Recently a group of us assembled at the University of Ottawa to matrix-game the current conflict regarding the self-styled “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria. For practical reasons and to limit the number of players/teams, the game largely focused on Iraq. The purpose, as with an earlier game held at the UK Defence Academy, was to explore the value and limits of matrix games as an analytical method.


Our players and teams were well qualified: wargamers and operations research analysts from Defence Research and Development Canada, game designers, political scientists, and current or former Middle East intelligence analysts. How did it all work out?

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Comment by Rex Brynen on March 4, 2015 at 12:42pm

There are several things one might get out of this game in examining ISIS.

  1. An appreciation of the range of strategic options each actor has available.
  2. A sense of how actors might weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each option.
  3. The factors shaping the viability of each strategic option (since the game system requires that players identify variables that would affect the success or failure of any given action).
  4. Unknowns. What issues arise in the game that point to the need for further intelligence collection or analysis? While many of these may be "known unknowns," some may also be previously "unknown (or unidentified) unknowns"
  5. The consequences of actions, including how they might affect the strategy of others.

One would never use such a game in isolation. Rather it would be embedded in a much larger analytical process. Think of it as an intellectual cross-training of sorts, an alternative way of getting at issues that compliments your primary assessment methodologies.

The quote at the end of a piece (from an outstanding intelligence professional, who entered the process rather doubtful about its value) summarizes the potential utility nicely.

Comment by Roger Morley on March 4, 2015 at 12:40pm

I find bizarre that using that using a matrix game (yes Bill, I had already read the article you pointed out, so I do have an idea what a matrix game is) to analyse the the ongoing ISIS conflict, where rolling of dice is used to reflect decisions or event. 

"The Iraqi government suffered a -1 penalty to all dice rolls to reflect corruption and inefficiency, and an additional -1 when conducting combat operations outside Baghdad or Shiite-majority areas. The Kurds similarly suffered a -1 to all military operations outside Kurdish areas. ISIS gained a +1 bonus in Sunni areas, and a -1 outside. The Sunni opposition also gained a +1 bonus in Sunni areas, but suffered a -2 penalty acting against ISIL. The US suffered a -1 penalty to military actions, reflecting Washington’s unwillingness to get too deeply involved. Iran, should it take an unsuccessful action against ISIL or the Sunni opposition, provided that actor with a +1 to their next roll to reflect an anti-Iranian backlash among Iraqi Sunnis. Finally, the”Curse of Unforeseen Consequences and Second and Third Order Effects” mandated that any time a double was rolled ISIS would get an immediate free counter-action"

I work in a very scientific environment, where I do analysis, but I use solid facts, figures and readings, and avoid incorporating too many variables which can distort this analysis, so I find it bizarre that this game is used to analyse a changing conflict using dice rolling which has such variable factors.

Maybe it is my scientific background that is stopping me from really understanding how this is of any use.

Comment by Rex Brynen on March 4, 2015 at 11:46am

Long before it was a hobby, modern wargaming was designed as an experiential analytical method to aid in both military education and in the planning of military operations. It continues to be used widely in the military (and to a much lesser extent in the intelligence community) for that purpose. The method of delivery can run from sophisticated, distributed, digital wargames through to political-military crisis games of the seminar sort, right down to the board-and-counter variety. No one would claim that they are predictive, but they do force participants to think about things in new ways. Personally I've used gaming approaches in professional contexts as varied as supporting peace negotiations, working with a UN humanitarian agency to address emerging issues, and helping a transitional government think about post-revolutionary challenges.

In this particular case, the "ISIS crisis" was simply being used as a handy topical subject to explore the methodology of matrix gaming. Unlike most wargames, matrix games are very easy to develop and play, and they are also very flexible. Consequently they may have some utility as a quick-and-dirty playtest of a scenario, or an alternative analytical method to compliment more traditional assessment approaches.

A significant proportion of the people who were in the room analyze ISIS and similar situations for a living. I think all of them found the game useful as a way of identifying issues for further examination or discussion.

Comment by Bill on March 4, 2015 at 11:41am

They answer your question

"The purpose, as with an earlier game held at the UK Defence Academy, was to explore the value and limits of matrix games as an analytical method."

You never answered mine though. Why would this seem bizarre to anyone? A bizarre choice in adjectives.

Comment by Roger Morley on March 4, 2015 at 11:34am

Hence the question at the end of my second comment.......

Comment by Bill on March 4, 2015 at 11:31am

And that makes it bizarre in what way? I think your comment (question?)  is odd.

Comment by Roger Morley on March 4, 2015 at 11:29am

It is not about simulating a conflict with a wargame Bill, I think we all do that with every wargame we play, it is more about what they get out of it in the way of analysing a current conflict.

Comment by Bill on March 4, 2015 at 9:35am

Whats bizarre about wargamers  attempting to simulate a current conflict? Whats bizarre is Rogers question. I personally would not be interested in wargaming this topic but I can certainly understand that others might.

Comment by Roger Morley on March 4, 2015 at 7:20am

Bizarre that you are using a boardgame to anaylize the ongoing conflict with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. To what purpose was all this done for?

Comment by Rex Brynen on March 3, 2015 at 5:14pm

What did you think was bizarre about it, Roger?

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