Matrix Games Handbook

Play is the highest form of investigation


Table of Contents

Predicting the future

"All models are wrong, but some are useful" (George Box, 1976)

The best way to predict the future is probably, still, by inventing it. However, your next best option is to act it out. The authors of this handbook repeatedly point out that research shows that role-playing is frequently twice as effective at predicting the future as qualitative analysis.

Matrix Games take the kind of role-play that you might find in Dungeons & Dragons, and merges it with political, social and military expertise in the context of wargaming, and other conflict scenarios.

Why might that be important for us? As an analytical tool, Matrix Games “provide a means to explore what problems there might be, how to characterise them, and how to devise a set of tools that you think might solve them”.

The authors have a wisdom-of-the-crowd faith in the power of our collective intelligence, celebrating Scarfe’s observation that “play is the highest form of investigation”.

In short, Matrix Games serve as a problem-solving and analytical device that provides insights on what might otherwise be considered ‘unpredictable’.

A credible narrative

Chris Engle, the inventor of Matrix Games, said that it grew out of the question “Can a game be run with words rather than numbers?”

The ‘conflict’ in a Matrix Game takes the form of a dialectic argument, with thesis, antithesis, and a resolution in the form of a synthesis.

In gameplay, players put forward arguments for what they believe is a possible or likely scenario. The likelihood of these scenarios is then moderated by the Game Master/facilitator or other players, or alternatively via the roll of a die. As contributor Tim Price put it, “If you can say “This happens, for the following reasons" … you can play a Matrix Game”.

Rather than a competition with binary results, the objective of the game is to create a “credible narrative”. The post-mortem of this narrative then provides further insights.

Closed vs open

John Curry contrasts traditional wargames with Matrix Games, in that the former employs a closed adjudication system, while the latter’s is open. Closed adjudication systems work well for simulating scenarios “where the background to the problem being addressed is well understood”, while the open approach is more suited to “situations that are future-based and novel and for which we do not have real-world examples”.

Closed systems are akin to algorithms – procedural rulesets that, given prescribed inputs, will execute a series of rules to deliver outputs. They focus on actions, decisions, and their consequences; while open adjudication is based on arguments put forward in relation to actions and decisions. Both have their place as they deliver different flavours of insight.

Models, simulation and games

Much of the discussion in the book revolves around three topics, namely models, simulations and games.

Paul Vebber differentiates between them as follows:

  • “A model is an approximate description of characteristics and behaviour of an object or system”
  • “A simulation is dynamic interaction of models over time”
  • “A game enables humans using simulations or representative analogies to achieve goals”
  • “A wargame is a game in which human decision-makers interact with each other within a well-defined competitive landscape in order to achieve specific objectives”

These are certainly not universal definitions, but are quite useful guides to direct builders, facilitators, and players of this particular form of gaming.


The matrix element of the game comes from “the idea that matrices of words could work to describe the world as an alternative to numerical statistics”. As Engle put it, “The matrix is the mental map that each person has about the world … so, every Matrix Game explores, builds, alters and twists our understanding, which by definition changes our individual matrices”.

Paul Vebber provides a useful, parallel meaning for the matrix element of Matrix Games. He looks at ways in which this form of gaming can ‘light a creative fuse’ and provide an “underlying framework” for the development of an idea, narrative, or technology. The matrix here is the scaffolding within which development can unfold.

Matrix Games, as all wargames, are analytical. However, the tools that they employ are less quantitative, and dare I say, less ‘scientific’ than traditional wargames; falling back on a fundamental belief in the collective intelligence of human nature. Chris Engle, in particular, highlights the connections between their Hegelian dialectic positioning, and the qualitative discovery that emerges through role-play.

Collaborative worldbuilding

The Matrix Game system “crowdsources ideas in insight from participants, thereby fostering greater analytical insight”.

Reactions to this mode of wargaming often reference its collective creativity: “The players got caught up in ‘telling a good story’ … because it involves all the players in a creative process, and much of the intellectual and emotional focus goes toward further in the story, rather than just winning”.

Or a gamer enjoyed Matrix Games because “they offered players the opportunity to feel part of a shared reality that they had jointly created with the other players”.

Again, this is not dissimilar to the collective worldbuilding experienced in Dungeons and Dragons.

Designing & Facilitating Matrix Games w/ Major Tom Mouat

Predicting the unpredictable

Wars have always involved multiple dimensions of conflict, from the kinetic to the psychological. Contemporary hybrid warfare significantly amplifies the war-of-ideas dimension. Indeed, media and messaging have come to shape broader social and political conflicts in day to day life, and both present and exploit unconventional challenges.

The core strength of Matrix Game role-play, namely shaping models that have the potential to predict the unpredictable, in complex scenarios, has parallels in organisational design.

With, we are building what could be described as an Impact Network. David Ehrlichman, author of a book of that title, recently pointed out that “Hierarchies are really good at the point where we can plan and execute on a particular discrete thing, project, or task. Networks are good at engaging large numbers of people and collectively sensemaking our way through it.” — a distinction structurally similar to John Curry’s contrasting of traditional and Matrix wargaming. Both men emphasise that each mode of operation has its strengths, and so each has their place.

‘Wicked’ problems, which mimic complex systems, require a blend of task-based problem-solving and collective sensemaking in order to be meaningfully addressed. Climate change, social justice and inequality present multi-dimensional challenges, which, in the current socio-political context, may seem intractable. A hybrid approach may be one way to solve them.

Towards this end, Matrix Gaming can play a key role.

Editors: John Curry, Peter Perla & Chris Engle
Year of Publication: 2019

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