It's like Diplomacy meets Dungeons and Dragons meets Prussian military tactics.
That's 'ISIS Crisis' in a nutshell, a Canadian-developed table-top war game that a wing of the Canadian military says could be useful in getting strategists thinking more broadly about fighting in Iraq and Syria.
The game, developed by a major in the British army and a professor at a Canadian university, was given a test run by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), the military's in-house technology and research division.
The research body played the turn-based strategy game to see if it changed their way of thinking about any of the military, social, economic, or cultural problems facing the region.
The rules of the game are pretty limited. The players first form six teams: the Islamic State, the Iraqi government, the Kurdish Regional Government, the Sunni militias, Iran, and the United States. The player or players representing each faction or power must make logical arguments on what they wish to do, and other players can argue against it. The moderator, or umpire, can decide on the outcome, often by rolling some die.
Iterations of this type of game have been around for centuries. The Prussian military used a game called Kriegsspiel to plan their military campaigns. Diplomacy, a table-top game that requires alliance-making and real-world strategizing in order to conquer Europe, was reportedly Henry Kissinger's favorite game. Even the DRDC has had some experience with them — they published a report in 2011 saying that matrix gaming proved effective in preparing security for the Vancouver Olympics.
ISIS Crisis can get surprisingly complex. In the DRDC report on the utility of the game, the military researchers playing the part of the Kurdish army had to quickly professionalize their forces, while the players representing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attempted to upgrade their air force, only to fail. As the game progressed, a weakened IS rump managed to smuggle a chemical weapon into Mosul, only to face US special forces. Iran, meanwhile, convinced the Assad government to launch aggressive airstrikes against the self-proclaimed caliphate.
"It's an interesting antidote to hubris."
"This iteration of the ISIS scenario concluded with Iraq launching an offensive to retake Fallujah," the report reads. "Despite receiving air support from the US and being advised both by the US and Iran, the limitations of the Iraqi army were once more made obvious when the offensive collapsed."
Virtually all of the players gave the game positive reviews, with the DRDC concluding that the game resulted in a series of "useful observations" about the mission. As a result, the research body says they plan on developing their own matrix game, based on an actual Canadian Forces deployment.
The Canadian military could use a bit of border thinking about the conflict. One of the first decisions of the Trudeau government, after entering office, was to end the Canadian Forces bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, instead expanding its special forces training mission with the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq. The government has received criticism for scaling-down the mission.
Rex Brynen, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, who helped develop the rules and background for the game — alongside Tom Mouat, a major in the British army — says the analytical nature of the game can be very helpful for military planners.
"It's quite useful in that way, in terms of generating a series of issues and questions," he told VICE News.
He doesn't call ISIS Crisis a board game — he says it's more of a "narrative discussion" with the game board, cards, and small characters serving as "aide memoires."
Nevertheless, Brynen says the game is both fun, and profoundly frustrating.
In the matrix games, there's no real victory. "You make things better, or you make things worse," he says of one particularly difficult scenario involving the ongoing conflict in Libya. He and a group of other like-minded academics and military experts regularly develop new games and scenarios, and blog about the world of matrix gaming at PAXSims.
Stress-testing ideas about military tactics, infrastructure planning, sectarian power-brokering and political allegiances — plus a host of other metrics — underscores the need for creative and collaborative thinking, but also highlights that there is no magic bullet or single solution.
"It's an interesting antidote to hubris," says Brynen.