Connections UK 2018

On Wednesday 5 September I nipped down to my alma mater, King’s College London, for probably the best professional wargaming conference in the world, Connections UK. Within the over 200 delegates from across the globe were some of the finest wargames designers you could shake a stick at. Unfortunately, this year I could only attend the one day, rather than the whole 3 day conference, but there was a splendid packed programme (and also good nosh too).

There were excellent presentations from Professor Phil Sabin on Dilemmas and trade-offs in wargame design, and from Brian Train on Game design as a form of journalism. The former covered some of the material in the good professor’s book Simulating War. “Operationalise the dilemmas for players” was a phrase that stuck in my mind. Brian’s perspective was a new one for me, and I’d really like to review my thoughts on it once the transcript / audio has appeared. Matt Caffrey, who introduced the first plenary, mentioned a couple of new books to look out for: his own “On Wargaming” and a forthcoming book “Successful Professional Wargames” from John Curry’s History of Wargaming project.

The second plenary was on Wargame development, rather than design or implementation, and was a very welcome part of the programme. This is one of those areas where we could get into a bit more detail about the nuts and bolts, whereas I have felt that previous conferences had more of a focus on selling wargames to potential professional users than on advancing the craft. Dave Manley had an interesting presentation on nesting 3 games within the topic of conflict in the High North (the Arctic). It highlighted the difficulty of nesting, in that the implementation of a follow-on game can be perceived as very dependent on outcomes from the first game. Much of the development here is how to get credible traction with the follow-ups without predetermining too much – or in short, fudging it. Players need agency and, perhaps more importantly, need to be seen to have it. Volko Ruhnke gave a stimulating talk on model calibration, a central point being related to a systems thinking approach: calibration is the process of making your game outcomes interesting for the purpose of your game, as opposed to being accurate (true to reality). He involved his audience in a striking interactive session modelling the spread of an epidemic disease in less than 10 minutes including explanation. This involved a couple of simple rules: (1) If you are touched on the shoulder once, you must touch 3 others on the shoulder (you’re infected); but (2) if you are touched twice, you sit down (you’re dead). The point was that we could easily tweak the design to give interesting results about how to prevent spread or to experiment with different lethalities. This approach to calibration has direct impact on my own designs, and it’s easy to lose sight of the original purpose of the game when wrestling with development problems as a result of testing – for my own Mission Command: Normandy game, I’m focusing now much more on the player perceptions of command, control and communications rather than on mechanics, because the purpose of the game is to show differences in those areas.

The Games Fair is a central part of Connections. This year, there were about 20 games on offer during the afternoon and evening sessions. These ranged from the historical Western Approaches Tactical Unit Wargame, based on the exercise used during 1942-5 to help to train naval officers, through a modern naval wargame used in the education of postgrad naval architecture and marine engineering students, to Phil Sabin’s excellent brand of WW2 dogfighting, as well as the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset and the Strike! Battlegroup Tactical Wargame, both already used by the UK military.

I played Brian Train’s Guerrilla Checkers game, a cunning asymmetric abstract game with a squared board. The COIN player uses relatively few pieces on the squares, and the Guerrilla player has relatively large numbers of pieces played on the nodes. The COIN player takes in a fashion much like draughts, whereas the Guerrilla has to surround the COIN pieces. My interest was in its simplicity and how it was aligned to its purpose – showing the different approaches of each side; particularly in the light of my own abstract conventional historical strategy micro-game The March of Progress. As it happens, my own game has a couple of asymmetric scenarios, and it’s great to see how the world’s master designer at this type of game works his magic.

The key note address was by Volko Ruhnke on “Wargames and Systems Thinking” – so that’s 2 of my primary interests in 1 session! I won’t attempt to cover Volko’s address here in detail – however, I commend it to you for reading/listening, if and when it’s available on the internet. One of his main points was that wargames start out as mental models in the head of the designer. They’re simplified in accordance with their purpose. When you produce a wargame (in other words, when it’s out of your head), it’s then an external model subject to use and critique by others. This is a good thing. When we have many external models, we can synthesise them in order to get closer to reality. Many perspectives and many types of modeling media will get us closer to reality, as the different types have different strengths and weaknesses. So, implications for defence (and in my view for a discussion of history too) are to use a mix of models, a mix of people and to involve model users (consumers of models, if you will) in model building. It was a very stimulating talk.

Apart from the sessions themselves, an absolutely key component of the conference is chatting with leading experts in the field. I’m very grateful to so many fellow conference goers for putting up with my comments and also for engaging in constructive discussions.

The aim of Connections UK is “To advance and sustain the art, science and application of wargaming.” From my viewpoint, as a hobby gamer and commercial designer, it’s a highly successful conference, enabling the linking of professional wargamers and designers with those who wargame as a hobby and those of us involved in design for a variety of purposes. Though I’m not a “professional wargamer”, I’m keen that my designs might pass on some historical lessons to other wargamers. Connections UK gives a great many useful perspectives, and I hope to keep on going back to Kings.

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4 Responses to “Connections UK 2018”


  1. 1 Pete S/ SP September 13, 2018 at 00:10

    Would really like to attend one of these conferences soon. Will try for next year.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

  2. 2 brtrain September 24, 2018 at 04:18

    Hi Alan,
    I am very sorry that we did not have time to sit and chat. These conference days are always very full – I think that one was 14 hours for me and there’s never enough time to say all you want to say.
    I’m glad you liked my game/journalism piece. The audio is up on the Connections-UK website now; transcript and slides are here : https://brtrain.wordpress.com/presentations/
    I’m also very glad you liked Guerrilla Checkers. It is maybe the simplest idea I have ever had and I really wish I had more simple ideas. Can you tell me more about the March of Progress?
    I hope you’ll be able to come next year, maybe we can carve out some time then to talk.
    You too Pete!

    Brian

    • 3 benthamfish September 24, 2018 at 08:35

      Hi Brian
      Thanks for the comments and the games. I’ve been snowed under since Connections. I have every intention of sending you a copy of The March of Progress – I would be very interested in your views.
      Agreed; we should get together next time you’re over here. Or, less likely, when I’m over there :).
      Alan


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