Monday, June 28, 2010

Origins, Part 1: The Political Intrigue

Probably the most unique, fun, and exciting game I played at Origins was something called the National Security Decision Making Game, or NSDM. This game is a political/military simulation based on real-world politics, and is designed to be similar to actual "wargame" exercises used by the military in real life. The way the game works is that each game (which lasts 4 hours for "fast play" or 8 hours for a "mega-scenario") is set in a different country, or sometimes multiple countries depending on the number of players. At the start of the game, the people running the game (known as the "controllers") give a brief presentation on the basic idea of the game, and then an overview of the situation in whatever country we are running. Then, each player is given a card indicating what person or group of people they are going to play - this could be a particular person (like the President), a political party, or a particular ethnic or interest group. These cards give players a brief overview of their objectives, goals, and capabilities. Then, players break out into their individual "cells" (each country is a "cell") and start making deals and doing stuff in order to achieve their goals. Players can attempt to take actions and pass policies by writing them down on slips of paper and getting the appropriate groups to sign off on them, then turning them in to the controllers. There are no dice rolls and few hard-and-fast rules in this game: mostly, the controllers (many of whom have real-life military experience) decide the results of any actions. However, the meat of the game is not in the military conflicts themselves, but rather in the negotiation and buildup. Also, sometimes the controllers will interject events in the form of "news broadcasts," but players can also instigate things on their own. At the end of the game, there is a debriefing, which is divided into three phases: the "Excuse Generation" phase, the "Mutual Recrimination" phase, and the "What The Hell Were You Thinking?" phase. In the debriefing, the controllers reveal the whole story, ask players about why they made the decisions they did, and give out rewards for the most successful players.

The first game I participated in was set in Indonesia. The controllers gave a brief overview of Indonesia, showing us a map and pointing out the various groups, including the natives of Borneo, who are under threat of being forced off their lands, and the Aceh party, a group who lives in the northwest part of Indonesia (which has lots of reserves of natural gas) and dreams of becoming independent. Another important issue is that the Indonesian military is responsible for a lot of the administrative work (like road work, health inspections, etc.) that is normally performed by the civilian government, and many in Indonesia want more civilian control over these functions. Role cards were distributed, and I was given the President card. The card stated that my goal was to keep power, gain credit for improvements in the country's condition, and assert more civilian control over the military.

As the scenario opened, all the groups started working on their domestic priorities, making deals to advance their groups' interests. The Chinese ethnic group, which consists largely of businessmen and entrepreneurs, went around to other countries (played by the controllers) to solicit foreign investment. Other initiatives included a bill for natural disaster preparation, which led to a player being designated as the "Indonesian FEMA person." The Muslims tried to integrate the goals of promoting their religion and other groups' aims for economic development by proposing the construction of a Muslim-themed amusement park called "Allah World." I focused on the goal of gaining civilian control of the military. I convinced the groups with economic interests to go along with the plan by arguing that more civilian control would reduce the appearance of and possibility of corruption, which would make Indonesia a more attractive place to do business. However, I wasn't able to convince the military to go along with the plan, and although I made several attempts at compromise I couldn't get military support. Then the controllers announced an upcoming election, sending all the political parties into campaign mode. While there were about 15 minutes left until the election and I had spent almost the previous hour unsuccessfully trying to pass my initiative, I started going around to all the interest groups and signing whatever bills they wanted me to sign in order to gain support. During the election, each of the candidates gave brief speeches, then all the groups voted. The non-military groups (except for the opposing political parties) all supported me, and the three military players weren't paying attention during the voting process and forgot to vote, so I won with about 80% of the vote. The military and the opposition parties then began making plans to unseat me.

Soon afterwards, we were faced with our first foreign crisis: a Malaysian vessel caught an Indonesian pirate ship engaged in piracy, chased it all the way back to Indonesian territorial waters, and captured it. As I was trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution, the commander of the Indonesian air force (who was a player who had just walked in and asked to join the game, and was given that role) launched an unauthorized airstrike on the Malaysian vessel. This gave the three other political parties just the excuse they needed to impeach me for "improper military response" to the situation. Seeing the writing on the wall, I resigned without a fight. (Later on, they revealed that their original plan was a military coup, but decided on impeachment instead because part of their goal was to uphold the "trappings of democracy.") In the confusion, however, the Aceh party put its plan into action - it declared independence and stopped all natural gas shipments to the rest of Indonesia. The rest of Indonesia tried a measured response, trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution while preparing for an invasion if necessary. But when Malaysia started sending over troops and military aid to help the rebels, the rest of Indonesia realized they were in for more than they bargained for. As the situation rapidly escalated into full-scale civil war, time was up and the controllers ended the scenario.

At the end of the scenario, the controllers gave out rewards for the two best players. In second place was the Chinese player, who stayed under the radar during all the conflict and gun-running and successfully focused on their economic goals. But the first place reward was for the Aceh player, who spent the entire first half of the game expertly manipulating all of us - convincing the military to pull their troops out of the Aceh region, making secret deals with various parties to buy weapons, and convincing Malaysia to help them in exchange for the Aceh region's vital natural gas resources - and none of us even realized what was going on until it was too late. (In this whole scenario, the only controller-initiated event was the pirate ship thing - everything else was the players' idea.)


I liked this game so much that a couple days later I participated in another session. This time, I got there early enough that I was able to see a montage of player quotes that happened during previous games. They've been doing this for 20 years, so there are lots of them, such as:

"I need to flee the country to avoid prosecution. Is the Dungeons + Dragons room out of their jurisdiction?"

"When I want your opinion, I'll subpoena you."

"When will the show trial start?"
"It's not a show trial, it's a legitimate legal proceeding."
"Okay, but when will it start?"
"Just as soon as we can manufacture enough evidence."

(After being blown up by a suitcase nuke in a previous game, and later seeing someone not involved with the game wander into the room carrying a suitcase) "Oh no, not another suitcase!"

Anyway, this one had more people, so they split us up into two "cells": South Korea and Japan. I was assigned to the South Korea cell, and my role card said that I represented the farmers' association. At the beginning of the game, our first major issue was how to deal with the threat posed by North Korea. There were a few major options on the table - increase spending on the military and mobilize more troops up to the border, try a more open solution using the carrot rather than the stick, or ask China for help. I suggested that we capitalize on the North Koreans' dependence on food aid from South Korea to use it as leverage, and we eventually decided on a compromise plan that included elements of all three of the plans people had proposed. The first ew minutes of the game were relatively calm, with the exception of Kim Jong Il's player taunting us from the sidelines. But the situation soon escalated, when it was discovered that North Korea was smuggling drugs and counterfeit money through tunnels under the DMZ into South Korea in order to drain money from and destabilize South Korea's economy. As we scrambled to figure out how we would respond, we were hit with yet another crisis - a few days after a radiation leak was discovered in a nuclear sub, a South Korean vessel was attacked by a giant sea monster! This extra crisis turned out to be a false alarm - it was just a publicity stunt by a movie company to promote their new monster movie. (The nuclear accident wasn't part of the stunt; they just capitalized on it to manufacture the "sea monster attack" story.) At this point, I was mostly on the sidelines as my group's main interests were domestic, but it was still exciting to see how the situation would unfold. North Korea got more and more aggressive, sending artillery corps down to the border to get within range to fire on Seoul. We also learned that the internal situation in North Korea was getting more and more unstable, with Kim Jong Il assassinated, his son taking his place as leader, and all contact cut off between the North Korean and South Korean governments. The last straw was when Seoul was hit with a biological attack: a terrorist had contaminated the water supply with botulism, leaving over 1000 citizens dead. We interpreted this as an act of war, and invaded. We had the help of China and Russia, so we thought it would be an easy fight. But as soon as we started to invade, North Korea threatened nuclear retaliation. We thought that China had told us that they had "dealt with" the nukes, so we pressed on. But unfortunately that information was based on faulty intelligence. We called North Korea's bluff - but it wasn't a bluff.

During the debriefing, however, the true identity of the player responsible for the bioterrorism was revealed: it was a rogue general in the Japanese cell! Apparently he had his own ulterior motives, such as increasing his own power, and thought that a biological attack would be the perfect instigating event. We had all just assumed that the North Koreans were responsible because earlier in the scenario, they had kidnapped five Japanese doctors including a virologist, so we thought they were using them to develop the biological weapon. They also gave out rewards for the most successful players (there were going to be six awards this game, due to the larger number of players), but unfortunately I had another game to get to and was not able to stay and see who won. But since the end result was nuclear annihilation of the entire region, it's hard to say that anyone really achieved their goals. And as for the cause of North Korea's belligerence in the first place? We never found out, but the controllers did say that everything North Korea did (remember, there was no North Korea cell in this game except if you count the Kim Jong Il player, so most of this was controller-initiated) was based on what North Korea players "did to themselves" in a previous game.


Nanette Goodman said...

This sounds like a great game. How many people were involved with each scenario?

..too bad about the whole nuclear annihialation thing....just goes to show you..don't mess with a crazy man.

Loquacious said...

OH! This sounds like a game I would LOVE to play! Thanks for the review.

Dan Mont said...

Sounds like a lot of fun. It actually reminds me of the final exam for a course in international relations where I went to college. The class was divided up into countries and then had to deal with some situation. They were graded on how well their actions seemed to reflect what they had learned about the countries goals, resources, and constraints.

Just wondering...was there "Diplomacy" at this even? That was my favorite game back when I was in high school.

Alexander Mont said...

There were about 20-40 people involved with each scenario.

You can google "national security decision making game" to find out when the next time they arerunning it. it. I think they are running it at GenCon in August.

Nanette Goodman said...

Are you planning to go to Gen Con?