Back, then forth

Battle of Algiers_Flyer

Thanks to LTC James di Crocco for the flyer, and for organizing the film!

Wow, what a busy week! But it was certainly worth it.

I got into Carlisle PA very late on Sunday night. The next morning I had breakfast at the nearby Hamilton Restaurant, a nice cheap diner place that’s been there for 84 years. I had scrapple for the first time in my life… it’s a regional delicacy, let’s call it that. Think of toast made of pureed meat.

IMG_0089It’s the Pennsylvania treat!

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were spent in meetings, panels and testing sessions, as well as the movie and game event on Tuesday afternoon.

On Monday I had an hour or two in the War College Library and quite by accident, I happened to set my stuff down in a chair next to the very area I wanted to poke around in – urban guerrilla warfare! I found an old copy of “Report on Urban Insurgency Studies”, something put together under an old ARPA contract in 1966 by “Simulmatics Corporation”. Along with case studies of urban conflicts, including the Algerian insurgency, it also included “URB-INS”, directions and descriptions for making and running a manual game on counterinsurgency in a generic city. It was pretty sophisticated for its day – double-blind play with an umpire using a third board; time lag on intelligence and movements; uncertain information on sympathizers for either side; interrogation and arrest; etc..

Simulmatics was one of those little companies that sprang up like mushrooms in the early days of using social science and computers to defeat insurgency, funded by ARPA project money. Simulmatics did work in computer simulations in the early 1960s analyzing American voter behaviours, and so were pioneers in doing that kind of work for political parties, but  did not do well in contracted ARPA work in Vietnam trying to develop psychological weapons and predictors to defeat the Viet Cong (as described in The Imagineers of War: The Untold History of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World, a new book by Sharon Weinberger).

Tuesday morning I sat in on a panel on “Games and Innovation in the Classroom” with LTC Pat Schoof from the Command and General Staff College (James Sterrett’s delegate), Jim Lacey and Peter Perla. I was especially glad to see Peter, as I don’t get many chances to talk with this highly intelligent guy … luckily we were able to have dinner the night before, and talk up a storm. No pictures because it was in Collins Hall, a building where I had to lock up my tablet and phone before entering.

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Tuesday afternoon we were in Root Hall, which is open to the public, and had a couple of hours of guided play of Colonial Twilight before the movie. The College has some nice printers, so they were able to make double-size maps which were almost too big to play on.

The movie went well too. I made some introductory remarks on the Algerian history and war development up to the point the movie begins in 1957, and some comments on how the movie came to be made (did you know Pontecorvo’s original idea was to make a dramatic movie called Paras, starring either Steve McQueen or Warren Beatty?).

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Halfway through the movie, after the scene of Colonel Mathieu’s first briefing with his officers, I stopped and talked about the historical and effective tactics the French used in the actual Battle of Algiers, and at the end I talked about some of the liberties the producer/star Yacef Saadi had taken with history, and about the historical impact of the film. My remarks are here, in case anyone is interested: remarks on the war and film.

On Wednesday I was in the War College Library for a playtest of South China Sea, a grown-out and complexified version of Breaking The Chains, a game on naval warfare in the area by John Gorkowski published by Compass Games (which will also be doing the new version). (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/137498/breaking-chains-war-south-china-sea) A class of students at the College will use this game at an event in the summer to explore the wild world of “joint operations”.

Wednesday night I had dinner with now-retired LTC Dave Barsness, who was my escort officer last year, and who has somehow contrived to look even leaner, fitter and more tanned than the last time I saw him! Afterwards I went to a talk at the Army Heritage Education Centre which is near the War College, where one of the faculty there talked about his recent book Elvis’s Army, on the US Army’s years between Korea and Vietnam. I’ve always been interested in this period, especially the brief and weird Pentomic Division reorganization, so it was a really interesting talk. One of the topics was the legendary M29 Davy Crockett recoilless gun, which fired a small Mk 54 nuclear warhead with variable yields in the 10-20 ton range. Problem was, the warhead’s danger radius was a considerable fraction of the launcher’s accurate range, so unless you had considerable ground cover (or preferably a ridge or mountain) between you and the explosion, you were cooked.

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On Thursday it went up to 32 degrees (90 F and humid) and I got a lift to the Harrisburg airport from LTC Jim Di Crocco, a friend and fellow gamer who had been my escort officer on and off and around the College, taking time out from his very busy week that would end with a trip to Bangkok the next day. Thanks Jim! After a delay caused by a certain amount of something observed leaking from the starboard engine, we took off for Toronto, affording me a nice view of the cooling towers of Three Mile Island.

However, that delay cost me my comfortable connection to the flight to Ottawa. The plane landed at what must have been the very end of Pearson Airport (gate F93?) and I galumphed as fast as I could through Customs and Security, making it to the plane just as they were about to close the door and leave… another two minutes and they would have been gone. We landed in Ottawa in a thunderstorm, and had to wait until the lightning stopped to disembark.

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My good friend Andreas playing the game with his kids.

I stayed with my friend Andreas and his family, here he is playing Guerrilla Checkers with his very smart children.

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Friday I was in a meeting with Rex Brynen and Tom Fisher, his partner in design crimes, talking with staff in Global Affairs Canada about a matrix game exercise they were planning to try out on their people. That morning I had had a chance to wander around Parliament Hill, where I hadn’t been since 1989 and my Class B days. It’s pretty much the same except for all the added security people, searches and roadblocks. I also saw them post the guard at the National War Memorial, something they did not do back in the day.

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I’m not smiling, I’m having an attack of colic. Photo by Denis Lavergne.

Friday night and Saturday  I was at the Cangames convention, showing and playing Colonial Twilight with Rex Brynen and Michel Boucher. On Saturday Michel taught me to play The Grizzled (Les Poilus), a co-operative game I had been meaning to try. It was very interesting and affecting, enjoyable (?) on a lot of levels. That night I went to Michel’s place for a delicious dinner of roast chicken, and I met his wife and daughter as well as getting a quick look at his massive and eclectic wargame collection.

Major score at the Cangames flea market: the complete (well, haven’t inventoried the counters but it looks so) set of Command Series Games, Volume I by Rand Games Associates, published in 1974, even with red drawer box in 1974-was-a-long-time-ago condition… for a very good price. Maybe not hugely innovative or even good games but a piece of hobby history I have been looking for a long time. http://mapandcounters.blogspot.ca/2010/03/mixed-memories-rand-game-associates.html

Sunday it was time to go. I spent the morning playing Settlers of Catan with Andreas and the kids. Flight home not as stressful or sweaty as the flight in, but I was very happy to have Victoria Day off to depressurize.

In three days we are taking off for Tempe Arizona for the 2017 Consimworld Expo! Almost a whole week in the sun, it will probably be over 100 degrees every day. I’m bringing a bunch of stuff to test and show, and we’ll see who bites on what…

More later, during or more likely after the Expo.

Back From San Diego

Well, it was a pretty good conference!

This time, people seemed to have a slightly better idea of what I was talking about… here are my slides and text:

NPG body 8 apr (text)

News Paper Games 6 apr (slides)

I went to a number of interesting presentations too. There seemed to be not as many as the conference in Seattle last year, generally. This might be due to the time of year – someone on the panel I presented with came in the day before, and left the day after to get back to his classes – or due to geographical distances.

The game night was fun, and even catered (though I had already had a big dinner). I taught four people how to play Guerrilla Checkers, and sent them off with copies of their own.

We had pretty good weather too, a few degrees warmer than here but the sunlight was much more direct. Unfortunately, no time for touristy things except that we did get to the USS Midway museum just up the road from the hotel, and clambered around in the guts of an aircraft carrier for three hours. It was fun, I had never been in such a large ship, and the capper was the talking robot in the Captain’s cabin, in the likeness of Captain Larry Ernst, the last Captain of the Midway before it was finally decommissioned in 1991. Spooky video above.

I do regret not being able to get to Balboa Park, where all the museums are. The San Diego Museum of Man had an exhibit on the history of cannibalism, and just a few hundred yards away was the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre! Two of my favourite topics… one would weep bitter tears at missing the combination of the two. Anyway, an excuse to go back to San Diego one day. (Image: the All Puppet Players, of Phoenix AZ)

News Paper Games

… is the not-quite-as-bad-as-last-year title I picked for the short talk I am giving at the national conference of the American Popular Culture Association in San Diego next week.

http://pcaaca.org/national-conference/

Here is my abstract:

Ian Bogost’s 2011 book Newsgames: Journalism At Play described the growing use of videogames distributed via the Internet to fulfill the basic objectives of journalism: to inform, educate, criticize and persuade. Manual games (also called board games) distributed or published through magazines or newspapers were long used for the same purposes prior to the creation of the Internet, and the practice continues to this day. Manual games are more permissive of remixing/ reskinning for these objectives than video games, by a wider range of people. As physical and tactile objects, they demand and offer a different form of engagement with the material, on the ludic and informational level. They also particularly lend themselves to parody and satire, leading to a greater consciousness of “critical play” (Flanagan, 2009).

 This paper will focus on past and current examples of how manual games, as inclusions or features in print journalism products, have portrayed and “covered” (in the journalistic sense) contemporary issues and episodes of social, political and actual armed conflict. It will also discuss and present examples, including ones from my own work, of use of the Internet to disseminate manual games with critical and analytic content on current topics, as a form of citizen journalism.

Surprisingly, Bogost’s book does not mention paper games at all (or manual, or board, or analog, or tabletop, whatever term you want to use for games not played on a computer), except for a chapter on crosswords and other word puzzles with some news content in them appearing in newspapers.

Actually, nothing surprising about that… hardly anyone in the field of game studies writes anything about tabletop games. Last year’s conference had nearly 100 presentations in the game studies area, and three of them were not about some aspect of computer, video, digital games generally … two guys talking about people who play tabletop RPGs, and me.

Bored of War…          Back from Seattle

This year there are only about 50 presentations – it seems to be a smaller conference overall, though there will still be a couple of thousand people there – and still only three on non-digital games: one person presenting about narrative in Pandemic: Legacy (still can’t get used to the idea of a game that you scribble on, without first having made it yourself) and one person talking about “Policing Responsible Citizens: The Gamification of Crime Resistance in Children’s Table-Top Games” (seems interesting), and again me.

The fact remains, the practice of producing manual “newsgames”, under most of these genres, has been going on for some time. They remain as uncommon but clear acts of citizen-based social criticism and analytic journalism. And through DTP software, the PDF file, and the Internet for production, storage and distribution they carry on, in ever-greater numbers of PnP designs from ever-greater numbers of people.

Before there were video games there were manual games. But no one talks about it, at least not at an event like this. My talk is not even an argument, really, which I guess is fine because this seems to be a field profoundly ignorant of its origins.

Am I the skeleton at the feast?

Or does this just not have anything to do with elephants, in the room or out of it?

Anyway, there will be a game night like they had the year before, so I am bringing a few PnP items along for show, tell and play.

 

RB @ DSTL

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(photo of Ukrainian Crisis in play, from Paxsims website)

Over at the Paxsims blog, Rex Brynen tells about a recent and very busy week spent at the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL):

https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2016/08/02/dstl-wargaming-trip-report-or-i-visited-portsdown-west-and-all-i-got-was-this-lousy-mug/

Among many other things, people played a series of games to explore “hybrid warfare”, including LCOL Dave Barsness’ Kaliningrad 2017, Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth, and my own Ukrainian Crisis.

Rex concludes matrix games FTW for analyzing this form of warfare, at least for the broad strokes, and I would tend to agree. But here’s the typical Brynen wit:

Ironically, one of the problems of a matrix game approach is that it does not require a great deal of preparation, nor need it involve a great deal of materials and complexity. This makes it an unattractive proposition for defence contractors and consultants since product creation and delivery generates relatively few billable hours. Similarly, a sponsor may feel that it does not seem enough of a tangible product compared with a more complex, traditional wargame.

Hm! Words to live by, I guess… though a poorly prepared and executed matrix game is just as much a failure as a poorly done game of another type.

Busy week ahead

thebattleofalgiers

I take off Saturday for a busy week of gaming and talking, and more gaming!

On Monday I will be at the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, PA to cover another event in their Strategic Wargame Program. See https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2016/04/01/us-army-war-college-strategic-wargame-program/ for a full description by its director, COL Jerry Hall. So far they have done events using Fire in the Lake and Game of Thrones.

We’ll start with a screening of the Pontecorvo film The Battle of Algiers, maybe a bit of discussion about it, then onto guided play of Colonial Twilight. Should be great fun!

After that I am heading to Montreal for Stack Academie, the gaming convention organized by Marc Guenette.

Marc is also a student in the “DESS en Design de jeux”, a one-year post-degree program in game design run by the University of Montreal. (https://admission.umontreal.ca/programmes/dess-en-design-de-jeux/). Marc has asked me to conduct a “master class” in the design of games on modern irregular warfare, with particular attention to the COIN system. So, I will largely be amplifying my remarks from the PCA conference, with more emphasis on the potential of these games to enlarge and modify wargame design as a whole. Luckily, Volko Ruhnke will be in the audience to correct any egregious errors I commit. I will post my script and slide deck later, as usual.

That’s on Thursday; from then until early Sunday it’s going to be more playtesting of Colonial Twilight and some other games I am bringing – the revised versions of Algeria and War Plan Crimson coming soon from Tiny Battle Publishing, Chile ’73 (new mini-game on the coup against Allende, multiplayer), The Little War (new mini-game on the March 1939 border war between Slovakia and Hungary), and for the very brave, District Commander: Binh Dinh. And the usual Guerrilla Checkers giveaways, of course, unless the officers at the Army War College grab them all first…

“It’s going to be fun, Dryden.”

“It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun.”

Bored of War…

… is the in-retrospect,-not-very-good title I picked for the short talk I am giving at the national conference of the American Popular Culture Association in Seattle next week.

http://pcaaca.org/national-conference/

Here is my abstract:

Board wargames, or manual military simulation games, are a form of civilian entertainment that peaked commercially in the 1980s but continue today as a small press, near-DIY activity. They remain one of Western culture’s most complex analog artifacts, rich in their ability to generate narrative and explore historical possibilities.

 However, only a very small number of published civilian wargames address the dominant modes of actual post-World War Two conflict: irregular war and counterinsurgency. This paper will explore the cultural reasons for this absent focus, explain the social and political utility of these games as a means of interrogating and critiquing contemporary conflicts, and present specific games in this field as examples of “critical play” (Flanagan, 2009).

The point I am trying to make is that there are few of these games not just because they are on an icky uncomfortable subject. It’s also because they are subversive – not only of the contextless and fragmented stream of simplified media interpretation of current conflicts, but also of how most board wargames are played.

I find it quite hard to articulate things like this, though I think about them a lot. I want to acknowledge Jeremy Antley, Matt Kirschenbaum and Mary Flanagan for the thoughts and inspiration.

The point may also be lost on the audience – this is a large conference, with a couple of thousand presentations to be made, and the Game Studies area is responsible for about 100 of them. Only a very small number of these are not about video games: a few about tabletop RPGs, someone talking about how the The Game of Life (Milton Bradley 1960) reflected the American Dream, and my thing.

I think they’re going to look at me like I have bugs in my eyebrows.  But it will be experience, and that is cheap at any price, as they say.

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Mmm… yeah, probably as illustrated.

MORS Workshop on Professional Gaming, 28 September – 1 October

Hopefully not as illustrated.

Week after next I am heading out for a few days in Fairfax, Virginia, to co-facilitate a working group at the Military Operations Research Society’s (MORS) Workshop on Professional Gaming.

http://www.mors.org/Events/Special-Meetings/Professional-Gaming-Workshop

Wargames used for analytic purposes have been around almost as long as operations research, maybe even longer if you are flexible about the word “analysis”. Many of the members of MORS are military, or civilians working for the military, with backgrounds in math, computer science or engineering so the games they produce and use tend to be quite technical and numbers-based, with results to a specific question validated by data. But there are also others in the organization, often with social science backgrounds, who struggle with the more qualitative side of contemporary problems and questions. More and different methods of looking at these problems through games are being used, and I think that’s where my contribution to this workshop will lie… games for analysis are a bit out of my line of country, but they still have to work as games, which in this case are a particular kind of model I have some experience building. It’s all in how you frame the problem, right….

The workshop will have eight working groups, and I will be working in the “Quick-Turnaround Game Development” one – plan is to take the participants from idea to (at least partially) playtested design, on a topic of their choice, within 36 hours. The inestimable Rex Brynen of Paxsims will be there too!

We’ll also have a chance to show and demonstrate some new game designs. I will be bringing demo copies of

  • Algeria (140-counter rework of first design on Algeria, for OSS Games’ Folio line)
  • Binh Dinh 69 (Vietnam 1969, for OSS Games as well)
  • Caudillo
  • Colonial Twilight
  • District Commander Kandahar
  • Guerrilla Checkers (free copies to give away)
  • Third Lebanon War
  • Ukrainian Crisis (have made some changes to the design recently, will post later)

I hope there’ll be room for all that lot, and clothes too… otherwise I’ll have to bring some binder clips, and use the hotel sheets and blankets instead.

Also, Rex will be demonstrating his very clever humanitarian aid/ disaster relief game Aftershock, and possibly ISIS Crisis as well, to introduce people to the idea of matrix games.

Will be a busy but fun week!