Attending the “Connections Online” Wargaming Conference

Since I’ve been doing more reading on wargaming and its applications, I thought it would be good to get some more perspectives on it, particularly from the professional community. Now, I’m not terribly experienced with wargaming and I haven’t been playing wargames very long, so this was my first time at a wargaming conference and my first time seeing what other professionals and hobbyists had to say about it.

What is the “Connections” Conference?

“Connections” is a wargaming conference that began in 1993 in the U.S. and has since expanded to include a family of conferences such as: Connections UK, Connections North (Canada), Connections Netherlands, etc. There are multiple Connections conferences in the year. “Connections Online” was the first of its kind and was more or less an experiment. The next conference is “Connections U.S.” in June.

It’s explicit purpose is: to advance and sustain the art, science, and application of wargaming

Connections Online was hosted by the Armchair Dragoons and conducted online via Discord this year due to the pandemic. Videos of the presentations were posted to Youtube, and it ran from April 12 – 18.

A small $5 registration fee was all that was required and gave access to all the core events, which where open to the public regardless, as well as the more limited extended events which were still free, but did require advance registration due to their limited “seating.”

There were numerous events throughout the week, however, I only signed up for a handful of events from Monday to Thursday. Basically, the ones I thought would be interesting or useful.

Events Attended

Day 1 (Mon.)Day 2 (Tues.)Day 3 (Wed.)Day 4 (Thurs.)
Wargaming for EducationRecent Articles in WargamingDistributed Campaigns Over the Long-HaulExploring Historical Conflict w/Games: A Modeling Approach
Practical Design in WargamesFalklands/Malvinas Seminar Game (cancelled)Research Considerations for Historical Role-Playing Games
History of Wargaming

Overall Impressions

Boy, there’s a lot to unpack for this one!

This was a relatively small conference of about 170 or so attendees (not counting the speakers and staff). In other words, it confirmed to me that wargaming is definitely a niche topic. Within minutes I could tell that this was, without a doubt, a conference…not a convention. This was no Comic-Con. (Not that those types of conventions are bad or anything.)

All of the presenters were clearly very experienced in playing, designing, and/or teaching wargames. Many of them had long careers in related industries or professions. Some are/were professors at service academies, staff colleges, war colleges, or related think tanks. Among the speakers and the attendees, there were lots of people with experience or backgrounds in the defense/national security/intelligence community. In addition, there were military historians, experienced wargamers, game developers, software engineers, scientists, etc.

In many ways, I felt rather inadequate (or perhaps “behind the curve”) since I have very limited experience in hobby wargaming (having only really played Command: Modern Operations). Additionally, I don’t have much of a feel for those in the professional wargaming community and I don’t teach in higher education. (I do have a Master’s degree, but it’s in teaching, not political science, defense policy, or security studies.) Compared to the education level of these people, I felt almost mentally deficient. So many people had such a precise and in-depth knowledge of history, science, mathematics, simulations, doctrine, etc., and they were able to quickly and efficiently formulate and articulate their arguments.

An Articulate Comments Section

Based on the Discord chat, just about all of the commenters were intelligent and well-educated. I gathered that some people were in the process of working on their Master’s or Doctoral degrees. I’d wager that there were a few people with those proverbial 100 lb. brains inside their skulls. Then again, there were probably a number of people who were just starting out with wargaming as well. This was no Youtube comments section or social media thread. THANK GOD! Of course, wargaming, by its nature, is a very high-brow topic when compared to the average popular video game. In fact, a podcast I listened to on the Armchair Dragoons website prior to the conference specifically warned listeners NOT to attend this conference if they “don’t like to think.” In short, they weren’t catering to the lowest common denominator at this shop. (Good!) Additionally, the Discord chat for the presentations that I attended had a refreshing lack of ad hominem. There was some occasional pedantry, but it was far more justified and well-supported than your average Youtube comment of, “Well, actually…” I mean, people were literally posting links to relevant articles from academic journals in the Discord chat!

Of course, this articulate audience may be par for the course when it comes to wargaming. James Dunnigan (2000) writes that wargames are a hobby of the over-educated. Most players are college graduates and many have advanced degrees. According to market research conducted by Dunnigan’s company, SPI, in 1990, about 52% of wargamers were under the age of 22, while in the year 2000, that had dropped to just a small percentage. Wargamers are also predominantly male, but with the introduction of computer wargames, females constitute about 2 – 3%. Dunnigan’s research further found that throughout the 1980s and 1990s, more than 50% of the older gamers had 17 or more years of education. In 1980, ten percent of wargamers were still in school, and the remaining 90% had a graduate school level of education or better. By the early 1990s, the number of wargamers still in school had dropped to less than five percent, and more than 50% of the remainder had over 16 years of schooling (Dunnigan, 2000, p. 213 – 214). There’s more data regarding demographics, and it’s worth mentioning that all of this data is now 30 – 40 years old, but I’m assuming that some of these trends still hold. Several people in the Discord chat wrote that hobby wargaming is still dominated by old white men. There are probably a number of reasons for this, although, I suspect the popularity of console and PC games that favor entertainment value over the educational/experiential/analytical value of wargames is but one factor.

Apart from those impressions, what follows are the (slightly) condensed notes based on my observations from each event I attended.

Thoughts After Day 1

Wargaming for Education

Presenters: Sebastian Bae, Kris Wheaton, Kyleanne Hunter, & James Sterrett.

A discussion mostly on how wargaming is applied in higher education, particularly at institutions with interests in national defense/security.

Kris Wheaton opines that all games teach something, either implicitly or explicitly. One of the questions is: How do we create games that work within the time limits of a classroom and communicate higher level concepts better than the traditional lecture format?

The general consensus among the presenters is that they have the most success with small games that are easy to learn and play. Kyleanne Hunter observes that there is a fear that if we’re not wargamers, then we can’t use wargaming in the classroom. That’s false. We can use simple games to teach things. Including how to deal with failure. We also need to get out of the mindset that wargames only deal with big and intricate national security issues. We can still just have fun!

Regarding that, James Sterrett opines that the instructor needs to have a good lesson objective and the appropriate game to mesh with it. Any game, be it a first-person shooter, or whatever, presents the player with information/dilemma and demands a decision. For the instructor, it’s another teaching format to learn how to apply pedagogically. Wheaton followed up that, not only do we need good wargames that can be played in a short time period, but we also need to apply repetition to games to cement the learning. We need to run the games more than once and examine whether or not the games teach the content better than traditional methods.

The problem then becomes how to use games as tools in the classroom to teach practical skills. (People in the chat noted that games teach us skills like abductive reasoning, hypothesis formulation, etc.). The different methods of wargaming and the different backgrounds of students present their own issues, as well. Wheaton noted that you see these problems at all three levels of post-secondary education (undergraduate, graduate, and professional). Not all students understand what a battalion or a carrier group is and the logistics required to move them. Many students aren’t gamers, and those that are have only a finite amount of experience with specific games (usually video games). They also note that students have preferences for certain genres or types of games. Sterrett notes that running wargames online is harder and slower. The online tools need to be simple and sometimes the fancy tools don’t work well. A technologically challenged student can bring the game to halt.

Wheaton concludes that, in order to advance the state of educational gaming, we need to use simple games that cover discrete learning objectives within a block of instruction. They should be easy to play and make concepts more comprehensible. We need multiple games and the return on investment needs to be high, especially for adult learners who value their time.

In the end, time constraints and the need for simple, easy-to-play micro wargames are issues even for special wargame-dedicated classes in higher education (including Professional Military Education schools). The chosen wargames need to align with lesson objectives, and students have to reflect on their learning. In short, these professors grapple with the difficulties that any educator faces when designing lesson plans. The struggle is how to get students to make connections between the learning objective (what the wargame is intended to teach) and the assessment (the wargame and post-game analysis), and then elevate their thinking to a higher level and articulate it. (Nothing new in that regard.)

Practical Design in Wargames

Presenters: Brian Train & Mike Markowitz.

The overall focus of this presentation was on designing board wargames. Presenters Brian Train and Mike Markowitz emphasized the importance of keeping your game simple and de-cluttering any visuals to help the player have a clear understanding of how the game represents the flow of time and what their options of play are.

Some simple insights were:

  • “Plagiarize,” as James Dunnigan said. (i.e. Follow what others have done in their game designs.)
  • Don’t fall into the belief that “if it was hard to design, then it’s hard to play.” If your rule is too complicated, then players will simply ignore it and substitute their own.
  • After you’ve complicated the design, then go through it and simplify!

Based on my reading into the field and experience at this conference, much of the hobby side of wargaming is centered around manual games (board games, tabletop games, matrix games, seminar games, etc.). Computer wargames are viewed as something of a “black box” since you don’t see the programming code and can’t alter it without being knowledgeable of the programming language. In contrast, manual games have their mechanics fully visible and many hobby wargamers develop their own manual games. As James Dunnigan opines, “plagiarize.” Obviously, don’t necessarily steal intellectual property, but build your own games off of the ideas and mechanics of other games. Nobody holds copyright over the basic game mechanics of movement or the mathematical models that underpin the simulations. It’s the idea that nothing you’re doing is terribly original or unique because somebody has likely already done something similar. If you’re stuck, then there’s already a solution out there or a list of best/worst practices, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

History of Wargaming

Presenter: Matt Caffrey

I missed some parts of this presentation due to having to run some errands, however, it was probably the least useful for me. Matt Caffrey was the presenter, and the bulk of his talk was based around the content of his book, On Wargaming, that he published a few years ago.

Thoughts After Day 2

Recent Articles in Wargaming

Presenters: Jeremy Sepinsky, Jennifer McArdle, Yuna Wong, Shane Bilsborough

Professionals and authors of recent articles on wargaming discuss the utility and evolution of wargaming in the DoD/National Security sector.

Shane Bilsborough speculates that the future of conflict lies in information and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance). Our information is becoming more dependent on space-based assets (satellites, etc.), so we need to ramp up our game when it comes to space wargames. This is particularly apparent in the operational and strategic realm, and we need to integrate space into joint wargames. That being said, “military space” is something of a “hush-hush” domain, so getting information on the topic can be challenging given the security restrictions.

Jennifer McArdle uses the Louisiana Maneuvers in 1941 as an example of organizational reform. She also notes that there’s a need for both personnel reform and mission-driven acquisition within the Department of Defense. Wargames and simulations can recreate the psychological fidelity of decision-making and play a role in changing an organization, but the problem is that change-resistant organizations (current DoD policy) aren’t keen on mission-driven acquisition.

Jeremy Sepinsky says that analytic rigor doesn’t necessarily translate to a good wargame. Detail and value aren’t synonymous. More detail may make the game better, but that doesn’t inherently increase the value of the product the game created. For a wargame to be effective, you need an “ecosystem” that accepts the game. A wargaming ecosystem makes good games valuable and also amplifies bad games and bad information. It can also skew the perception of wargames to the negative. Alternatively, you can also have a completely inert ecosystem that wargames just for the sake of wargaming. Wargames try to add information to the decision-makers (not change their minds). This is to say that wargames don’t solve problems or change people’s perceptions, but they can inform and influence decision-making. That’s their value. He further notes that you need an intellectually curious organization that understands the benefits and drawbacks of a wargame, otherwise it’s useless. Thus, we need to build a positive ecosystem for wargaming. Finally, Sepinsky opined that the definition of what a wargame is ultimately doesn’t matter and it doesn’t matter how we use that word.

In contrast, Yuna Wong argues that we need a specific definition for wargames and what these tools do because the methods do matter. Additionally, she notes that we say wargaming can help learning, but questions how we even measure that. There’s many situations of sporadic learning. Maybe someone does something really good, but there’s no consensus or good organizational learning.

McArdle adds that wargames are just one tool, not a panacea. They’re data points. When all you have is a hammer, then everything is a nail. The question becomes how do we develop metrics to assess whether or not the proper lessons are being drawn from wargames and the like? Ultimately, the struggle is getting people to approach problems and come up with solutions in different ways from different perspectives.

Wong remarks that we need to find the right people for the job. For example, if the problem requires the expert opinion of a psychologist, then find a psychologist. What we don’t want is an echo chamber with people peddling some pet theory, or those who claim to be experts, but aren’t.

Relating to the difficulty of using wargames to prognosticate on possible outcomes and the inevitable backlash from naysayers, a few comments put it succinctly as, “In the olden days, we used to stone the false prophets. Nowadays, we stone the accurate prophets.”

Another commenter rhetorically chimes in with, “Don’t we just stone all of the prophets, nowadays?”

Later on, another commenter notes, “Show me one ‘expert’ opinion, and I guarantee you, five more ‘expert’ opinions will follow that say the exact opposite.”

Wrapping up the presentation, the speakers ponder how we could move forward with wargaming and innovative practices. Sepinsky notes that wargames certainly do inspire people to take action, and Wong suggests that perhaps organizations that wargame drive innovation, rather than wargames driving innovation themselves. So, without wargames, would there be innovation regardless? Bilsborough remarks that we need a broader range of case studies and to stop repeating the famous historical wargaming examples, lest they stop becoming historical examples and more like emotional touchstones. (i.e. The Naval War College wasn’t the only great instance of wargaming in the interwar period).

Sepinsky concludes that we need to convince sponsors to be specific about their goals and expectations for the outcomes of wargames. Yuna Wong says that we need to design and plan multidimensional events/projects that bring various methods to address elements of complex problems.

Falklands/Malvinas Seminar Game (Cancelled)

This was supposed to be a seminar wargame of the first week of naval/air operations during the Falklands War of 1982. Unfortunately, the presenter had a scheduling conflict and had to cancel. I got my ticket “refunded,” but it doesn’t matter because it didn’t cost anything. The only fee was the $5 registration fee which automatically game me access to all events. I was rather disappointed, since I was looking forward to seeing how this seminar game would’ve played out. Oh, well. Them’s the breaks!

Thoughts After Day 3

Distributed Campaigns Over the Long-Haul

Presenters: Brant Guillory, Gail Clendenin, Elisa Ford, & Jim Owczarski

A discussion on how wargames and role-playing games can be conducted synchronously/asynchronously when the participants are physically distanced.

The presentation begins by noting that DoD/National Security/Academic wargaming tends to be “event-focused” in a one-and-done format at a conference. The question is about events that take longer to resolve, apart from just changing the time-scale.

One solution is to do a long-term distributed event where it’s conducted over an extended period of time. Nobody really leaves because nobody really gathered for an event. (e.g. message board kriegsspiels or online RPG campaigns.)

Gail Clendenin comments that game masters should begin with a written “Session 0 Pitch” to introduce players to the scenario and help them become immersed. Also, it’s important for the game master to outline their goals and goals for the players. Sort of like an operations order. Similarly, Elisa Ford mentions that there’s no one-size-fits-all platform. It depends on what your players are comfortable with, what their tech budgets are, etc. Make you expectations clear as a game master in terms of communication, attendance, rules, etc. Have options for personal communications between the game master and individual players if your game requires that.

Brant Guillory mentions that many of those “Session 0” documents used in the hobby wargame world are essentially used in the professional wargaming world. In many cases, those professionals are told/ordered to attend a game. That being said, some of the tools used by the hobby world aren’t available in the professional world for security reasons, and they often use their own tools which may/may not be better.

Guillory further poses the question of, “How do we conduct games both synchronously and asynchronously?”

Ford says that everyone meets synchronously twice a month on Zoom and Discord. Asynchronous participation is conducted over email, and she can also meet players privately over Zoom or chat when urgency is required in the game. Clendenin says that she conducts bimonthly 5-hour games. She doesn’t require the participant’s cameras to be on and understands that people can have distractions at home because 5 hours is a long time frame. Thus, cameras can be kept off as long as players are engaged with the game.

A question in the chat asks, “How do you record the “history” of the game world over these long time frames?”

Jim Owczarski says that he screen captures the games he plays on Table Top Simulator. Additionally, his games include After-Action-Review write-ups. For general communications, email works well. Clendenin adds that she expects players to keep notes for themselves because their perspective on the game is important. She begins each session with a review of their notes so she, as the game master, understands what their thinking is. This allows the game master to make adjustments if needed. Further use of a calendar allows her to keep track of the official game chronology. Ford has players write “Dear Mom…” letters describing what they did in the game. She notes that it keeps players engaged.

Chat asks, “What are some best tools, good ideas, solutions, and common issues in conducting wargames during the pandemic (& beyond) both synchronously and asynchronously?”

Elisa Ford recommends using a paid Zoom account (if you can afford one), Discord (audio only works best), and Roll20.net (to display maps and use dice). Owczarski reiterates using Table Top Simulator, email, and online forums. He doesn’t like using Discord because he finds it obnoxious, but it can be done. Guillory says that it’s best to have a cap on the size of your groups to keep things manageable. Otherwise you lose engagement when you have too many players.

Chat then asks, “What inputs do you expect from players as a standard? How often do you expect/require that?”

Ford emphasizes setting expectations up front, learning to use online communication in various formats (chat, email, etc.), and teaching people to keep their thoughts concise and clear. She specifies that emails be no longer than 500 words, and contain no more than 3 bullet points. Owczarski notes that this parallels the original Prussian wargame, Kriegsspiel, which was originally used to train officers in writing orders. Even highly-educated people have difficulties in articulating things and communicating concisely.

For example, a commander’s orders should make their intentions clear and keep it simple:

  • Where are you going?
  • Why are you going there?
  • What are you going to do when you get there?

And then have players communicate updates back up the chain of command, so as not to leave your higher-ups in the dark.

Brant Guillory mentions that even today, with instantaneous communications, the communications delays are still super-frustrating. While some commanders are micromanagers, eventually they’ll scream, “What’s going on! You haven’t updated me in 6, 8, 10, 12 hours!” He also notes that it would be amusing to observe a wargame where all of the units go into communications blackout, and then watch all of the commanders go nuts with anxiety.

In the end, the presenters stress the importance of clear communications. Having at least two channels of communication in case one fails (Email, Facebook messenger, phone texts, etc.). If Zoom is being temperamental, have Discord/email/other platform as a backup.

Thoughts After Day 4

Exploring Historical Conflict w/Games: A Modeling Approach

Presenter: Xavier Rubio-Campillo

A discussion on using games as models of historical conflicts.

Xavier Rubio-Campillo’s talk examines the broad ideas of the anatomy of games, creating games, analyzing games, and challenges to gaming historical conflicts.

Regarding the anatomy of a game, he notes that games model a specific facet of reality in order to understand it. These models have some simplification and leave out certain variables. He also notes that the goal of games is not necessarily to be fun but to pose questions and challenges. Relating to the mathematical branch of game theory, it’s useful for understanding the dynamics of cooperation/competition, but it isn’t entertaining. Game theory defines 4 game elements as: players, rules, actions, and outcomes.

Historical games as models of the past can be used to explore historical events, settings, and themes. For example, the video game Battlefield V can be viewed as a model of a historical setting, but not a model of historical events. In another example, the board game The Settlers of Catan is an example of historical themes. In contrast, historical wargames model historical events with detailed mechanics simulating combat.

Rubio-Campillo further opines that games aren’t models to be used as research tools. They’re meant to entertain, be balanced, promote cooperation/competition, and engage players. However, they’re still models. Some games seek historical accuracy and can be designed by anyone.

Along this line of thinking, if a historical game is a model, then:

  • Playing a game means experimenting with the past.
  • Creating a game means modeling the past.
  • Analyzing a game means exploring popular perceptions of the past.

Through playing a historical game, the player experiences the past from the designer’s perspective. The designer emphasizes certain aspects that they consider interesting, such as setting, constraints and challenges, and a sense of agency. In terms of setting, playing games is a non-academic way of learning history that combines elements of geography, imagery, characters, and social dynamics in an active learning modality. To pose constraints and challenges on the player, Rubio-Campillo notes that time and hindsight bias provide people with too much perspective on history. Instead, a game imposes time constraints on a player and actively challenges them to participate in similar activities or examine alternatives in history as if the player were there themselves. (If you think it’s so easy, then do it yourself!) Games can provide the player with a sense of agency by allowing them to step into the shoes of a historical character in an experiential approach to learning that is rare in other forms of media. In the game, you are the protagonist. However, it’s also noted that this creates a biased approach because the protagonist is often a powerful character. Few games take exception to this, such as the video game, This War of Mine, where you play as civilians trying to survive a war. Beyond the designed sense of agency via characters, narrative-driven games limit the actions and decision-making capabilities of players in favor of providing them with a rich and immersive story.

Regarding the creation of games, designers need to consider a number of elements, such as:

  • What game do you want to model?
    • What is the goal, outcomes, research involved, mechanics, etc.?
    • How do you model terrain, rules, combat, etc.?
  • How much do you allow players to deviate from history?
    • What if it’s not balanced?
    • How do you engage players?

Furthermore, we can create games based around different topics other than warfare. In doing so, we can make games more accessible to education. Evidence-based content can be very engaging in games, and many things can be integrated into a game’s mechanics without explaining everything.

Learning from game design, the game developer can ask themselves the following questions:

  • What do you know?
  • How do you model what you don’t know?
  • What are the most important factors and processes? How do they relate?
  • How do people engage with your model?

When analyzing games, Rubio-Campillo notes that more scholars are examining historical games as contemporary visions of the past. Accepting that historical games are models, then what do designers put in and leave out (and why)? Additionally, these games, as historical perspectives, may clash with other opinions. This raises the question of how historical games model historical truths.

The continuing maturation of games further raises certain issues. One is that games tend to avoid sensitive topics. For example, the topics of warfare and colonialism present interesting competitive gameplay mechanics, but they tend to treat people and resources as abstract units. In addition, wargames rarely model the consequences of warfare or war crimes (genocide, slavery, rape, refugees, etc.). As a result, the player has a very biased view of a conflict. Another issue is that, while game designers are very passionate, many aren’t academics, and therefore, don’t have access to current research on the game’s topics. Consequently, they sometimes rely on outdated narratives and perpetuate myths. Rubio-Campillo also notes that there’s a bias towards grand strategic narratives in wargames. He asks the question of how many games do we really need on the invasion of Normandy, Rommel, etc.? Since designers choose themes based on personal interests, knowledge, and market potential, these trends generate a biased narrative common to other entertainment industries.

In conclusion, Xavier Rubio-Campillo asks us to ponder the need to develop a more critical approach to historical games. He ends with the quote from Kurt Squire asking, “As games mature as a medium, the question is becoming, not will games be used for learning, but for whom and in what contexts?”

Research Considerations for Historical Role-Playing Games

Presenter: Byron Salahor

Byron Salahor discusses the considerations for game designers who are developing historical role-playing games.

Before highlighting the research considerations, Byron Salahor defines what he considers to be historical RPGs. Specifically:

  • The game must occur in actual periods of human history. (May include real events, organizations, people, etc.)
  • Players and NPCs must be realistic or believable.
  • Technology, science, and geography must be accurate.
  • Situations and outcomes must be plausible as long as they don’t stretch the historical narrative too much. (E.g. a Cold War gone hot or a Red Dawn type of scenario is too implausible. In contrast, Operation Downfall is plausible because it was planned out and considered.)
  • Deal breakers: magic, superpowers, aliens, monsters, ghosts, technology that didn’t or cannot exist based on our current understanding of physics.

Asking the question of “Why write, run, and/or play a historical RPG?,” Byron Salahor opines that historical RPGs have three benefits:

  • They present a story and adventure.
  • They present challenges/solutions/alternatives/outcomes. Many wargames don’t provide answers, rather they provide scenarios for questions. 
    • Specifically, they can create some sense of immersion, but not fully replicate the real experience, of course. That is to say that they give the player some sense of “what it was like.” (e.g. Travel the Oregon Trail or Gunfight at the OK Corral.)
  • They’re good for learning and education.

Having said that…

Salahor acknowledges that games may need to be modified (or the rules bent) for the sake of race, gender, or TO&E. However, this raises the question of how do you balance realism vs. bending the rules to accommodate player needs? He implores designers to do their research, since they may find historical exceptions.

Among specific considerations for designing historical RPGs, Salahor advises referencing historical materials such as maps, tools, etc., and making use of real or suggested NPCs. Also, referencing other games that take place during that time period would be beneficial to understanding game mechanics.

With regard to special considerations for a historical setting, Salahor notes that real history is cruel and that life has no saving throws. With that in mind, consider using pre-generated characters and allowing players to use multiple characters because it’s expected that your characters will be killed during the course of the game.

When setting up your historical campaign, it’s important to pick a specific setting. This includes the time period (month, day, year, hour) and location (country, state/province, city/town/village). Also, be knowledgeable of the preceding and following events. Other things to consider for the setting would be the available technology (gear, weapons, transportation, shelter, food, services, etc.). The game designer will also need to identify people and groups (historical figures, organizations, groups, cultures, etc.), and consider if the characters will be a part of a general movement (pilgrims, 49ers, wagon trains, etc.).

When creating an adventure, the designer needs to decide on the player and group roles. Are they formally organized or brought together by circumstance?

Salahor notes that, when creating a mission or adventure, most fantasy RPGs follow a wash, rinse, and repeat style of dungeon crawls. Go to a room, kill everything, collect loot, repeat until you level up, and finish the dungeon. Some modern parallels would be the house-to-house fighting in battles like Stalingrad or Fallujah (except there’s not much loot collecting). The long game in a historical RPG is something like making it to the west coast on the Oregon Trail or finishing a military campaign. Sometimes there’s nothing more at the end other than just one more day of living. You survive to see tomorrow.

Salahor concludes that it doesn’t have to be hardcore history, but it can introduce many interesting themes and ideas. When choosing resources, there’s plenty to choose from, but look for legitimate sources, and don’t just use Hollywood or a popular game you’ve played. The research itself is enjoyable as is helping players understand that history. If the players don’t believe you, then have them look it up.

Areas/Facets that were Lacking

Although it’s unavoidable due to the situation, basically, the online format became a bunch of talking heads who occasionally would spout some platitudes like, “we need to do this, that, and the other.” The classic coulda, shoulda, woulda situation. (However, that’s one of my main problems with distance learning, in general.)

There was a “wargame bootcamp” seminar, but I would’ve liked more core presentations aimed at newcomers. This would’ve helped introduce people to the field and made the distinction between professional and hobby wargaming more clear.

I did get a lot out of the discussion on wargaming for education, however, anything related to education was applied to higher education, professional military education, think tanks, etc. While I have attempted some lessons that apply wargaming at the secondary level with a WWII simulation, but I found it difficult to adapt wargaming to those grade levels because teenage brains are still rapidly developing (executive functions, learning styles, reasoning, etc.). One of the biggest challenges I had was getting students to articulate their orders during the game and then to see the causal links between the orders they issued and the results of the simulated combat. This was made even more challenging given that some of the students had very low reading levels for their age, and thus, often lacked the vocabulary to put some of their thoughts into words. (I read some assessments that boiled down to, “they did a good/bad job.”) I think wargaming (and game-based learning) can still be done at the high school level with more work, research, and modifications, but it would need to be very simplified AND have an extremely focused scope (like good wargames should). Thankfully, Philip Sabin wrote, Simulating War, on using wargames as pedagogical tools. Definitely a good area for further experimentation. Maybe wargames at the secondary education level would be better applied as an educational or experiential tool rather than an analytical tool.

(I don’t know, maybe I’ve just been around too many mouth breathers and oxygen stealers. In my experience, some teens really engage with wargames, but those are usually already high-performing students. As many of the other presenters noted, wargaming is not a panacea that’s somehow going to solve all of our problems. That’s true as a pedagogical tool, as well.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’d say that this conference was worthwhile and offered some good insights from a variety of different presenters. Much of the discussion from the presenters and on Discord operated on a very high level. Again, these were very high-brow topics.

That being said, many of these people’s jobs are to stay abreast of international developments and global trends. It makes sense that they would have expert knowledge in fields that I’m not familiar with. I’m just an amateur WWII historian and I only have so much time on my hands. I found that the presentations geared towards hobby wargaming were more interesting than those about professional gaming and defense analysis.

The biggest lesson I learned is that there’s so much more to learn and that I don’t know much of anything when it comes to wargaming. The only thing I know is how much I don’t know (arguably an important lesson for any endeavor).

References

Dunnigan, J.F. (2000). The Complete Wargames Handbook: How to Play, Design, and Find Them (3rd ed.). iUniverse.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for your evaluation of the conference and the sessions! Because of time zones and work requirements I could not attend anything other than the event I did with Mike Markowitz. I’m glad they put up as much as they could on Youtube for later, I am still catching up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Brian. I enjoyed your presentation with Mike and thought it was very straightforward and oriented towards practical application. I didn’t write too much on it because I have little experience in designing board wargames, myself. Most of the others I attended focused more on theory.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And thank you, Tim. Mike and I have done our share of board wargame designs, and while we are not graphic designers and never will be, I like to think that we have arrived at a catalogue of the things that annoy us the most, and so should be avoided.

        Liked by 1 person

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