Sunday, 24 July 2016

28 years later: My small part in the early development of the Matrix Game

Some time ago I was discussing wargame design with someone from the US professional wargaming community when he asked me if I had ever taken part in a Matrix Game. When I chuckled and replied that not only had I taken part in quite few but had also been one of the first people to write and run Matrix Games in the UK, his reply stunned me. 'You're not mentioned in any of the academic literature', he stated ... and he did it in such a way as to imply that I was not being completely truthful. At the time this stunned and shocked me, and it has been niggling me ever since. I therefore decided to put on record my minor involvement in the early days of Matrix Games, if only to assuage my annoyance.

The first time I came across Matrix Games was in 1988(!). Chris Engle – the real instigator of this method of wargame design and someone whom I think is worthy of much greater acclaim and acknowledgement within the whole wargaming community – wrote an article entitled VERBAL ANALYSIS WARGAMING that was published in the May 1988 issue of THE NUGGET (No.44). In it he outlined the first tentative concepts that eventually evolved into Matrix Games.

By the time the next issue of THE NUGGET was published in July 1988 (No.45), the concepts were beginning to come together and develop into a far more practical system. Chris stated in his article MORE ON VERBAL ANALYSIS GAMING that:
The process of play of a MATRIX game involves a dialogue between two conflicting players with a referee. The dialogue can be used to resolve several types of critical situation. Institutions can be "attacked" by problems from within that make the institution ineffective in doing its job (for instance, over-hunting in a primitive culture that hunts for food). Dialogues also resolve any situations where other player's moves may critically affect the first player. Obviously there are more ways to use dialogues but I have not thought of them yet. In any case, the players present logical, opposing interpretations of the outcome of an event. They then argue as to which argument is better. If they cannot reach a decision in a short amount of time the referee decides.'
At COW88 (the 1988 Conference of Wargamers) Chris Kemp – the former editor of THE NUGGET – put on a session where we attempted to play a Matrix Game. It was reasonably successful and fairly well received, and both the late Paddy Griffith and John Armatys wrote encouraging offside reports about it.

In the 1990 WD (Wargame Developments) Annual, Chris Engle submitted an article entitled THE SWASHBUCKLERS – A MATRIX GAME. In it he described a 'Dastardly Pirate Game' that he ran for a group of gamers aged nine to thirteen. It was laid out as a skirmish and each of the players took on one of the characters. He included a description of the prompt or 'cue' cards that were used to help the players formulate their arguments, these cards being split into 'topics' (e.g. Motivations, Emotions, Fencing, Brawling, Results), each 'topic' containing relevant cards (e.g. Lunge, Walk, Wound, Anger).

By the end of 1990 Chris Engle had begun to publish EGG (the EXPERIMENTAL GAMES GROUP newsletter) and as editor of THE NUGGET, I was able to keep members of WD aware of Chris's thinking about games design. I was even able to publish one of Chris's non-Matrix games – AGAMEMNON: AN ANCIENT WARGAME – in the October issue (No.60). When Tim Price took over as editor, he continued to publish Chris's articles about game design in general and Matrix Games in particular.

At COW1991 Tim Price and I felt confident enough to stage a Matrix Game based upon one of the scenarios Chris Engle had written. PENINSULAR WAR 1808 accommodated seven players – each with a specific player brief that included victory conditions they had to try to achieve – used a large hand-drawn map of Spain, a number of figures to represent the characters and any military forces that had under their command, and what had by then had become the pack of standard 54 Matrix 'cue cards'. We ran the game twice ... and by the end of it we were convinced that the basic Action, Result, and Three Reasons structure worked, and that players did not need the 'cue cards' once they had played through a couple of turns.


Photographs of the PENINSULAR WAR 1808 Matrix Game run at COW1991. The map is hand-drawn and the playing pieces were selected from Tim Price's extensive collection of LEGO figures.
Spurred on by this success I finally designed a Matrix Game of my own. It was entitled THE BALKAN LEAGUE and followed the general design of Chris Engle's designs but with a larger pack of Matrix 'cue cards' (108 rather than 54) in order to enable all the players to be able to exploit the Matrix. (This game was published in NUGGETs Nos. 73 and 73 in early 1992, and subsequently in WARGAMES ILLUSTRATED No.66 in March 1993.)



Later in 1992 Chris Engle published his CAMPAIGN IN A DAY: A MATRIX GAME, CAMPAIGN IN A DAY: READY TO PLAY SCENARIOS, and STUPID SIMPLE RULES booklets. The latter were a set of wargames rules specifically designed to go with the campaign booklets, and contained some innovative ideas which still remain to be fully developed. By this point I had become convinced that there was no need for the Matrix 'cue cards', and that they could be replaced by a laminated list that each player could be given, and not long afterwards Chris adopted this innovation himself. (My modified Matrix Game Playsheet was published in THE NUGGET No.79.)

Up until this point Matrix Games had been essentially kept 'in house' in the UK by members of WD, but at the Victorian Military Society's Show in January 1993 and at SALUTE 93 in March I and a group of members of WD – including Tim Price – ran a revised version of Chris's SAVE GORDON! Matrix Game a number of times in front of the general wargaming public. The responses were interesting, and at SALUTE 93 they varied from 'It's just a boardgame' from two young men who forced their way through the crowd of people around the table – and who then promptly left – to one chap who stood and watched two games because he enjoyed the interaction between the players. His parting comment was to the effect that he had never thought that wargaming could be a spectator sport until he had seen a Matrix Game in action! SAVE GORDON! subsequently appeared in WARGAMES ILLUSTRATED No.77 in February 1994.


I designed my most ambitious Matrix Game in 1994, and presented it at COW1994. Entitled VIVA LA MUERTE!, it was a Matrix Game about the Spanish Civil War. The one significant change that I made was to make each player give two Arguments; one had to be Political and the other Military. Furthermore each player had present them in written form, and they were deal with by the umpire – me – in the order in which they arrived during each turn. This had the dual effect of driving the pace of the game along and not allowing players to concern themselves with producing counter-arguments to what other players might propose to do. The whole text of the game was published in the 1994 issue of the WD ANNUAL.

My final involvement in the development of Matrix Games was to run a play-by-mail campaign during 1995. I chose Chris Engle's THE MARCH TO THE SEA, which was about Sherman's advance through Georgia in 1864.


It involved players who were located in various places across Europe – including Tim Price, who was on active service with NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps in Bosnia – and used the 'first come, first adjudicated' system that I had developed for my Spanish Civil War Matrix Game. The campaign lasted for eight moves and proved to be very successful, and a full transcript of the campaign was later published in WARGAMES ILLUSTRATED.

I think that I can justifiably argue that I did my little bit to push the development of Matrix Games along in their early days, and hopefully if or when someone records a history of their development, I might just qualify for a small footnote.

For examples of some of the Matrix Games I have designed and/or run, visit the following links to the MapSymbs website (which also contains a whole section about Matrix Games):

38 comments:

  1. I remember the Balkan Wars article.

    (I also remembering wondering how players prove that their arguments are valid and supported by the facts rather than hopes and opinions as well as wondering how many historical generals and politicians had expected success based on their analysis only to meet unlikely defeat. Alas my interest has not been peaked hard enough to motivate me to investigate farther.)

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    1. Ross Mac,

      One problem with Matrix Games is how difficult it is to describe how they work. Once they take part in one, players usually grasp the way they work very quickly.

      Players can use hopes and opinions as part of their arguments but proper historically-based arguments tend to be more successful when they adjudication takes place.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. Proper historically based as in agreeing with the most popularly accepted versions or the version supported by the umpire? I could see that lengthy discussions of evidence, sources etc or of conflicting historical assessments and opinions about the facts would not be conducive to a good game.
      I reserve judgement till the day I actually watch a game in progress let alone take part. Certainly an interesting concept.

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    3. Ross Mac,

      A good MG umpire should allow the players some room for imagination when it comes to making an argument, just as long as what they propose is feasible. They should also not allow the whole thing to dissolve into a free-for-all discussion.

      In one game of SAVE GORDON! one of the Mahdist players argued that the failure of a proposed Home Rule Bill had brought about a change of government in Great Britain,and that the new government had ordered a British withdrawal from the Sudan. The argument was historically possible and was given serious consideration by the umpire. Counter arguments were used by the British players to defeat it ... but in doing so they were not able to advance their positions as they had used up their own arguments for that turn.

      One day you might be able to take part in a Matrix Game, and I strongly suspect that when you do, you will not only enjoy the experience but actually be quite good at playing them!

      All the best,

      Bob

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  2. I've played in a couple of Matrix Games, and even tried running one, but I still don't think I've quite 'got' them and was never sure what I was doing. I'd like to, but like Ross I think I need to see one run with someone explaining it to me. I remember all of the WI articles you mention; I always loved reading them, even if I couldn't quite grasp how they'd actually run. Is the Napoleonic one the one which had the Battle-sketch combat system, or am I thinking of something else?

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    1. Kaptain Kobold,

      Matrix Games are best learned by taking part in one run by an experienced umpire. It is very rare that players don't grasp the essentials within a few turns.

      We did once have a player who tried to argue that he had won the game just by saying 'I win!' as his first argument ... but as he was unable to support his argument with three reasons, it failed abysmally and he soon learned that at Matrix Games are much more subtle that he had first thought.

      The Battle-sketch game is different from the Matrix Game, although there are some similarities.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. Hi Bob,

      I just seem to remember a Matrix Game which used the system to resolve the battles, with the wider campaign stuff resolved using the matrix.

      I'll have to sift through my WI collection now :)

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    3. Kaptain Kobold,

      You may well be right. My memory is not as good as it used to be, and I may well be confusing Battle-sketch with a game that Paddy Griffith demonstrated at an early COW.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  3. This is all true. Bob was a pivotal person in the development of Matrix games. I've been putting together an archive of all my matrix games rules drafts and I have it there how much I credited Bob. Those articles in Wargames Illustrated showed more people my Save Gordon and March to the Sea scenarios than I could ever have accomplished.

    Chris Engle

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    1. Hamster Press - Chris Engle,

      Thanks very much for your kind endorsement of what I wrote in this blog entry. By putting it on record electronically it might one day be a footnote in some academic's study of the development of Matrix Games.

      What surprised me about the recent upsurge in interest in Matrix Games is how quickly they have been taken up and studied by academics. Like most overnight successes, they had been around for a long time before people recognised how good they were.

      All power to you Chris, and I hope that you do get the recognition that your innovative games designs deserve.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. Put one together about finding Pokemon and you'd be rich beyond your wildest dreams in no time :)

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    3. Kaptain Kobold,

      You are probably right ... but then I would have to find out about Pokemon, and at my advanced age that might appear a bit weird to members of the general public!

      All the best,

      Bob

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  4. I am also a big fan of matrix games, and I run one for my gaming group every year or so. We also have experimented with voting systems, in which all players get to vote about arguments instead of only the umpire deciding. Some of this was described in an article by me in Batllegames #33.

    Anyway, what I did learn about matrix games is that all players need to be in the right mindset, but also (and this is more subtle) understand what the extent of a single order can be. Can you in a single turn order a division to cross half the continent? Can you order a single unit, or a complete army? Etc. In the end, the decision rests with the umpire, but for a good game, players need to have some grasp and understanding about the decision process. Once that is in place, matrix games can be very fun to run.

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    1. Phil Dutré,

      It's good to read that you have been running Matrix Games as well. The more people who are prepared to do so, the better!

      Getting the players to understand the parameters within which the Matrix Game functions is a must. This can be incorporated into the individual player briefings, but, as you explain, the umpire has a vital role to play as well. As for Matrix Ganes being fun ... well I have yet to take part in one I have not enjoyed.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  5. Btw, for those who want to look up old articles in Wargames Illustrated, the complete article index I maintain on my blog can be very useful.

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    1. Phil Dutré,

      I was not aware that you had that index on your blog. Now that I know that it is there, it will be a very useful resource to be able to consult.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. Bob, you may be glad to know that I have set in motion about 9 litres of old magazines in the direction of Phil (Crisis 2016) to add to his article index.

      I used the measure 9 litres as the magazines filled a 9 litre Really Useful Box. It will be whisked off over the Channel in the back of Warbases van.

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    3. Jim Duncan,

      That makes a lot of sense, and will ensure that Phil's index will be even more comprehensive.

      I like the idea of measuring magazines by volume!

      All the best,

      Bob

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  6. I also think that you should get the recognition you deserve. The gamers of today easily forget how it all started. For instance, I doubt that the History of wargaming movie that is in the works will mention ayone but the very well know names.... By the way I tried going to the mapsymbs.com website and it would not come up - any insights?

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    1. Dick Bryant,

      Coming from someone like you, who has done so much for wargaming and who published what I understand was the longest running wargames magazine at the time it ceased publication, that comment is rather humbling.

      The comment that spurred me to write this blog entry left me feeling rather insulted; not because the individual had not heard of me (no great surprise to me!) but that he implied that I had lied. It was not a nice feeling.

      Try the following link for the mapsymbs website = link. It has just worked for me, but if it does not connect for you, let me know.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  7. No Joy! I get a message "The web address you entered could not be found". I tried typing in the actual address www.mapsymbs.com and that gives back the same message.

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    1. Dick Bryant,

      I've just tried the link in my previous comment and got straight through. All I can think is that your firewall or anti-virus software is stopping you from accessing the website.

      I will check with Tom Mouat (who runs the website) to see what he suggests.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  8. who would have realised that matrix games would march on and on.

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    1. John Curry,

      I can remember when certain 'mainstream' wargame designers poured scorn on the whole idea of Matrix Games ... and now they are an important tool used by professional wargame designers.

      It's truly amazing how attitudes have changed over the years.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  9. Bob,

    An interesting post there. I've tried to get Matrix games to work for my group, but have never managed to really get them to "click". It occurs to that perhaps what might be helpful to new players is a short video of a game in progress?

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    1. Conrad Kinch,

      That is an excellent idea, and one that I will suggest to some of the other members of WD as a possible project we can undertake at some point in the future.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. Well thank you for taking it on board. Could I put in a request for one of your historical games?

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    3. Conrad Kinch,

      I will certainly try to oblige. By the way, it might always be possible to run a Matrix Game by email - or even Skype - if that might help. I'll give some thought to that as an alternative.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    4. In my experience, they "click" better if you have players who also have a gaming background in roleplaying games. Not the hack-n-slash kind, but the plot-driven ones. They are used to telling what they want to do to an umpire and live by the decision.
      Wargamers who come mostly from a 'the game is there for me to win' background usually have no connection with matrix games.
      I think matrix games work best if all players understand the focus is foremost on the developing story or flow of events, rather than trying to win for any individual. That doesn't mean individuals do not have objectives they should try to reach, but they should be willing to settle for compromises.

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    5. Phil Dutré,

      I could not have summed it up better myself!

      All the best,

      Bob

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  10. I recall reading about the Balkan Wars Matric game in WI all those years ago, and found the concept fascinating. I rather suspect, though, that getting enough people interested in this part of the world would be of the order of magnitude of herding as many cats.

    I wonder if there is any 'solo' potential is such a system?

    P.S. I've looked into the organisation of Napoleonic Austrian Army Corps, and they might well 'fit' your Divisional system rather more easily than my Corps system. I'll make a posting on this, but it will have to wait several days.

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    1. Of course you can play them solo, very much so. But again, the focus should be on the developing story rather than trying to win. The Mythic Gamesmaster Emulator might also give you some good ideas how you can play matrix-like games solo.

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    2. Archduke Piccolo ,

      You'd be surprised how many gamers - not necessarily wargamers - will give Matrix Games a go.

      As to solo Matrix Games ... well anything is possible, and randomly dealing out the old 'cue cards' to the various 'characters' in the game might be a reasonable starting point.

      All the best,

      Bob

      PS. I look forward to reading about your researches into the Austrian Army Corps.

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    3. Phil Dutré,

      I'd never heard of the Mythic Gamesmaster Emulator ... but I will certainly try to find out more about it now. Thanks very much for sharing that idea; it could be a way forward for anyone wishing to try solo Matrix Games.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  11. Fantastic stuff!

    These games deserve to be republished.

    If you are not familiar with the short form RPG Fiasco, or looks like you anticipated many of their ideas.

    The way Fiasco gets rid of the umpire may be worth investigating to make the games more accessible.

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    1. Steven Davis,

      I understand that Chris Engle is going to republish his Matrix Games in the near future.

      I've never come across an RPG entitled Fiasco, but now that I have heard about it I will try to get hold of a copy.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  12. Bob,

    http://rpggeek.com/rpg/4279/fiasco

    Looks interesting.

    Over on my blog, I mentioned your post and the problems encountered when trying to use a Matrix game without an umpire, in this case a wargame called Move it, Soldier! and how it can be difficult to play with meta-gamers.

    http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/132795/move-it-soldier

    https://brtrain.wordpress.com/2016/07/24/the-early-history-of-matrix-games-2p-matrix-games/

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    1. Brian Train,

      Thanks for the link to Fiasco; it looks quite an interesting game.

      MOVE IT,SOLDIER! also sounds very interesting, and reminds me of a game that we tried at COW quite a few years ago, although it wasn't as well thought-out and was not a howling success! (I suspect that we might have had a couple of over-competitive players taking part!)

      I enjoyed reading your blog entry about early Matrix Games in the US and the development of a two-person Matrix Game, and I agree that Peter Perla hit the nail on the head when it came to the argument resolution mechanism getting in the way of what the players are trying to do. I am sure that it is a problem that can be solved (possibly by having one player acting as what we in WD term a 'plumpire'), but I'm not sure who is going to solve it.

      All the best,

      Bob

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