ISIS-inspired board game helps Canadian military with planning

The Canadian military, looking for new ways to predict the equipment and personnel it will need in 30 years, has tested a game designed in part by a McGill University political science professor. The ISIS Crisis board game is being touted as an effective way for the military to start thinking creatively.

Game called The ISIS Crisis is the latest government experiment with so-called 'gamification'

Canada's CF-18 fighter jets have departed the Mideast, but a game inspired by the struggle against ISIS may become part of the military's planning process. (U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Perry Aston/Canadian Press)

Canada's military has been experimenting with a tabletop game inspired by the war against ISIS to help plan what tanks, planes, ships and people it needs to fight effectively in the coming decades. 

The ISIS Crisis uses dice, markers and a large map of Iraq and Syria, and is the latest twist in a government-wide effort to use more games in the workplace for training and education.

"This certainly does have potential to add additional rigour to our process," said Col. Ross Ermel, in charge of a directorate that plans how the Canadian Forces must evolve.

"It does show some promise.… It's one of the things that we are certainly considering."

The ISIS Crisis game takes up to six players, includes dice and a map, and is quicker and cheaper to run than traditional war games, says the Canadian military. (PAXsims)
The ISIS Crisis is known as a matrix-type game, a concept dating from the 1980s, with minimal rules and using debates and arguments, unlike traditional war games with complex rules and drawing on probabilities.

Matrix games allow complex, multi-sided issues to be explored, often by up to six players who don't need particular expertise in the subject matter.

The ISIS Crisis was created by Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University, who developed the roles and scenario rules, and by a British major, Tom Mouat, who created the map and counters. Brynen also acted as a kind of referee for the Canadian military sessions.

Outside the box

Matrix games are useful for helping military planners think creatively because the play can inspire unexpected innovations, says Brynen.

"There's a bit of a tendency to fight the previous war," he says of problems attached to traditional, rule-bound military war-gaming.

And unlike old-style war games, matrix games such as The ISIS Crisis can be set up cheaply and quickly, and played over three to four hours.

"It's quick and dirty," Brynen said. "Big war games can take months to set up and cost an awful lot of money."

The ISIS Crisis is only the latest gaming experiment in the federal government, which has been late to so-called "gamification" trends. The private sector has been using computer-based games for training for several years, recognizing their efficiency and effectiveness, especially among younger workers.

We should embrace gamified learning.- Report on pilot tests by Employment and Social Development Canada

Last summer, Employment and Social Development Canada ran two gaming experiments over six weeks with 460 of its employees.

Using two suppliers, Quebec-based Ellicom and Ottawa-based Launchfire, computer-based games were used to teach workers about digital security on department networks.

"This is an effective and desired method of learning … we should embrace gamified learning as a viable alternative to traditional methods, says a November 2015 report on the results, obtained under the Access to Information Act.

"It doesn't feel like work when you're earning points, reaching new levels and getting to the top of the leaderboard."

Some government planners say gaming may also have potential for directly engaging citizens.

Col. Ross Ermel says games like The ISIS Crisis can help the military think outside the box when it comes to planning personnel and equipment up to 30 years in the future. (CBC)
Ermel says his military-planning unit, which has never before played matrix-type games, is using The ISIS Crisis to "stress test" forecasting methodology rather than to predict Mideast events or any long-term Canadian role in the region.

The planners use 10 potential scenarios, from routine operations in the Arctic to all-out war, to estimate what the Canadian Forces will need to function 30 years down the road. Adding a matrix-type game to the process can help keep the military aware of potential innovations introduced by adversaries.

Other contexts

The Canadian Forces will decide in the fall whether to make the game a regular part of its planning process, Ermel said.

Brynen says the gaming approach has been proven successful in other contexts.

Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal, developed The ISIS Crisis game for students and others. (McGill University)
"It has also been used analytically in certain national security communities, so that kind of game format was used for security planning for the Vancouver Olympics," he said in an interview.

Last month, Brynen ran another board-game session for the military to explore responses to a humanitarian crisis caused by an earthquake in the fictional country of Carana.

The game, called Aftershock, is designed for up to eight players and takes about two hours to play.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby


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