Open Vassal Playtest, Saturday 4 February 2017, 2000 UTC

Excerpt of an account of 359IR’s fighting vicinity of Chambois, ~22 August 1944

After a restorative holiday visit to the US I’m bringing back a great number of new documents from the John Colby papers housed at the University of Oklahoma, two of which are particularly illuminating about the action at Beau Coudray in which two companies of 357IR were overrun. (This will be the subject of an upcoming scenario, BEAU4.)

Anyway, I’ll be doing a drop-in playtest of the learning scenario SEV0. Download the playtest package and drop me a line. Or just show up. As usual, communications will be via Skype (neal.durando). If you need help using VASSAL, just let me know. It isn’t hard–there’s remarkably little configuration hassle.

VASSAL module
Playtest Kit

Demo at MMFW

Karl and Chris face off in a small scenario called “American Patrol”. I set out the counters and let them ask questions.

In hindsight I should have played against them both, hotseating between games. One of the difficulties of playing in a museum is that there are a lot of fascinating artifacts literally within arm’s reach that are catnip to chatty people like me.

I’m glad to have selected Band of Brothers to provide the base rules for the system. Both Karl and Chris were able to pick up concepts like LOS, movement costs, and fire attacks with a simple, verbal instruction. I don’t think Karl ever looked at the player aid card. This has less to do with the indifferent brevity of my explanations and more to do with the staying power of the base system designer Jim Krohn’s simple, enabling design decisions.

The experience inspired me to organize a starter set, a smaller footprint, print-and-play version of FTGU. Over the next month I’ll organize the four learning scenarios and a reduced counter set into four ledger-sized pages.

Demo at Military Museum of Fort Worth, 15 January, 1200 hours

Current exhibit (ends April 2017)

I’ll be there with the director of the museum. I’ll do a quick presentation of the game and we’ll get right to it. Depending on the number of people who show, I may run a short tournament with the prize being a complete set of playtest counters to the winner. We’ll play BEAU0 and SEV0, two all-infantry learning scenarios which take place on an excerpt from the Beau Coudray and Sèves maps. When I get a moment, I’ll put this together as a PnP sampler of the whole module. Anyway, hope to see you there!

A note about the Military Museum of Fort Worth. Tyler Alberts’s labor of love in honor of his grandfather is unbelievably well curated. Really a jewel of a museum and where I’ve done the lion’s share of my research. Tyler has unbelievably precise knowledge of individual veterans in addition to an excellent and deep understanding of 90ID’s actions from Normandy until the end of the war. He is especially good with the social history of the artefacts in his displays. If you want to know where the laundry number in a 1942-issue U.S. musette bag can be found, Tyler is you man. He can probably even track down the original owner. Even if your questions aren’t about 90ID, if you have a question about the experience of the citizen-soldier in the Second World War you would be hard pressed to find a more accessible and knowledgeable source.

Open Vassal Playtest, this Sunday 2000 UTC

Obligatory tactic-y image.
Obligatory tactic-y image.

At 2000 UTC, Sunday, 19 November, I’ll be conducting a live, drop-in playtest of a small, learning scenario for my game Band of Brothers: From the Ground Up. Download the VASSAL module and meet me on the server at 2000 UTC (1500 EST, 1400 CST). Just open the module in VASSAL and hit the server connect button at the upper right and voilà. Voice comms will be via Skype (neal.durando). I’ll teach the rules, but if you want to read them, they’re in the package.

On Killing: Getting beyond One Step, One Hex

It takes a stone killer to kill a stone killer.
It takes a stone killer to kill a stone killer.

Here’s a partial response to Lewis Pulsipher, designer of Dragon Rage and Doomstar, about dicey wargames and deterministic euros. Occasionally Mr. Pulsipher floats a taxonomy he is considering to see what it provokes. Mr. Pulsipher associated dice and wargames with an historical approach, an association which I challenged, citing the necessity for designers of professional wargames to hide coarse-grained (non digital) randomization from military clients who really don’t appreciate it. You gotta pocket your dice if you want credibility with some soldiers. There is a huge reluctance to be seen taking chances in armed conflict. I’ve witnessed this myself. Leadership means certitude. Dice are the physical manifestation of incertitude. Better not to touch them.

As for wargamers, they only think they want control — what they really want is plausible rationalizations for failure at the right moments. A lot of so-called serious gamers are completely full of shit and need to be called on it. Not necessarily a winning commercial strategy, I’ll grant you. I’ve talked this over and over with every designer and player I respect and who will give me the time of day. After I finish my big project [FTGU] (which is deterministic move/randomized combat and a good system designed by Jim Krohn) I want to do a grand tactical system that I’ve outlined called “Nine Rabbit Heads in a Box”. My idea is to allow everything to be deterministic to better get at the differences in the fluidity of operational rhythm by emphasizing time and attrition effects. A “move” will include maneuver and combat in the same go. The objective is to create a game I could use for a staff ride and resolve in an hour or so, reliably evoking C2 and terrain challenges.

To which Mr. Pulsipher reasonably responded:

If they want rationalization for failure, surely they prefer games with uncertainty, not games where they feel in control (and consequently have to blame themselves, in two-player).

Yes, that’s what I’m saying. That’s my take on wargamer psychology, anyway. And why I responded to the initial post so enthusiastically. I think the most psychologically desirable outcome on a classic CRT is a “Defender loses one step and retreats one hex.” Resolution systems which deliver too many outliers too frequently beyond this outcome raise hackles. Everybody thinks they’re awesome at probabilistic analysis even though research shows otherwise– which is certainly true in the heat of the moment. This human weakness seems absolutely true considering historical contexts for warfare.

A little about humanity. In sports like tennis and fencing it has often been remarked that the most successful contestants will despatch the adversary without a second thought, something that most people — even good players — naturally hesitate to do. A winning mindset demands that sympathy be the opponent on the other side of the net more deserving of annihilation. Hence my notion that one step, one hex is the outcome that both attacker and defender find easiest to accept. This is the psychological norm for an attack on a given position. This psychological subtext demands that an attack, which is a rational, calculated decision — better that it have some effect, after all — but the attacker’s humanity in turn depends on sparing the defender’s ego. Or honor or whatever. The dice are there to take the heat for outliers to this yearned for outcome. They spare players’ humanity. Gamers of any sort don’t suffer violence to this notion well.

Game Design, Ur-Texts I

Play is disinterested: Not being “ordinary” life it stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites, indeed it interrupts the appetitive process.  It interprets itself as a temporary activity satisfying tin itself and ending there.  The purposes it serves are external to immediate material interests or the individual satisfaction of biological needs.

Quick post while waiting for QGIS to reinstall. There is so much that could be said about Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. I was first interested in this study of play in the context of why and how to write. It is Nelson Goodman- or even William Empson-level useful.

The book has also guided my teaching, especially when teaching with games. As a phenomenological description of what goes on in open-ended, adversarial situations, I can’t think of a better text. Every game designer should know this book.

It is heavy-ish sledding but is wonderfully concise. You could read the whole text. Or you could take in the outline I wrote way back sometime in the mid 1990s.

Turning the Crank

Flowchart showing student inputs to the Operational English course I taught circa 2005. Students grouped according to their staff functions (Personnel, Intelligence, Operations, Logistics, Communications, and CIMIC were present.)
Flowchart showing student inputs to the Operational English course I taught circa 2005. Students grouped according to their staff functions (Personnel, Intelligence, Operations, Logistics, Communications, and CIMIC were present.)

I needed a vehicle for discussing military science. I wanted a game. My learners were of various ranks, responsibilities, and of different levels of English. My class was already “gamified” to the extent my trainees were used to language-learning games. The above shows how I used to teach my Operational English course before employing EMGs. At the time I was working at two expeditionary headquarters: one a for an armored brigade the other being a division joint command. For the former I used MAJ Holdridge’s excellent TacOps; the latter employed the “simple” operational warfare simulator used by CGSC at Fort Leavenworth, called Decisive Action. At brigade, I invented a low- to mid-intensity conflict very loosely based on their AO around Mitrovica, Kosovo. At division, I simply ported whatever unclassified NATO exercise CONOPs they were working on into the game engine.

Initially, neither course admitted for command decision on the part of the learners. Both were simply used as events generators to guide between two and four weeks of teaching. Learner objectives included, but were not limited to, familiarization with NATO briefing formats, US/NATO OPORD and FRAGO formats, all the associated technical lexis, improved listening comprehension, note taking, and accent reduction. On my side, all I needed was a script to feed into the game engines.

A situation loosely drawn from a NATO certification exercise employing military symbology for small units. Trainees were tasked with developing a course-of-action briefing and with critiquing the likelihood of such a situation. (How else is an instructor to improve?)
A situation loosely drawn from a NATO certification exercise employing military symbology for small units. Trainees were tasked with developing a course-of-action briefing and with critiquing the likelihood of such a situation. (How else is an instructor to improve?)

Verisimilitude and immersion count with military audiences. Both games I used come from professional military circles so more than half the battle was won. For the uninitiated, this means more than developing a basic understanding of the functions of various units, of how force may be employed on the modern battlefield but learning aspects of presentation in terms of semiology and cartography. It is a big conceptual hurdle for some students to play games in a language class, so paying attention to these touches really helps them get over it. (On top of this, I found that my overview of military operations sometimes exceeded that of some reservists and NCOs, so there was the added benefit of transmitting what one general I worked for termed “military culture”.) As a civilian trainer, you want your trainees to know they’re in good hands. And, should you make a mistake about some aspect of technical esoterica, you want the smarter people in the room to gently correct you. One hopes, at least, they are reassured that you cared enough to try to get it right.

Those of you already familiar with EMGs will note that my method is already fairly close to the way matrix games are played. That is, students invent or try to invent facts and feed them into a situation in expectation of changing that situation. The difference here is that I did not ask the students to represent separate interests. Rather, they were all playing themselves in their professional roles. Thus officers and NCOs who worked in logistics invented “logistics facts” and dealt only with problems within their specialization. This marries nicely with their actual functions, of course, and I was happy to provide an opportunity for each specialization to practice its particular argot. Working this way was satisfactory, but not dynamic. Groups of students put their situational briefings together, gave them, and asked and answered questions of the other groups. The method worked. The students turned the crank, got their briefing practice, and learned a good deal. But how to make the course deliver more than simple validation of competence? And how to reduce the overhead incurred with computer simulations?

11 May 2016: In response to an off-site query about the flowchart at the top of this post:

This represents the structure of one two-hour class given daily or twice a week for 8-20 military EFL students drawn from the various staff sections of divisional and brigade headquarters.

Beginning at the left, class usually began with a situation report (SITREP) written by the instructor summarizing the outcome of the previous course’s decision brief. The SITREP served as a platform for very structured practice of previously-taught points of grammar, the introduction of new lexis, an opportunity for paired cross-dictation.

Trainees then broke into groups or pairs according to specialization to invent facts to add to their section’s upcoming situation briefing. Discussion was in English, but the objective was to feed one or two perfect sentences into the situation brief. As this interaction was among students the instructor was free to float to groups needing guidance but also enabled him to plant new information about the situation as desired. (The goal was simply to be able to write a short brief and deliver it orally, but a note-taking aspect was added; new, unheard-of facts were thus became part of the challenge to good note taking.)

The situation briefing phase was conducted according to a formal NATO format, respecting sequence, and a rather rigid presentation style (familiarization with such formats is a major factor in non-native speakers’ comprehension). This phase was meant as guided speaking practice and to allow weaker trainees to model their briefs on more experiences and/or stronger speakers. Sometimes it was the case that a young NCO, recently graduated from high school, might be more at ease in the language than the senior officer for whom they worked. Careful attention must be paid to such pairings, as formal distance between officers and NCOs varies and must always be respected.

The decision brief was not a formal NATO decision brief but rather an occasion for open practice. The guiding question was “What should the general do?”  This question fell flat in courses where there were many junior NCOs, as there is a great deal of jeopardy in such discussions. The instructor adapted to the situation by having the class invent a fictive general from a NATO joint command of another nationality. (The instructory humbly proposed his own family name.) The goal here was at least ten minutes of unguided speaking but the instructor would let this run as long as possible.

The final phase of the class was paired or group work among trainees of the same section, who would come together to write a fragmentary order (FRAGO) carrying out the decisions of their fictive general. This was often conducted under time pressure, a common constraint in the working lives of staff officers, and gave the instructor more than enough leads for the subsequent class SITREP as well as providing him with a written check on language learned that day.

That Soap and Water Feeling

Brainstorming the EMG I wrote with Chris Engle, circa 2008.

That soap and water feeling is what you get just before everything comes together in the right way. This is about the only feeling I trust when it comes to creative endeavor. I should have written up my experiences using matrix games for professional military language training years ago. It seems every month there is a new paper or post about using Chris Engle’s most excellent invention, Engle Matrix Games (EMGs). I’ll outline my experience using them with officer and NCO EFL trainees from Etat-major de Force 2 between 2007-10.

My road to EMGs was via my wargame chum, Brian Train. In 2007, while all NATO-allied armies suddenly became interested in counterinsurgency, I was casting about for a way of further gamifying my English course given at a French army divisional headquarters. I canvassed Boardgame Geek for all it was worth but found nothing sufficiently simple. “Your design for Algeria is great Brian,” I wrote, “But it will never work in the classroom.” This might have annoyed another designer but Brian is nothing if not patient and helpful. “What you need is a matrix game,” he answered. And the lightbulb went on. I had even already heard of EMGs via Ron Edwards’s site The Forge. Role-playing game design is a majorly underexploited resource in wargame design, but that is a subject for another day. Much of my thinking about the affective level of game play (”affective ludic phenomenology” is what I would say were I an academic) owes to the rigorously creative threads Ron Edwards curated.

Cambridge-style English as a Foreign Langauge (EFL) pedagogy turns on the notion of a teacher as an eliciter of new and prior knowledge, reassuring guide, and learner resource, prioritizing production of written or spoken language. Ideally, an EFL class should moved from closed tasks with right and wrong answers, thereby setting a model for later open tasks, where students might experiment with the day’s learning. Lesson planning depends on careful mise-en-scène and, above all, very clear objective-setting. EMGs fit into this agenda terribly well. Some, particularly early EMGs, contain very precise action lists, just verbs really, which was a perfect mesh with my vocabulary-based teaching. Grammar isn’t the first priority in a technical, military environment where exacting lexis challenges even native speakers. Having a menu to choose from is an aid to decision, are invitations, and lower barriers. Similar lists appear in current generation RPGs such as Apocalypse World.

The varying language levels among my students is never immediately evident. And the varying ranks and responsibilities redouble the challenge of understanding learner needs. Nobody is every any good at pronouncing either version of /th/ or the terminal /s/ when forming plurals, but that is low-hanging fruit here in France. Real ability comes from doing fairly open tasks, from playing games. The game must help your learners overcome fear. Not only had The Forge alerted me to EMGs, it had also provided many fruitful discussions of how player expectations might best come when a game system supports those expectations. Briefly, some players simply want to win any game while others wish to immerse themselves in a temporary alternate reality. The last group, the one to which I feel closest, want to wrestle with the perversities of awesome narrative. These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive goals, but they are a trick to manage. You certainly can get them wrong, however. The result is nervous, even angry dysfunction. These ideas mesh well with Cambridge EFL’s adaptability in partnering strong with weak levels so that students learn from each other.

(To be continued…)