An interview with the Founder / Operator of Blackline Simulations
Blackline Simulations puts on very realistic, often highly complex events in Ontario, Canada. I have worked in their TOC, (Tactical Operations Centre) for two of their events and I’m currently preparing to take part in a third.
My experience with Blackline has been very positive and I’ve learned a lot so far.
Blackline Simulations specializes in:
"Hosting simulation events that focus on end-to-end mission execution, including intelligence gathering, PACE planning, transport/resupply logistics, EPW and casualty management."
Tell us a bit about Blackline Simulations?
Blackline is a simulation production company. In that respect, it’s not much different from any other group organizing events. However, it’s objective is to develop the teamwork, tactical, and espionage skill-sets of participants and put them to work in immersive, realistic, and challenging role playing events.
Where did the idea come from?
It first started in earnest a few years back when I was tasked with commanding a large team for an Ontario milsim. It had been the first one I’d commanded in a quite a while, and I was a bit disappointed with how little leadership, teamwork, and strategy was present in the group. There was nothing wrong with that - maybe it suited the event they expected - but I felt there was so much missing; so much potential going to waste. A few other events rolled past, and after speaking to peers who’d been tasked with commanding those units, I received the same feedback: There’s a lack of well trained, mission focused leaders and teams available to take on simple missions, let alone the more complex and in depth ones we were day dreaming about. That was probably the second inspiration for Blackline. I had a group of people around me that had sincere interest in a level of realism just not being met by any of the events. The extreme realism crowd was looking for operations where the insert to the objective was a 5-km hike with a 40-lbs pack; where they’d lay up in an observation post for 8 hours no matter the weather; where they’d have to deal with realistic injuries; where making mistakes had real consequences. These are the kind of people that would spend 12 hours constructing a subsurface hide only to abandon it after 30 minutes of sleep due to compromise, and couldn’t be happier with that experience. They wanted a group of people that wanted the same thing. There just weren’t any events serving them. So now Blackline does.
What kind of events would you like to put on going forward?
More of the same, actually. So far what we’ve produced has been successful in capturing the right kind of attention and exciting the right kind of people. We’ve got some plans for in depth scenarios that require small groups to work through complex skill-testing challenges using real world operations as inspiration and guidance. However, we’re also working on something a bit more fast paced and iterative to practice the planning and training cycle.
Blackline has an interest in skills development within the community. What sort of skills do you want to see members learn?
It’s a long list, but it’s not only driven by me. I’m biased towards skillsets that are new, and that let Blackline create more complex missions. For example, CQC skills are prevalent through the community now and training people on them wouldn’t allow us to do any unique activities. High angle training though? Now you have guys qualified to do some interesting things that you can incorporate into events. I’m really hoping we can get together a few leadership and teamwork courses too, since people are often asked to work with others they don’t know, and rapidly building teams and control functions is useful. All of that said, one of the things I strongly believe in is giving people an opportunity to explore the interests they already have. You love communications? Can I connect you to three other people that love comms too and put you into a HAM course? You think lockpicking is awesome? Can we get someone to teach a small team of guys? It’s from this educational base that we can move forward with events that possess more complex problems. All of a sudden, radio monitoring stations and covert entry are tools your unit has at its disposal. As a bit of a side note, it’s been exciting to watch these specialists begin to move forward on their own. A lot of the guys we pulled in for Civic Burden are really sharp people. They’ve been studying surveillance and observation for a while. They’re sharing great content, and now that they’ve found others with a similar interest, they’re starting to create their own learning sessions. We’re going to have to stand up our second and third training groups soon, because the level of interest is going to last beyond the events we’re running.
What events have you put on so far?
We’re up to six named events since we kicked off a year ago.
- Blackbird//Sentinel was our very first event. We had eight guys and if you ask any of them, they’ll happily tell you that was one of the most memorable experiences of their airsofting careers.
- Exercise Shrike took another eight guys and put them into subsurface hide building. A lot of fantastic lessons for everyone even if there was only 30 minutes of sleep.
- Exercise Vantage was our first real attempt at running a remote Tactical Operations Centre for an separate event. Again, lots of really solid lessons there.
- Task Force Verdant Star saw us kidnap the poor guy right out of the other event. The level of tension that built up to that was intense.
- Exercise Laurentian was a solid night for everyone. The LUP guys did a bang up job getting into place and concealing themselves, while the OPFOR/RV team gave themselves a workout in uneven terrain. The second set of OPFOR kept everyone on their toes and was able to put our medical system to the test.
- Anchor Building and Rappelling is pretty self explanatory. That was 8 hours of certified instruction that gave our guys the confidence to start taking on larger projects.
We’ve also hosted a number of training group sessions that I couldn’t really call events, but they’re still drawing a group of guys out to work on their skill sets. When you look at what events Blackline has put on, they fall into three categories. The first is professional instruction. We did this with our high-angle guys for that Anchor Building and Rappelling course. We partnered with certified instructors to give a course on anchor building and rappelling. The second category of events are ‘exercises’. These are single task missions with a planning and deployment phase, but usually focus on building up skillsets in a more hostile environment. Exercise Laurentian was an introduction to the MEDSIM and team movement concepts, but then focused on selecting, creating, and manning an overnight lay up position (LUP), and practicing rendezvous (‘RVs) at night. That all occurred while a unit of technologically superior OPFOR moved through the site hunting for the LUP. The last category is ‘task forces’. This is an event with multiple units, multiple moving parts, training and planning days, and layers of complexity. There’s a heavy planning process that starts weeks before the event, and leadership and teamwork skills really get tested. Task Force Verdant Star (http://bit.ly/BlacklineBlog-VerdantStar) has probably been the only official task force we’ve stood up. For that event, we partnered with OPR8 (https://www.facebook.com/OPR8milsim/) events. They had their own event happening, and we’d tasked our unit to conduct a high profile target grab right out of the event. Guys spent days planning and there was hours and hours of workup. In the end, all of that effort came down to maybe 5 minutes of action (There’s some really great audio clips from the takedown). Those are the kinds of events I’d like to see more of, but they’re pretty intensive and require the right people.
Which event was your favourite and why?
Verdant Star was a big success, but Blackbird//Sentinel still stands out as one of the best. While both of these events had excellent individuals when it came to planning and execution, the Blackbird//Sentinel event really embodied a lot of the qualities I was hoping to see. It took teamwork and leadership to a new level, and demonstrated the flexibility of our planning process. It let guys adapt their plan to meet the objectives. It also didn't hurt that we had some dramatic rain and lightning to set the mood. Guys say it felt like a movie. I've been hoping to replicate that ever since.
Blackline uses a TOC. Tell us about that?
The Tactical Operations Center is something the military uses to control the various elements on the board and to synthesize intelligence coming in from various sources. We’ve been doing this for a little while now and we’ve been able to see real benefits from it. Our TOCs have completely eliminated Blue-on-Blue contacts, been able to locate enemy positions by synthesizing information collected from units, reduced communication clutter, and been able to ensure coordination of various elements coming together for an action. These guys can sit behind computers anywhere in the world and literally be the most important asset for distributed operations. On of my favourite quotes comes from a guy named WP. “It gives me way too much of a kick being the measured, professional voice on the radio in the background of all this cool shit.” I think that does a pretty good job of illustrating what they’re up to.
How would you describe the kind of events Blackline puts on? Are they milsims or are they something else?
No one seems to agree what ‘milsim’ is anymore, and I’m pretty happy to let people call it whatever they want, so long as they know what they’re getting into. So, let’s say that Blackline events are focused on learning, practicing, and applying realistic skills, to realistic problems, in realistic environments, with realistic consequences. Being forced to plan a mission and brief it back to command; having to consider insertion and extraction, as well as contingency plans; having to face the real potential of mission abort because of lost comms or incurred casualties; having to apply legitimate first aid skills, surveillance skills, teamwork skills… there are no flags to capture, no blinking bombs to defuse, and no imaginary WMDs. It’s just hard work and high stakes.
Tell us a bit about your background in airsoft / war gaming and re-enactment.
I started airsoft in 1998 with a Tokyo Marui MP5A4, some CF 82 pattern webbing, and an M1 helmet. Like everyone else, that evolved over my next few years as a player. Eventually I ended up with an historically accurate impression of a Vietnam era US Army soldier. About that time, I started running airsoft reenacting events and attempting to incorporate some of the more relevant reenacting components into the simulations, such as remaining dead when hit until the battle was over. I spent a few years dedicated to living history, and then started to circle back looking for the more visceral and challenging experience of force on force.
One of the defining moments that set the principles for Blackline happened in those early days during my first major Vietnam simulation. We’d had 60 people express interest and we ended up with 16. I figured I’d just created a disaster of an event, but you’ve got 8 guys in almost perfect US Army equipment, and another 8 guys in black VC pajamas and NVA greens, so you run it and hope for the best. We’d set up on a trail near a bridge and were waiting. I was laying in the dirt, smelling the damp soil when the first few raindrops started to flick at the leaves by my face. A rumble of thunder rolled across the sky above our head, sounding like some sort of otherworldly artillery strike when we finally spotted movement through the trees. The ambush got triggered, pyro grenades went off, rounds went everywhere.. There was a ton of screaming. Then silence. We waited a few minutes then moved to the trail. As we did, the sky opened up and it broke into a full on summer thunderstorm. I was so worried that I’d ruined everyone’s day. The attendance was lax, now everyone was getting poured on. But when we walked out onto that trail, we found all the enemy laying there in the pouring rain, motionless just as they’d been told to do when they were killed. It was a surreal experience that completely suspended disbelief. It also turned out that the enemy loved it. At that moment it became clear that the quality of people attending is more important than the number. Something we later found out at our first Blackine event.
What have you learned from the events you have run so far?
Likely the same things most people learn. Simple is better. There are a few event mechanics we’ve tried to deploy that were better suited for a few years out when we’ve got more experienced people, but that really is the long term goal anyways. You just make last minute adjustments to get things running smoothly. There’s a lot to learn about how to make this kind of event profitable as well. Realism can be expensive. The larger events can pull in tens of thousands of dollars, but we’re still working on finding the right balance between cost and investment in the company. It’s also an interesting experience trying to find the right clients for this kind of event. While I’d say our retention rate is in the 90% range, it’s hard to locate people that have the right motivations and lack of bravado. Most importantly, above everything else, attracting people that are a good fit for the event is key.
What kind of participant is Blackline looking for?
The right one. People who are genuinely willing to put the mission and the team before themselves. There is no room for egos, grudges, glory, elitism, allegiances, drama, or pettiness. You’re either here 100% for the mission and the team, or you’re not. You’re willing to put in the work, or you aren’t. I’ve had some feedback from potential participants that think they aren’t ready for these kind of events, but if their hesitation comes from how their equipment or skills will negatively impact the mission, they’re EXACTLY the kind of people we’re looking for - the kind of people worried about how their performance will hold back the team. They’re mission focused. We can work with anyone in that mindset. There are two great blog posts that we did on this, and I really would recommend people read them both before signing up for events. (http://bit.ly/BlacklineBlog-GoodFit, http://bit.ly/BlacklineBlog-Teamwork)
You have another event coming up next month, Exercise Civic Burden. What can you tell us about it?
Exercise Civic Burden is our second urban surveillance and observation event. We’re taking a batch of interested people and running them through a series of actions within the city of Toronto that involve following subjects, conducting dead drops, and detecting surveillance. They’ll use the information they gather to work up a plan to assault a structure we’ve obtained. I’m really excited, because the conversations happening among the participants are better than I’d hoped, and they’re really switched on. They’ve started training, reading, and putting their efforts into making this a success. You can read more about it over at the event post. http://bit.ly/CivicBurden-FBEvent
How can someone get involved in a Blackline event?
Sign up. It’s really that simple. Maybe read those blog posts I mentioned back under the ‘right people’ question. Events are always posted on our Facebook page. You don’t even need a gun. If you’re interested in what we’re doing, or you see a mission that you’d like to sink your teeth into, there will be a role for you to play.
What impact do you think Blackline is having on the airsoft community?
I see some groups putting on more difficult events, but it’s hard to say if that has anything to do with Blackline. Other events or units are starting to stand up TOCs as well. I can only assume they see some value in them after seeing us run ours. Overall, it’s great to see other hosts developing more realistic and more challenging events. Especially if it helps expose people to skill development, training, and teamwork. If they’re looking for a highly realistic missions to put those skills and interests to the test, we’ll be here.
For more information on Blackline Simulations, or to sign up for an event please visit: