two recent designs (Fail-Safe and the Commando game system) for illustration. It appeared to be well attended and there were lots of audience questions.)
  • Self Guided Working Tour of Fort McNair  (that should read “walking” – I already made the joke last year about whether we would be expected to pick up cigarette butts and other trash while on the tour)

 1600-1800        Ice Breaker (things on sticks, cheese and crackers, wraps and stuff. It was good to see so many people I don’t see except at this conference: Mike Garrambone, Peter Perla, Mike Markowitz, Roger Mason, Matt Caffrey of course, Stephen Downes-Martin, to name just a few. I met a few new people as well, including John Prados, a designer whose work I’ve liked for a long time (some of his more interesting titles, for me, are Bodyguard Overlord, Campaigns of Napoleon, The Great War 1914-18, Kanev, Monty’s D-Day, Panzerkrieg, Pearl Harbor, Spies, Warsaw Rising, and Year of the Rat. He autographed my copy of his book Pentagon Games for me.)


1800-2000        Optional, Hands on Introduction to Wargaming (Prados was showing a prototype of his new game Set Europe Ablaze, on the French Resistance. I didn’t learn much about how it worked but it looked very interesting.)


Day 2, Tuesday, 24 July

 0800 – 0810      Welcome

            Prof. L. Erik Kjonnerod, Center for Applied Strategic Learning, NDU

 0810 – 0950      Keynote Addresses

  • Dean Robert Rubel, Dean of Naval Warfare Studies, Naval War College (from notes: the intangible aspects of war and wargaming have mushroomed, making objective calculations less relevant; also, there is less time to play games and learn from the experiences. Only a human can do qualitative analysis of data generated by a wargame; experienced academics and players are required to analyse why players made the decision they did. Just accept in the end that there is no perfect rational objectivity – computers themselves may be rigid and consistent, but their software is in the end written by humans. Future challenges include cyberspace (the services don’t seem to be very interested though every game is completely dependent on computers and “disruptive” warfare (insurgency, commerce raiding, 4GW generally).
  • Prof Phil Sabin, King’s College London, Wargame Designer, Author (transmitted over the Net from London. From notes:
    • Dunnigan was wrong (in saying in 1990s that manual wargaming was on the way out; it’s not because it’s just as good as ever for wargames, in its ways);
    • Rubel was wrong (in saying that wargaming should become a profession or discipline; it should be thrown open as widely as possible, to let different ideas contend);
    • Perla was wrong (in saying that the purpose of wargaming was to prepare us for Black Swan events; every wargame, played many times will generate a range of events, with outliers, like any other experimental trial. Actually, I think Perla was saying that wargaming is there to train us in flexibility and expect the unexpected, realising that Black Swans do happen but cannot be planned for specifically);
    • Sabin was wrong (in his first book Lost Battles that attempted to show through games that there was some kind of consistent dynamic among ancient battles – he may or may not have been right, but his work has been almost totally ignored by historians who have no idea wargaming even exists or is acceptable).
  • Dr.. William Lademan, Director, WGing Div, USMC Warfighting Lab (from notes: Wargaming as a substrate for Innovation – he explained about the USMC Wargaming Division and its work on strategic and operational issues with the purpose of creating doctrine, not education or training games. The issue for the USMC in the new AirSea Battle is its Operational Access Concept: how to face different threats as forces approach an objective from the sea, then working with the Army to place and maintain forces ashore.)

 1010 – 1030     Intro to Connections Game Lab

             Co-Chairs: Rex Brynen & Deirdre Hollingshed

 1030 – 1200    Needs pull, Defense Decision Support Wargaming Today

  • Approaches to Title X Gaming: Concepts or Capabilities, Shaun Burns, Naval War College
  • Wargaming In Support of Science and Technology Decision Making, Paul Vebber, Naval Underseas Warfare Center
  • Aids to Effective Contingency Planning, Westy Westenhoff, Col USAF (ret) (“In preparing for battle, I have found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable” – Dwight D. Eisenhower)

 1200 – 1300      Lunch & Introduction to Wargame Demos

  1300 – 1430      Wargame Demos               

  • Brian Train; board games (This was my moment! I showed: District Commander; Guerrilla Checkers (manual and Android versions, which I had set up on an emulator running on my netbook); Kandahar; Palace Coup; Third Lebanon War; and Uprising. This is all work done since last year, not including the hobby games Scheldt Campaign and the work-in-progress A Distant Plain. I have been a busy boy. I had to show all this on one big table so it was all a bit too crowded and I think people were a bit put off by it – also, the manual wargames were in a back-alley classroom that was hard to find, while the computer games were given space in the (albeit noisier) foyer.)
  • Mike Priest; miniatures (guy never showed up)
  • BAE Systems; sandtable (???)
  • Skip Cole; case study (Skip decided not to demo an OSP project he had done with the Coast Guard)
  • Chris Fowler; JFSC; Advanced Joint Model (this was one of the computer games displayed; I was going to refill my water bottle when I stopped to look and he introduced himself as he was packing up, saying that the model ran on a Humdinger Celeron 3.4 with 5 gigs of Frammistan, but could also work in parallel using Hooper-Bloob algorithms, etc. – honestly, it just went by me. So I introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Brian Train and I work in shirt cardboard and Hi-Liter markers.” Then we just looked at each other.)
  • Phil Haussmann; CNA, IW Tactical game (didn’t see this as I was busy demonstrating)

 1430 – 1600      Panel Discussions (two tracks)

 Opportunities push, developments/potential of popular wargaming

  • Miniatures/Figure, Alan Zimm (missed this as I was busy packing up my demo games)
  • Print/Board, John Prados, WG designer, historian (also, Joe Miranda and Al Nofi – I caught this part of the presentation after taking some time to pack up all my stuff. There was palpable nostalgia in the room as the discussion veered back from time to time on games past. Prados started by talking about Blue on Blue incidents and how they were never featured in games, both professional and hobby varieties – publishers are just as conservative and opinionated in their way as wargame sponsors. And of course, the irony that on this day in 1944, General Lesley McNair, for whom Fort McNair is named, was killed when the Army Air Force dropped its bombs short in the airstrikes preparing the way for Operation Cobra.)
  • Computer, Paul Vebber (Paul participated via webcam since his employer did not want him to travel there. He talked about how computer games are tending towards the mutable, since mods changing the rules can be written and downloaded (maybe true, but not in substantial ways, and it’s prone to cause just as many problems with the intricate code). He also talked about things like the “gamification” of self-improvement and education, the Big Thing right now (see Jane McGonigal etc.), but I agree with him that this can only go so far.)

 Perspectives from Professional Military Education Institutions

  • Anders Frank, Swedish National Defence College
  • Ellie Bartels, CASL, “Innovation in Joint Military Education Gaming: GEMSTONE”
  • Stephen Downes-Martin, NWC, “Boss, Players and Sponsor: the Three Witches of Wargaming                       

1620 – 1900     Connections Game Lab Practicum: Conference splits into groups and accomplishes initial wargame design, while attendees who are not in a design group may wander between groups. 

 (This was my other big job for the conference, facilitating Group “B” which was about 15 or 20 people (number reduced itself over time, especially after the dinner break). I hadn’t facilitated any group discussions for some time, and I think I was a bit too reticent and “Canadian” to interrupt the few people who did most of the talking.

 However, in about 2 ½ hours of hard talking we got as far as identifying the primary and secondary learning objectives of the game, the intended audience, the primary actors in the game, the sectors the actors could affect and their attributes, non-player actors, and a list of issues to pick up on later (e.g. the appropriate role of earthquake survivors themselves, game mechanics, victory conditions, variables and their relative importance, first and second order effects of game actions to incorporate the Law of Unintended Consequences, population migration, variable starting conditions, etc.). Basically, what we were thinking of was a card-based game with at least five players, aimed at players at mid-level positions in a military, diplomatic or NGO.

 I was very lucky in having a first-class SME in the group – David Becker, who was Political Counselor for the US Embassy in Haiti when the earthquake hit. I also want to thank Jeremy Antley and Sean Brady, who took excellent notes and made some great suggestions. It was also a privilege to meet Major Tyrell Mayfield, USAF, who was SME for another group but is on his way to Afghanistan for a deployment as a Combat Aviation Advisor – his blog at http://www.thekabulcable.com/ is excellent.)

 1800 – 1900      Break for dinner/Overview of Evening Wargames

 1900 – 2100    Evening Wargames (Volko Ruhnke came in after a full day of teaching to show people A Distant Plain in its current form. People were very interested in this and I think it will be a big hit. It’s about time for an Afghanistan game, just as things are starting to wind down for the Coalition there.)

 Day 3, Wednesday, 25 July

 0800 – 0930     Panel discussion: Methods and Application of Tomorrow’s Wargames (two tracks)

 Innovation from the Defense Wargame Community

  • Rebecca Goolsby, Ph.D. Office of Naval Research (from notes: spoke on social media, data nd gaming and how the three can be used and analyzed. Interesting examples of how social media (Facebook and Twitter) were used in two exercises: a fake tsunami in Montenegro and an exercise with the California National Guard in locating things in the desert. Interesting point in sentiment analysis of tweets: throw away all the English-language ones, cut it down to 3,000-20,000 tweets, and do keyword searches to find out issues – military analysts need to be trained to do this sort of thing.)
  • Yuna Wong, Marine Corps Combat Development Command (from notes: ethnographic observations of a seminar wargame, in this case one carried out by Centre for Naval Analysis after the separation of Sudan. Described how players settled into their roles, engaged with Control (as a super-player), made play more complex as the game went on, and acknowledged the pre-existing social network among players before the game (e.g. deference shown towards Sudanese players who were significant figures in their own right in their home country.))
  • Zygmunt F. Dembek, Ph.D., M.S., M.P.H., COL, AUS (Ret) “War games for public health disasters: using war game principles for non-war games” (an interesting way to approach these kinds of simulations. The point is to, within the player’s area of expertise, ID major concerns where their organization would be stressed. He covered many points to address in the design of these exercises. One important final question was, what do you do with the problems identified, and what about problems identified that you cannot fix? Mike Markowitz in the audience went one further and asked about “cost avoidance”, in that policy people to their best to avoid costs and to deflect blame – has anyone ever tried to put this in a game? Hilarity ensued.)

 Learning From Other Game Design Communities

  • Anchors in Time: Understanding Board Games in Historical Context, Mr. Jeremy Antley, Independent Scholar
  • Alternate Reality Games: A new way of wARGaming? Ms. Elizabeth Bonsignore, PhD Candidate, U of Maryland
  • Beyond Backstory: Rethinking Narrative in Games &  Sims Dr. Anastasia Salter, Assistant Professor, U of Baltimore    

 0950 – 1120      The Future of Wargaming

 Future Security Challenges Wargaming Will Need to Depict

  • Simulating the Polarization of American Politics in Foreign Policy Gaming, Robert Leonhard, Ph.D., LTC(R) (from notes: RAND did a study of political polarization in 2007 that is informative: partisan realignment of the South, changing institutional procedures in Congress, growth in income inequality, balkanization mass media, and rise of new interest groups, along with disappearance of the “middle ground” and willingness to compromise, with a general decline of deliberation by either side. The effects of domestic polarization on foreign policy – undermines US leadership abroad, debates focus on ideology rather than facts or consequences, can produce charges (in the media, not for real) of treason or colluding with The Enemy (this is really nothing new in American politics, historically!), can push a president into bad policy or constrain his options, war fever can become deadlier (Chesapeake Affair, 1807) and peacemaking can become much harder (Lyndon Johnson, 1967). Dr. Leonhard ended by suggesting ways these could be modeled in games. (I admired his book on Maneuver Warfare, and also found he’s a fan of mine, and own several of my games!)
  • Emerging Changes in Warfare, Col. T.X. Hammes (This was a good presentation, not least because I enjoyed his book The Sling and the Stone so much (got him to autograph it for me). Ideas just kept coming and coming! From notes:
    • Nation-state options for conflict include high tech (anti-satellite, EMP, cyber), surrogates (e.g. Hezbollah, criminals contractors) and ambiguous (cyber swarms (Russia-Georgia 2008), bankruptcy, espionage.
    • Non-state options for conflict: because they are driven by human networks (“coalitions of the angry”), narratives and changes in narratives, options rely on individual insurgents, contractors, or super-empowered small groups or individuals. Insurgencies can be transnational and self-supporting (through charities, crime and theft). And so on – basically FM 3-24, which was a great effort at the time, is incomplete and should be rewritten.
    • Three waves of insurgency over time: first anti-colonialism, then who rules in the liberated colonies, and now adjustments of borders inflicted on nations by the colonialists.
    • Implications of 3rd wave insurgency: transborder conflicts, failure of artificial states, coalition of angry and opportunists, no central vision or end state beyond some kind of ethnic solidarity, insurgents often fight each other after kicking out the common enemy as they find they cannot rule as a coalition.
    • A word on contractors: they augment (trucking, drones, logistics, communications) or may even replace state forces (Iraq, Somalia); they avoid international and national restrictions (Boland Amendment, Nicaragua), reduce political capital to enter and sustain a war, and can be reliable troops for internal control (UAE recently hired *whatever name Blackwater is using now* to create an internal security brigade of Latin American and Ukrainian troops). But they undermine the legitimacy of whatever it is you are trying to do, because in the end they are seen as mercenaries.
    • Hybrid conflicts will be the patter of the future as they blend criminal, conventional, terrorist and insurgent tactics. The continuum of conflict is no longer a smooth curve; now it’s lumpy and spiky. How do we model this?
    • Best takeaway line of the conference: “It’s not a silo or a stovepipe: it’s a Cylinder of Excellence!”
  • Overcoming the PolMil Prediction Addiction, Jon Compton (Hoo boy – this man is not afraid to tell you what he thinks.
    • He started with a poker illustration – if you play the odds rather than the player, you will lose, because that’s not what the game is about. The other guy may or may not be looking to the odds, and you also must be aware of your own reactions to stimuli.
    • If you give a probability n to any one thing, you are assigning the balance (1-n)  to EVERY other probability.  Infinity is contained within that interval. Therefore, “predictive social science models are all crap. They are all wrong…. It’s all crap, but it’s the crap we have.”
    •  It is productive to trace things backwards: our quantitative tools can predict trends, but not the discrete events that make up and drive these trends. Step back from an intractable problem until it falls apart into tractable sub-problems.
    • Reference to paper by Max Abrahms on terror groups that destroys many common thoughts about terrorists – I think it’s this one? http://maxabrahms.com/pdfs/DC_250-1846.pdf What Terrorists Really Want but he seems to have written about 20 such papers.
    • What is to be done: track and find your own vulnerabilities; anticipate, mitigate nd catalog them. This requires highly iterative wargaming that is focused on RED – use lots of Red cells and creative thinking to find the most damaging possibilities, not the most probable.
    • Stephen Downes-Martin remarked that wargaming is there to find weaknesses that the real-life opponent will find and exploit. Your sponsor can lie about it later, but he needs to understand what the game discovered.

  The Future of Wargaming’s Past: Data, Documentation, Preservation

  • Archives and Documentation of Military Simulations Dr. Henry Lowood, Stanford University Library
  • Data Curation and Conflict Simulation: The Example of Harpoon, Dr. Matthew Kirschenbaum, U of Maryland
  • The IMMERSe Project Dr. Neil Randall, University of Waterloo (I did want to see this as he has apparently received a massive SSHRC grant to study games, gamers and gaming, but had to pass it up.)

 1120 – 1230      Lunch & optional “Armed Conflict Year In Review”, John Gresham

 1240 – 1350    Overview of Game Lab/Methods for Tomorrow’s Wargames & Reports of standing Working Groups

 1410 – 1700      Working Groups:

 GROUP #1: Connections Game Lab/Tomorrow’s Wargames

(we discussed how the three groups in the Game Lab exercise worked it out. Some got further than others but everyone ran up against the same sort of issues. It’s possible something more substantial will be done with these in time for next year’s conference.)

 GROUP #2: Creating an Online Resource for Wargamers

 GROUP #3: Building a Wargame Profession

 Day 4, Thursday, 26 July, Marshall Hall 155

 This was largely Working Groups outbriefs and the best part, the Connections “Hot Wash” discussion. See 3. Lessons Learned.

 (iv) Redeployment Phase: 26 July – 29 July 2012

 Spent Thursday and Friday walking around Washington with Joe Miranda. Thursday afternoon  we went to the Dupont Circle area to scope out a nightclub that was going to have some kind of Goth night, and spent some time at a nicely stocked, very cheap bookstore that was right next door. Later walked around in Georgetown and had lunch there. That night we went back to the club (Phase 1), but the club remained shut even after 2200, so we walked back towards downtown, passing by the White House at midnight – there was one small light glowing there, as if the President had gotten up in the middle of the night and left the bathroom light on. All the Metros were shut down it was so late, so in the end we got a taxi back and went to bed about 0130.

 Friday we walked around looking at many monuments, and I went into the Smithsonian (well, the one that is dedicated to American history, there are about five other Smithsonians) for a short while. Quite unexpectedly at the Lincoln Memorial we ran into Callie Cummins and Chris Cummins Jr., of Decision Games, who had been at the conference to sell a few games.

 Saturday I saw Joe to Union Station as he was catching the train all the way back to Los Angeles, and then took the train out to Maryland, where I was met by Volko Ruhnke. We played a few turns of A Distant Plain and had a nice dinner with him and his wife. Got back later and finished packing and moving items around various bags, as I usually do before travelling.

Volko shows how it’s done.

 Sunday 29 July, returned by air to Victoria, Canada. Dulles Airport is a LONG way out of the city! Original plan was to go home via Chicago and Calgary, but flight was cancelled due to mechanical breakdown. After several hours delay, I got on a flight to San Francisco, then Victoria, which saw the return home several hours late, and with no luggage (this followed the next day).

 (v) Recovery Phase: 30 July 2012 onwards

Post-exercise repairs, cleaning, maintenance and critiques. Begin work on post-conference tasks. See 5.


 As always, there were lots of suggestions and lively discussion in the Hot Wash section of the conference.  Some of them included:

  • Mini-tutorials on specific subjects (playing Red, pol-mil gaming, agent-based modeling, defense and interagency game design, White cell management, etc.)
  • Spreading out the game demos over 2-3 time slots (I would have liked that)
  • Ideas for panels on different subjects, for consideration next year:
    • Clients can come and explain what’s wrong with the products they are getting from their contractors.
    • Panels on gaming activities in other countries.
    • Shift away from strict “war”gaming: invite people to speak on intelligence gaming, HADR, pol-mil gaming, etc.
  • Suggestion to do the Game Lab exercise again – moving towards an actual product of the conference in the form of a prototype game beats a lot of yakking, or Powerpoint slides piled high.
  • National Defense University cannot host this event again (and, from remarks made during the conference, due to budget cuts the US military may find itself cutting way back on this kind of activity as a very narrowly defined kind of professional military education emerges). Possible locations for next year’s Connections include Quantico VA (USMC Warfighting Lab?) or Johns Hopkins University (Advanced Physics Laboaratory, which does a lot of modeling and simulation).


 The conference itself was an unqualified success – the only drawback was that there were so many excellent presentations, it was difficult to choose which to attend and which to pass up.

 Approximately 100 people, mostly from the Beltway region but also from Canada, the European Union, and Singapore, participated. Portions of the conference were livestreamed on the Internet through the NDU-CASL website, and some speakers took part through videoconferencing.

 Less successful were the deployment and redeployment phases – movement plans were drastically revised each way, due to circumstances beyond the unit’s control. However, the effects of the changes were mitigated by having extra “down time” incorporated into travel plans to begin with. And packing lighter would have been a help, as it would have allowed my bag to stay with me!


 I have a number of things to do, read and revise as a result of this conference. Also, much of the rest of the year will be taken up with playtesting and refining A Distant Plain. More details later.

 Thanks for reading

 Brian Train


John Keegan 1934-2012

John Keegan has died:


Besides his books The Face of Battle and Six Armies in Normandy, it was John Keegan’s editorship of the Ballantine Books’ “Illustrated History of the Violent Century”, which covered everything from turn of the century anarchists to the Yom Kippur War, that gave me my early reading in military history.