Friday, February 4, 2011

Spot Report From The Future: North Korea Has 10% Chance To Take, Hold Seoul

An example of starting positions for DMZ.
Last week was Battle Week in my Strategic Intelligence class.  Using DMZ, Decision Games recently released tabletop wargame that simulates an invasion of South Korea by North Korean forces sometime in the near future, my 20 students duked it out over the Taebaeck Mountains and Cheorwon River Valley for nearly four hours. 

The results?  The rules give a "win" to the North Koreans if they can take and hold Seoul.  Those same rules call it a draw if North Korean forces can take Seoul but not hold it.  In the 10 games we played, the North Koreans were only able to take and hold Seoul once while they managed 2 draws.

Obviously, the purpose of this exercise was not to predict the future.  I wanted to get my students to think about strategy and the impact of intelligence on strategy.    In order to encourage this kind of thinking, I had them outline what they thought their opponent's strategy would be and then detail their own strategy before they began the game  

At the end of the game, I also asked them to consider how well they had been able to estimate their opponent's strategy and how well they had executed their own strategy.  

While I am still crunching all this data, one of the most interesting results came out of my students' predictions about the outcome.  I wanted to know which side the students' thought would win.  I also wanted to check for bias so I asked this question two different ways.

First, I asked who would win, "me" (the student filling out the survey) or "my opponent" (the student they were playing against)?  Only three of the 10 North Korean players predicted victory while none of the South Korean players predicted a North Korean victory.

Next, I asked, out of the 10 games to be played, how many times would the North Koreans win?  While the range was from 1 to 4, the average was 2.25 games.

While the level of understanding of the game and the rules varied among the players, if I give a half point to a draw (which I am inclined to do...), both the individual predicted average and the collective average indicates a high degree of calibration on the part of these student analysts -- an encouraging result, for me, at least. 

I will post more as I develop it but leave a comment if you have a specific question.
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Anonymous said...

Was it difficult to teach the play of the game and how long did it take?

Kristan J. Wheaton said...


I had each student buy a copy of the game at the beginning of the term (it costs about $20) and had them essentially teach themselves. In order to facilitate this learning, I sponsored a voluntary "Game Lab" where they could come in and play the game with guidance from me or other students (as they gained experience) prior to the classroom exercise (about 2/3 of the way through the 10 week term). I did not consider this "homework" to be overly onerous or time-consuming.

I grouped all of one week's classes into a single four hour session (after finding a time that worked for all 20 students in the class) and everyone played at once. For this game, this was adequate.

Despite the Game Lab and the homework, different students still had different comfort levels with the game and the rules. I tried to match students who were roughly equal in ability (I considered other options but settled on this one in order to keep more experienced players from riding roughshod over the less experienced players).

Ultimately, the different levels of understanding of the game resulted in a number of rules "issues". I did not consider this to be a serious problem since it did not get in the way of the learning objectives.


Anonymous said...

Was there any underlying reasons for selecting this game in particular? Topic, ease of play, etc?

Kristan J. Wheaton said...


I wanted to use at least one old-fashioned tabletop wargame in the course. Unlike most video games, the underlying system of these types of games is completely transparent. It is possible, in short, for students to do, as Sun Tsu advised, "many calculations in your tent at night". The downside, of course, is that they take some time to learn and to play so I felt I could only do one such game with all the other stuff I am trying to do in this course.

In past years, I used Defiant Russia which is a relatively straightforward conflict simulation of Operation Barbarossa in WWII. I decided this year that I wanted to do something more current (and potentially relevant) for the students.

Decision Games actually has two near future simulations. The first is the one we used (DMZ). The second is a simulation of a potential conflict between India and Pakistan (complete with a nuclear option...) called Showdown. Both are explicitly designed for new players (virtually all students, however, indicate that these games are among the most complicated and difficult that they have ever played). Both are also designed to be set up and played fairly quickly.

I had intended to use Showdown as it is a bit larger scale and has a more interesting set of victory conditions.

I switched to DMZ when the tensions in the Korean Peninsula increased during the fall. In retrospect, this was probably a good decision. The simpler strategic set-up (in terms of the game) was probably helpful in identifying and reinforcing the learning objectives.


Anonymous said...

As a veteran wargamer I'm very pleased and interested to see this! Look forward to hearing more about your results. Two links your students might enjoy
(Post 124 provides the link to your article)

(Has reviews and session reports on this game, your students would be welcome to share their experiences)

And both site will reveal a universe of table-top wargames if they want to explore further.

Justin said...

What was the tactical level of the game? i.e. Did players just move Corps-sized pieces around or did it go all the way down to the Brigade/Regimental level?

Great idea for the class!

Kristan J. Wheaton said...


The game is at corps level for the North Koreans and at Division, Brigade and lower for the South Korean/US forces.


tsmith said...

Hi. This is great work. I started with 'quantitative' board wargames, too, but had to switch to Axis & Allies when a number of students reacted negatively to the complexity of counters with numbers on them and other forms of data overload. Nonetheless, I've been able to convert a variety of Axis & allies games into superb strategy, operations and intelligence teaching tools.
I'll also get back to you via e-mail.
R/Tim Smith, ONI

tsmith said...

This is excellent work in pedagogical innovation. Thanks for sending me this blog site; I've signed up.
Btw, check out DG's Spies! next time you're in BGG. Looks like a great game on HUMINT; however, I have yet to try it out myself.
R/Tim Smith