Using the Engel matrix game construct in a seminar game

The week of April 2nd, I was part of a team that conducted a seminar game using a derivative of the Engel matrix game construct. The game the ‘customer’ (NUWC’s analysis department) wanted had a bit of a twist: if the Red and Blue sides both escalated to a major theater war, they both lost. Red and Blue had objectives that they were expected to achieve, but they had to do it in such a way that resorting to violence did not escalate to the point that the situation could not be de-escalated without unacceptable political or economic fallout. In the parlance of ‘campaign phases’ the game would start in “phase 0” (peacetime), with objectives that were sufficiently contentious to create an escalation in tensions (phase 1). This “prolonged phase 1” could be punctuated with incidents that spiked into phase 2 (seize initiative) but such incidents would have to be such that they were temporary “seizures of initiative” that had to effectively culminate a “fait accompli”, and contain a “face-saving gesture” to the other side.

We had a two-day time constraint to run the game, wanted to game about a month of real-time (at least enough to get past the “initial surge” and force players to think about the transition to a long-term logistics footing) and consider the non-military elements of dime. The desired schedule was a two-hour in-brief of players, 10 hours of game time over two days, and a 2 hour de-brief/wrap-up. We gave ourselves 3 weeks to set up an “internal beta” to see what we got out of it and whether the players thought it worthwhile. I have always wanted to try a ‘matrix-style’ seminar game and this seemed like an opportunity to give it a try.

In an initial design meeting we (myself and 2 other NUWC analysts) discussed the game purpose and the broader intent of which it was a part. I’ve been voicing the need to get beyond “traditional BOGSAT” where the discussions tend to lack focus and unravel down technical back alleys. We wanted a game to really make the players think about WHY they want to do things, not just throw out the tired old laundry list of “transformational capabilities” that would accomplish objectives because that was what they were created to do. If the problem was solve world hunger, then the hunger mitigation solution was assumed to solve world hunger, that’s the program office story, and they are sticking to it! How do we break the tautology of this program office Jeopardy?

We had some related pathologies we wanted to combat as well. Related to the “capability/requirements” tautology is the “MOP/MOE tautology” – even “physics-based simulation supported” games fall into the trap of the players creating a list of desired effects and brainstorm a second list of “things to tell the pucksters to do”. Players are decent at coming up with “desired effects” (MOEs) but the need to give specific – usually tactical instructions to pucksters means the players fall back on “checklist” style MOPs and simply assume that if the MOPs are performed, favorable MOEs will result. Too often games are designed to reinforce these assumed linkages, without any “theory of action” connecting them other than a desire to “validate” that a given checklist of MOP’s is “correct”. This thinly veiled “Garbage-in = garbage-out continues to occur, particularly in games run by those with a strong incentive to “provide the correct answer when-given” – but I digress…

The other thing we wanted to avoid was the player tactic used when they feel they are “losing the bubble” on the game situation to create an “RFI tsunami” so the White cell gets wrapped up answering questions that the players get more time to think about the situation, or out of frustration to get the game moving again, gives away to blue a favorable COA.

We wanted the game to have a grounding in a “Common picture” – so the realities of time and distance were reflected. I made a map of the AOR at 80nm per hex (10 knots of speed = 3 hexes per day of movement) and was convenient from the point of view that a SAG can pretty much patrol a hex that size with a low probability of “leakage” of surface vessels and “low flyers” past them, and a 120nm radius (a 7 hex “Mega-hex) is pretty much the airspace they control at altitude. The turn was nominally a 3 day operational level planning cycle, but we had a couple turns where a 2 day “Strategic turnaround” was added when people were doing things that represented “phase 2 spikes”. We use counters to represent “major units” – CSG’s, ARG’s and SAG’s. Blue subs were represented individually and Red subs were represented as “Undersea Action Groups” (UAG’s). Air Units were Wing equivalents.

The core of the game was an “action sheet” that the players filled out to “tell their story”. I introduced the game as an ‘multi-sided, interactive storytelling game”, comparing it to a “single-sided interactive story-telling game (the traditional BOGSAT). The purpose of the game was both educational for the players, for the design team, and for technology-developers looking for the WHY behind employment of capabilities. Just because I CAN do something doesn’t mean I SHOULD, or would have a pressing need to do it, or would do it in the manner the particular piece of technology allows. But that was not for the players to get into, but the analysts in the postgame analysis.

This “action sheet” was based on players coming up with broad “lines of effort” each of which was composed a set of courses of action (including branches and sequels – though its always easier to do sequels, than branches…). A course of action was a set of “action sheets”. This, together with the action sheet idea was easier said than done, with players (particularly senior ones 😉 wanting to pontificate about options rather than actually justify them. The first few turns saw a lot of action sheets that failed miserably at describing general “ways and means” based statement of action, a succinct description of the effect to be achieved, followed by 5 justifications WHY the action produces the effect. We instead got sheets that reminded me of my Chief Engineer days teaching J.O.s how to fill out “2-kilos” – “requests for maintenance action” by the shore intermediate maintenance Activity (SIMA). A “Narrative” consisting of “Uptyfratz is Broke XXX Request Fix” was the typical initial effort, and we got similar efforts the first turn.

It takes some diplomacy to guide the players over the first few turns to the desired level of detail – having a good team facilitator is vital in this regard. You always get one player who upon having his “Action – employ dominant information capabilities using effective doctrine. Effect: To dominate the information domain preventing adversary access to information required to carry out his actions. Justification: My information capabilities are dominant, My information operations doctrine is effective, My countermeasures are effective, My personal are trained to be successful, I ensure the adversary is aware of his lack of ability to dominate me. QED: I win.” is rejected for being overly broad, responds with the other extreme – an ultra specific example that he then says “so you want me to make 1000 of these and submit them????” Obviously striving for a middle ground were an overly broad sheet is recommended to be split so that each justification becomes an independent action. This gets the players thinking in terms of the “5 whys breakdown” but only forces then to go 2, maybe 3 layers deep into it. (with layer one being “my line of effort will be successful”, and working down from there.

It was tough sledding the first day, but we had some interesting results. The adjudication process was by simple die roll. When all the action sheets were in (we averaged 8-12 per team) the team facilitator asked them to critically evaluate, based on the justification, how likely they thought the action would achieve the effect on a 4 point scale:

4. very likely (10) – 3. likely (8) – 2. somewhat likely (6) – 1. unlikely (4)

With success indicated by rolling the number in parentheses or less on 2d6. Based on the degree of success or failure indicated by the die roll, the umpire team wrote a paragraph description of the adjudication on the back of the action sheet (including the die roll). For example: a simple move to reposition assets (say a CSG) was typically “very easy”, but if an 11 was rolled, a casualty to one of the ships occurred, or if the Time distance was tight, a storm delays arrival by 1 day. A dreaded 12 meant something catastrophic like “High command reassigned SAG out of AOR”. Most non-military actions tended to be “somewhat likely” to “likely” but depending on the scale of the effect, tended to get cumulative DRMs to further submissions of the action (since its hard to get the result of a blockade in 3-5 days).

This back and forth progress on nonmilitary fronts can become a distracting tit-for tat, unless good facilitation drives the players to look at at the connection between what non-military effects they are trying to achieve and how and the implications on the military situation. In one case in the game you had Blue making good political in roads in coalition building, with two key partners in particular. halfway through the game Red had to take a logistics stand-down and declared a major de-escalation. The Blue player was feeling his oats and decided to “spike” that same turn to ratchet up the pressure. The dice roll augured for a significant backlash from the coalition partners over the “escalatory response” to Red’s “overtures of peace” (Blue was given a heads up it was coming so they make a conscious decision to “press the advantage” of the Red stand-down.) The result set back Blue in the non-military domains and would have put Blue into a real tough end-game spot had Red not blundered even worse (echoing the Stranglovian “you don’t build a doomsday device and not tell anyone” – Red learned you don’t plant covert minefields in the end game and not tell anyone…)

The second day saw a trend toward increasingly well-written action sheets, with an eye to building effects over time, but care not letting it devolve into “winning the battle of DRMs”. We deliberately did not have any “effects tracks” – but kept things open-ended and let the play competition define the “virtual effect arenas” that arose from trying to push effects over time. The format went along way to preventing the “RFI tsunami” – but took a while to get the players to embrace the notion of evaluating how likely they thought it was to have needed information, rather than simply waiting for the White cell to tell them what the specific information is. That in itself helped keep the game at a “high operational” level of abstraction because the onus was on the PLAYERS not the WHITE CELL to do the work of digging down into the “5 why’s” and with an increasingly strict time lime on turns as tensions increased, there was a kind of sel-regulating effect that the players and white cells played off of very effectively.

Overall the effort was pretty successful. Do to scheduling issues we had to play turn 1 on a Tuesday and turn 2 on Thursday, with Wed off in between. We thought this might be a problem, but it became a feature instead of a bug as many of the players could be heard kibitzing about what they should do in the halls and throwing barbs back and forth between members of the Red and Blue teams. We effectively got two and a half days of player thought out of it, because they came in Thurs ready to play and got right to it.

Showing players the dice rolls and having a bit of synergy between the good and bad actions (we rolled for them all and then laid the sheets out along a “big win, big loss” spectrum and then “read the tea leaves” forming a story around the whole picture) in the “storytelling” adjudicating the turn really shut off the player tendency to object to any sort of negative adjudication of their turn. Since they had a significant role in determining the likelihood was their own actions success (the white team reviewed them and held the right to override if all three umpires agreed – thus players could not just game the game by summarily rating all their actions “very likely”) their “willing suspension of disbelief” kicked in when failure was adjudicated – because they typically also had 1 or more “surprising successes” to balance surprising failure. The white cell was also honest when all three white cell members determined a die roll had to be overridden “for the sake of the game” – we only had to do that once, told the players we did it, and explained why in the debrief at the end and they were very understanding. It took 10-15 per side to adjudicate, the process being down in less than 30 minutes total all but one turn. We left the players to look at their “lines of effort and COAs based on LAST turns results, while we were adjudicating this turns results.

The “turn sequence” went something like:

Long initial turn where both long-term and “actions this turn” planning was done. (~90min)

Adjudication of initial turn over lunch

Turn 1 results brief, and players draft turn 2 actions (30-45 min – we relaxed this in the beginning and when there was really good discussion. We increasingly held firm to 30min as the tension grew and players became adept at the action sheet mechanics).

Adjudicate turn 2 while players go back over the cumulative results to date and determine any required changes to their LOEs and COAs (30min)

Turn 2 results brief and draft actions for turn 3.


We got through 6 full and an 7th partial turn representing about 25 days of real-time. Red snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in that abortive last “partial” turn… leading the Red Team leader to have his name sign on his office door changed to “Baldrick” (Lord Black Adder, I have a cunning plan…”).

I have a cunning plan...

We got almost a dozen “technology/capability connections” out of the games analysis, the “go kinetic and go home” proscription being a major driver.

We are hoping to do another such game in the near future, if resources allow…since it only took a White cell of 3, Blue cell of 7 and red cell of 4 – we got a lot of bang for our buck!

About Paul Vebber

"If you read about something, you have learned about it. If you can teach something, you have mastered it. Designing a useful game about something however, requires developing a deep understanding of how it relates to other things."
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1 Response to Using the Engel matrix game construct in a seminar game

  1. brtrain says:

    These matrix games are an excellent resource. I’ve played in several of them myself, including a very absorbing game where I played the local Taliban commander in a Korengal Valley situation. As Paul has noted, they take extra effort to set up and “train” the players to play effectively but they have the advantage of not getting the players mired in processes and technicalities. Good work, Baldrick! (but however did you get so much custard out of such a small cat?)

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