Connections Online – Practical Game Design presentation on Youtube

Just a quick one… here is the link to the event on Youtube.

Zones of Connection: 21-22 May 2021

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Nick Mizer, who I first met in connection with the national conference of the Popular Culture Association several years ago (Bored of War…  and News Paper Games) recently sent me an “Invitation to Collaborate” to the Bradley Tabletop Games Symposium, an online event to be held 21-22 May, 2021.

The Symposium is itself a collaboration between the Interactive Media Department of Bradley University and the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences Program of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where Nick is currently teaching. First, this event is quite welcome because it focuses on tabletop games; people have heard me often enough moaning about how the academic field of Game Studies is wilfully ignorant of its analog past and all it still has to teach. Second, this event is unusual because it is designed to be a collaborative event, a collection of events and sessions between the interdisciplinarian individuals involved in the field without the formal structure of keynote speakers, presentation of prepared papers, or scheduled fun-time events (that is, you’ll have to provide your own wine and charcuterie).

In wargames, a zone of control refers to the area of restricted movement and activity that occurs when two units become adjacent. As a theme for the first of these tabletop symposia “Zones of Connection” expresses our belief that bringing together a diversity of emerging voices and perspectives on tabletop games has much to offer through the connections that can be forged, interpersonally, emotionally, and intellectually.

Have a look at the invitation to collaborate document here Bradley Tabletop Games Symposium – Invitation to Collaborators and note that rather than submitting abstracts, they are asking for ideas for sessions (to be formatted as workshops, roundtables, panels and seminars but with as much audience participation as possible). If you have an idea for something you would like to participate in, let them know at the link in the document. Deadline for submissions is 26 April 2021.

To give you a further idea of what they might want to see, here are some topics of interest:

  • Games as media
  • Games and simulation
  • Games and anti-colonialism
  • Games as resistance
  • Games in/as education
  • Industry studies
  • Cultures of play
  • Board game cafes
  • Hybrid games
  • Ludo-textual analysis
  • Virtual tabletop play
  • Storytelling in tabletop games
  • Legacy and campaign games
  • Games and speculative futures / alternate histories
  • Discourse analysis of play sessions
  • Streaming and actual play podcasts
  • Phenomenology of play
  • Ludic fandom
  • History of tabletop games
  • Gaming and the military industrial complex
  • Games and translation
  • Games and play therapy
  • Board game renaissance
  • Games in the age of the pandemic

There must be something in all this to interest you!

Personally, I was interested in the speculative futures/ alternate histories topic and am considering submitting a suggestion for a session on that, related to this:

One thing that tweaked me while working on the games-as-journalism piece for the Eurowargames anthology was the section on games on hypothetical wars produced in the 80s, mainly on a Third World War. Regardless of whether you thought that was a farfetched event at the time, it did occupy a lot of interest – at the time. But over the last 10 years or so there has been a resurgence of new games coming out that study that same subject – a Soviet invasion of Europe in the mid-1980s (examples include the World at War series (2007 – 2015), Corps Command: Dawn’s Early Light (2010), Red Tide West (2014), Brezhnev’s War (2018), 1985: Under an Iron Sky (2018), Less than 60 Miles (2019), Red Tide South (2019), and The Fulda Gap: the Battle for the Center (2020)).

Nostalgia for an actual past that one remembers imperfectly is one thing. But nostalgic game design to commemorate a then-hypothetical future that is now a fictional past, it seems to me is a strange inversion of historiography indeed, and an additional twist beyond the approach taken by the designers of Twilight Struggle (where the disproved “domino theory” is consciously used in the game as the logic and incentive for players to act, within their roles as world leaders during the Cold War). So it’s a recreation of a hypothetical future from our past, but what kind of “retrofuturism” is it?

  • Dissatisfaction with the complex and quite changed power structures of today, and nostalgia for the bipolar world with its predicted wargasmic collision of the ideologies?
  • A notion that this war (potentially personally involving players then and now) would have been that generation’s “Good War” (per Studs Terkel), a moral exercise of Us vs. Them with clear-cut roles, unlike the troubling conflicts of Korea, Vietnam and half a dozen other interventions? (I do note that practically all of the examples I’ve given have been by American designers.)
  • Simple-minded huffing of nostalgia fumes for the games that these designers played in their youth? (Sure, I played my SPI NATO, Fifth Corps and BAOR like everyone else, but I miss other games from Back In The Day).
  • Rivet-counters looking for neato technical match-ups, and missing the contextual point as they often seem to do?

I can’t decide what it is; like always, it’s probably a little bit of everything, varying with the individual. It’s just something I’ve noticed and find perplexing, and while it’s pretty narrow I wonder if there are similar veins in other types of tabletop games.

Institutionalizing irregular warfare

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Irregular warfare is an enduring, economical contribution to America’s national security, and will remain an essential core competency of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Yes.

Is what I said to myself when I saw this quote leading a post on War on the Rocks, from an annex to the new American National Defense Strategy document on the abiding need for planning and expertise on irregular warfare. 

https://warontherocks.com/2021/03/an-irregular-upgrade-to-operational-design/

https://media.defense.gov/2020/Oct/02/2002510472/-1/-1/0/Irregular-Warfare-Annex-to-the-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.PDF

People have heard me bang on quite long enough that the American Army (the British Army too, for that matter, and the US Marine Corps even more so) has spent more of its history in fighting irregular campaigns and incidents than in “near-peer combat”, “force on force” or whatever you want to call it. 

So it’s nice to see this home truth reflected, and advocated, and some conscious before-the-next-time thought put into it in “phase zero, that amorphous planning space where everything short of war happens.”

The blog post talks about five shifts in operational design to acknowledge irregular warfare:

  • Shift from “Military End State” to “Position of Continuing Advantage” (because wars no longer just end, and you won’t be home by Christmas)
  • Beyond “Center of Gravity” to “Strategic Levers” (because war is a human-centred activity, not a physics problem)
  • Elevate “Simultaneity” to “Concurrent Effects” (because no mission ever has a single objective, nor a single consequence)
  • Adding “Narrative,” or Shaping Information to Attain Influence (because one day the US is going to get better at this, by dint of repetition if nothing else)
  • Enabling with “Empowerment,” or the Right Tools to Wield Influence (because you should be more creative in where you sprinkle your money, and who you authorize to sprinkle it)

The post is quite clever, and you should go and read it.

Bon Weekend a tous!

Further to my last, the Modern War Institute at USMA West Point has announced the Irregular Warfare Initiative, an ongoing set of activities (podcasts, a conference, fellowships) to preserve knowledge of irregular warfare and exchange ideas. It won’t be like the stampede away from knowledge like after Vietnam (see John Nagl’s “Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife”). This time it’s different. They promise. 

https://mwi.usma.edu/introducing-the-irregular-warfare-initiative/

Vive La Commune!

One hundred and fifty years ago today: March 18, 1871 marked the first of the 71 days of the Paris Commune, a remarkable episode of political, social and class revolt before it was crushed by its own government.

A “last stand of the Paris Commune” scenario is included in Civil Power.

Red Flag Over Paris, a game on the Paris Commune designed by Fred Serval and which uses the Fort Sumter system is on P500 at GMT Games. Looks interesting, I’m awaiting it!

https://www.gmtgames.com/p-849-red-flag-over-paris.aspx

Send in the drones

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Over at Forbes magazine, the very clever Michael Peck writes on a new move to place new technology on other new technology for an old purpose. It may take a while for the Pentagon to get what it wants loaded handily onto drones, but when it does we have anticipated it with optional rule 8.6 for Civil Power: Helicopters!

In the existing rule, Helicopters already come equipped with a searchlight plus the Police player’s choice one of a Gas Gun, a Sniper or an Active Denial System (optional rule 8.3). It’s easy enough to add a Baton Rounds capability to the aircraft (optional rule 8.1) reflecting the non-lethal munitions requirement; the Height Advantage of the Helicopter (now a drone) defeats the shelter a Barricade or Hedge would have given against these munitions. 

In the existing rule, Helicopters are eliminated by a “K” result in Fire combat. For balance, let us give Trained Crowds (1-6-3-3) laser pointers and let them apply their Fire Combat strength of 1 with infinite range against drones only, and treat a drone target as an individual, so it is removed on a “W” or “K” result (so 4 or more Trained Crowds using their laser pointers have a reasonable chance of overloading its sensors and bringing it down, as happened in Chile in 2019 (https://futurism.com/the-byte/protestors-kill-drone-using-laser-pointers ). Again, if it is a drone, its crashing to the ground will not be so dramatic an event so it would simply be removed.  

Helicopters are fairly expensive at 70 points each, but we have made them easier to shoot down, so let us say that if the Police player buys one (as a drone) with a Gas Gun, Baton Rounds or Sniper system aboard, it will automatically be replaced within 1d6 turns if it is eliminated. A drone with an Active Denial System aboard is removed from the game when shot down. Also, they are machines, and no one cares about machines: eliminating a drone does not add to the Tactical Disintegration Number (optional rule 8.9). For a bit more balance, we can also assume that a small drone will not have a lot of munitions aboard, so roll a 1d6 every time a drone uses any of these systems and remove it on a roll of “6”. It will be replaced 1d6 turns later, as above.  

However, I am not writing rules for the “optogenics modulation of high magnetic fields to disrupt the human nervous system”. That’s just freaky.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelpeck/2021/03/08/the-pentagon-wants-to-arm-drones-with-non-lethal-lasers-and-microwave-cannon

The Pentagon Wants To Arm Drones With Non-Lethal Lasers And Microwave Cannon
Michael Peck, Contributor, Aerospace & Defense Mar 8, 2021,10:29am EST

These devices would include exotic non-lethal gear, including directed energy weapons such as low-powered lasers and microwave beams, as well as more familiar weapons such as stun grenades and stink bombs. These weapons would equip aerial drones and manned and robotic ground vehicles, as well naval surface and underwater craft.

For most of history, armies have only enjoyed a binary option: either use lethal force or don’t use force at all. Employing regular troops – who often lacked appropriate equipment and training – for missions such as riot control and civil policing often had bloody and politically embarrassing results.

But a new generation of non-lethal weapons – and the advent of small drones able to carry them – offers new options for armies preparing for gray zone warfare, that netherworld populated by information operations, cyberattacks, state-sponsored political and militant groups, and special forces operations. For U.S. commanders dreading social media video of American troops firing bullets at a mob, a robot that can disperse rioters with a non-lethal laser or microwave cannon would be a godsend.

The Pentagon is examining multiple non-lethal weapons for tasks such as disabling people or vehicles, according to the research solicitation published by the U.S. Navy, which is acting on behalf of the other services. These weapons, called Intermediate Force Capability, include:

  • lasers to dazzle an opponent.
  • 12-gauge/40-mm non-lethal munitions, including “blunt impact, flashbang, riot control agents, human electro-muscular incapacitation and malodorant” devices
  • long-range acoustic hailing devices,
  • directed energy weapons “such as counter-electronics (e.g., high power microwave weapons) and Active Denial Technologies (ADT ADT +3.2%).”

Particularly intriguing is a call for development of “optogenics modulation of high magnetic fields” to disrupt the human nervous system. The proposal also mentions using drones for broadcasting long-range “hail and warn” messages,  as well as access denial devices to discourage people from moving into designated areas.

The Pentagon wants small weapons that can fit on small platforms, so they should be less than 3 cubic feet in size and weigh no more than 50 to 100 pounds. Given that directed energy weapons such as lasers gulp electricity, it is not surprising that the military wants systems that don’t neither require a lot of power nor run so hot that they need elaborate cooling equipment (temperatures should range from minus 55 degrees Centigrade to 125 degrees).

Phase I of the project calls for developing “non-lethal stimuli.” Drone payloads should be less than 3 cubic feet and weigh no more than 50 to 100 pounds.

The Pentagon also wants equipment with a price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars rather than “payloads that cost more than $1 million.”

“Phase I will not require human subject or animal subject testing,” the Navy added.

Phase II calls for integrating these non-lethal weapons on small manned tactical vehicles as well as drones. The Pentagon’s Joint Intermediate Force Capabilities Office (JIFCO, formerly the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate) “maintains a set of counter-personnel human effects and weapon effectiveness models and a full set of counter-personnel and counter-material test targets at various DoD labs,” notes the Navy, which suggests these weapons will not be tested on humans.

If the projects succeeds, it’s not just the military that will be using exotic non-lethal weapons. Other potential users include the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security – and even Customs and Border Security, according to the Navy. “Local civilian law enforcement has these specific type of missions to support both counter-personnel and counter-materiel missions for law enforcement as well as to mitigate terrorist acts. Currently overall system size, weight, and cost have hindered the use of these systems by these agencies.”

The project appears more than feasible. Machine guns and anti-tank missiles are already mounted on drones, robot tanks and the manned dune buggy-like tactical vehicles by special forces units. Mounting weapons like lasers shouldn’t be that difficult, assuming that scientists can miniaturize them sufficiently to fit on a small platform.

The Navy says these non-lethal drones will be used across the Range of Military Operations (ROMO), which includes conventional combat operations, as well as irregular warfare and civic stabilization operations. This raises the question of whether non-lethal weapons could be used on conventional battlefields when governments decide that it’s better to incapacitate than kill opposing forces.

Either way, the advent of drone swarms – hordes of small robots that overwhelm a target – combined with miniaturized non-lethal weapons raises the possibility of future warfare where deadly force isn’t the only option. The fact that these non-lethal weapons can also be used by law enforcement raises another possibility: instead of calling out the riot police, authorities can call out the riot drones.

 

The Uses of Simple Games

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(image: Nanda van Dijk)

On February 19 I got up early to give a short talk to a class of officers at the US Army War College on “The Uses of Simple Games”.

Simplicity vs. depth in games (yes to both); the value of simple games for personal learning, development and innovative habits of mind (oh yeah); these concepts in action at the GlobalECCO gaming portal (still chugging along!).

Script (OpenDoc) Simple Games script 18 feb 21

Slides (PDF) Simple Games slides 18 feb 21

Wargames and experiential learning

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Every so often you encounter an article or blog post that ties a lot of things together, and expresses for you things you have thought about – only in a much more coherent way. Today I found one of these by Roger Mason, in a blog he keeps for LECMgt, his consulting company.

https://www.lecmgt.com/blog/commercial-wargames-and-experiential-learning/

In the post, he talks about the value of civilian/commercial wargames (and their designers): how they teach lessons, how they teach adults, and what they have to offer the professional wargaming world and the learners it serves. Nothing that new, on the surface – we know how commercial off the shelf (COTS) games are sometimes mined for ideas by the professionals – but Roger ties it in with principles of andragogy (how adults learn, as opposed to children) particularly the theory of experiential learning as shown by the Kolb cycle, and shows the layers of learning that player-learners can extract from playing (experiencing) games: from concepts to context to application of learning.

A certain part of my day job involves knowing about work-integrated learning (a form of experiential learning) and encouraging it in post-secondary educational institutions… so I have been familiar with these concepts for a long time, and the value of games in assisting learning (games generally, and wargames specifically). But Roger has put it so much better than I would ever have been able to write it… so go read it!

(Also, Roger talks about the work of John Clerk, a British civilian who was interested in naval tactics and studied their history and development, and worked out a few ideas of his own using maps and miniatures. He published them in 1782, as one of the first examples of operational research in the Western world, a Royal Navy Board of Inquiry concluded they had merit, and that was part of the story of why and how Nelson “crossed the T” at Trafalgar! This was a new one to me…)

[Edited to add:]

Just a few days later, here is another excellent post on wargaming and Professional Military Education (PME) by RAAF Group Captain Jo Brick writing in The Forge, an online portal of the Australian Defence College (where she is currently Chief of Staff):

https://theforge.defence.gov.au/wargaming/gaming-and-professional-military-education

The Forge has a whole series of excellent articles on the uses of wargaming of which this is only the latest example. See them all at:

https://theforge.defence.gov.au/wargaming

Six Days in Fallujah Redux

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After 11 years, a video game on the 2004 battle of Fallujah is being revived. It was originally to be produced by Konami and was yanked when it became apparent that veterans, parents and widows were going to take strong exception to a contextless shoot-’em-up featuring their friends and relations. In an interview from 2009, Peter Tamte (who now heads the company bringing back the game) confirmed this lack of frame:

“As we’ve watched the dialog that’s taken place about the game, there is definitely one point that we want people to understand about the game. And that is, it’s not about the politics of whether the U.S. should have been there or not. It is really about the stories of the Marines who were in Fallujah and the question, the debate about the politics, that is something for the politicians to worry about. We’re focused now on what actually happened on the ground.”

I suppose the principals thought it is safer now: I don’t have any more faith than this writer in today’s VICE that the game will have a much more redeeming quality from the waiting.

Read the below in full if you like; meanwhile here is a link to an article from 2018 about the history of the game – including how the team spent three years designing a game engine that could destroy anything and everything in the game’s “world” and the bickering between a combat veteran and a video game designer about what a hand grenade can and cannot do. Oh, and that the lovely engine they worked on got used anyway in a later game called “Breach”.

https://variety.com/2018/gaming/features/6-days-in-fallujah-1202829115/

‘Six Days in Fallujah’ Is Back, but Why and For Who? A controversial project returns under new leadership, but there’s every reason to be skeptical of its vision.

About 10 years ago, one of the most controversial things happening in video games was a military sim about an infamously bloody battle for an Iraqi city that had become synonymous with the war’s violence and, depending on who you talked to, its pointlessness or its purpose. Then it was canceled. Now, over 20 years into a series of wars that never ended, Six Days in Fallujah is back, but with a new team and ostensibly a new angle.
It’s all about framing. Six Days in Fallujah could be an important game that reminds people of what the Iraq War was at some of its worst and most intense moments, both for U.S. troops sent to fight in it and for the people who suddenly found their country turned into a battleground for myriad countervailing forces.
Or it could be a game about the honor, decency, and prowess of U.S. troops—and never mind all the messy context and contradictions. A higher-minded but still reductive politics of “support the troops” that has defined the Global War on Terror since its ill-considered inception. Slick propaganda, in other words, with just enough awareness to be credible.
Either way, it’ll still be a game. A “tactical shooter,” which immediately puts some boundaries on what’s possible. Games love stand-up shoot-outs, where there are two sides and everyone knows who is shooting at everyone else and the rules are clear. But the minute you make a game that portrays the war in Iraq through that lens, you’re already engaged in the work of sanitizing the conflict.
To its credit, the announcement trailer for Six Days in Fallujah, a long-abandoned project effectively resurrected under a new team comprised of former Bungie developers, seems to recognize the pitfalls around its subject matter. The trailers shows scant gameplay but does feature some reflective quotes from soldiers who were there, and ends on an ambivalent note about the way “respect” for “the troops” has often made it impossible to be honest about the reality of this war.
On the other hand, is this game going to be much more honest? The opening of the trailer talks about how the city was seized by Al Qaeda and the entire battle was about liberating it and preventing the country from collapsing as authority broke down. But out of the gate, that’s an unusual reading of the battle and its immediate context.
This is not a particularly partisan take on the battle. Bing West, who wrote maybe the definitive (to date) account of the battle and was largely sympathetic to the military and its counterinsurgency efforts, identified George Bush’s drastic overreaction to the Blackwater ambush as the catalyst for the entire engagement. It was a battle a lot of the military leadership had grave reservations about fighting in the first place because it was, on its face, a bad idea to engage a massive assault in a densely populated city in revenge for a group of mercenaries who made their own bad luck. 
It was such a controversial decision that the entire battle was characterized by hemming-and-hawing between the Coalition’s generals and the caretaker, not-quite-puppet government of Iraq. It was also a microcosm of the logic of the War on Terror: overreaction to a predictable act of violence, leading to an inescapable and bloody quagmire as the mere presence of American forces ensured further resistance, which then had to be crushed in order to maintain an aura of invincibility. The significance of the ultimate victory there might be gleaned from the fact that three years later, things across Iraq were so bad that the Bush administration launched The Surge to attempt to regain some semblance of stability in a country it had invaded and occupied entirely by choice.
But the game is also going to attempt to present the experience of Iraqi civilians, which is an important perspective but not one easily reduced to the space of a few months in 2004 (or the “six days” of the title). Civilians in Fallujah were not just caught in the crossfire of the battle, but many of them were encouraged by the Coalition forces to flee their homes because the assaulting troops had little intention of restraining their use of high-explosives, city or no city. They had the choice to become refugees, or try and survive a massive battle happening in and around their homes. And to this day, long after the battles Fallujah is most famous for (though more would occur as the shaky stability of Iraq crumbled alongside Syria’s), there is credible evidence that the residue of those battles has made Fallujah toxic to the people who still live there, where physicians have for years reported a stunning incidence of birth defects and cancer.
The press release for the game promises to “tell these military and civilian stories with the integrity they deserve.” Honestly, I have no idea what that would look like for any game, much less a tactical shooter, and my instinct is to applaud anyone who tries to wrestle honestly with these things. But war is shot-through with profound dishonesty. The true costs of the battle of Fallujah to the people who lived and still live there are yet impossible to calculate, much the way all the lives lost in Iraq vary wildly depending on who is doing the counting. Meanwhile, while the military made great strides in protective equipment and medical treatment to prevent soldiers from losing their lives in combat, it also allowed low numbers of “killed-in-action” to obscure the level of bloodshed and violence happening throughout the War on Terror. The heavily-armored MRAP saved lives by preventing more deaths from roadside bombs, yes, but it did not solve the problem of those roadside bombs, nor did it prevent soldiers from suffering major and life-altering injuries as a matter of routine. 

TVOntario: Judith Merril: wargames

Here’s an interesting thing I found today.

In the province of Ontario, Canada, there is an educational TV network called TVOntario. I suppose it would be roughly a Canadian equivalent of PBS except that it is government funded, and perhaps most American states maintain or maintain such a thing. In my province we have the Knowledge Network.

TVOntario has been broadcasting since 1970, and usually broadcasts a mix of children’s programming, documentaries, dramas, and public affairs programs as well as rebroadcasts of Question Period when the Ontario Legislative Assembly is in session. Before 1990 some unusual programming sometimes found its way in, with an escort of a knowledgeable commentator who could give it some educational context: for example, episodes of the Patrick McGoohan show The Prisoner were aired after introduction and discussion by a journalist who would explore the themes raised by the episode (https://youtu.be/8yIa1dtX9ag if you’re interested in that).

In 1969 the science fiction writer and anthologist Judith Merril moved to Canada over the suppression of protests against the Vietnam War by the American government. She settled in Toronto and created the “Spaced Out Library” in a section of the Toronto Public Library, as a special collection of all science fiction published in the English language (the Merril Collection survives as a repository of over 80,000 items at the Library, including hundreds of RPG and other game items). She was active in organizing SF writers’ groups, conferences and conventions and from 1978 to 1981 hosted episodes of Doctor Who as the UnDoctor, where she would give commentary on the episode that had just been shown.

http://www.retrontario.com/2014/02/02/tvontario-judith-merril-the-undoctor-1980-2/

I found on the website Retrontario a clip from one of these shows… where she is posing with copies of Starship Troopers, Sorcerer, and 4000 AD while discussing the episode’s theme of domination and genocide! (I guess you were wondering when the connection with wargames would appear.) These were probably items from the library’s collection; I doubt she was a player herself (at least, not of wargames).

Interview with No Enemies Here, 16 January 2021

Today’s interview with Dan Pancaldi of “No Enemies Here” podcast with special guest Aardwulf. Special event as part of the Armchair Dragoons online con: Intvw w/ NEH, @ ACDC, 1400 16 JAN 2021

Many meandering anecdotes and fragments of tales: my dad’s very short film career helping to kill off the “Mountie Western” film genre; the development and combat history of the Pantzooka; fanboy squee about James F. Dunnigan; thoughts on border wars and sunlight; firm statement that I will never do a naval or air game; and much much more!

It was lots of fun. I hope to talk with Dan again one day!