August 10, 2022

Connections US 2022 AAR

Betsy Joslyn, Sarah Chen, and Andrew Olson, 5 August 2022

Connections US is the flagship of the global Connections conferences.  It’s the oldest (over 25 years), largest (well over 200 attendees), and was held last week in the DC area.  And here’s feedback from several attendees.

Betsy Joslyn

With Connections 2022 only a week behind us, I feel recovered enough from the slight overdose of human interaction to gather my thoughts, and endless pages of conference scribbles, to look back and critique the good, the bad, and the unnecessary with a layered AAR approach. Whenever I finish running a wargame, I divide my review in 4 ways: The Prep, the Product, the Process, and the People. Please keep in mind that this review of the conference is coming from a newcomer and visitor to the hallowed ground of wargaming. I played no part behind the curtain, but I did participate on the stage.

The Prep:

It was clear that the preparation for this conference was taken seriously and started early. In March, I received confirmation that my presentation proposal had been accepted. In May, I was registered and had a draft agenda in hand. In June, I received detailed information on logistics to include venue, parking, and hotel information as well as details on presentation requirements and deadlines, and in July I got an update on the agenda. It was smooth, informative, well structured, and well organized. My only comment here is that the conference appears to be marketed to those who have already attended Connections in the past. The only way I even heard about the convention was through my contacts at IDA. Without that insider tip, I might have missed on this opportunity completely.

Betsy Joslyn heads the Wargaming Department at Valens Global where she designs and facilitates conflict simulations for academic, private, and government clients. After serving in the Peace Corps, she achieved a Master of Science degree in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy at American University.

The Product:

Both the facility venue and the agenda were fantastic. Each day the conference offered a full range of topics that beckoned the interests of the newest of wargamers (a bucket I place myself), and the interests in the founding fathers of wargaming (I believe they refer to themselves as the Grumbling Grognards). The only thing I saw lacking were panels that might interest the lieutenants of wargaming. Individuals with 5-10 years of experience who are looking to take the next step. In fact, as I look at wargaming opportunities I see the same thing. There’s the “get-your-foot-in-the-door with a PBJ salary” jobs and then there’s the “I have 3 PhD’s, 20 years of wargaming experience, and no life” jobs. What about those who fall in between? This is an area of growth that could be examined more closely. One of my favorite things on the agenda was game night. It was a great way to bring people together and have some fun. I would love if that option was extended (maybe add some snacks) throughout the conference adjacent to a Happy Hour so that individuals who not drink would still have an active venue to continue connecting.

The Process:

The conference was well rounded in the topics covered in the presentations and panels, but by Day 2 it felt like most of us were completely exhausted and someone had diluted the coffee. Day 1 started with a bang of energy and excitement that did not calm down until the closing remarks on Day 4. Brief periods between presentations were buzzing with networking opportunities and follow up questions with presenters. Sadly, these conversations were all cut short by the bell. Of course, this might mean cutting some presentations out, which I know nobody wants, but spacing the presentations out a bit more might help was class tardiness.

The People:

Massive shout out to Scott Chambers who had the heaviest of hands in organizing and preparing for this convention. His hard work paid off and was witnessed by everyone who attended. I had the opportunity to meet many of the convention ambassadors and found each one to be welcoming and engaging, despite my lack of history and expertise in the field. Every time I spoke, it felt like someone listened, which emboldened me to speak more. At the beginning of the conference, it was mentioned that Connections 2022 was the most diverse representation recorded in comparison to past Connection events. This was so great to hear, but as I looked around the room, I saw that there’s still lots of work ahead in this arena.

Conclusion:

All in all, this conference was a Nat 20. It was an amazing opportunity to reconvene with passionate professionals in a physical space to share and test wargaming concepts. I left the convention in desperate need of a nap, a notebook full of ideas, and renewed desire to get back to work and put some of what I learned into practice. I look forward to attending Connections 2023 hosted by NDU where I plan to participate even more than I did this year. Watch out NDU, the bar has been set.

 

click images to enlarge random scenes from Connections US 2022


Sarah Chen

I had a blast at Connections US 2022, especially as a first-time Connections attendee and presenter. My one regret is that I was not able to clone myself to attend all three tracks at the same time, and I was very limited in what games I was able to sit down and play – although the gaming sessions after the conference were much appreciated!

Panels I Enjoyed:

I really loved the panels that showcased the in-progress works and game designs. The three that sparked my interest were:

  • Institute of Defense Analyses’ CMOCKW game which attempts to model the cyber covert attack-defense information dynamics

Representing cyberspace is incredibly difficult, and CMOCKW takes a stab at creating a tangible board that mirrors the knowledge you have of the adversaries’ systems. I’m excited to see where IDA takes this – and I’m just happy that more games incorporating the cyber dimension are being created (which was the thesis of my senior theses – build more, play more!)

  • MITRE’s Digital Silk Road, an online game with front and back-end game levers

This reminded me of a game mechanic in one of the few mobile games I respect and have spent ages trying to incorporate into my game designs, REIGNS, which has ‘influence’ levers that alter your resources and event paths.

  • MINES, a nuclear blast radius to fallout damage game overlay presented by the Army

Want to incorporate realistic nuclear damage into your games without having to build it in yourself? Great – there’s a tool for that! The adaption of universal domain or weapon ‘overlays’ that can be slotted into a pre-existing game is useful not just for adding expert, real-world effects, but also as an easy way to update a game or change out its injects.

Sarah Chen is an intern at the Center for Naval Analyses and a recent graduate from Claremont McKenna College with a dual degree in International Relations and Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. She is headed to Oxford this fall as a Rhodes Scholar for an MSc in Social Science of the Internet. During college, she designed an interactive science-fiction narrative, a technology stakeholder simulation, and a future intelligence warfare card game, while her current work focuses on cyber conflict and cyber wargames. Sarah’s free time is spent playing competitive and indie games, reading the newest fiction anthologies about our robot overlords, and hiking the Alaskan mountains of her home state.

Two other panels I found hit that sweet spot between informative, actionable, and entertaining were the Center for Naval Analyses’ (CNA) panel on ‘Debate Wargaming’ and Ed McGrady’s ‘Scenario Diversity and Operational Level Games.’ The former presented a methodology and argument for expert debate-style facilitation and argued that your wargame output is only as ‘reliable’ as your most inaccurate input. The analogy Jeremy Sepinsky gave was that of significant figures via a math quiz for the audience. Apologies to my high school chemistry teacher, but I did forget that, for an experiment, 1.0×1.04 does not equal 1.04, it equals 1.0. Separately, McGrady’s presentation eventually became: ‘how do you make players sit and play the game the way they’re supposed to,’ presented in a kindly, mildly exasperated, and amused fashion. In other words, forcing players to fight wars when they just want to dance around for several rounds, letting them retcon and ‘fix’ your set-up (or putting your foot down and saying no, these are the cards you’re dealt), or getting them to stop pressing the nuclear button so fast. McGrady’s brief on facilitator interaction was insightful as a designer, and hearing stories about it was hilarious as an audience member.

Games I Played:

Highlighting two games that I played, loved, and would play again: Swarming Boats, showcased by University College London, and Malign, an influence wargame built by Sebastian Bae, Emily Yoder, Grace Hwang, and Jared Cooper.

Malign sets you in a fictional region with countries’ competing for influence over local populations, but you have to create your own narratives within the parameters of your capability card deck. For instance, we had one round where an influence campaign ran election misinformation, which was modified later on with election tampering, hitting a little close to home – all in good fun. While my fellow ‘influencers’ were lovely, our antics leaned far more on the absurd angle, but I can see Malign also being used to teach influence mechanics in a more sober setting. There were implicit areas of discussion we as players chose not to target, but, because the actual demographics of a population are not fictional – it is a game that asks players to consider the real-world fracturing, incitement, and damage that happens through information campaigns.

Swarming Boats is fun and easy to learn and frustrating and educational. I realize there are a few almost-opposites in that description, so allow me to give a brief description. You play out roughly 6 minutes of real time in an hour, with each move corresponding to 10 seconds. A tactical-level game that takes far longer than actually doing it? If there’s one thing I love, it’s playing down into the details – ships are destroyed (or narrowly survive) on a snap-decision you made 30 seconds ago. There is a group of speedboats trying to destroy a tanker, and there is one protecting ship with far more firepower than a tiny machine gun on a tiny boat. However, there is only one hulking defender and many swarming boats. Now, the game is the easiest game I’ve ever picked up – you physically draw your boat’s path across the water, leaving you at the end with a timeline map of your battle – and it’s very satisfying to feel like a military cartographer planning the perfect angle to fire off your starboard side. But it’s also insanely frustrating because most of the game is spent begging the tanker to move faster (it can’t), turn tighter (it can’t), or be designed with at least some firepower on board (arming commercial tankers with military-grade missiles is not the easy sell you might expect). The game designer, Dr. Nick Bradbeer, created Swarming Boats for his ship design class, and builds out models of his student’s designs for testing in-game – nothing hits home on the corner you shouldn’t have cut for cost like turning your ship into a submarine.

My Favorite Aspect:

The wargaming community was incredibly welcoming to all its first-timers, designated by a yellow smiley face, courtesy of the first night’s Dice Breakers. This was my first conference, and I was overwhelmed in the best way by the number of people that came up to talk to me about reading recommendations, cyber wargames, other people I should meet and talk to, or invite me to a game session. It is so clearly a community built on passion first; I felt as comfortable speaking in the Climate Change Working Group as I did asking someone in line if they liked the sandwich or the wrap more.

Improvements for Next Year:

I would love it if the working groups either played more or less of a role – I read the working paper from last year’s Connections on AI in Wargaming and loved it (it is cited in my senior thesis). But, this year, the working session for Climate Change was more focused on what is the ultimate question you’re trying to answer with climate games or if climate change should be an insert versus an actor. All of which refer back to the age-old wargamer answer of ‘It depends.’ While there was a draft, we could only access it after the session. I have working paper groups go in two directions. Either, as ‘interest’ meetings, where members would get together, discuss, and then go write for a year and come back to present their findings for the next conference, creating a cycle and more research and integration opportunities for less-experienced members, or become more intensive, fast-paced sponsor-driven questions, where the focus was much narrower – something that could be covered in two hours. For instance, what climate factors are important for a wargame on the overheating and producing supply chain disruption in the Midwest – targeted questions for better discussion.

Also, and this is fully stolen from another conference member, I would love design game jams or even a ‘postcard’ game battle where people are paired up to design a game that fits on one piece of paper, and then everyone plays and votes on their favorite.

Would I come back?

Absolutely – I would love to return to Connections next year, and my goal is to have my own game to demo!

 

click images to enlarge random scenes from Connections US 2022


Andrew Olson

Connections served a welcome and a window into the professional wargaming community. Having just started at Center for Naval Analysis’s gaming team the Monday before the conference, Connections was my opportunity to get a lay of the professional land of wargaming and meet my fellow designers and analysts. Minus the long hours, occasional bouts of “old man shouts at clouds” and the recurring outbreak of “DoD slide disease,” I loved my time at Connections 2022.

Andrew Olson is a Research Analyst on the Gaming and Integration team at Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) and graduate of the Masters of Foreign Service Program at Georgetown University. His previous work includes research on the ethics of emerging biotechnology, the genetics of social trust, and an educational wargame on technology competition, Competition: AI. As a designer, he is particular interest in gaming as a tool for imagining the future more robustly and complexity, particularly around emerging technologies and the changing climate. Outside of research, Andrew enjoys beach volleyball, Sci-fi of all kinds, and exploring DC with friends old and new.

True to its name, Connections served as a wonderful opportunity to connect with designers from both coasts, people from across the security enterprise, and even from across the ocean (let’s hear it for the dstl and King College folks as well as the Japanese contingent!). I regularly ran into designers and analysts I’d previously interacted solely virtually (zoom, twitter, discord etc), have a chuckle and amiably handshake. Similarly, I valued the opportunity to meet other young professionals. Sitting at lunch table with other 20 and 30 somethings talking about how to wargame future challenges and learn from the successes and failures the past us, I felt a beautiful and hopeful camaraderie. That feeling continued as I attended a panel discussing on how to expand and diversify the profession and another that featured an honest discussion from young designers about the challenges of breaking into and establishing one’s self.

For me, Connections also provided a helpful cross section of the gaming space: commercial, military, defense, and hobby alike. Coming out of grad school and a non-military background, attending Connections talks as well as informal hallway chats with patient elders, gave a sense of “who does what?” and “how does professional gaming work?” I got to ask questions like: What do the army shops do? What does a Futures Command look at? How do games with multiple classifications level work? What’s with FFRDCs? How do contractors fit into the ecosystem? Similarly, the working groups and game demo provided vignettes of different gaming approaches and challenges. I absolutely loved playing the demo games, including Malign designed by Sebastian Bae, Emily Yoder, Grace Hwang and Jared Cooper, which skillfully combines narrative storytelling, clever card play, and asymmetric victory conditions for an engrossing experience.

A defense conference is still a defense conference though, so I can’t say that it was all rainbows and unicorns. My conference days tended to run 8am-8/9pm if you stayed for demos or games. I struggled to stifle a yawn in more than one 2ish hour block of presentations, both due to my fatigue and the recurring “DoD slide” disease (i.e. the practice of placing the entire text worth of James Joyces’ Ulysses on a slide and then pairing it with a chart the screams “Dadaism meets clip art”). As with many conferences, here were more than a few “less of a question and more of a comment” (including in the middle of a presenters talk!) and the occasional greying old guard clashing with the rising new generation. But this is to be expected, change is difficult.

Grumbles aside, I absolutely would and will attend again the future. Nothing else I’ve experienced so far substitutes for the convening, learning, and networking functions the conference provided. Where else can you shoot the breeze with wargaming giants, meet the next generation, and roll dice to test out the next big thing in wargaming? See you all next year at Connections.


As noted in last week’s Tuesday Newsday, Sebastian Bae live-tweeted much of the conference, similar to what Brant did for Connection 12-13 years ago.

 


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