Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming

matrixgamesReview of: John Curry and Tim Price, Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, Developments in Professional and Educational Wargames (History of Wargaming Project, 2014). 56pp. £12.95 pb.

“Matrix games” were first invented by Chris Engle in the early 1990s as a free-form, umpired alternative to more rigid, rules-based games. In a matrix game players typically take turns making an argument about what they wish to do, why they believe they would be successful, and what effects they expect this to have. Other players may be invited to identify counter-arguments. The outcome is then adjudicated by the umpire, with or without the use of dice.

PAXsims was recently involved in running a matrix game on the situation in northern Iraq, accounts of which you’ll find here and (via John Curry) here. You’ll also find some published games available at Hamster Press.

Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming is a slim volume by John Curry and Tim Price that outlines how to play such a game. It introduces the topic, including a brief history of the approach and examples of how it has been used within the UK defence sector and elsewhere. The booklet includes a concise discussion of the rules and procedures used, different options for resolving player arguments, as well as a simple system for determining the outcome of battles between military forces. In addition,  the authors have useful suggestions for how to deal with arguments that players wish to keep secret from others, when outcomes should require multiple sequential successful arguments, dealing with ongoing effects, and how to finish and review such games. More than half the booklet consists of five ready-to-play games, complete with scenarios, briefings, objectives, maps, and (for most of these) copy-and-cut game counters too: The Falklands  War (1982); Chaoslavia (set in the Bosnia c1993); Lasgah-Pol (a fictional tactical scenario set in Afghanistan c2008); Red Line: Civil War in Syria (chemical weapons use in Syria, 2013); and Crisis in Crimea (March 2014, but easily modified and updated for subsequent or future developments). A version of the latter is also available via an earlier PAXsims article on contemporary Ukraine-themed wargames).


Map for Crisis in Crimea

Certainly the volume contains everything one needs to design, facilitate, and play such a game. I would have liked to have seen a somewhat longer discussion of game techniques, strengths, weaknesses, and challenges, as well as possible modifications and alternative approaches. It would have been useful to examine how matrix games can be linked to other gaming methods (for example, providing the strategic backdrop for a series of operational- or tactical-level games), and how such games could be run by email or otherwise used in a “distributed” approach with players in different locations or playing asynchronously. Indeed, as I write this review I’m struck how easily and effectively an online role-playing game platform like Roll20 (which allows multiple players to share and manipulate an online game board while linked by video, voice and text communications) could be used to host a matrix game.

Not surprisingly for a guide published by the History of Wargaming Project, the volume places most of its emphasis on the gaming of war and warfare. However, as the authors note, matrix games can be used to game pretty much anything in which there are multiple actors with differing or overlapping objectives. It would be very easy to imagine running a matrix game of the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa, for example.

Finally, while I found the booklet clear and straight-forward in its presentation, I do think it would have been useful to have extended at least one of the brief examples to a longer narrative of a few rounds of play in order to give neophyte players or umpires a better sense of how a game might unfold.

That being said, Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming is the most useful publication yet available on how to use such games for serious analytical purposes. I certainly recommend it for anyone wanting to learn about the method, and how to use it for serious and not-so-serious wargaming alike.

Playing a matrix game (picture via History of Wargaming Project).

Playing a matrix game (picture via History of Wargaming Project).

CFP: 2015 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference


The deadline for submitting paper prooposals to the 2015 American Political Science Association Teaching & Learning Conference is October 20. The conference itself will be held in Washington DC on 16-18 January 2015.

The theme for the 12th Annual APSA Teaching and Learning Conference is, “Innovations and Expectations for Teaching in the Digital Era,” which focuses on the challenges and opportunities of teaching in the digital age when information literacy is a critical skill and we are all “plugged in.” Panels and workshops will present research on pedagogy in the digital age; and, discuss best practices for integrating digital techniques and traditional methods to engage students and train them to think critically, write effectively, and evaluate, consume and generate knowledge of political science successfully.

The paper proposal themes include simulations and role-play:

Simulations and role play exercises help political scientists and students model the decision making processes of real-world political actors. Examples of these teaching techniques and strategies include Model United Nations, Model European Union, in-class self designed simulations, and on-line role playing exercises. Papers in this track will address such topics as: in what way can simulations and role-play expand student learning opportunities in political science? Which formats are most effective? and How do we measure the effectiveness of simulations?

You’ll find the online proposal submission form here.

In the latest issue of JDMS (October 2014)…

JDMS header

The latest issue of the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology 11, 4 (October 2014) has now been published. I’ve included abstracts for those articles most likely to be of interest to PAXsims readers.

A review of the effectiveness of game-based training for dismounted soldiers
Susannah J. Whitney, Philip Temby, and Ashley Stephens

Computer games are increasingly being used by armed forces to supplement conventional training methods. However, despite considerable anecdotal claims about their training effectiveness, empirical evidence is lacking. This paper critically reviews major studies conducted in the past decade that have examined game-based training with dismounted soldiers. The findings indicate that these studies are characterized by methodological limitations and that the evidence regarding the effectiveness of game-based training for this military population is not compelling. Furthermore, due to methodological limitations with the studies, the possibility of negative training effects cannot be discounted. The paper concludes with implications for the scientific and military communities, as well as recommendations for the conduct of future studies in this area.

In video war games, are military personnel’s fixation patterns different compared with those of civilians?
Håkan Söderberg, Junaid Khalid, Mohammed Rayees, Joakim Dahlman, and Torbjörn Falkmer

For combat personnel in urban operations, situational awareness is critical and of major importance for a safe and efficient performance. One way to train situational awareness is to adopt video games. Twenty military and 20 civilian subjects played the game “Close Combat: First to Fight” on two different platforms, Xbox and PC, wearing an eye tracker. The purpose was to investigate if the visual search strategies used in a game correspond to live training, and how military-trained personnel search for visual information in a game environment. A total of 27,081 fixations were generated through a centroid mode algorithm and analyzed frame-by-frame, 48% of them from military personnel. Military personnel’s visual search strategies were different from those of civilians. Fixation durations were, however, equally short, that is, about 170 ms, for both groups. Surprisingly, the military-trained personnel’s fixation patterns were less orientated towards tactical objects and areas of interest than the civilians’; the underlying mechanisms remaining unclear. Military training was apparently not advantageous with respect to playing “Close Combat: First to Fight”. Further research within the area of gaming, military training and visual search strategies is warranted.

Modes of immersion and stress induced by commercial (off-the-shelf) 3D games
Stéphane Bouchard, François Bernier, Éric Boivin, Tanya Guitard, Mylène Laforest, Stéphanie Dumoulin, and Geneviève Robillard

Developing a stress-management training (SMT) system and protocol for soldiers can help them cope better with stress experienced in theatre operations. Using 3D horror games in virtual reality (VR) can present an attractive simulation method for soldiers. This study was conducted to find out whether it is possible to stress soldiers moderately using VR and which technology is more efficient to do so. A total of 47 soldiers returning from Afghanistan played two 3D first-person shooter (FPS)/horror games (Killing Floor and Left 4 Dead) on three different types of immersive technologies (a 22-inch stereoscopic monitor, a 73-inch stereoscopic TV and a CAVE™). As a control and reference comparison of induced stress, participants were exposed to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), a standardized stress-inducing procedure. Results were supporting of our work, devising an effective low-cost and high-buy-in approach to assist in teaching and practicing stress-management skills. Repeated measures analyses of variance (ANOVAs) revealed statistically significant increases in the soldiers’ respiration rates and heart rates while playing the 3D games and during the TSSTs. No significant interactions were found. Increases in physiological arousal among the soldiers were significant when comparing the baseline to the immersion and to the TSST, but not when comparing both stressors. Immersion in 3D games is proposed as a practical and cost-effective option to create a context that allows practicing SMT.

Applying reinforcement learning to an insurgency Agent-based Simulation
Andrew Collins, John Sokolowski, and Catherine Banks

A requirement of an Agent-based Simulation (ABS) is that the agents must be able to adapt to their environment. Many ABSs achieve this adaption through simple threshold equations due to the complexity of incorporating more sophisticated approaches. Threshold equations are when an agent behavior changes because a numeric property of the agent goes above or below a certain threshold value. Threshold equations do not guarantee that the agents will learn what is best for them. Reinforcement learning is an artificial intelligence approach that has been extensively applied to multi-agent systems but there is very little in the literature on its application to ABS. Reinforcement learning has previously been applied to discrete-event simulations with promising results; thus, reinforcement learning is a good candidate for use within an Agent-based Modeling and Simulation (ABMS) environment. This paper uses an established insurgency case study to show some of the consequences of applying reinforcement learning to ABMS, for example, determining whether any actual learning has occurred. The case study was developed using the Repast Simphony software package.

The Simulation and analysis of a strapdown antenna platform in kinetic interception progress
Guo Yue, Liu Xinxue, and Pan Lefei

Limitations on the “better information system” solution to the problem of lapsed government operating funds
Jack Brimberg and WJ Hurley

Key factors that affect the performance of flares against a heat-seeking air-to-air missile
Raghav Harini Venkatesan and Nandan Kumar Sinha

A demonstration of ABM validation techniques by applying docking to the Epstein civil violence model
Jeffrey Appleget, Robert Burks, and Michael Jaye

The increased focus of the United States Department of Defense (DoD) on irregular warfare and counterinsurgency has served to identify the lack of credible models and simulations to represent the relevant civilian populations – the centers of gravity of such operations. While agent-based models (ABMs) have enjoyed widespread use in the social science community, many senior DoD officials are skeptical that agent-based models can provide useful tools to underpin DoD analysis, training, and acquisition needs mainly because of validation concerns. This paper uses docking and other forms of alignment that enable the linking of the Epstein civil violence agent-based model results to other models. These examples of model-to-model analysis could serve to assist and encourage DoD ABM human domain model validation efforts.

Location and visualization of the communication problems in a simulated Slovenian Armed Forces tactical radio network
Saša Klampfer, Matjaž Fras, Gregor Globačnik, Jože Mohorko, and Žarko Čučej

Teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations (Part 5)

PAXsims is pleased to present the fifth and final instalment in a series of blog posts by David Romano (Missouri State University) on teaching International Relations through popular games, culture and simulations. You’ll find the introduction to the series here.

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k9388The games, simulations and popular culture discussed here are not the only ones available for teaching international relations, of course. At least three other kinds of similar pedagogic tools I know of have received a good deal of attention in the field recently. Given that zombies appear to pervade popular culture these days, many teachers have begun incorporating assignments with the walking dead. While Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies (2011) offers a very interesting, humorous read that I certainly encourage students to take a look at, zombies fail to liven up IR theory for me. The problem stems from the fact that they are unthinking – they cannot be reasoned with or deterred, one cannot invite them to join an international institution, and their identity remains static – or nonexistent really. As such, the logic of the zombie theme looks more like any natural disaster or epidemic. One might just as easily replace the zombies with Alfred Hitchcock’s birds or swarms of carnivorous frogs (from a film that traumatized me as a child and whose name I no longer recall). The only assignment relating to zombies that really worked for my “Games in IR” class, besides plenty of anecdotal comments during some lectures, is suggested by Blanton (2013:10). Students read World War Z (Brooks 2006) and wrote a short paper using Graham Allison’s (1969) Model 2 “operational roles” and Model 3 “bureaucratic behavior” to explain why the U.S. military’s initial response to the zombies was so inadequate. If I use this assignment again, I will only assign the students pages 92-104 from World War Z (“The battle of Yonkers”), as several complained that the rest of the book was not worth it to them pedagogically.

9780472051823A recent book relating J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954) to IR poses similar problems for me. While Ruane and James’ The International Relations of Middle-earth (2012) offers a lot of excellent and thoughtful material, the irredeemably evil nature of Sauron (a.k.a. “The Dark Lord”) and most of his minions (orcs, goblins and what not) in my opinion does more harm than good to IR theory. Sauron and his minions’ apparently static and uncompromisingly malevolent identity is simply not the kind of complex world I try to help my students understand. Because I want to discourage my students from demonizing “the other” in such ways, I avoid incorporating such fantasy literature and lean instead towards the more ethically complex Game of Thrones kinds of story settings. Some of the most interesting things about IR theory involve good people doing bad things, self-serving actors being cajoled or pressured into cooperating with others, unintended consequences of choices actors make, misperceptions, bureaucracies that fail to produce the results they were created for, and grey ethics. When we introduce a titanic struggle between good and evil, it becomes harder for students to see these nuances and complexities.

The final simulation or IR model that has recently received a lot of attention is the one I have the most mixed feelings about. Statecraft is a simulation developed specifically for international relations students. Students are divided into different countries in a fictional computer on-line simulation wherein they name their states, divide key government posts between themselves (such as “President,” “Secretary of State” and “Secretary of Defense”) and decide what the state’s principle attributes are (“green” or “industrial” for instance, giving bonuses to farming or factory production respectively). They then play through a pre-determined number of turns (typically on a 1-turn a week schedule) wherein they decide what structures to build in their state, what technologies to research, what trade agreements with others to pursue, what spy missions (if any) to launch, what military units to build and what military actions to take (if any). In this sense, the logic is very similar to the 4X computer games described here, but without the “explore” aspect given that there is no undiscovered territory even at the outset of the game. Students have a number of competitive goals to pursue, from being the “safest country” or the “most educated country” to the “wealthiest country” or the “most militarily powerful” country. Naturally, a student whose state is eliminated from the game by military conquest cannot achieve much in the way of these goals. A number of global goals (meaning jointly attained rather than competitive) also exist, such as “ending world hunger” and “the global peace award” (no hostile military actions occur for the duration of the simulation). Students are to be graded on both their effort and participation as well as their success in achieving these goals, as determined by a point system that the simulation awards them. Students generally need at least an hour of class time a week for the simulation, to hold U.N. meetings and organize themselves, while the rest gets done on-line.

I should start by saying that several of the students in my “Games in IR” course really appreciated this simulation. The simulation allows for a degree of complexity and interaction that is hard to get anywhere else without a huge amount of work on the professor’s part. There is ample room to work in any number of IR lessons from the simulation into course lectures and assignments, as this is the explicit intent of the model. I enjoyed watching my students’ U.N. meeting where they tried to organize each state’s per turn food contributions aimed at ending world hunger, and seeing how easy it was for more industrial players to trade their production points to more agricultural states in order to meet the quota they agreed to. The most shocking event in our class simulation occurred when a student who had not built a single conventional military unit in his state began researching nuclear weapons, in contravention of a non-proliferation agreement the class had been discussing.

Another player discovered his research intentions through a spy mission he launched, and—led by the president of a “pacifist” state (“pacifist” is one of the attributes students can choose for their state – it provides advantages in health ratings and low crime rates, but precludes the building of nuclear weapons or stealth bomber)—all the other players then proceeded to invade and conquer his territory before he could develop nuclear weapons. The student’s state was thus eliminated (it was a source of some ironic humor in the class that the now stateless student was in fact Kurdish). Just before the last turns of the game, however, the president of the “pacifist” state secretly offered to return some territory to the now stateless student if he would share with him the computer password used to control his state in the simulation. Upon getting the password, the “pacifist” student proceeded to complete the other student’s nuclear weapons program and then on the last turn use his state to nuke all the cities of the other players in the game – thereby guaranteeing for himself most of the competitive point awards in the game. The e-mail the “pacifist” student sent to the other players at this point quoted liberally from Thucydides, Hobbes and Machiavelli.

Despite all the excellent points to comment this simulation, however, a few issues make me uncertain if I will use it again in the future. Although I realize that this simulation is primarily aimed at American students, the Canadian in me was not at all fond of all the American-centric titles in the game, from “Secretary of State” (rather than the far more common “Minister of Foreign Affairs”) and the “CIA Program” technology to the “Schwartzkopf War College” building and “Harvard University” program technology. On a more serious note, students repeatedly came to me with technical glitches in the algorithms of the simulation. One example of many involved the students that had chosen the “green” country attribute.

They soon noticed that the promised multiplicative effects for farms from this attribute was actually additive and much smaller than the truly multiplicative bonus students with the “industrial” attribute got for their factories. Another student discovered that he could launch spy missions, then cancel them the same turn and get a refund for the cost of a mission he had yet to pay for. The trick allowed him an endless supply of money in the game. While the tech support I always told the students to e-mail was unfailing quick in responding, the solutions were generally ad-hoc (as in “I just added 200 food resources to your state”) rather than corrections of problematic algorithms. According to around half my students, these problems as well as what they felt were poorly designed rules for military engagements ruined the simulation.

From my own point of view, I found the simulation hard to follow and keep track of. Although from my own computer I remained able to view every message sent within the simulation and every structure built or spy mission launched, the amount of things happening quickly became overwhelming and the interface for viewing it all was not friendly. When I inquired with tech support about comparative graphs or charts to measure the relative progress of different players towards different objectives (something that exists for the 4X games described here), I was told that I should just read the turn summaries that students are supposed to write to explain what they are doing. (A new 2.0 update of Statecraft in now apparently in use, however, which supposedly addresses many of these issues. I have not had the opportunity to review the updated version.) Needless to say, my students were too sneaky or lazy to often tell me what they were really up to (if anything). In short, I felt that I did not really have sufficient knowledge of what was happening in the simulation and why, which in turn made it much harder to grade the students’ participation.

I am thus unsure if I will use Statecraft again. Instead, I will most likely rely on various combinations of the assignments described here. While simulations such as Statecraft may prove fine options for many professors, they generally require a good deal more class time and ongoing attention from the professor than the assignments described here. Simulations created specifically for IR classes also lack the advantage of demonstrating to students that IR theory really surrounds them in their everyday lives. For these reasons, I prefer one or more of the assignments I describe above for my courses.

David Romano
Missouri State University 



Allison, G. T., 1969. Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The American Political Science Review, 63(3), pp. 689-718.

Blanton, R. G., 2013. Zombies and International Relations: A Simple Guide for Bringing the Undead into Your Classroom. International Studies Perspective, 14(1), pp. 1-13.

Brooks, M., 2006. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. 1st ed. New York: Random House.

Drezner, D. W., 2011. Theories of International Politics and Zombies. 1st ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

James, P. & Ruane, A. E., 2012. The International Relations of Middle-earth: Learning from The Lord of the Rings. 1st ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Tolkein, J.R.R., 1954-1955. The Lord of the Rings. 1st ed. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Wargaming at King’s College London

Prof. Philip Sabin (Department of War Studies, King’s College London) has put together a short video that offers an overview of both the recent Connections UK 2014 professional wargaming conference and his own MA module on conflict simulation at KCL.

You’ll even see a brief glimpse of PAXsim’s own Humanitarian Crisis Game being played at 1:32!

Connections UK 2014 presentations now online

Business1If you missed the Connections UK 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London earlier this month, you’ll now find a very full account at the Connections UK website—including details of the “Wargaming 101″ session, biographies of all conference speakers, powerpoint slides, downloadable game materials, and recordings of some of the presentations and discussions.

Our earlier PAXsims account of the conference can be found here and here.


Teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations (Part 4)

PAXsims is pleased to present the fourth of five blog posts by David Romano (Missouri State University) on teaching International Relations through popular games, culture and simulations. You’ll find the introduction to the series here.

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Popular Fantasy and Science Fiction

Just as students’ attention span in the classroom is limited and requires breaks in order to refocus, so too with the assignments we tend to inflict upon them outside the classroom. Their sessions with classic IR texts, academic articles and documentaries need to be broken up with other kinds of materials. By offering some popular fantasy or science fiction books and films, we can encourage breaks that still further the IR learning process as opposed to breaks involving reality television or similar drivel. Besides activating the right side of the brain, assignments relating pop fiction to the IR literature can set students on the path of recognizing all kinds of things in the world they experience that link up with the academic theories they are studying. This in turn produces deeper learning and increases the likelihood that they will actually retain more of the lessons from their courses.

The two pop fiction assignments provided here come from the world of science fiction and fantasy, respectively. The two genres are particularly useful for getting students to focus on theory rather than descriptive detail, given that even fairly clueless students will recognize that what year Sauron reemerged to wage war on Middle Earth or which species make up the United Federation of Planets will not be on the exam. Both assignments in this section offer the pedagogic advantages described in the section discussing the Civilization and Stardrive computer games – especially in terms of encouraging students to think about systems and their most important actors. In addition to this, the two assignments discussed here offer a number of additional lessons. Like Stardrive but unlike Civilization, these two assignments have the advantage of fictional societies and cultures, which helps steer students away from explaining international relations behavior through a reliance on stereotypes and political preferences. Before going on to discuss the details of each assignment and in the interest of not receiving hate mail in my inbox, I should insert the obligatory *spoiler alert* here – some readers may wish to watch the Babylon 5 series and read the Game of Thrones books before the rest of this article.


TV Sci Fi Series: Babylon 5

  • Pedagogic Audience:
    • Any IR theory course with plenty of room for class discussion
  • Key Concepts Highlighted:
    • Institutions and Regimes, Systems and Units, 2-Level Games, Constructivism, Allison’s Models 1-3, Realism, Liberalism and more
  • In Class vs. Out:
    • Students watch series outside of class and discuss the material in class, with potential exam questions or essay assignments

Babylon 5
ran for five seasons beginning in 1994, with almost all the episodes written by J. Michael Straczynski. Although not well known, the show won numerous awards, including two Emmy Awards and two consecutive Hugo Awards for best dramatic presentation. Assigning Babylon 5 rather than more well-known sci fi such as Star Trek offers the students a more level playing field, since few of the new generation of students are likely to already know the show well. The show is still available via Netflix DVD and Amazon instant streaming in North America, and still shown on regular television in much of Western Europe. For pedagogic purposes, the first two seasons of the show would probably be sufficient given the difficulty of assigning students more than this.

In the hope that none of my students are reading this article (lest they note my failure to follow my own essay assignment directives), I will provide the summary of the show’s premise that I found on Wikipedia:

Set between the years 2258 and 2281, it depicts a future where Earth has sovereign states, and a unifying Earthgov. Colonies within the solar system, and beyond, make up the Earth Alliance, and contact has been made with other spacefaring races. The ensemble cast portray alien ambassadorial staff and humans assigned to the five-mile-long Babylon 5 space station, a centre for trade and diplomacy. Described as “one of the most complex programs on television,” the various story arcs drew upon the prophesies, religious zealotry, racial tensions, social pressures, and political rivalries which existed within each of their cultures, to create a contextual framework for the motivations and consequences of the protagonists’ actions. With a strong emphasis on character development set against a backdrop of conflicting ideologies on multiple levels, Straczynski wanted “to take an adult approach to SF, and attempt to do for television SF what Hill Street Blues did for cop shows.”

I found it somewhat difficult to settle on a limited number of IR concepts dealt with in the show to highlight here, but nonetheless chose a few that I like to use the show to illustrate. The Babylon 5 series actually contains rich and almost limitless material that can be used to illustrate international relations theories, without the encumbrances of cultural stereotypes, political affinities or the very uneven knowledge of human history present in an average class of university students. (I am not suggesting that we remove real history from our IR teaching. An assignment based on science fiction in a class with many different assignments, however, can help engage students who otherwise feel intimidated by their relative and hopefully temporary ignorance of history.) I encourage teachers interested in using the show for concepts not discussed here, from patriarchies and humanitarian interventions to pacific unions and relativism, to consult the aforementioned Wikipedia entry for Babylon 5 – some of the show’s more ardent fans have crafted a Wikipedia entry with very extensive discussion of the series’ plot lines, many themes and parallels to real historical events.

When a class is assigned a season or two of the show, they all have the same reference points with which to discuss the IR theories at hand. The show is also appropriate for students (and professors) unfamiliar with the sci fi genre. My wife, who never betrayed an inkling for science fiction until I introduced her to the show, became enthusiastic enough about it to demand some marathon viewing sessions.

Unlike most television shows, Babylon 5 contains very ample material for a discussion of levels of analysis (Singer 1961) and two-level games (Putnam 1998). Besides the obvious inter-galactic system level typically present in the sci fi genre, Babylon 5 focuses on the domestic politics of the various species/civilizations in the show. Sometimes ambassadors of the various species on the Babylon station make agreements they find themselves unable to ratify at home, or they make deals on the station that spark unrest on their home planets. Sometimes domestic politics causes the “states” in the system to attempt to ally with external threats rather than balancing against them. When a coup d’état overthrows the leadership of the Earth Alliance, the human staff of Babylon 5 (along with the Mars Colony) declare independence and turn to alien races for protection against their own government – at which point alien races willing to assist typically demand a greater say in managing the Babylon 5 station. The species/civilizations in this inter-galactic system are thus in no way presented as unitary rational actors.

The story of Babylon 5 begins after a devastating war between the Earth Alliance and the Minbari Federation. In the first two seasons, a lot of attention is devoted to how the war originally broke out: a case of mis-communication and unintended displays of hostility, problems which the Earth Alliance later built the Babylon stations to prevent from occurring again. The initial causes of this war fit perfectly with Graham Allison’s (1969) Model 2 and the concept of standard operating procedures leading to unintended outcomes. Upon first contact between the Humans and Minbari, the Minbari ships approached the Earth Alliance fleet with their gun ports open – which is a sign of respect in Minbari culture. Seeing the gun ports open, members of the human fleet followed their standard operating procedures and began a chain of standard procedures for combat that culminated in one of their ships firing on the Minbari without higher authorization. This in turn led to a war of many years which the Minbari were poised to win, until they mysteriously ceased their offensive (we find out why they ended the war short of victory later on in the show). At different points in the series, we also see different bureaucracies in the Earth Alliance (the Psy Corps and components of the military) and the Minbari Federation (the Warrior Caste) pursuing their apparent interest in resuming the war, which fits Allison’s Model 3 account of bureaucracies’ role in producing less than rational foreign policy behavior on the part of states.

In terms of institutions, the whole premise of the show centers upon the key role that the Babylon 5 space station plays in facilitating communication, agreements, agenda setting, the creation of new inter-galactic norms and the overcoming of collective action problems. As the show progresses and its main characters (the various ambassadors and the human officials of Babylon 5) have more and more contact with each other, their identities shift. Several of the main characters go from viewing everything in terms of the interests of their respective species or governments to an inter-galactic equivalent of the cosmopolitanism. Most of their home government’s officials, however, lack the benefit of extended contact and interaction with the other civilizations and thus do not experience the same shift in identity – leading to a situation wherein the agents of Babylon 5 come to increasingly defy the directives of their home government principals as they work towards new norms they have been socialized into (Hall and Taylor 1996). Towards later seasons, the officials of the now independent Babylon 5 station – both human and non-human now – work towards nothing less than a fundamental transformation of their inter-galactic system from one of anarchy into something else.

A final overall and useful theme of the series only begins to be revealed in seasons two and three. Two “elder races” – the “Shadow” and the “Vorlon” – lurk in the background from the very beginning of the show. They are engaged in a cold war against each other, fought via proxies – the younger races (such as the humans) which Babylon 5 focuses on throughout the series. The equivalent of the U.S. and Soviet superpowers, different younger races choose (often unwittingly) to side with either the Shadow or the Vorlons at the same time as others attempt to form a non-aligned movement. Although viewers might initially think the Vorlons are the “good guys” in this account, given that they represent order and law versus the Shadow’s chaos and anarchy, the younger races quickly discover that the Vorlon pursue their own interests rather than anyone else’s. Elevating Law and order above all else can require humiliating obedience and protect the privileges of the powerful. For American students who may have difficulty viewing their own state the way some others in the system might, the parallels here can prove very useful pedagogically.

In terms of assignments using Babylon 5, any number could prove suitable, from essays to simple discussion points or class activities. Since the TV series has five seasons with a total of 110 episodes (each around 44 minutes long), professors can choose which episodes to assign on the syllabus when. In each class or tutorial session, a different student leads a discussion of how the assigned episode incorporates international relations themes or theories covered in the course. Besides the crucial pedagogic feedback such ongoing presentations provide, such an approach has the potential advantage of allowing students to point out issues and themes the professor failed to notice before.


Book Series: Game of Thrones

  • Pedagogic Audience:
    • Any IR theory course with room for class discussion
  • Key Concepts Highlighted:
    • Classic Realism, Systems and Units, Norms and Ethics, Anarchy
  • In Class vs. Out:
    • Students read books outside of class and discuss the material in class, with potential exam questions or essay assignments

A-GAME-OF-THRONES-new-HC A Game of Thrones (Martin 1996) is set in a fantasy feudal world where seasons can last for years and power of magic waxes and wanes in different eras. The popularity of the novels and television series probably means that not is required here in the way of synopsis, and the large majority of students will be familiar with the books, the series or both. This has the advantage of using a vehicle that many students will be avid fans of for pedagogy, thereby increasing their engagement with the course material. It has the disadvantage of not leaving every student on a level playing field, however, as a few will be unfamiliar with Game of Thrones and will need to catch up quickly.

The first book or season in the series is probably sufficient to allow for ample discussion of Classic Realism, Machiavelli, the principal units/actors within the system (great houses such as the Lannisters and Starks), anarchy within the system (technically absent given the presence of a king who rules over the feudal houses, but in reality always at play) and regional systems (the Kingdom of Westeros) compared to a global system (something that does not really exist in Game of Thrones given the very limited interaction between Westeros, various island city-states and other continents).

The possibility I found most intriguing with Game of Thrones, which I used in my “Games in IR Theory” class of eight upper level students, involved norms, normative theory and ethics. Although the Game of Thrones world is vicious and cutthroat, the system in Westeros does have its norms – hospitality to guests once you have shared salt and bread with them, political leadership via patrilineal inheritance (except in southern Dorne part of Westeros, where inheritance is matrilineal), forbidding of slavery, feudal obligations of “bannermen” to their lords, and respect for the neutrality of the institution of the Nights’ Watch, for instance. (The Nights’ Watch is a monastery-like order of soldiers protecting the northern border of Westeros by manning a great ice wall there. The Nights’ Watch institution also serves as a useful pressure valve by taking in anyone, whether troublesome second-born sons or criminals, so long as they swear loyalty to the order and renounce their past affiliations.) In the novels and television series, however, all these norms face increasing strain and violations as the kingdom falls into civil war over succession to the Throne of Westeros. The resulting civil war appears also to weaken the kingdom severely, putting its ability to resist external threats into serious question.

The question that naturally arises then has to do with Westeros’ system of ethics, norms and rules for political succession and the extent to which these promote the greater good. Throughout Game of Thrones, a tension between those who follow a Realist ethic of raison d’état (translated as “whatever is necessary to safeguard one’s noble house,” or perhaps “raison de famille”) and those who harbor additional norms such as honesty, respect for the rule of law, regard for the lives of children, and the welfare of the kingdom in general, exists. Those who attempt to follow an ethical code beyond that of self-help seem to come to tragic ends in Martin’s novels.

In order to focus on these questions, the assignment I devised centered on a short essay the students had to prepare addressing ethics in Game of Thrones, followed by a debate. In the debate, students adopt the role of a maester in the book, members of an order of scientists/alchemists whose center of learning is called the Citadel and who try to influence developments in the realm for the greater good, via their positions as advisors to every lord in the realm. Students need to have it made very clear to them that they are to adopt the role of a maester who does not appear in the novels or television series, but is rather a character of their own creation. (I was not clear enough on my directives, it seems, as one student introduced himself as a “whitewalker” ice wraith and another as Daenerys Targaryen, a principal character in the story whom “…the others had better listen to in this debate because I control dragons!” Perhaps it was just late in the semester, a time when everyone’s wits suffer.)

My directives were as follows:

Archmeaster Professor Romano has convened a secret conference of maesters to discuss the political instability in Westeros. The overriding questions the maesters need to address include: “What should be the basis of the reigning political system in the realm? Is the current system of feudal, dynastic rule by inheritance serving the greater good of the realm? What alternatives exist? Which, if any, of the current claimants of the Iron Throne should receive the Citadel’s tacit support?”

Students will each play the role of one of the maesters summoned to the conference and will come prepared to make their arguments.

Each student will introduce themselves and tell the conference where they have been posted for the last several years, followed by a 5 minute summary of their views on the conference’s central questions. Maester Weston will provide a written summary of his position, as he was not able to make the journey from the Lands Beyond the Wall and participate in the conference in person, but one of his ravens arrived bearing his thoughts [Weston had a debate tournament and could not be in class that day, so I had him e-mail his views “from beyond the Wall”].

Following the presentations, all the assembled maesters will debate the issue.

The debate that took place as a result proved enjoyable and at times quite philosophical, but in need of further direction and precision in the directives provided to the students beforehand. I did not want to initially provide too specific instructions, as I wanted to give the students room to address the issues they thought were important in terms of ethics and normative theory. I then wanted them to try and draw parallels to our world, which they did by immediately pronouncing that “Hobbes and Machiavelli were right.” This assignment probably still needs refinement.

David Romano
Missouri State University



Allison, G. T., 1969. Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The American Political Science Review, 63(3), pp. 689-718.

Babylon 5. 1993-1998. [Film] Directed by J. Michael Straczynski. United States of America: Babylonian Productions & Synthetic Worlds, Ltd.

Hall, P. A. & Taylor, R. C.R., 1996. Political Science and the Three New Institutions. Political Studies, 44(5), pp. 936-957.

Martin, G. R.R., 1996. A Game of Thrones. 1st ed. New York: Random House.

Putnam, R. D., 1988. Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games. International Organization, 42(3), pp. 427-460.

Singer, J. D., 1961. The Level-of-Analysis Problem in International Relations. World Politics, 14(1), pp. 77-92.

Wikipedia, 2014. Babylon 5. [Online]  Available at: 5

The curse of D&D


04_Right_Inline_Block_ImageFTApparently Dungeons & Dragons is cursed. No, I don’t mean the curse of the D&D business model, whereby the game is reinvented every few years in a new edition (complete with expensive new rulebooks), and players are then milked for a  series of supplemental book on top of that—most of which muddy up whatever elegance the latest game system had, until the process is repeated again. (Full disclosure: I currently have 49 volumes of D&D rules and supplements on my bookshelf stretching back to 1978, a mere fraction of the total I’ve owned at one time or another.)

No, I mean the curse whereby creators fall out with one another amid arguments and lawsuits. According to the New York Times:

For a certain sort of fan, the crowdfunding pitch was impossible to resist. Here was a chance, it announced, to support a documentary about the immortal saga of the legendary game that all but revolutionized modern life. No pressure.

Three filmmakers promised nothing less than the origin story of the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, “a cautionary tale of an empire built by friends and lost through betrayal, enmity, poor management, hubris and litigation,” they wrote on their Kickstarter pagein 2012. They planned to chronicle the bitter battle waged by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the game’s creators, over credit and royalties.

In other words, they wrote: “Imagine ‘The Social Network’  ” — the tortuous tale of Facebook’s founding — “but no one ends up rich.”

If the filmmakers saw a cautionary tale in the story of their shared passion, they failed to heed its lessons. More than $250,000 in Kickstarter pledges and two years later, there is no documentary, only broken friendships and a lawsuit.

The director of “Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary” has sued his former partners for embarking on another documentary on the same subject. Gaming conventions like GenCon (“The Best Four Days in Gaming”) andGaryCon (“a living memorial to E. Gary Gygax”) are abuzz with rumors of backstabbing and creative theft. Gathering around their tabletop games and in online forums, Dungeons & Dragons fans are distraught.

“Every story has 20 sides,” reads the tagline for the upstart second documentary, a reference to the 20-sided dice Dungeons & Dragons players use to direct their tabletop fantasy narratives. So far, this one has two.

It began, of course, with a game of Dungeons & Dragons….

You’ll find the rest of the story here. And, in the meantime, if you really want to know how the world’s most influential roleplaying game got started, you could do no better than to read Jon Peterson’s excellent history, Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role Playing Game.

Teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations (Part 3)

PAXsims is pleased to present the third of five blog posts by David Romano (Missouri State University) on teaching International Relations through popular games, culture and simulations. You’ll find the introduction to the series here.

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Units and Systems: Two 4X Computer Strategy Games

Computer strategy games have their own specific pedagogic advantages and disadvantages, of course. A serious disadvantage comes with the fact that not every student has a penchant for the complex rules, computer interfaces and strategies such games include. Students who grew up playing Sid Meier’s Civilization series, Panzer General, Master of Orion or even newer games such as Warcraft 2-3 and Starcraft can thrive with a computer game-based assignment. Others, unfortunately, will become frustrated and waste an inordinate amount of time just learning the basic game mechanics, and may not enjoy the “simulation” even once they become more comfortable with it. What’s more, this kind of assignment requires that the professor also have experience with the computer game in question, and just like students, not every political science professor is a computer strategy game geek (as hard as this may be to believe for some of us). That much said, the “4X computer strategy game” assignment can serve as an invaluable optional or extra-credit assignment to engage some students. The two computer games suggested here share much in common and will therefore be described together.


Computer Games – Civilization and Stardrive

  • Pedagogic Audience:
    • Certain students in any IR theory class (assignment should be 1 choice of several)
  • Key Concepts Highlighted:
    • Realism, Neo-Realism, Anarchy, Systems and Units, Soft Power, Liberalism
  • In Class vs. Out:
    • Outside of class – students play the game individually on their own time

Civilization casts the player as one of 18 different civilizations, such as “Greek,” “Indian,” “Russian,” “Mayan” and “American,” and the game starts in 4000 B.C. (I generally discuss my reservations about this with students, as the civilizations in question each have their own particular traits, advantages and, when played by the computer, typical behavior – all of which generally betrays cultural stereotypes as well as anachronism problems when these are all placed in the same system at the same time.) In Stardrive, the player takes on the role of one of eight different sentient “races” (“species” in actuality) just as all eight species have reached the threshold of inter-galactic space travel. Both of these games follow what is described as a “4X” logic, a term coined in a review of the what was probably the best game of the genre – Master of Orion (Microprose 1993). The last time I used Master of Orion with students was in 2007. Unfortunately, most students today will have great difficulty running such an old game on their more modern computer systems.

The 4X genre refers to the imperative of the games – eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. In 4X games players start out with a single settlement (or planet in the case of Stardrive) from which they are in a race with the computer controlled players to explore their system, expand to other well placed and rich settlements/colonies, exploit these expansion points to build their resources and power, and exterminate rival players that threaten them or get in the way of further expansion. A distinct slant towards the realist and neo-realist paradigms and associated theories (including unitary rational actors in the system) thus exists in the games, with ample room for reflection on these issues in similar terms to the RISK assignment discussed earlier. Unlike RISK, however, these games require extensive micro-management of one’s empire, including decisions about which technology to research, how many factories and farms to build, how much to invest in espionage, what defenses to spend money on, which other players to sign trade agreements or research swaps with, and so forth. Those who prove to be poor governors of their “states” and economies will find that better governors of other states (all computer controlled) outperform them and eventually win the game instead of them.

What makes the two games discussed here more suitable for IR pedagogy than most others, however, is the role of diplomacy and the fact that victory conditions for the games are not limited to conquering the entire system (as in games such as RISK and Diplomacy). In the various Civilization games (there are several – the one I have experience using with my students is Civilization IV), players can win the game not only by conquest and physical dominance but also by attaining cultural pre-eminence, being the first to successfully research space travel or being voted “leader of the world” in the United Nations.


In Stardrive, players can win via conquest but also by forming a “galactic federation” in which they are the leader. The “elected system leader” victory conditions and the “cultural dominance” in Civilization allow for a focus on the games’ concept of soft power, which is rare for computer games. To win in this manner, players must get the computer players to like them a lot – which is generally accomplished through sustained and peaceful interaction in the form of trade and joint research treaties, non-aggression pacts, alliances and trading of technology. This allows for a discussion of multiple-sum gains and the Liberal paradigmatic view of the world. A transformation of the system via the election of one leader for everyone also leads students to think about literature on globalism and world government if they have already been exposed to such.

The most useful advantage of both games, however, comes with their ability to get students to think more deeply about systems and the units that play the most important role in a system. It is one thing to tell our students that Realist paradigms focus on the international anarchical system and the role of states as the most important actors within the system, while Marxism looks at the international capitalist system and the role of classes and Liberalism looks at individuals and a plethora of other actors (the most important of which are states). Nation-states and today’s world is all they really know – while we can discuss religious empires of the past, city-states and other systems from antiquity, the idea of alternate worlds generally has trouble sinking in.

366038_stardrive2013021018033019_mediumWith Stardrive or similar science fiction, however, the system changes from our world to the universe, and species typically replace states as the main actors – usually with attendant assumptions about the species acting as a single unitary and rational actor. Although some of the species in Stardrive and other sci fi venues look extremely alien, they generally follow the same power and security imperatives that Morgenthau (1948), Waltz (1959) and many others in the IR literature describe. Whether one is dealing with a big space bear or ambulatory alien plant in Stardrive, just like anyone else they will demand that you remove your spies from their territory or offer a non-aggression pact for mutual security. This naturally leads to a reassessment of Classical Realism’s “Human Nature” as perhaps not limited to humans, and consideration of the Neo-Realist argument about the structure of the system being the real determinant of behavior.

In the Civilization games, the system remains our world but in the beginning is limited to whatever continent the player finds themselves on. Only when the requisite sea-faring technology is successfully developed by enough players does the system truly globalize into a single world system. The units in this system do not quite look like nation-states, however, even if “American” and “French” are dubbed civilizations by the game’s creator. Rather, with their single religions and other generalized cultural traits, they look more like Samuel Huntington’s clashing civilizations (1996) – which offers students a chance to reflect on such.

In the interests of brevity, I will provide only my assignment guidelines for Stardrive here (the Civilization directives are quite similar but tailored to that game instead):

  • You should play the game as the “Human Civilization” with all the standard attributes, on the default settings for difficulty, galaxy size, number of civilizations, etc..
  • You must play the game until you win (via conquest or a galactic federation), you are utterly defeated or you successfully research the “terra-forming” technology.
  • Your reflection essay will be 5 pages, not including endnotes. You do not need to do more outside research for the essay, but you do need to cite relevant sources when relating the simulation to paradigms and theories of international relations.
  • Tips and suggestions: Although it sits squarely in the realm of science fiction, the game’s logic, actors, structure and conditions for victory say a lot about the assumptions that underlie this imagined future world. Imagine that the Stardrive game is a model of a real universe, just as games like “Civilization” model our human history and civilizations through the ages. Discuss how the Stardrive game, or model, incorporates some paradigms and ideas particularly well. What kind of world is Stardrive? What is the structure of this world system (or universe)? What are the main actors? What level of analysis does the game principally reside in? What is the main dynamic at work? What does the model miss in its assumptions about the universe?
  • Keep in mind that how your particular game played out is less important (and should not be dwelt upon in the essay) than what the Stardrive universe is like. In your conclusion, feel free to let me know if Stardrive was at all helpful to you in understanding the real world we live in, when thought of along the lines demanded by this assignment. Finally, please do not feel obligated to win this game. Defeat can be a better teacher than victory.

David Romano
Missouri State University



Emrich, A., 1993. ‘MicroProse’ Strategic Space Opera is Rated XXXX. Computer Gaming World, September, pp. 92-93.

Firaxis Games, 2005. Sid Meier’s Civilization IV. s.l.:2K Games & Aspyr.

Huntington, S. P., 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. 1st ed. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Morgenthau, H. J., 1948. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Simtex, 1993. Master of Orion. Hunt Valley: MicroProse.

Strategic Simulations Inc, 1994. Panzer General. s.l.:Strategic Simulations Inc.

Waltz, K. N., 1959. Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis. 1st ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Zero Sum Games, 2013. StarDrive. Amsterdam: Iceberg Interactive.

Teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations (Part 2)

PAXsims is pleased to present the second of five blog posts by David Romano (Missouri State University) on teaching International Relations through popular games, culture and simulations. You’ll find the introduction to the series here.

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Power Politics and Cooperation For Peace: Two Board Games

In general, board games offer several advantages. First of all, they are meant to be enjoyable and can therefore offer a welcome respite from more traditional academic assignments. If played early in the academic calendar, board games can also help engage students with the material and develop social bonds between members of a class – and as any professor knows, a group with a positive esprit de corps facilitates teaching and learning for the rest of the semester. Finally, board games are generally simple – meaning that they can be deployed early in a course (or program of study), they need not take up much in the way of class time and their key lessons should be easy for students to grasp and recall.

The drawbacks of board games stem from their advantages, naturally. Most of all, they can simplify the world beyond recognition. If the objective of a course is to describe the world and familiarize students with key world events as much as possible (as opposed to introducing IR theory to them), then board games would likely prove of little value.


risk-board-game-0uap8xyjBoard Game #1 – RISK

  • Pedagogic Audience:
    • Introductory IR courses; early in the course semester for any IR theory class
  • Key Concepts Highlighted:
    • Neo-Realism, Anarchy, Offensive Realism, Security Dilemma, Balance of Power
  • In Class vs. Out:
    • Outside of class – student groups of 5-6 (some newer boards only allow 2-5) students with or without professor/TA

Most of us studying or teaching international relations in the West are very familiar with this classic board game. A few too many of us probably became interested in international relations at least in part as a result of this game. Originally released as La Conquête du Monde in France, the game is sold by Hasbro today and can be found from virtually any toy and game seller on line or in town. The game board divides the world into 42 territories on 6 continents, which at the outset of the game are divided between the number of players. The goal of the game is to capture all the territories and hence dominate the world. Battles between players are determined by dice rolls, although contrary to what many students think the system is not completely random since larger numbers of armies get to roll more dice and tie results go to the defender. The fickleness of the dice combined with strategy to maximize one’s chances of success allows professors to say something about the “iron dice of war” and the uncertainty of such undertakings, no matter how well planned.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Because most students are quite likely to be already familiar with RISK, the game offers the pedagogic advantage of taking something students thought they knew and having them think about it in new ways. Via the model of RISK, concepts such as the neo-realism, the security dilemma, balance of power, anarchy and offensive realism are quickly and simply highlighted for students. Since the victory condition of the game is world conquest, a very cutthroat offensive realist vision is presented. Students who think they can be friends, rather than short-term allies of convenience, with anyone else in the game are quickly disabused of the notion when they get betrayed by their “ally,” which serves to explain the concept of anarchy. Those who fail to balance against the strongest player (or better yet, those who fail to convince someone else to balance against them) quickly understand the whole balance of power paranoia when that player amasses so many territories that they become unstoppable. As students place their new armies at the beginning of each turn (the number of which are determined by how many territories or entire continents they control), they will also invariably tell the students on adjacent territories that they are putting so many armies on ‘x’ territory “strictly for defensive purposes” – at which point the other student will do likewise on their turn, creating an instant security dilemma. Finally, the neo-realist “billiard ball” model of states is well represented, since the internal governing structures, culture, identity and domestic politics of a player’s “state” or his territories are not touched upon in the game.

The directives I provide students with for this assignment are as follows:

  • Please familiarize yourselves with the rules of RISK before class – they are available here:
  • We will be playing the “World Domination” variant of the game.
  • There will be 5 players per group
  • You must play either until a winner emerges or 20 turns have elapsed
  • For games with a winner (as defined by RISK rules), the winner receives +8% on their RISK essay mark.
  • Players who are completely eliminated from the game receive a penalty of -4% on their mark.
  • Players who survive a game that has no winner all get a +2% to their mark.
  • No inducements, agreements, incentives or other interactions outside the framework of the game are permitted — for example, you cannot offer another player money or personal favors, or threaten to never sit next to them again in class, in order to influence their actions in the game. You can, however, make alliances or agreements that do not refer to factors outside the game – for instance, agree not to attack another player’s holdings in ‘x’ country if they attack player #3 in ‘y’ country — but remember that in a system of anarchy, no higher authority (including your professor) exists to enforce such contracts and alliances.
  • By ‘X’ date, you will prepare a 5-page essay in which you are expected to relate how the RISK simulation brings out (or fails to illustrate) paradigms or theories of international relations, via the structure, rules, and conditions for victory in the game. I suggest that you choose one paradigm and one or two of its theories (hint: balance of power and its effects is a theory, while realism is a paradigm containing within it many theories) that the game brings out well. Do not discuss how your particular game went (except perhaps in footnotes if you wish, as illustration for the points you are making about the rules, structure and victory conditions for the game). What assumptions about the world did the creators of RISK seem to hold? In your essay please include details of who the other players were in your game and what the end result of the game was.

In these directives, I introduce two key variations to the game: First, the game has a 20 turn time limit (something which can still require several hours of play, which is why the game is done outside of class); and second, incentives are given via bonuses or penalties for the required essay assignment relating to the game. The incentives might seem harsh, but I have found that they are necessary for all students to take the game seriously (and if students do not think life can be harsh, they’re not listening to your lectures). Together, the two variations allow students to break out of the offensive realist imperative of the game if they wish and if they manage to coordinate such a transformation of the anarchical system. (Although I do not tell the students this, it would be perfectly acceptable for them to agree on a pacifist union and each time their turn came around, forego attacking anyone else. If all the students in a group do this, the 20 turns will end very quickly and they will have completed the assignment. If just one refuses, however, then the game will either play out normally or that student will be faced with a coalition bent upon containing and punishing him or her for violating the norms of the international society that the students created.) Since the game ends on the 20th turn even if there is no winner (meaning world conqueror), no one must win. Survival becomes sufficient (especially given the bonus for surviving compared to the grade penalty for being eliminated).

Especially astute students will quickly see that the incentives in the assignment actually encourage the creation of a system of collective security, wherein players rally together to check the power of any student that appears to be trying to win the game and amassing the necessary power to do so. Students already familiar with constructivism may even have something to say about balance of threat (Hopf 1998) as a result, or the possibility of transforming the RISK system. In my experience, with the help of this game even the weaker students have no problem grasping anarchy and the basics of the neo-realist paradigm. Depending on whether or not a winner emerged from their game (especially of the maniacally laughing, sore winner variety), some students also end up making bitter observations about classic Realism and human nature in their essay.

Several on-line versions of RISK also exist, wherein students create free accounts and can play games against each other with moves happening in time intervals (from an hour to a day, typically) determined at the time the game is created. This can be a good alternative for distance learning classes in particular. It has the disadvantage, however, of discouraging the social bonding and potential for creation of a collective security regime and community that an in-person board game offers.

Diplomacy is an alternative board game (likewise available on-line) to RISK, and very similar in set up, logic, victory conditions and amount of time required to complete the game. The instructions for students provided above can easily be adapted to Diplomacy. The main difference between the games comes with the absence of randomness and uncertainty that RISK includes with the dice rolls that determine battles. In Diplomacy, attacking armies and defending armies get support from adjacent armies – whoever has the most support wins, with ties leading to no change. All moves in Diplomacy occur simultaneously, after players record their orders. The trick of the game therefore involves predicting what other players will do and securing support from other players to defend and attack certain points, which gives Diplomacy pedagogic value for explaining game theory which RISK lacks.


diplomaticmissionBoard Game #2 – Diplomatic Mission

  • Pedagogic Audience:
    • Any IR course, particularly those dealing with Liberalism and Constructivism
  • Key Concepts Highlighted:
    • Liberalism, interdependence, principal-agent models, constructivism
  • In Class vs. Out:
    • In a small class or tutorial group – game requires 1-2 hours to play


Most board games involve a contest between opposing players, such as in the aforementioned RISK game. Other examples abound, such as Stratego (wherein one player tries to capture the flag piece of the opposing player), Monopoly (wherein each player tries to bankrupt the others), Snakes and Ladders (a race with only one winner) or even the much older Chess and checkers. Contrary to the more standard conflict dynamic, Diplomatic Mission is a cooperative game wherein both players achieve a joint victory by ending the war between them or fail together if the war continues. The game is made by Family Pastimes Cooperative Games (, an Ontario-based company that specializes in cooperative rather than conflict games.

The game box offers the following description of Diplomatic Mission:

The battlegrounds are quiet, but full of tension. One false move, a deliberate or accidental casualty, and hostilities will be renewed. Then the game is declared Lost. To win, a lasting peace must be made. To realize that objective, the players each send out a team of Diplomats to each other’s Castles to secure the respective Royal Signatures & Seals on the Peace Documents.

Players must use all their mental and negotiation skills to move the Diplomats through the respective Territories. Deploy Scouts & Bodyguards to prevent Journalists or Politicians from sparking off a new War. You may have to use your few Wise Peacemakers to diffuse potential hostilities. All the while, the Military, ever vigilant, continues its maneuvers. The Royals await your Diplomats.

Although the game states that it is suitable for children aged 12 and up, this professor along with his graduate and undergraduate students initially had a difficult time understanding the rules. This was not because the rules are particularly complicated, but rather because they are atypical of games we were familiar with. Some pieces move like chess pieces, while others can only be moved by stacking on the movable ones. In the “neutral zone” in the middle of the board, either player can move either side’s pieces. In each player’s territory, only that player can move pieces – including the other side’s pieces. If a piece is moved and left beside a military piece of the other side (represented by a gorilla for “bodyguards,” a fox for “scouts” or an eagle for “soldier”), conflict erupts and the fighting resumes – ending the cease fire, wrecking the chances for peace and causing both players to lose the game. This offers an immediate example of a “principal-agent” problem – although the “principals”, meaning the players, wish to achieve peace, their military units (“agents”) will engage in hostilities if left in proximity to the other side. The game is thus a kind of cooperative puzzle in which players must figure out how to transport each other’s diplomats to the other home base without allowing conflict to erupt.

When I had my students play Diplomatic Mission, they were immediately confused by the very premise of the game – both players win or both players lose together. This offered instant insights about interdependence, multiple sum gains and constructivism. The socially constructed reality of my students assumed that board games were a contest between players, betraying unstated assumptions about the world, human nature and board games’ depiction of these things. The game’s premise – the quest for peace on presumably equal and just terms for both sides of the conflict – reflects Liberal or Idealist norms. The very fact that this kind of game seems so unusual for the board game genre, and initially hard for us to understand, brings up ample discussion material about the mutually constitutive aspects of structure and identity: our world produces certain kinds of games, which socialize us from a young age to feel that the “fun” in board games involves crushing and humiliating one’s opponent (as in RISK), which in turn reinforces a Realist, conflict-based view of the world.

I found that using this game in a small class or in break-out tutorial groups required only a few minor changes. A group of a dozen or less students can be divided in two and assigned to the side of “Player 1″ or “Player 2″. To insure that the more introverted students play a significant role, I then instituted three additional rules: First, each student takes a sequential turn moving the pieces for their side, which insures that everyone think actively and participate in the “simulation;” second, oral communication is forbidden within a team/side or between the teams/sides unless a diplomat piece from one side is adjacent to a diplomat from the other side in the neutral zone, which simulates open channels of communication between the “opponents;” and third, students communicate internally to their side/team only via written messages, which I describe as simulating bureaucratic messaging but is really intended to prevent the more assertive students from just telling the introverted students what moves to make when it is their turn.

For my pedagogic purposes, I found that just playing this game in my smaller IR class for an hour or two was sufficient. Following the game play through, discussion flowed easily and proved very enlightening for the students – especially given that they had already read some Liberal and Constructivist IR literature. The extent to which students appeared startled by such a “new kind of game” cannot be emphasized enough. The exercise also convinced me to try playing this with my own young children rather than the more competitive games on the shelf.


David Romano
Missouri State University



Hopf, T., 1998. The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory. International Security, 23(1), pp. 171-200.

Parker Brothers, 1959. RISK!. Pawtucket: Hasbro Inc.

Deacove, J., 2002. Diplomatic Mission. Perth: Family Pastimes.

Teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations (Part 1)

securedownloadPAXsims is pleased to feature the first of five blog posts from David Romano (Missouri State University) on teaching International Relations through popular games, culture and simulations. Today he introduces the topic—after that,  you can read parts two, three, four, and five.

* * *


Politics as “the struggle for power” surrounds us. We deal with international relations (IR) theory explicitly in courses and publications on the topic, of course. IR theories also implicitly pervade our lives in other ways, however – through games such as RISK and Civilization, popular culture such as Star Trek and Game of Thrones and, of course, simulations. Popular games, films and books can help students understand key concepts of international relations in new ways, deepening their understanding of the material. Recognizing this, the discipline has begun increasingly to discuss more ways to incorporate these kinds of things into IR pedagogy.

Games like RISK, Diplomacy, Civilization and others can be viewed as models. Like all models, they simplify the world and focus on certain relational and structural issues while downplaying others–making them perfect for simpler introductory courses, where the aim is the familiarize students with the basics of international relations as quickly as possible. Popular fantasy and science fiction can also prove particularly useful for getting students to think about levels of analysis and the assumptions we rely upon in IR without getting distracted by cultural stereotypes or political affinities.

This series of blog posts will lay out various ways to adapt these “models” to the IR classroom through experiential learning. Simulations and experiential learning have many proponents in the field (Dorn, 1989; Brock and Cameron 1999; Shellman 2001; Endersby & Shaw, 2009; Loggins, 2009), of course, but detractors (Mandel 1987) criticize the amount of class time they often require and question the extent to which they contribute to students’ understanding of the material. Rather than attempt to resolve such a debate, the discussion here treats simulations, games and popular culture as an add-on to more orthodox pedagogy. All the assignments described here thus include the caveats that they must not require much in the way of class time or large amounts of professors’ time to manage. The principle at work centers on the belief that different people learn in different ways. For students who require more active involvement, creativity and imagination in their learning process, popular culture and games can fill a sometimes substantial gap in the teaching of international relations. Based on assignments I developed for my international relations theory classes over the years, as well as an experimental course focused entirely on IR theory through games, simulations and popular culture that I taught in 2013, the unifying principle is to teach students about international relations theories via the often neglected “right side of the brain.”

While Realist and Neo-Realist IR paradigms and related theories have a plethora of suitable games and pop culture items to rely upon, finding pedagogic “right brain” material to engage with other paradigms and approaches proved a bit more challenging but by no means impossible. While the overview presented here does not intend to provide an exhaustive treatment of available models, simulations, paradigms and theories, it does go over the basic options I have found most useful for introducing students to and engaging them with the international relations discipline. In general, when the models and simulations I discuss here have an essay assignment included with them, I always make it a short one of no more than five pages. As Erikson and McMillan (2014) argue, IR students need more practice condensing their thoughts and immediately focusing on the most important elements of their argument. The overview of options presented here will begin in the next blog post with an examination of two board game possibilities, followed by two computer games , two options from popular books and films, and finally some concluding thoughts.

David Romano
Missouri State University



Brock, K. L. & Cameron, B. J., 1999. Enlivening Political Science Courses with Kolb’s Learning Preference Model. Political Science & Politics, 32(2), pp. 251-256.

Dorn, D. S., 1989. Simulation Games: One More Tool on the Pedagogical Shelf. Teaching Sociology, 17(1), pp. 1-18.

Endersby, J. W. & Shaw, K. B., 2009. Strategic Voting in Plurality Elections: A Simulation of Duverger’s Law. Political Science & Politics, 42(2), pp. 393-399.

Eriksson, J. & McMillan, S. L., 2014. Bravo for Brevity: Using Short Paper Assignments for International Relations Classes. International Studies Perspectives, 15(1), pp. 109-120.

Loggins, J. A., 2009. Simulating the Foreign Policy Decision-Making Process in the Undergraduate Classroom. Political Science & Politics, 42(2), pp. 401-407.

Mandel, R., 1987. An Evaluation of the “Balance of Power” Simulation. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 31(2), pp. 333-345.

Shellman, S. M., 2001. Active Learning in Comparative Politics: A Mock German Election and Coalition-Formation Simulation. Political Science & Politics, Issue 4, pp. 827-834.



Connections UK 2014 final report


(For a report on the previous day of the conference, see here.)

The final day of the Connections UK 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference started today with a panel on the use of seminar wargames in defence. Katherine Banko (Canadian Army Land Warfare Centre) discussed the application of a mixed methods, pretest/post-test methodology to a course of action seminar wargaming. Specifically, her case study focused on the Canadian decision to acquire new tactical armoured patrol vehicles (TAPV), and the use of a seminar wargame to explore optimal force structures and associated TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) for the proposed TAPV. Game preparation took five months, including pilot testing. Participants were asked to pretest rank-order five proposed courses of action for each scenario. COAs were also rated against the “principles and fundamentals of war” as taught in Canadian military doctrine.

After the game, post-test rankings showed a change in participant evaluations of the various COAs. There was also some difference between a first and second post-test. The subsequent discussion addressed some important technical issues, including the use and aggregation of ordinal ranking scales, possible anchoring effects caused by administration of the pretest, and an experimental design that would one to assess the effects generated by the moderator/umpire.

IMG_2299Next, Hans Steensma (Military Formats in Business) and Steven van Agt (PWC Netherlands) provided an example of a business wargame, Operation Fleet Street. In this, we all assumed the role of members of the Guardian Media Group, forming groups of eight or so and tasked with identifying the characteristics of the media battlefield (potential threats, allies, and other relevant characteristics). We then identified a major threat to our company, and then developing a proposed course of action. Each team’s COA was then briefed back to the full conference, and a winner chosen. Obviously we were working much more quickly than a real group would be, and we lacked the knowledge of the UK media market that actual corporate participants would likely have.

On the sidelines of this I had an interesting discussion with John Curry, Matt Caffrey, and Hans on whether this was “real” wargaming, or simply a wargame overlay applied to what was basically a BOGSAT. I’m not sure I much care what is, or is not, wargaming—what really matters is whether gaming approaches can address issues in a useful way. Indeed, I’ve used a somewhat similar format to address humanitarian policy planning, without any reference to wargaming at all. Some of the brief-backs from the session seemed quite good—so yes, it did seem quite useful.


After a break a panel addressed manual wargaming in defence. Graham Longley-Brown started it off with some initial comments on course of action wargaming, and also underscored how manual and computer wargaming could be linked (drawing upon the example of a project he had recently been involved with in Qatar). Paul Strong (DSTL) emphasized how important it was that game design must always keep the study requirements in mind. Manual games were, he suggested, were very flexible, and can be modified on the fly. His very rich presentation (far too rich to be summarized here) looked at DSTL support for strategic (POL-MIL), operational, and tactical games. Seminar games are often used, even as part of preparation for larger wargames. Thematic games focus on particular issues, such as IEDs and casualty evacuation. Experiential wargames are used where player’s response to unfolding events is of greater interest than the end-state. Wargames are also used to explore possible future trends and futures. he briefly discussed the Peace Support Operations Model (PSOM) too as a computational support for wargames.

Roy Benda (TNO) discussed wargaming of land-based operations. PSOM is used for training and education. MARVEL is a model-building and simulation system focused on system behaviours and relationships, rather than being geographically based. GO4IT is a tabletop roleplaying game used for training battalion and senior commanders about civil-military cooperation in complex environments. TACTIS is a digital tactical combat simulations. TNO also uses the commercial mid- to low-fidelty digital wargame Steel Beasts. CDEG (the Concept Development & Experimentation Game) has been used to explore IED and counter-IED measures.

After lunch attention turned to digital wargaming. Paul Pearce delivered a presentation on the evolution of analytical and experimental wargaming at DSTL. He framed this in the context of Operational Analysis, and the importance of repeatability, independence, grounding in reality, objectivity of process, uncertainty in data, and robustness of results (RIGOUR). Modern OA/OR started in WWII. Into the 1960s wargaming was still manual (with terrain models or maps), but computer assistance was introduced. Map-and-computer games were the norm by the 1980s, using discrete event simulation rather than turn-based moves. Databases became more sophisticated, allowing fuller post-game analysis. From the 1990s fully computerized games were also common, often with linked satellite simulations. Perception-based modeling and C2 issues assumed greater importance. In recent years there has been a return of 2D manual games (such as RCAT) with computer assistance, in part because of the flexibility of this format and in part because of the diverse range of challenges and contexts that the contemporary UK military faces.

photoTom Mouat examined computer simulation in defence. He noted that the UK Ministry of Defence had many simulators—but relatively few real wargames. Simulators are favoured because they save money. UK military training expenditures are about £7 billion per year, of which over £2 billion spent on running costs—the area where simulations save money. He gave an overview of several systems: CAST (Command and Staff Training, using simulated troops in a simulated environment to train battlegroup command), CATT (Combined Arms Tactical Trainer), TES (Tactical Engagement System, a laser tag system for exercises). BCT, JOCAST, MTWAS, and especially VBS2 are used at other locations. Because live exercises are so expensive, it is essential that soldiers first be trained and tested on lower-cost simulations. The UK has many individual air simulators, but few that are linked (in large part because simulators are aircraft and manufacturer specific). While in theory linked simulators can be used for wargames, generally simulators are used more for scenario role-play. The situation is similar with maritime simulation, although simulators are more flexible and Royal Navy officers has a better sense of how to get the most out of their simulations.

In discussion, one participant noted that the increasing sophistication of mapping and imagery meant that truly immersive training required more sophisticated data presentation. This raised the question of the cost effectiveness of imagery and data immersion for training purposes. In turn, this led to a broader discussion over how much training could occur in synthetic contexts, and the extent to which this could truly replace real-world training and exercises.

Next, the conference divided into four break-out groups on the future direction of wargaming. These addressed:

  • balancing simplicity and accurate simulation
  • preserving and passing on design expertise
  • increasing the educational use of wargaming
  • involving and influencing decision-makers

With regard to the first of these topics, the group noted that complexity was not the same as accuracy, nor was simplicity necessarily the same as playability. Starting with simple games can be a useful way of encouraging players to try more complex simulations. On audience member noted that many wargamers start at the complex end of the spectrum, and only belatedly recognize the value of simple, elegant design. The second group noted that designers have both domain knowledge and game design knowledge. The former is easier to pick up. However, the ubiquity of computer and other entertainment wargaming may make it easier to develop game and game design skills to the current generation. This led to some discussion of how Connections conferences might do more to teach game design skills. The question was also raised of whether there had been much outreach to universities with strong digital game design programmes.

The third group accidentally met in two different rooms, and so there were two brief-backs. One (from the subgroup I joined) highlighted the importance of buy-in from students, who needed to see its relevance. This didn’t necessarily involve earning grades, but could also include relevance to their future careers, or even the simple social fun of participation. Instructors also had to be convinced, but the point was made that at even in the military (notably at Sandhurst) there may not be any local wargaming culture. Buy-in is also needed at a higher level. Networks of support can empower game advocates. The second sugroup highlighted the need to offset biases and stereotypes against wargaming. They also noted that gaming had weaknesses as well as strengths, and these needed to be recognized. Political dynamics, they noted, might be harder to game than purely kinetic military action.

The fourth breakout group noted that involving and influencing decision-makers required that one demonstrated the utility of wargaming as a training/education or analytical tool. It is also helpful to emphasize that wargaming has and is being used by others for similar purposes. One conference participant noted that if an interest in, and competence in, wargaming can be established at lower levels, these individuals may prove to be future senior leaders. There also a need to establish that losing at a wargame is a useful learning experience, and not a professional liability. As Phil Sabin noted, perhaps we should emphasize that the real choice may not be between “winning or losing,” but between “winning and learning” (or “you can’t really lose a wargame.”) I noted that we, as game designers and facilitators, have a responsibility to pre-orient game participants to the inevitability of mistakes and the value of learning from them. Stephen Downes-Martin thoughtfully suggested that the emotional commitment of not wanting to lose was valuable in driving a game—but that losing shouldn’t necessarily have negative career consequences. (I might also add that there may well be circumstances where a game really does reveal individual deficiencies that perhaps should have career consequences—I can certainly think of a few games which have, quite appropriately, shaken my confidence in operational colleagues.)

In his final conference comments Phil Sabin emphasized that Connections UK had highlighted the diversity of wargaming approaches and experiences. He also noted, however, that we remained a self-selected group, and that we needed to continue to promote outreach. Tom Mouat noted that a Connections UK LinkedIn group would be formed, and conference feedback elicited via an online survey. Graham Longley-Brown noted that the ability to effectively use wargames ought to be something on which military officers (and perhaps some in business too) were assessed, and that Connections should work towards promoting that long-term goal.


 Concluding Thoughts

Overall, this was a really excellent conference. I found both the panels and many side-discussions extremely valuable. Participants were eager to break out of professional and disciplinary silos, learning from and sharing with others. Almost everything was impeccably organized. The Connections conferences continue to serve a very useful role in facilitating the exchange of ideas and the development of professional networks.

The attendees of the conference tended to be white, male, and middle-aged. Only 8% or so of the participants at this Connections UK conference were female, which is about the same as the recent Connections conference in the US too. Part of the reason for this lack of diversity is the low proportion of women in the military and national security establishment. That has changed significantly in the diplomatic, intelligence, and aid communities and among defence social scientists during the past two decades, but more slowly in the uniformed branches. Part of the problem also has to do with the preponderance of men in the wargaming hobby.  I suspect that this gender imbalance can be daunting for neophyte female gamers, creating a self-perpetuating barrier to entry. (It also doesn’t help when a male conference participant, describing the accessibility of a particular piece of technology, deemed it so simple that “even a woman could use it…” Arghhhh! Fortunately that outdated attitude seems to be an extreme rarity.)

I’m not convinced that female (war)gamers necessarily bring different perspectives to the table, but it is clear that the field is denying itself insights, wisdom, and contributions from a very large demographic. The same could be said about others who are underrepresented. Coming from a context where typically 60% of participants in my serious games are women (and from diverse ethnic and other origins too) I’m acutely aware how unfortunate that is.

PAXsim’s own Archipelago Annie has raised the issue of women and professional gaming in the past, and we’ll continue to examine what can be done to further encourage a more representative, inclusive, and diverse professional wargaming community. It is also a topic that might be very usefully addressed at a future Connections or Connections UK wargaming conference.

Connections UK 2014 SITREP


The 2014 edition of the Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference began yesterday with a half day of Wargaming 101 (an introduction to the topic for non-experts). Today the main show got underway with the opening of the conference itself. Some 111 persons registered this year, making it the third-largest Connections conference ever. Of these, almost 30% were from outside the UK:

  • UK 79
  • Netherlands 11
  • Sweden 6
  • US 5
  • Canada 3
  • France 2
  • Germany 2
  • Italy 1
  • Norway 1
  • Finland 1

photoPhil Sabin and Graham Longley-Brown started off the conference with a few comments. Graham highlighted the “fragility” of wargaming within the UK defence sector, arguing that at the moment expertise was too shallow and too dependent on key personalities. Consequently there is a need to deepen and institutionalize wargaming competency. Judging from a show of hands in the room, about one-third of those attending were from outside the UK. While a large number of those in the room were involved in the defence sector in some way (for example, through DSTL), only three or four were currently serving, uniformed members of the services.

The first panel, chaired by Major General (Retd) Andrew Sharpe, examined how the British Army uses wargaming. He agreed that wargaming in the UK military was weak. Effective wargaming, he suggested, usually involves an adaptive opponent, elements of chance and uncertainty, and repetition—although he implied that wasn’t always true of British military wargaming. He also suggested that wargaming was very useful in developing the ability to officers to provide leadership and concepts in warfare.

He also suggested that last year’s Connections UK conference had contributed to greater interest in, and momentum for, wargaming within the British military.

Maj Mark Nooney (Royal Military Academy Sandhurst) noted that Sandhurst did little or no wargaming, but had decided to bring it into the syllabus as a third way of training, to reinforce lessons taught in the classroom, challenge preconceptions, and to provide experience with Clausewitzian “friction” and an adversarial opponent. The Sandhurst Wargame will be a very simple hex-based wargame that will be linked to tactical exercises. Wargames will linked to historical analysis too. RMAS has also restarted the Sandhurst Wargaming Club, although at present it seemed as if only a small number of cadets participated in this.

Maj Marcus Myles (Directorate of Land Warfare) discussed Course of Action wargaming as part of the military planning process. He argued that this often took place amid time pressures, an unfamiliarity with the process, and an unwillingness to unpick one’s own plan. Efforts are underway to familiarize officers with a broader array of wargaming techniques, including the use of stochastic processes (including the use of dice) to represent risk and uncertainty.

Lt Col Ivor Gardiner (CO, 2 R Irish) highlighted a continuing problem of credibility. Wargaming is still viewed as immature, and officer cadets do not always take military history and war studies very seriously. Wargaming can be a very effective, immersive, experiential method, and (hobby) wargamers tend to come into the military with an innate sense of tactics, operations, and the estimate process. He argued that traditional adversarial wargaming had significant advantages over TEWT (tactical exercises without troops), CPXs (command post exercises), COA wargaming, and digital wargaming. He discussed his own use of Advanced Squad Leader to teach platoon- and company-level operations, as well as a few other games, including A Distant Plan to explore the complex operational environment in Afghanistan (“more insights into Afghanistan than all the reading material we are given”). It is good for officers to lose from time to time, in an atmosphere of competitive fun. He also argued that wargaming needs to start at Sandhurst, it needs to be simple, standardized, adaptable, and immersive.

Colin Marston (DSTLstressed the need for UK MOD to establish a Wargaming Hub.  The Hub would act as the primary point of contact for customers within UK MOD.  It would be a one stop shop for collating, understanding and developing wargaming requirements.  The Hub would have the necessary wargaming expertise and networks (e.g. through events such as Connections) to provide both advice on how to meet the requirements and what links to draw from within UK MOD, industry and academia to deliver wargaming activities.  The existence of a Wargaming Hub would create a place to develop and maintain a corporate knowledge base, and record observations, insights and lessons from the delivery of numerous wargaming activities.  He also stressed that more was needed to be done to sustain and develop a cadre of experienced professional wargamers within UK MOD – and any advice on how to do this would be welcomed.     

In subsequent discussion there was some argument for “gamification” and peer rankings as a way of increasing participation and engagement, although others noted that it could create perverse incentives to participate.

Some of the panelists made arguments in favour of board wargames, arguing that military audiences are more open to using maps and counters than tabletop figure wargaming. One also argued that boardgames had an advantage over digital games in that rules and concepts were evident in the written rules and game system, rather than hidden is software code.

After a coffee break, the conference split into two groups. One (by invitation) explored wargaming requirements in defence. The other provided hands-on experience with a wargame. As an introduction to the latter, Phil Sabin discussed his own use of wargames, including a recent WWI game that formed part of a conference on the war. He focused on the challenge of gaming with many players. Does one use an umpired kriegsspiel model? Or simplify the games and rules so that players can play the game with minimal assistance?

This led into the simple double-blind wargame of the WWI Schlieffen Plan that we all played. I was up against Jim Wallman—the first game (as the Germans) I narrowly lost due to my failure to properly garrison Liege. On the second game my Allied forces retreated all the way back to the gates of Paris before launching a devastating counteroffensive that routed several German Army corps and left much of the enemy’s remaining forces spent and unable to hold their ground.

After lunch, Jeremy Smith (Cranfield University) chaired a panel that examined business wargaming. Arnoud Franken (Cranfield University) discussed “crossing the chasm” to regular use of wargaming. One recent study found that while 17% of major businesses might use wargaming or scenario development as an ad hoc analytical process, none use it regularly. Businesses, however, face risks, challenges, threats, opportunities, etc.—the sorts of things that militaries face too, and which wargames can be useful in exploring. Wargaming can thus be sold in the business world as a tool for risk or crisis management. In selling wargaming to business, the latter will want to know about relative cost and advantage (compared to other techniques); the compatibility of the tool with the way the business operates; how simple (or complex) is it to use; whether the tool be tried before full adoption (trialability); and finally, how observable is the technique (and how does the activity look to others)?

Sara Ulrich (Deloitte) discussed the use of wargames in business, especially by Deloitte. Such games have addressed everything from health care policy, to new product launches, pricing and market strategy, cyberattacks, the Eurozone crisis, nuclear energy safety, the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the London 2012 Olympics, and the World Cup. In 2010 Deloitte acquired Simulstrat, KCL proof-of-concept company that applies wargames techniques to business and other analysis. I was particularly interested in the multi-sector humanitarian crisis wargame done for the Humanitarian Futures Programme at KCL. The scenario was set in a future (fictional) humanitarian crisis in the Ferghana Valley in 20135. Her very rich presentation noted, among other things, that experiential pay-offs from games often have to do with human interaction.

Hans Steensma joined the subsequent panel discussion. There was some discussion of who suffered more from hierarchical constraints (most seemed to think business could be even worse than the military). A couple of speakers mentioned the value of designing games around the potential problems or challenges that keep (businesses, managers, etc) “awake at night.” One audience member asked about the pricing of business wargaming, and whether it was within the reach of small and medium businesses. (I must admit, some of the discussion convinced me that I really need to charge a lot more as a wargame consultant/designer…)

Next, the conference participants took part in one of five breakout sessions. After an hour or so of discussion, these returned to brief back to the full group.

The first breakout group looked at the objectives and payoffs of wargaming. They identified a number of these, including anticipating impact (“what’s possible?”), clarifying resources needs, clarifying goals and objectives, examining trade-offs and opportunity costs, team-building, identifying what one doesn’t (yet) know—and having fun (as a way of increasing participant engagement). The second breakout group discussed game facilitation and umpiring. They highlighted the importance of emotional intelligence and self-awareness, the need to be seen to be unbiased (but not passive), the importance of maintaining the aim of the event (which requires sufficient domain knowledge and the possible aid of a subject matter expert, but too much expertise risks an imposition of umpire bias). The third group examined existing commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) versus purpose-designed wargames. Here the central point they emphasized was the need to first know what it is one wanted a game or simulation to do. They discussed the potential use of hybrid games, in which commercial games are adapted for particular professional uses. The game needs to be adaptable to, and relevant to, real-world situations. The fourth group explored the challenges of validation and verification. This highlighted the problem of players “playing the game/software” to elicit a win. The group also pointed to the importance of clarity of purpose, good quality data, and repeatable outputs. They noted the challenge presented by classified data that may not be releasable. Finally, they emphasized the importance of “fitness for purpose” and end-user credibility. Finally, the last group reported on BOGSATs versus expert opinion vs. scientific analysis vs. gaming. This group decided that all of these approaches could be useful, and that much depended on context (resources) and objectives. Planning and facilitation was very important in making best use of subject matter expertise, but one needed to be careful of the “factualness of facts” and experts who seemed excessively confident of their insight and knowledge. It was suggested that BOGSATs, rather than being a rival to gaming, might be a useful entry point for the introduction of gaming methodologies.

Overall, all groups came to the conclusion that there was little fundamental difference between military and business wargaming. There also seemed to be agreement that games needed to be designed around objectives, and that there was value in breaking out of disciplinary and organizational silos to link tools to needs and purposes.

Matt Caffrey (USAF) chaired an afternoon panel on how other militaries use wargaming. A presentation by Erik Nordstrand examined wargaming in the Swedish military for training, education, planning, and decision support. Johan Elg then provided an overview of wargames in military education and training. One such game was a board/map game on battalion mechanized operations; another was a simplified naval surface warfare digital game; a third was a digital air operations game. Students play these games (and others, such as VBS2) at the cadet, staff college, and senior staff college level. The presentations certainly left the impression of more wargaming in Swedish military education than had previously been described as being the case in the UK. Lt Col Sébastien de Preyet talked about wargaming in French military education and training. France has been using more and more wargaming and simulation tools, in part to reduce training costs. Industry-provided digital simulations are used, as well as adapted COTS software (with adaptation often involve enhancing its after action review capabilities). He noted the cultural confusion that can exist with regard to serious gaming and gaming, such that senior leaders associate “wargaming” with popular entertainment video games. Boardgames are rarely used in France and are often unfamiliar to French officers. He warned that for too many senior officers and officials, “heavy and expensive systems look serious,” and “3D looks smart” but that officers who will be planning and operating in 2D (map) environments need to be trained in that context. He mentioned the tension and biases involved in the boardgame vs digital game communities, and stressed that the two should not be bifurcated. Games, he stressed, were excellent supports for operational self-training. He also discussed Urban Operations, a boardgame he has designed to address the particular challenges of urban combat.

Matt himself talked about wargame use in the US military. Games were used to develop strategists (education and training), embedded within decision cycles (such as national strategic planning, theatre campaign planning, and Title X service-level force planning), or might be one-off games to address particular issues. Games could be deterministic or stochastic, rules-based or judgment-based, and constructive, virtual, or live. Stephen-Downes Martin (US Naval War College) addressed why we should care about how others wargame, arguing that it was a useful intelligence insight. He argued that we didn’t know enough about how some countries (such as Russia, China, North Korea, Iran) and even non-state actors wargame, and suggested some very useful ways in which we might think about how different actors game.

SPW-B101-2The final session of the day was a keynote address by COL David Schroeder (Schroeder Publishing and Wargames). He suggested that stories are powerful teaching tools, and that stories about military operations are often applicable to business—a point that he makes in his book Business in the Trenches. However, stories can only take us so far. Wargaming offers deeper insight, helping to identify strength, weakness, and best options—all in a competitive environment of pressure and limited time and information. Businesses can thus benefit from wargaming techniques in developing winning strategies. However, effective business wargaming requires instruction, mentorship, and practice. Both military and business wargamers, he suggested, needed better training, and make it a requirement for senior leadership. The core issues for many simulations include critical or bottleneck resources, fundamental cause/effect relationships, core processes, and having a clear picture of the operating environment. He examined these in the context of his Der Weltkrieg series of WWI games.

After dinner it was time for the games fair. I once again demonstrated the Humanitarian Crisis Game, ably assisted by two former McGill University students now living in London, Elizabeth Campbell and Nadimah Mohammed. The game went very well, with the players doing a very good job of providing humanitarian assistance to the earthquake-stricken population of Carana, and the government (led by Paul Strong) quick to respon to emerging political and security challenges. Everyone was a winner except for the unfortunate NGO player (Colin Marston), whose had difficulty attracting press attention and hence the necessary public support and donations for his relief programmes.

Playing the Humanitarian Crisis Game.

(For a report on the final day of the conference, see here.)

ISIL matrix game AAR


Matrix games are a type of free-form game in which each player, in turn, makes an argument about a particular course of action and the effects they expect that action would have if successful. Additional arguments for and against this are then made by other players. The success of the proposed action is then either adjudicated by the umpire, or resolved by a dice roll and a series of modifiers reflecting the arguments for and against. The next player then takes his/her action on the basis of this new situation, and the game thus continues. Game play may take place around a map and pieces/counters/units as game aids, or may be entirely abstract. Because events unfold according to a series of successful actions, arguments, and effects, it unfolds very much as a narrative of the scenario being explored.

Main MapYesterday I had an opportunity to play a game a matrix game of the situation in northern Iraq, ably facilitated by Tom Mouat. Our ten players assumed the roles of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS, Da’ish, or the “Islamic State”), the Iraqi central government led by Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abidi, the Sunni opposition, the Kurdish Regional Government, Iran, and the United States. In addition I played the “spirit of inshallah,” who each turn could argue for a likely action or effect that other players had not proposed.

We used a pair of dice for adjudication, with 7+ required for success, with the dice modified by +/-1 for every plausible argument or counter-argument generated by players.

Each team was provided with a one page briefing that outlined their situation and major goals. One of the innovations in the game was that each also started with an “initial condition” that affected their play. Thus the Iraqi central government suffered penalties to its dice rolls to reflect the poor performance of its military forces as well as the absence of an agreed government/cabinet; the Kurds suffered a penalty to reflect PUK-KDP political rivalries; ISIL was able to take the occasional bonus move to reflect its political momentum; and so forth.

The game was intended solely for the purposes of giving players an opportunity to experience the methodology, not for any official or policy purposes. Nevertheless it was conducted under Chatham House rules. The players included a couple of scholars of Middle East politics, a foreign ministry official, some current or former intelligence or defence analysts, and quite a few experienced wargamers—an opportunity group of friends and colleagues, but a quite skilled and well-informed one. Gameplay itself took a little over two hours. The game map and generic pieces used in the game are reproduced at left and below (click images to expand).


The ISIL (or ISIS) Crisis

The game started off with Washington contemplating airstrikes in support of Iraqi troops fighting against the self-styled “Islamic State” near Tikrit, but ultimately choosing not to go ahead with these. Throughout the US team was cautious about becoming too deeply involved in an Iraqi quagmire. Later some US Special Forces were sent to the country, and—after some extended discussions with the Iraqi government—ended up conducting cautious reconnaissance of ISIL positions. A terrorist attack struck the US Navy in the Persian Gulf (for which ISIL claimed responsibility), but this has little impact on American policy.

ISIL itself decided to launch an offensive towards Karbala through the sparsely populated areas to the northwest and west. This was intended largely as a feint and diversion, but it caught the Iraqi Army by surprise, which quickly routed. Much to everyone’s surprise, ISIL then defeated the Shiite militias in the city, causing a massive out-flow of terrified refugees.

IMG_2290Prime Minister Abidi oscillated between efforts to form a national unity government and building up troops for a counter-offensive. Iran sent arms, advisors, humanitarian aid. At the request of the Kurds, some Iranian combat units also entered Iraqi Kurdistan. Secretly the Kurds had cut side deals with both Iran and ISIL which enabled the Peshmerga to recapture Mosul but also saw most ISIL units leave the city to battle elsewhere.

The Iraqi Prime Minister’s effort to broaden the base of the Iraqi government bore some fruit when the Sunni opposition—attracted by the offer of future political decentralization and an equitable share of oil resources—abandoned their erstwhile jihadist allies. Heavy fighting soon followed as local Sunni tribal militias and ISIL militants fought for control of the border crossings into Syria. US airstrikes and a covert supply of US weapons to the anti-ISIL tribal fights tipped the fighting slightly towards the latter, although ISIL reinforcements continued to arrive from Syria to keep the fighting going.

At the same time, Baghdad launched two major offensives, Operation Heavenly Sword and Son of Heavenly Sword. The first bogged down amid poor planning and logistics (ie, a poor dice roll). The latter, however, eliminated most of the ISIL fighters in Karbala amid widespread destruction and atrocities on both sides.

The game ended with ISIL weaker but still a significant threat. The Sunni opposition, although now allied with the Iraqi central government, remained deeply suspicious of Baghdad. The Iranians had gained greater influence in the country, and were stalling on a Kurdish request that they withdraw their forces from Kurdistan. The US had become more deeply involved in military action, but had remained cautious, had not deployed major ground forces, and had exerted only limited influence on events.

For its part, the Iraqi government called for major talks between all parties—including, indirectly, ISIL—on national reconciliation. This received a lukewarm response from some. It also split the Shiite community, with many Iraqi militia leaders arguing that it was pointless to talk with extremists and favouring instead stepped up military action against their Sunni jihadist foes.


Isis Counters2Generic Counters1Isis Counters3Isis Counters1


Methodological Impressions

Although I had watched and dabbled with matrix games a few times, this was the first one I had fully participated in and played through until the end.

  • The methodology is very flexible, and games can be quickly designed and conducted. Effective game play is highly dependent on a skilled facilitator, however. (Tom, fortunately, is very good.) It also needs players who are willing to accept the lack of formal rules. As one observer noted, it probably would have helped to have had a trial turn before the proper game started.
  • Like most games—and, indeed, history itself—there is a significant degree of built-in path dependency. This can be a problem if players don’t roleplay well, try to get too clever, or manage to pull off an unrealistic or implausible action early in the game (possibly through a lucky dice roll if that system of adjudication is used), thereby skewing the game in a particular direction. In our game, I didn’t think that the ISIL conquest of Karbala—a large, religiously symbolic, and very, very Shiite city—was at all realistic. I also thought that the government strategy of allowing ISIL attacks of Karbala as a way of mobilizing Shi’ite outrage was too risky to feasible.
  • Of course, an umpire can rule against actions that are thought to be too unrealistic. However, if the game is too directed it merely ends up reproducing the views and possible biases of the adjudicator. Moreover, it also risks excluding interesting “black swans” and other low probability/high impact events. After all, few if any analysts had predicted that (Sunni) Mosul would fall so easily to ISIL earlier this year.
  • I think it helped to have a neutral, subject matter expert player to periodically nudge the game back to a more “realistic” course or to try to make sure that various important consequences of actions are represented in the game. It would also be useful to have a discussion and consequence management phase at the end of each turn to address what had happened and what additional second and third order effects actions might have.
  • The physical layout of the game matters. In our case the map and proliferation of military unit markers may have predisposed some players to think in military rather than political terms.  On the other hand, the game did nicely illustrate the difficulty of undertaking political initiatives and reforms amid an ongoing security crisis.
  • The choice of roles and players matters a lot. We had deliberately chosen tow knowledgeable (and devious) participants to play ISIL. Had others been playing the role it might have all turned out rather differently. We had also limited the number of roles to six for practical reasons. The absence of the Syrian government and various Syrian opposition groups from the game had the clear consequence of biasing us towards an Iraq-centric focus on ISIL. The absence of a Turkish player may have also given the Kurds greater free rein than in real life.
  • Even where game play diverged from the most likely course of events in Iraq, it provided considerable material for discussion. Tocite just a few of the issues that arose during our two hours of play:
    • How decentralized is ISIL? How vulnerable is it to leadership casualties? Have its recent successes been part of an central campaign plan, or rather rapid exploitation of local successes by local commanders?
    • How cohesive and fanatical is ISIL? Could parts of the organization be lured away with promises of political decentralization in Iraq? (I think not, but in our game Baghdad clearly hoped to do so.)
    • How easily can ISIL mask major troop movements from allied ISR, or otherwise complicate targeting? To what extent can it support operations away from its Sunni population base?
    • What domestic constraints exist on US policy? Would an ISIL-linked act of terrorism deter greater American involvement, encourage it, or (as in the game) have little effect?

A critical question, of course, is whether two+ hours of matrix gaming provided more insight into these and other issues than would have been derived from a BOGSAT (“bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table”) of similar duration. I am not convinced that the game was better—indeed, having recently participated in an official/classified meeting on the topic, I thought the latter discussion was more productive. The game did, however, provide a different, and perhaps more enjoyable, perspective. Consequently, matrix gaming does have some value as a sort of alternative analysis exercise intended to shift analysts out of traditional and more comfortable thought processes. It can also serve to break up the monotony of a long seminar-type discussion, and encourage participants to interact and network in different ways.

Finally, the approach can easily be replicated and repeated. By doing so, more of the possible problem space be mapped. If key actions or questions repeatedly occur in games drawing upon different participants this would also suggest key questions, indicators, and potential courses of action worthy of additional analytical attention.

* * *

For more on this approach, see Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, a newly-published booklet by John Curry and Tim Price. We’ll be reviewing it soon here at PAXsims. You also find a much more detailed write-uo of the game at John’s History of Wargaming Project website.



PAXsims reaches a quarter-million page views


Today PAXsims reached a total of 250,000 page views since it was first established in January 2009. During that time we’ve featured some 791 articles and postings by some forty contributors.

Where do our visitors come from? WordPress doesn’t provide tracking data that stretches back to the beginning, but a review of visitors over the past year reveals the following distribution:

Country Views
United States 45.1%
Canada 11.0%
UK 7.9%
Germany 2.9%
Australia 2.5%
France 2.4%
Nertherlands 2.2%
Spain 2.0%
Italy 1.7%
India 1.4%
Sweden 1.2%
Brazil 1.0%
Phillipines 0.9%
Belgium 0.9%
Poland 0.9%
Japan 0.9%
Turkey 0.7%
Russia 0.7%
Czech Republic 0.6%
others 13.4%

Thus, around two-thirds of our readers are coming from the US, Canada, and the UK. The remaining one-third, however, have come from 182 countries and territories around the world, from Afghanistan to Zambia. Other than Cape Verde, Chad, the Central African Republic, Congo, Papua New-Guinea, Turkmenistan, and a few small island republics in the Pacific, that’s pretty much everywhere.

paxsims map

Currently, we’re receiving about 5,000 page views per month. We’ve had 831 comments posted by readers, with our most prolific commentator being Brian Train (aka “The Great Designer“).

Our most popular posts have asked whether video games “precision weapons in the Pentagon’s propaganda wars”, announced the then-forthcoming (and now much-lauded) COIN game A Distant Plain, and reviewed the videogame Rulers of Nations. More recently, almost two thousand people have read our overview of gaming the crisis in the Ukraine. We’ve published 49 book and game reviews to date, and generally the number of PAXsims visitors spikes a little when we publish game and book reviews. However, we have trouble keeping up with the number of new titles being published. If you are well-qualified in peace and conflict simulation and might be interested in reviewing relevant material, let us know. We’re also interested in other possible contributions.

We look forward to the next quarter million visitors with an interest in conflict simulation and serious games. And if you know anyone in Cape Verde, send them a link!


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