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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.



Review: Target Iran

modern_war_9_target_iran-388841374220723dTarget: Iran. Decision Games/Modern War magazine/Strategy & Tactics Press, 2014. Designer: Joe Miranda. $30.00 (including magazine).

Unfortunately, this year has seen a growing backlog of games sitting on my shelf that I have not yet had an opportunity to play. Recently, however, I did try out Target: Iran, a solitaire game of near-future US/coalition war against Iran that was included in Modern War magazine in March/April of this year. The game comes with one 22″ x 34″ map depicting Iran and the Persian Gulf, together with 228 counters representing US, Iranian, Iranian rebel, GCC, Israeli, and NATO units. An electronic version of the rules be found here.

The game starts with a random distribution of face-down distribution of both Iranian  military units and sensitive targets, such as WMD sites, Command and Control (C2) facilities, arms depots, missile sites, and training camps. Each strategic turn the Coalition mobilizes military forces and conducts “hyperwar” operations. The latter includes such things as ISR assets, special forces missions, and cyberwarfare. The player rolls a die to determine Iran’s response, and the target of any Iranian hyperwar attacks.

At some point in the game, either random events or the Coalition player may cause the game to shift from strategic to operational turns. At this point, the Coalition player can then use his or her mobilized military units to attack previously-identified Iranian targets. Additional hyperwar assets (cruise missiles) also become available. For the Coalition, it is essential not to trigger the operational phase of the game until the necessary military resources are in place, and intelligence has been collected on the identity of Iranian units and targets. However, there us always a risk of the war starting prematurely, an eventuality one must be prepared for. During the operational phase the actions of Iran are again determined by a die roll, These might include attacks on neutral shipping or even blockading the Straits of Hormuz.

Throughout the game, “oil points” (representing the price of oil) are used to generate military assets. Certain hyperwar actions and military outcomes can affect oil points, as can the destruction or capture of key targets or blockage of the Straits. At the end of the game, the price of oil determines the outcome: anything below $81 a barrel represents a Coalition victory of varying degrees, while Iran wins if the price exceeds $100. If at any point the price goes over $150/barrel, play ends immediately in a global economic meltdown and a humiliating Coalition defeat.

The rules are generally clear, although it would have helped to have had the move sequence printed on the map. There has been some discussion online as to whether the scenario is fully balanced, but this is easily tweaked by adjusting the starting price of oil (indeed, the rules give one the option of using the actual price of oil as a starting point). Random placement of Iranian units and random generation of Iranian strategic and operational actions increases the replayability of the game.

The Coalition begins to mobilize forces, starting with the 5th Fleet and GCC.

Turn 1: The Coalition begins to mobilize forces, starting with the US 5th Fleet and allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

In my own playtest game, the Coalition spent six strategic turns activating forces, mobilizing bases,  identifying Iranian targets and units using ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets, and launching some covert attacks with special forces. As tensions grew, oil prices began to rise to over $100/barrel.

I then shifted to the operational phase. Cruise missile attacks destroyed most of the highest value (WMD) targets and several C2 nodes. These early victories reassured the oil market, and also limited Iranian hyperwar capabilities. In a few cities Iranian rebel units (encouraged by my own special forces) rose up to challenge the regime.

US Marines and a NEST team seize Bandar Abbas and the secret WMD facility there. By this time, most targets in southern Iran have been destroyed by Coalition airpower. However, the 5th Fleet is reluctant to press further into the elf due to the threat of Iranian mines, missiles, and small boat swarms.

It is late in the game, and US Marines and a NEST team have seizes Bandar Abbas and the secret WMD facility there. By this time, most targets in southern Iran have been destroyed by Coalition airpower. However, the 5th Fleet is reluctant to press further into the Gulf due to the threat of Iranian mines, missiles, and IRGC small boat swarms.

US, GCC, and Israeli aircraft struck the remaining targets as a US naval task force pushed its way into the Gulf.  US Marines and a NEST (Nuclear Emergency Support Team) contingent were landed to seize control of the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, where a critical Iranian WMD facility was secretly located.

A dense array of mines and anti-ship missiles deterred the US fleet from progressing further into the Gulf, however. The Iranians even temporarily blocked the Straits of Hormuz twice—thereby spiking the price of oil up—but on each occasion US minesweepers were able to deal with the problem.

In the end, most targets in Iran had been destroyed, and the price of oil had settled down to a comfortable $62/barrel. The Coalition had achieved its goals.

Instructional Potential

Target Iran is not a particularly granular or accurate simulation—nor does it claim to be. There is very little in the way of a scenario or politics, and the oil price track is more a composite way of limiting unit mobilization and tracking victory points than an actual representation of oil price dynamics. Military units are abstractions rather than actual units, and the random placement of Iranian forces can result in some very odd deployments. Similarly, the random placement of WMD targets does not necessarily follow their real-world locations. The impact of cyberwarfare is certainly overblown. While it is reasonable to expect that cyberwarfare might degrade air defences or incapacitate command and control capabilities, it certainly would never place an entire US Navy carrier task force or Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps division out of action. One of the random actions that Iran can undertake is setting its own oilfields alight, requiring that Colation petroleum engineers be deployed to bring the fires under control—something that was certainly done by Iraq in 1991 and (to a much lesser extent) in 2003, but which makes little sense in the context of a limited Coalition strike on Iran.

Quite a bit has changed in the real world since the game was first designed too, although that is hardly anything the designer can be blamed for: the US and Iran are in negotiations over the latter’s nuclear capabilities, Iraq is no longer available as a jumping-off point for US attacks (indeed, it is an Iranian quasi-ally), and the US will soon be drawing down its forces in Afghanistan. Because of all this I wouldn’t want to use the game directly for teaching purposes.

Concluding Thoughts

Even if I wouldn’t use it to explore the real-world challenges of a Coalition strike on Iran, I very much enjoyed playing Target Iran. I certainly recommend it to those who want a relatively low complexity modern warfare game designed for solitaire play in under 2 hours or so.

The game is very easy to modify too. Indeed, I’m tempted to develop a variant that better models some of the current strategic realities in the Gulf—if and when I do, I’ll post the results to PAXsims.

Review of Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2012)

Freedom: The Underground Railway. Academy Games, 2012. Game designer: Brian Mayer. $70.00.

It has been awhile since I could game and I was looking forward to trying this cooperative experience, so when Aram suggested we get together for dinner and some Freedom, and Julie agreed to suffer through it and Deb was on board, I was delighted we’d get a chance to play “Freedom: The Underground Railroad“. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a cooperative game, for 1 to 4 players, about the abolitionist movement in the antebellum American South. Players take on roles in the Underground Railroad, trying to move slaves from plantations in the South to freedom in Canada. If you’re not familiar with the actors, Aram is my gaming buddy, conveniently located around the corner and always up for a good game. Julie and Deb tolerate us both, Julie spends most of her time tolerating me and Deb is tasked with tolerating Aram. We started the game a little late, so the review below might be affected by how tired we all were, though it was no doubt positively influenced by the great Indian food, the good hospitality from Deb and Aram and the great soundtrack that Aram put together for the event.

Basically, the game revolves around moving slaves (wooden cubes) along four or five waypoints on a dozen paths, while slavecatchers move semi-autonomously across the paths, around the border between North and South. In the easy game, for four players, you try to save 22 slaves without losing 20 (and there are some other particularly pernicious victory conditions). If the slavecatchers end in a city with a slave, they send them back to the slave market. Meanwhile, every turn, tragically, a new shipment of slaves floods the markets in the south. You see, if you can’t move slaves out of the plantations fast enough, the supply outstrips the demand and slaves are “lost”. The poignancy of calamitous waves of “excess supply” of humans and the subsequent losses weren’t lost on the group, three lawyers, three of us with economics degrees. It is a tough subject to model in a game and kudos to the game designers for making it playable and interesting with such a difficult subject matter. In any event, with cooperative planning, players attempt to fundraise and gather support for the abolitionist movement (what better place than Capitol Hill to lobby and fundraise?), while using precious few actions to move slaves up the paths, all the while avoiding the slavecatchers. Each of the players has a role and commensurate strengths (a la Pandemic), I was the shepherd and it was cheaper for me to take the tokens that could move slaves, Julie was the station manager and could stop the slavecatchers from moving, Aram was the financier and rallied most of our support, Deb’s power was buying cards cheaper.

I’m going to cut to the chase – we lost. It is a really tough game, we seemingly made only a few minor mistakes early on and we ended up getting completely overwhelmed by the slave markets and the constant flow of slaves into the plantations in the south, to the point that we had to choose at the end between rallying support for the cause or getting people out of the plantations to make room for the next slave shipment. We needed both to win, but it wasn’t clear we could accomplish either. No doubt once the group knows better, they can do better (just happen to be listening to this while writing that line). But, I don’t want to spend a lot of this post on the play by play and I want to be clear, as a game, I think it is a good one, there are lots of interesting choices and it has a nice design (if you want a nice review of it is a board game, look here). But I want to focus on what I think is most interesting to our audience here at Paxsims: the educational merits and how that affects the link between theme and game design.

So, to me, Freedom is a game about building a movement, building support and fundraising to accomplish a collective goal. It delivers some of that. The tension between getting slaves actually moving to safety and “using” slaves in northern cities to rally support for the cause through financial support is strong, it reminds us that good intentions alone are insufficient to accomplish the noblest of goals (yes, you get more money for the cause bringing a slave through New York than you get routing them through Detroit). It also delivers lots of historical information through the cards. So would I recommend it as an educational tool for a classroom or family trying to better understand slavery?

Probably not.

Again, I think it is a great game, as a boardgame. If you are tired of Pandemic and want to play a challenging co-op, this is a great alternative. But I found the physics of the game, interesting as they were (basically careful strategizing about how to move slaves to pull slavecatchers and avoid capture), distracting from the theme. Players spend much more time thinking about how to move slaves like checkers to maximize fundraising and control the slavecatchers then they spend celebrating freed slaves or worrying about who might get caught (from a random die roll). Yet, the story of the Underground Railroad is so powerful – it wasn’t a calculated, centrally controlled logistics challenge of how to move people, it was real people taking real risks, deciding whether they could trust strangers to lead them to safety, or whether they wanted to risk their own lives to help others. It was subterfuge and conspiracy and concealment and hiding in barns and grasping for a few hours of refuge after walking 20 miles a day to safety. I felt very little of these tensions while playing.

Meanwhile, in the real world, there were real people, slavers and plantation owners and “decent folks” engaged on the other side, publishing notices in newspapers and sending bounty hunters and packs of dogs to reclaim their property. Maybe I’ve been a social scientist for too long, but I flinch at efforts to reduce adversarial human behavior to predictable response paths and random action (insert joke about economists here, Rex). I’d prefer to see an adversarial game where slavecatchers are working against the Railroad and both “sides” are trying to outsmart each other.

Maybe my critique is just because it is a cooperative game, built against difficult odds and a stacked deck as cooperative games have to be. I’ll definitely try the game again, but I don’t think it will ever be as satisfying as it would be knowing there were people on a red team in the next room playing “Oppression: Preserving our Way of Life”, deciding how they were going to move their bounty hunters on rumors of my slave on the run and whether they were going to use their profits as plantation owners to lobby Congress to pass the Fugitive Slave Act. In a classroom, I’d rather see students taking on these roles, choosing when to run, when to pursue, trying to sustain a plantation, investing in a risky movement. Maybe that subject matter is too difficult for a game, but maybe a game isn’t the right vehicle, then, for that subject matter?

Gaming the Arab Spring – more play testing


Setting up the game.

We had another playtest of Corinne Goldberger’s Arab Spring game at ICAMES last night. Once again, I thought it went extremely well, and—more importantly—our group of new players all picked it up very quickly. All of the basic game mechanics worked smoothly, or need only minor tweaking. Next she’ll face the challenge of writing up the rules in a clear and effective way.

In the game, the two opposition players joined forces to successfully “occupying the square” in Yemen in December 2010. The game uses a Freedom in the Galaxy -like domino effect mechanism, so the action there had the effect of generating grievances and activists in other countries, much like the informational cascades which characterized the real Arab Spring.


The meeples represent activists, belonging to either the secular (left half of the box) or Islamist (right half of the box) opposition. The disks in the centre indicate social grievances, colour coded to match the activists: white (or black, we didn’t have enough white) = youth, red = workers, blue = middle class, red = rural farmers. The tanks indicate the repressive power of the state (black = republic, purple = monarchy). The coins represent resources. This is early in the game, and the Yemeni opposition has just  “occupied the square” (indicated here by a yellow disk, although eventually the game will use a purpose designed card or other indicator). [Click to enlarge.]

The republican regime player lacked the card necessary to “clear the square,” and within a month the country tipped into full-scale revolt, causing President Saleh to flee. Closely-fought elections followed a few months later, which the Islamist opposition player won.

At this point, the number of activists and grievances was growing in both Egypt and Sudan. The opposition players decided to focus on Sudan, where they had a slight edge and where the regime had less repressive capability (tanks). They occupied the square too, then overthrew the regime, while an attempted counter-coup by pro-regime forces failed. Efforts by opposition forces to hold quick elections were stymied by conservative judges appointed under the earlier dictatorship.

While the overthrow of two republics in quick succession certainly made the republics feel very vulnerable, it may have been a blessing in disguise. With opposition energies focused on two low-value countries (both Sudan and Yemen are only worth 2 victory points), the republics launched a series of reforms and repression in Egypt (6 VP) intended to reduce grievances and eliminate activists. In the Arab Spring, you need both to successfully challenge regimes: grievances have no effect unless there are activists of a similar kind (youth, workers, middle class, and rural), and activists are of no value if there are no significant social grievances to play upon. Egypt also increased military expenditures, thereby gaining an additional “tank” (signifying the repressive strength of the state).

With the Mubarak regime in Egypt consolidating its position, both opposition players then went after Algeria. The Algerian regime responded by using its oil money to co-opt some opposition activists, and then—in a striking display of the ruthless efficiency of the mukhabarat state (or good dice-rolling) arrested all of the others.  Tunisia clamped down for good measure too, while Libya announced new social programmes designed to address popular discontent.

Through much of the first two-thirds of the game, the monarchical player had felt quite secure. Opposition energies were largely focused on the republics. The Gulf monarchies were awash with resources, in part because of high oil prices. Morocco and Jordan were a little more vulnerable, but generally any growth of activists or grievances there were met by appropriate responses quite quickly.


At this point in the game, the governments of both Yemen and Sudan have been overthrown (we’ve indicated this with a black disk for now, but it will have a proper marker eventually). Egypt is full of Islamist activists, but regime reforms (supported by petrodollar foreign aid) have reduced popular grievances so their appeal is limited. Algeria, with its large number of worker (red) and farmer (green) grievances and activists will thus be the next target of the opposition. The monarchical player has noticed the growing number of grievances in Morocco and Jordan (bottom right), and will soon take steps to address these. [Click to enlarge.]

Then it all started to go wrong. In the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, a combination of sectarian tensions and youth activism was beginning to challenge the regime. Demonstrators occupied Pearl Roundabout. Saudi Arabia sent in massive military forces to help quell the protests. This however, wasn’t enough. As violence mounted, the protestors forced the Khalifa dynasty from power. A revolution in the Gulf! Who would have thought it possible?

The shockwaves were immense. Protestors in Saudi Arabia tried to mobilize, but failed. However, in Oman they were more successful. Moreover, under the game rules the monarchy player, who otherwise would be in contention for first place, automatically loses if a single monarchy is overthrown at the end of the game.

It all came down to the last turn, November 2011. The monarchy player hoped that a “counter-revolution” of royalist officers and foreign mercenaries in the armed forces would be able to turn back the clock in Bahrain—or, if that failed, trigger a civil war which the better-armed royalists might win. They were unable to do so, however.

Thus the game ended with the opposition players neck-and-neck at around a half-dozen victory points each. The royalists had many more, but the loss of Bahrain meant that they automatically lost the game. The republican regimes had 18 VP, and so were the winners.

Despite the apparently large winning margin, the game had been very close—indeed, the republics spend the first half of the game convinced they were a losing cause, the oppositions had been quite buoyant until things began to bog down for them mid-game, and the monarchies went from a strong position to losing in the last few months/turns of the game.  Had Egypt fallen the republican player would have  lost 6 VP, and the opposition players could have gained as many as 10 VP, entirely changing the outcome. Thus the game manages to both reflect real-world dynamics but to give everyone a real chance at “winning.” I’m really impressed with the design.

Review: BCT Command Kandahar

BCT Command Kandahar. MCS Group, 2013. Game designer:  Joseph Miranda. $69.95.


BCTKBCT (Brigade Combat Team) Command Kandahar is nearly a very good game, and I’m somewhat conflicted writing this review of it. While our playtest was a bit of a disappointment, with some tweaking it could be a very engaging and insightful representation of contemporary counterinsurgency operations.

The game includes a 17×22″ mounted area map of Kandahar province, Afghanistan, 102 unit markers, 140 other game markers, and 98 (staff, objective, and chaos) cards. The unit markers represent battalion-sized tactical formations, headquarters, or attached assets. The turn length is undefined.

What I liked most about BCT Command Kandahar were the staff cards that are at the heart of the game system. Each turn, players pick the joint military staff cards (J2 to J-9 in the US military staff system—J1 isn’t represented) for the next turn. Each card enables a number of certain functions, so that a J-2 (Intelligence) card can be used to identify covert enemy units or gain tactical advantage on the battlefield, a J-3 (Operations) card is necessary to undertake combat operations, and a J-9 card (Civil-Military Cooperation) card can allow you to develop local social infrastructure and build local networks of support. The number of cards in a player’s hand depends on their current command and control (C2) level, although this may be temporarily modified by planning (via a J-5 Planning card).

This means that, as in the real world, major military operations take some time to prepare, need to be based on a clear sense of operational and strategic purpose, and often take place in episodic bursts. This stands in contrast to many wargames, in which pretty much everything fights all the time, and where the game system gives little sense of operations planning.


The Taliban player also uses staff cards. Although these often have different potential actions, they are similarly numbered using the US system. It would have been interesting had these been more  different. In many insurgent organizations, for example, bomb-making is a specialist staff function, as is the organization of high-profile terror attacks.

All of the Coalition tactical units depicted in the game are either generically Coalition or Afghan. This was perhaps another lost opportunity, in this case to depict the political and coordination dynamics of coalition warfare, especially given the sizeable Canadian contingent in Kandahar in 2005-10.

The game does a satisfactory job of depicting  non-kinetic operations, represented by the establishment of “SWET/NET” (sewage, water, electricity, trash + social networks)  across the Kandahar area of responsibility. In the game this is entirely done through military (CIMIC) actions, however. In real life, of course, the military is only a secondary or tertiary actor  in such efforts, which are largely undertaken by the local government, international organizations, NGOs, and local communities.

The objectives being pursued by the players are determined by objective cards, which change from turn to turn. While players have some control over which objective they are pursuing each turn, the system also provides a very real sense of shifting priorities set by higher command—in other words, the world as experienced by real brigade-level commanders.

“Chaos cards” introduce a random event each turn, although these tend to be rather generic. I might have preferred more detailed events that fully conveyed the “strategic corporal” effect of local actions having broader effect (or, conversely, national developments affecting local operations). However, this is largely a matter of taste, and it certainly doesn’t adversely affect game play.


In our play-through of the “Intervention” scenario, the Taliban player initially placed covert guerrillas, recruiters, and logistics in Kandahar city itself, and then took advantage of having the  first turn to recruit large numbers of militia there (with seven such units recruited in the first turn alone). This immediately made any Coalition operations there very dangerous indeed, as well as creating a potential human-shield of low value units. Eventually the Coalition gave up on regaining control, and focused instead on the outlying rural districts.

This, of course, was a highly ahistorical outcome. At no point have the Taliban ever come anywhere near controlling Kandahar city. Instead, their activities there have largely consisted of symbolic attacks: even the so-called “Battle of Kandahar” in 2011 involved only a few score active Taliban attackers. In the real world, losing effective control of a city of half a million people would be a devastating blow. In the game, however, it is only marginally more important than other areas, and the Coalition can certainly win without it. A useful modification to the game would be to make the city both more important and a less hospitable environment for the Taliban.

Overall, I felt that the balance of forces in each district should probably have more effect on game play. Afghan insurgency and counterinsurgency has in large part been a dynamic of trying to influence fence-sitters who themselves are trying to best gauge which way the political and military winds are blowing. Guerrilla recruitment, training, and the building of training camps should be constrained by the degree of Coalition presence. Similarly, certain Coalition activities should become more difficult in areas with a substantial Taliban presence.

In combat, Taliban units always shoot first, unless the Coalition player has gained “tactical advantage” by playing J-2 (intelligence) cards. I’m not convinced, however, that in an era of UAVs and other persistent ISR assets that the balance of initiative always falls to the insurgents, especially in large-scale Taliban operations (most of which proved extremely costly to the attacker, and hence which were largely abandoned by 2006). This could easily be revised in the game by giving default initiative to the defender, or even introducing a level of uncertainty.

As might be expected, Coalition units in the game are significantly more effective in combat than are the Taliban. However, they are equally fragile, vulnerable to both suppression and even “destruction” (which, as the rules make clear, isn’t actual elimination, but rather a level of casualties that renders them temporarily combat ineffective). In Afghanistan, however, no battalion-sized US or NATO unit has ever been rendered combat ineffective for any length of time by Taliban attacks. A variant, therefore, might be to make NATO (but not Afghan) units largely invulnerable, but to somewhat increase the victory points earned from hitting them to reflect the political effects of US military casualties.

The combat system penalizes the Coalition player for using excess firepower, by counting excess hits against the enemy in urban or rural areas as collateral damage that earn the Taliban victory point. This is a clever mechanism, although it is perhaps too difficult to correctly judge how much force to use. It also makes it extremely difficult for the Coalition to combat Taliban units in Kandahar city, and renders it an effective Taliban base of operations—again, contrary to historical experience.

The rules are well-laid out, but in a few places could be clearer. It would also be useful if they were made available, in an updated edition, online. An FAQ/errata is available.

The game is relatively easy to learn, and relatively easy to modify. It could thus be a quite useful as a classroom or optional exercise, with students asked to play it, critique it, and suggest modifications.

Compensation for Palestinian refugees: a gaming-influenced workshop


Last month I coorganized a workshop in the UK on Palestinian refugee compensation with Chatham House as part of their long-standing “Minster Lovell” meetings on the refugee issue. Although the workshop wasn’t a game or simulation, we did use some gaming and simulation techniques to drive the discussions, including rival teams, scoring, and assigned tasks. Mick Dumper of the University of Exeter—who is both a refugee expert and a frequent user of simulations—has offered some thoughts below on how it all went.


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Recently I took part in a gaming-based workshop which was not exactly a lot of “fun”.  It was designed to explore the options available in constructing a compensation package for Palestinian refugees, in the event of some success resulting from the US Secretary of State’s current efforts in the Middle East peace process. While the workshop comprised some gaming elements (eg. competing teams and scoring) it was, ultimately, pretty hard work!  Nonetheless, as an exercise to extract good ideas, to fly kites, to test-case controversial initiatives, it worked, and provided much food for thought and action.

Palestinian_refugeesThe exercise was sponsored by Chatham House and the UK Foreign Office and run by Rex Brynen with the assistance of Roula el-Rifai from International Development Research Center (Ottawa), former Canadian diplomat Mike Molloy, Norbert Wuhler (formerly of the International Organisation for Migration) and Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House.  Approximately 20 participants were divided into 3 teams who were all set the same task of designing a delivery framework for compensation following a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis.  We were given a day and a half, and most of the time was spent in breakout rooms with 3 opportunities to meet in plenary: an introductory session at the beginning and a second session, about one-third of the way through, in which our preliminary findings were aired and shared.  In the final session the three teams presented their reports as powerpoints which the rest of the participants were asked to score. Overall, the task was quite daunting as the detail required was very demanding.

One of the key features of the workshop was that all the participants were very knowledgeable either on the peace process, or had specific expertise on the Palestinian refugee issue or of compensation mechanisms.  Many had acted as advisors to some of the actors in previous rounds of negotiations or had experience in designing and implementing compensation packages in other post-conflict situations. In addition, considerable thought had gone into the preparation of the powerpoints the teams were to present.  We were all given templates with sections, detailed prompts and examples of issues.  These ranged from the delineation of which elements of the package were to be included in an agreement and which were to dealt with by the agency established, eligibility issues, categories of claims, varieties of valuations and payment schemes etc.  On both accounts, this meant that the teams were able to hit the ground running and despite the ambitious objectives of the organisers, they were able to cover between half and two-thirds of the issues outlined.

datafiles_cache_tempimgs_2010_1_images_news_2010_04_22_palestine-key_300_0The teams were not randomly selected, but I was not able to detect the underlying logic of any social engineering, apart from the fact that Palestinian and Israeli participants were spread fairly equally.  Some teams clearly worked better as a group than others and it was interesting to see how disagreements within the teams as well between them did not necessarily follow national or political affiliations. The timing was very tight and it did mean that for some teams, disagreements were not resolved and therefore the differing positions were included in the final presentation.  In addition, it also meant that not all the sections were covered in the same way by the teams.  This meant that the scoring in the final session did not really work as it was difficult to give marks to the teams in the same way.

The team format of the workshop did provide opportunities to explore the implications of particular scenarios through to the end which was very revealing.  One of the most important outcomes of the workshop was the realisation that placing a monetary value on refugee hood and upon what that calculation was to be based was politically explosive and hugely divisive. For example, one scenario was to divide the sum likely to be raised from the donor community and from Israel by the number of refugees (in itself subject to many different estimates). This produced a pitiful sum deemed by some as offensive (“less than you would receive if your cat was run over by a car”) and would be totally unacceptable. Another scenario was to take a compensation for refugee hood sum that might be acceptable to the vast majority of refugees and then multiply this by the number of refugees. This led to astronomical totals which would be left unmet by the donor community and Israel.

Clearly finance alone was not going to solve this problem and the broader context of reparation, of which compensation is just one part but also includes restitution, restorative justice and apology, requires addressing and may offer more fruitful ways of pulling an agreement together. The team format was perhaps not essential in getting to this important stage, but it certainly made it more interesting, more collegial and I am sure helped motivate a talented group of experts who were all engaged in this on a pro-bono basis and may not otherwise have committed themselves to the hard work involved.

Mick Dumper 
University of Exeter 

Simulations miscellany, Boxing Day 2014 edition


Happy holidays to all PAXsims readers—we very much hope that nondenominational Gaming Santa brought everyone a sleigh-load of games and conflict simulations!

We have a few items that may be of interest:

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At War Is Boring, Michael Peck discusses his picks for the Best War Games of 2013.

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Masters of the World (Geopolitical Simular 3) will be releasing an add-on in January 2014 that will update the game with new economic and other data. It will also include a ““God’n spy game mode where you can access nearly a hundred internal hidden game engine variables, all modifiable on the fly.”

For our previous PAXsims review of the game, see here.

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JDMS header

The latest issue of the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation 11, 1 (January 2014) is now available. Of particular interest to agent-based modellers of conflict and cooperation will be an article by Dariusz G Mikulski, Frank L Lewis, Edward Y Gu, and Greg R Hudas on “Trust-based coalition formation in multi-agent systems.”

In this paper, we provide a framework to study trust-based coalition formation in multi-agent systems using cooperative game theory as the underlying mathematical framework. We describe how to study trust dynamics between agents as a result of their trust synergy and trust liability in cooperative coalitions. We also rigorously justify the behaviors of agents for different classes of games and discuss how to exploit the formal properties of these games for cooperative control in an unmanned military vehicle convoy.

In addition, a forthcoming article in JDMS by Jeffrey Appleget, Robert Burks, and Michael Jaye on “A demonstration of ABM validation techniques by applying docking to the Epstein civil violence model” is now available online:

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.

Playtesting the Humanitarian Crisis Game

hadr-event-cardsRecently, Professor Jeremy Wells of the Department of Political Science at Texas State University—San Marcos playtested the beta version of the PAXsims Humanitarian Crisis Game with  students in his civil-military relations course. You’ll find their impressions below.The play test even got a mention in the local newspaper, the San Marcos Daily Record—see the newspapers clipping at the end of this blog post.

In reading through the account they provide, several things stand out to me. One was his innovative decision NOT to allow the students to read the full set of rules in advance, but rather inform them of what they needed to know as they played the game. This undoubtedly facilitated easing them into the game, and also generated a sense of being temporarily overwhelmed by a new situation, although it may have inhibited some strategic planning.

Also, I was struck my the more competitive way his students appear to have initially approached the game. In  my own playtests at McGill, students were generally much more cooperative from the outset. This may have been because many were international development studies students, or because they had completed a course with me on peacebuilding. It might also have been a function of having had fuller access to the rules before the game. As the account below notes, the game sets up both collective victory conditions (“Relief Points” indicating how well players are saving lives), and individual ones (“Operations Points,” reflecting the organizational achievements and political capital of each particular actor). Players can all win, all lose, or some may win while other lose.

The game described below highlights the importance of logistics infrastructure: if you don’t invest early in opening up the airport, the main roads, or the port, players will soon run into major bottlenecks. This mirrors the importance of efforts by the US to open Port-au-Prince airport during the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the disaster upon which the game is largely modelled.

I’m pleased at the degree to which the game seems to have revealed to participants the relative advantages different players have, as well as the potential synergies between players.

In refining the game, I’m still struggling with two major challenges. The first of these is complexity—is it too complex, or would simplification lose too much of the essential texture? Student comments below mention how complex it seemed at first. On the other hand, one playtester at the Connections UK conference said it had a rather simplified/abstracted “Eurogame” feel  to it. The second issue  is length of play. At the moment it takes about three hours to play, which is a bit long for classroom use.

I’ll be using the game next term as an option activity for students in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course. I’ll be organizing that exercise as competition, to see which team is best able to same the disaster-affected population of Carana.


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My Civil Military Relations class played the Humanitarian Crisis Game as a final project for the course. The nine students were divided into pairs playing the Carana, United Nations, and nongovernmental organization sides, while the remaining three made up the Task Force. They played the game over two 80-minute meetings.

2013-11-18 16.04.37

Each student was required to submit responses to four general questions about their experience playing the game, and three general issues were common across most of the responses: consideration of individual versus overall results, immediate versus long-term goals, and the complexity of the rules of the game.

The Humanitarian’s Dilemma

The HCG rules encourage players to focus on both Relief Points (RP), which indicate the overall progress in Carana, as well as Operations Points (OP) that tally the individual success of the four teams. That humanitarian aid agencies are driven by competition with other organizations as by helping targeted peoples, regions, and countries is nothing new, but the message still comes as a shock to many. This was definitely the case with the nine students playing the game.

EG, half of the Carana government pair, noted that at the “beginning of the game, we often chose the option that would gain us the most individual points instead of choosing what was best for the players as a whole. This later proved detrimental as we realized if we moved our teams to benefit other players our tasks were made easier as well.” One example was the need for security operations as social unrest became in the problem later in the game. The rules discourage the Task Force from initiating security operations, placing the burden on the already-pressed Carana regime. EG added:

It was frustrating that we, the Government of Carana, would exhaust our resources sending teams to security while… the Task Force was not as proactive. This led me to realize how frustrating it must be when a Task Force assigned to a specific disaster-stricken region is not executing its mission properly. As the government of an impoverished country with few resources, it would be incredibly maddening to be working with a Task Force that was not proactively protecting the victims of the disaster. I believe this apathy on the side of the Task Force is because they have no real stake in the issue. It is not their state to defend, and therefore there is less motivation to see the mission of victim protection through.

One of the Task Force members, MH, admitted that the costs of intervening prohibited their desire to engage: “In our coordination with civilian authorities one of the impacts of being the task force was that there was less of an investment in the country and long game, as we knew that we would have to withdraw anyway, distancing ourselves from the country and making it harder to coordinate with other groups when these actions would involve some sort of sacrifice.”

Another Task Force member, BP, recognized that thinking in terms of each group’s sacrifice was misleading:

We realized that our supplies weren’t really OUR supplies but everyone’s, as we were all trying to meet the same goal–providing for the people in the districts. Once I got out of the mindset that we were in different groups to compete and realized that we were all essentially on the same team, my goals in the simulation became clearer and decisions became easier.

Of course, as UN member JW points out, this took a relatively long time: “It wasn’t until the end of the game that the Task Force began to work security and do what its job was. And that was only when we really needed it due to the amount of social unrest.”

Players were also distracted from the overall operation by the media card and media operations, which early on led players to compete for attention and OP. NGO player TS noticed this early on:

Everyone was concerned only with the district in which the media was present, which is somewhat understandable because all teams need to have good public relations. However, when the teams were concerned only with the district where the media was present, other districts suffered from our negligence, which came to hurt us. We addressed the needs of certain districts before others solely because of the media presence, even though there were many more people suffering in other districts of the city. In a real life disaster, the United Nations and the local government would be doing whatever is possible to make their efforts look the best they can to the media

BP took the lesson a step further, noting the moral hazard caused by the media: “The idea that some groups actually might want to come out on top or with a better image than another group in real life is particularly disturbing as the most important thing should always be to help the people, not worry about how good you look doing it in the media.”

2013-11-18 16.04.46The early focus on individual gains had repercussions later on as well though, even as groups began pushing for cooperative efforts. The Task Force especially struggled with this, as MH points out: “The strategy we started out with was building up a lead in OP early in the game; however, as the game developed, we found that this strategy had hampered our ability to meet the needs of the districts and was contributing to the massively negative RP on the field. Moreover, this also created tension between us and other players as later in the game it was harder to convince them to cooperate with us.” NGO player KK agrees that the Task Force hamstrung itself early on: “If one group is not on the same page or not trying to achieve the same goal, the whole response effort will fail; at times we saw the Task Force not being on the same page with the rest of the group and trying to work for themselves and just gain points for themselves, which hurt every team and Carana.”

After the first meeting, JW pointed out to me personally that the game portrayed a four-person Prisoner’s Dilemma. As a member of the UN, he had been sacrificing opportunities for individual OP in order to staff Emergency Relief boxes, allowing the other teams to take advantage of Coordination Clusters to distribute resources via the UN. One of the strongest points of the HCG is the inherent Prisoner’s Dilemma. The possibility of individual point-scoring added a dimension to the game often lost in general discussions of complex cooperative efforts. By allowing competition and cooperation to develop organically, rather than as the result of artificial rules or direct rewards, students learn about the rational processes of competition and cooperation.

The Shadow of Crisis

The students also recognized the difficult balance between immediate emergency needs and long-term development goals in a crisis situation. Logistics infrastructure particularly became the focus after the first few periods when players realized the limits on warehouse space was keeping valuable resources out of reach. By this time, however, the most affected team, the NGO, was generally unsuccessful at getting the other teams to trade supplies for what they saw as expensive infrastructure.

Only later in the game did EG recognize the need to invest in infrastructure, despite the easy access to Carana’s supplies:

Another difficulty the Government of Carana faced was knowing when it was the best time to buy logistics infrastructure. Logistics infrastructure pieces could be purchased with any three of our supply chips of different colors, and their purpose was to create more room in the warehouse that other players could move their supplies in for quicker access when it was time to move them to districts. By purchasing logistics pieces, we had to give up three of our supplies, and we were the team with the fewest supplies. We rarely, if ever, made the decision to purchase logistics infrastructure during the beginning of the game, as we could see no benefit to our team directly. As the simulation progressed, we realized our sacrifice allowed other teams with more resources to move their supplies to districts whose needs we could not meet.

The class played the game the first time before the Thanksgiving break in November. I let the class play a second time after the break. Interestingly, the students agreed to put all their supplies toward infrastructure, but this prevented them from resolving any districts early on, and by Carana’s start of the second period, the RP counter dipped below the minimum threshold, immediately ending the game.

With plenty of time remaining, they restarted, this time balancing the need for immediate short-term coverage of as many districts as possible with the desire to generate long-term development. This produced a fruitful discussion comparing foreign assistance to institution building in developing countries, adding another dimension to the lessons learned from the game.

The Rules

A general complaint from the students concerned the complexity of the game’s rules; however, this was not entirely the fault of the game’s developer. I purposefully kept students mostly in the dark right up until the first turn began to push the point that

UN member MM writes, “in the very first stages of the game there was so much information that we had to remember. If there was a list of rules and regulations handed as a hard copy to all of the teams then I believe the start of the game can run more smoothly and efficiently.” But this is exactly the situation I did not want to allow. Carana Government member JR added that not fully understanding the rules at first “made it harder to develop a game plan early on.” When crises begin, there are no rules. When situations required explaining the rules or making a judgment, I made the call, but I left the progress of the game and the learning up to the students as much as possible.

This also allowed for some mistakes to be made along the way, as KK points out: “The only issues, I believe, arose because we did not have a list of what the actual rules were. At times we would forget rules or just have little mistakes.” My response, when students first asked for a copy of the rules, was that in a real situation there are no rules; I would then tell them to relate the ensuing frustration to that of the responders and victims of real crises. This converted emotional responses to the complexity of the game into another learning experience.


Overall the students thoroughly enjoyed playing the game while I enjoyed watching them learn not only about crises but how crises and the responses develop. They connected abstract concepts, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and debates over the best means of generating economic and political development, to in-game outcomes and real-world situations.

This game is well-suited for courses in world politics, international studies, global issues, international or comparative political economy, and international development. It was also relatively easy to play the game as groups if you have more than four players. The game will definitely be a part of many of my future classes.

Jeremy Wells
Department of Political Science
Texas State University—San Marcos


Comments from the gallery on the Syria PeaceGame

On December 9, the United States Institute of Peace and Foreign Policy magazine conducted a “PeaceGame” on the conflict in Syria. Most of the day’s discussions were livestreamed by USIP, and those not in attendance could also follow along via the #PeaceGame hashtag on Twitter.

Ellie Bartels (National Defence University) and I were among those following along from afar, and much like Statler and Waldorf of the Muppet Show, we couldn’t resist offering some comments along the way. Ellie has kindly contributed some more detailed thoughts on the methodology of the “game” for PAXsims below, and also included some recommendations for future iterations. I’ve appended some of my own thoughts at the end.

In addition to the recorded video which will be posted to the USIP website, you’ll also find a summary of the day’s events at Storify, as well as an op ed on Syria and the PeaceGame by PJ Crowley on BBC News.

Ellie Bartel

Ellie Bartels

Yesterday, USIP and Foreign Policy put together the first of what promises to be an important series of PeaceGames, which seek to “bring together the leading minds in national security policy, international affairs, academia, business, and media to “game” out how we can achieve peace in Syria.  USIP and FP intend for the game to redefine how leaders think about conflict resolution and the possibility of peace.” The game produced a lively conversation, with some very interesting findings about the potential paths to peace in Syria.  However, this post is looks at the event from a slightly different angle: how the first PeaceGame worked as a game, and what may be the analytical consequences of the design choices that were made.

But first a few quick caveats: I was in no way involved with the design or execution of this exercise, and thus some of my analysis is based on assumptions about the intent of the team that put the event together.

Furthermore, I was not at USIP in person, so my observations are limited to the livestream feed of the event, as well as Twitter conversations I had with other observers and participants. Thus, my observations are based on limited data – I couldn’t see side conversations or non-verbal responses of players off screen, or eavesdrop on conversations during the break.  I tried to supplement this information by asking questions of the participants who were active on Twitter during the game.

Last, but perhaps most importantly, I am a professional gamer who is paid to run this type of event.  I have the job I do because I believe that gaming can be a rigorous, insightful tool to create shared understandings within or between communities, and that creating this type of understanding on foreign policy issues can lead to better national security policy.  Thus, this post isn’t a critique of the use of games to address “serious” problems (which some observers did raise during the event) — it is a response aimed at promoting good design and analysis in this and future public games.

Overview of the first Syrian PeaceGame

The stated objective of the game was to lay out the conditions for a “best possible peace” to end the Syrian conflict.  45 experts, ranging from retired ambassadors to academics to Arab activists, role-played 19 different actors selected for their influence on the war. These also ranged widely from nation states, to sub-national actors within Syria, to the global media.   All teams sat around a single table for discussion, which was directed by a moderator.

Because of impending weather in DC, the event was shortened from a planned four sessions of discussion, billed as “Achieving a Near-Term Political Solution,” “Establishing the Peace,” “Challenges to Peace Emerge,” and “Establishing a Sustainable Peace” to only cover the first, second, and fourth topics. Each discussion session started with several scene-setter slides on the current state on the ground in Syria, followed by anonymous voting on the importance of different issues, which was then used by the moderator as the jumping-off point for discussion.

The first session’s discussion was dominated by views on the potential of various processes for negotiating a peace.  The majority view by the end of the session was that for negotiated peace to occur, key actors (most participants identified a combination of Russia, Iran and the Alawites) would need to sign off for the deal, or an alternative process would be needed.  There was also a tension identified between outside stakeholders who were capable of reaching a negotiated deal, and internal actors who likely could not.

The second session, scheduled to be about establishing the peace, instead returned to the issue of what a peace deal might look like in Syria.  However, in contrast to the focus on negotiations in the first session, here conversation focused on what the final deal would look like, with a limited discussion of implementation.  In general, those with a strongly nation-state view tended to see a powersharing government or division along sectarian lines as the only viable options.  In contrast, participants focused on non-state actors suggested that informal governance and local dealmaking could be empowered to form a peace with characteristics of both of the state-centric models.

The third session focused on what each group would need to see for peace to work, as well as last words from the participants. Again, a strong undercurrent in the discussion was the split between participants that focused on the role of non-state actors, and those who tended to take the perspective of nation-states. Non-state actors could often offer specific things they wanted to see prior to peace; those who saw states as the dominant actors were often reduced to talking about how conditions weren’t “ripe” for peace. There was also more of a focus on this round about the needs of Syria’s neighbors to avoid conflict spillover.

Notes on Design

Based on my observations, I think there are four areas where design choices had substantial effect on what we can and cannot conclude from the first PeaceGame.  In the rest of this post, I describe the choices made about the audience, objectives, format, and moderations of the exercise, and discuss the potential impacts.  I offer recommendations both for mitigating the impact of these choices on game analysis, and suggest alternative choices that may be worth exploring in future PeaceGame exercises.

Audience. The first thing worth noting is that PeaceGame was very public event, with a very high level of quality in participants.  I (like many other analysts) was able to follow along with the event on a very well done live stream, with an active Twitter conversation running in virtual space (after the first session, the moderator mentioned that there had already been 1300 tweets using the event hashtag, which is more than many conferences ever get).  Participants were well-established experts, with deep knowledge of the subject.  That is not an easy combination to pull off, particularly when talking about a topic as politically sensitive as Syria, and I applaud the PeaceGame team for building a space safe enough for so many to participate.  However, it is also reasonable to assume that had the same conversation been held in a private space with only a few select analysts listening in, discussion may well have included facts and opinions that were not included in the public forum.

Recommendation. Public game findings can be supplemented with more private, post-game interviews to allow participants to raise important issues that may not have been discussed in the PeaceGame forum.

Objectives.  Unsurprisingly for the flagship event of a new program, PeaceGame had an ambitious set of objectives.  In addition to the frequently repeated tasking to consider what a “best possible peace” would be, the program’s website added broader ideas like “redefine how leaders think about conflict resolution and the possibility of peace.”  These broad objectives translated into a very broad conversation that sometimes sacrificed discussion on specific issues like spoiler, veto points, and second-order effects in order to cover wide ground.

Recommendation. Analysts should understand that the broad and sometime shallow conversations of the Syria PeaceGame were caused by the broad objectives, and should be seen as a feature and not a bug of the exercise. However, future games might consider laying out narrower objectives in order to guide deeper discussion of some of the issues of interest identified in this game.

Format. The most consequential choice the game designers made was to have the entire game take place at a single table with all 19 teams.  While this choice is logical given the requirements of a public event, it also meant that any discussion of small negotiating teams, partnerships, and side deals could only be discussed “out in the open.”  This seemed to make discussion about process somewhat more hypothetical in tone, because there was little ability to explore through the game what the dynamics of efficacy of such a tactic might be.

Recommendations. In future PeaceGames, consider allowing opportunities for smaller breakout sessions in order to play out specific combinations of actors at negotiations. This seems particularly helpful when studying issues like back channel negotiations that are often not legible to observers, since the game will allow for clearer observation than is likely to be possible for analysis in real life.

The lack of defined operating space in the game outside the large table also made for some interesting dynamics involving the violent non-state actors, who are relatively unlikely to be included the type of formal negotiations that the game format mirrors.  Non-state actor players often asserted (either in their speaking time or on Twitter) that they were focusing on campaigns on the ground that made the negotiations irrelevant, going so far as to declare that they were “winning” the game.  However, the format of PeaceGame did not have a clear way to connect these “independent” game actions with the broader discussion in a consistent manner.

Recommendations. Future games with more emphasis on implementation may benefit from a mechanism to incorporate unilateral actions, particularly by potential spoilers and veto points.  This likely will require a more formal adjudication process than was used in the PeaceGame to reconcile different types of events into a narrative about the outcomes of player decisions.

Finally, despite the moderators’ efforts, participants often dropped out of role to speak in their professional capacity, particularly during the third session. This added good information to the discussion, but likely limited the game’s ability to reproduce emotional or psychological dimensions of peacemaking that might have been explored with stronger role playing.

Recommendations. Game analysts might consider impact of level of role play in different portions of the discussion as an important variable driving the tone and content of the discussion.

Moderation. FP Group CEO and Editor David Rothkopf had the superhuman job of corralling 45 engaged experts to keep them on topic, on time, and decorous.  Having experienced trying to get this big a group to just not talk over top of one another, I was very impressed by his ability to hold and direct the group.

However, Mr. Rothkopt’s moderation style included many injections of his own opinions, which is generally frowned upon in the gaming community.  Many gamers would argue that the best practice is for the moderator in a game to facilitate the participants, by ensuring everyone is able to move through the event in accordance with the rules.  Our concern is that if you as the moderator are seen to be driving the discussion based on your understanding of what the content should be, you exclude participants whose views might differ, stifling the discussion.

In this case, some Twitter commenters noted that Mr. Rothkopt seemed to “have his own agenda,”even noting that he seemed dismissive of some of the non-state centric solutions which participants proposed.  If participants felt the same way, this tendency may have biased which ideas were considered and even who spoke, and how much.

Recommendation. Analysis of the game may want to look at the role of the moderator and consider how the moderator’s contributions may have changed the discussion.

Ellie Bartels

Rex Brynen

Rex Brynen

I very much enjoyed listened to the USIP/FP Syria “PeaceGame.” There was a remarkable degree of talent in the room for the day, and as expected their contributions were informed and insightful. Unfortunately, because of the format and large number of participants, many in attendance only managed to speak only a very limited number of times. Although a few  offered comments via Twitter, I often found myself wishing for more of their input and analysis.

Recommendation. Find a mechanism whereby participants are able to express their views other than via the main microphone. Twitter is an imperfect mechanism for this, since it forces complex issues to be addressed in 140 characters or less. Instead, participants might be permitted to liveblog on a central website (or provide comments for support staff to post on their behalf), or given a period in which they summarize thoughts and recommendations mid-game for public distribution.

For the most part, the Peacegame wasn’t a “game” at all. Participants didn’t get a chance to “do” anything, and the role-playing (which, as Ellie notes, was only partial) was used more as a device to facilitate discussion than as part of some iterative, strategic process. Given that the purpose of the exercise was to explore aspects of the problem space in a way that caught the attention of the media, policy-makers, and the broader public, that’s fine by me.

That being said, introducing more game or “game-ish” elements could have been useful. The different phases of discussion might have been introduced with detailed, updated scenarios in the style of a classic three-move seminar game. Without these, some of the later discussion on stabilization and reconstruction foundered because it wasn’t entirely clear what would be the contextual environment for such activities. Also, introducing events as injects would have been useful, whether to provide atmosphere (and a sense of crisis), or to nudge participants to address key aspects of the problem that appear to have been overlooked or bypassed in the discussion.

Recommendation. The “PeaceGame” doesn’t need to operate like a wargame or crisis simulation. However, there are some game mechanisms that might enhance the process (many of them also identified by Ellie above).

While the “PeaceGame” angle did help generate buzz for the event, it did have one unfortunate side-effect: it was clear from the Twitter discussion that some Syrians and others felt that the participants were simply “playing” while real Syrians died. The occasional levity or gallows humour from the participants contributed to that alienation.

This is hard to address. Even when discussing deadly serious issues like the Syrian civil war (with its 125,000 dead), humour can make a conference run more smoothly and productively for those engaged in the meeting. Indeed it may be especially helpful at times when handling a topic that, after all, is rather dark and depressing. However, it can look  rather different for those not in the room, or who do not usually participate in such meetings.

Recommendation. “PeaceGame” may not be the best title for events like these (something the the “Syria PeaceSimulation” might have been less problematic). Moderators need to recognize that the external audience may need to be reassured that human tragedy is being addressed with an appropriate degree of seriousness.

Finally, allow me to nominate “Islamic Extremist” Mona Yacoubian as the role-player of the day. She was excellent at showing how her actor(s) would manipulate the political and military situation to best advantage, whether by spoiling peace initiatives or exploiting  local war economies to enhance their resources.

Recommendation. Don’t ever let Mona get real control of a jihadist group. Someone may also want to consider placing her on a No Fly List.

Rex Brynen

Review: Cuba Libre

Cuba Libre. GMT Games, 2013. Game designers: Jeff Grossman and Volko Ruhnke. $69.00.


Recently there was yet another insurgency in the office, as a group of us got together to refight the Cuban revolution—but with rather less violence, and better pizza, than the real thing. Cuba Libre is another title in the GMT Games series which has also given us Andean Abyss (Colombia) and A Distant Plain (Afghanistan). All games in the series use the same basic game system, but with modifications to adapt each to the era and struggle being represented.

In the case of Cuba Libre, up to four players are involved: the Cuban government, the leftist July 26 Movement revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, the anti-communist Revolutionary Directorate, and the criminal syndicate. The map is significantly smaller than others in the COIN series. Moreover, the geography of Cuba means that essentially all strategic movement is along an east-west axis, with most provinces bordering only two others. By contrast, in  Andean Abyss or A Distant Plain, most provinces border at least four, and players usually have myriad movement options. The effect of this is to render the geography of insurgency and counterinsurgency far more important in Cuba Libre, where players may seek to develop blocking positions to slow the expansion of rivals. Somewhat against my initial expectation, I soon found that I rather enjoyed this aspect of the game.


In general, pretty much all of the positive things we’ve said about other games in this series apply to Cuba Libre. One of our playtest group (who, as the communist opposition, eventually won the game) commented:

It was interesting to watch how lower numbers of possible guerrillas and bases changed strategies and how the geography really affected game play. It was challenging but to try to work with limited reinforcements and attempt to find a feasible way to increase government opposition without additional bases (for my victory condition). Without a speedy way to move my guerillas to opposite sides of the island, I found myself trapped deep in the mountains and unable to reinforce my western front. As a result, we struggled to spread the virtues of communism in many areas. In the end, we often had to quickly give the local population a terrifying reminder of the dangers of capitalism before we were attacked. The cards were great and especially painted a vivid picture of the terrible Batista government and their inability to keep our race car drivers safe! Each time we have played the COIN series, I am struck by how well the mechanics work. Despite a misunderstanding regarding how one card worked, the faction order system, ended up preventing me from dominating the game.… In the end however, the immortal words rang true. “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!”


Review: A Distant Plain

A Distant Plain: Insurgency in Afghanistan. GMT Games, 2013. Game designers: Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke. $78.00.

416Earlier this year PAXsims reviewed Andean Abyss (2012), a game of Colombian insurgency and counterinsurgency—and we liked it very much. Two other games using the same general  system have since been since been published as part GMT Games’ COIN series: Cuba Libre (the Cuban revolution), and A Distant Plain (insurgency and counterinsurgency in contemporary Afghanistan). A fourth game, Fire in the Lake (the Vietnam War), is currently in development.

A Distant Plain was codesigned by Volko Ruhnke (architect of the COIN series, and designer of the Charles S. Roberts Award-winning games Andean Abyss and Labyrinth) and Brian Train (well-known among both hobbyists and professional wargamers for his counterinsurgency games, notably Algeria). Expectations were thus high. Our expert playtest group at McGill University included an academic who works on fragile and conflicted-affected countries (me), a professional game designer who works on simulations for anti-corruption and financial intelligence analysts (Tom), and three graduate students (June, Alejandra, and Sean) interested in complex humanitarian operations, war crimes, insurgency/counterinsurgency, and related issues.

As you’ll see below, we certainly weren’t disappointed. A Distant Plain is a highly enjoyable and engaging game that gives a real sense of the strategic challenges and trade-offs of the Afghan conflict.

Playing the Game

As noted above, the core game system in A Distant Plain is similar to that of its predecessors. Once again there are up to four players, in this case the Afghan Government, the Coalition, the Taliban, and the Warlords. Extensive rules for 1-, 2- and 3- player versions are also included. Each turn, players can choose to either play event cards or undertake one of a series of possible operations, with the sequencing of initiative determined both by the event card and by who acted in the previous turn. Most of the primary operations are similar to Andean Abyss: counterinsurgents can train, patrol, sweep, or assault, while the insurgents can rally, march, attack, or terrorize. Some of the special activities allowed to each faction have been customized to the Afghan setting, however. The Coalition may thus “surge” its troops in or out of the country, the Government may “govern” (or misgovern, since this often involves converting aid into patronage), the Taliban may “infiltrate” and subvert non-Coalition forces, and the Warlords may “suborn” enemy units, using resources to buy off government or Taliban troops.


Indeed, despite a similar core game system, A Distant Plain should not be seen as Andean Abyss in the Hindu Kush—it plays and feels rather different. Perhaps most notable of all is the subtle relationship between the Afghan government and the Coalition. Neither side can win without considerable help from the other, but in the end only one player can win. Neither side can attack the other. Their interests and victory conditions overlap but differ: while the government cares about establishing patronage and bringing the country under COIN (Government + Coalition) control, the Coalition is, in a reflection of population-centric COIN doctrine, more anxious to establish positive legitimacy (“support”) for the Afghan political system, avoid casualties, and eventually go home. The Coalition has unlimited resources, but joint operations draw upon the scarce resources of the Afghan player, who can quickly grow resentful at the having his/her priorities determined by a bunch of foreigners.

For the Taliban, on the other hand, Pakistan looms large in their strategic calculations. Its stance is determined both by player actions (such as Coalition drone strikes) and the play of event cards. When supportive, the Taliban are able to use Pakistani border areas as a sanctuary in which to build up and move their forces.

Game play is also very  shaped by the quite different, Afghanistan-specific event cards, and the options they present. The COIN game system creates both interesting trade-offs (do I conduct operations, or invest time and resources in building longer-term capabilities?) and it tends to generate an interesting sort of path dependency, whereby acquiring a capability often leads a player to reshape their strategy to make best use of it—a point I’ll return to later.

The game now includes an optional  “deception” rule whereby players start the game with hidden assets, possibly augmenting their actions or scores. I strongly recommend using this, since it makes it much more difficult to know exactly what a player might do next turn, or exactly how close each is to winning.

In our game, Alejandra and I jointly played the Coalition. Our strategy looked much like that of the US since 2001: initially we tried to maintain a light footprint, but when this failed we undertook a major surge of troops in the hopes of shifting the momentum of the war against the Taliban. While our cooperation with the government was good at first, relations soon frayed as they grew to resent our heavy-handed tendency to expect them to meekly follow our campaign and state-building plans. For much of the game (and unlike real life) we had the Taliban struggling under pressure, and we also managed to avoid any significant casualties. However, this came at the cost of letting the Warlords establish militias and criminal networks in much of the country. Ultimately they would narrowly win the game.

Player Reactions

In keeping with the importance of patronage in A Distant Plain, in this playtest I used my control over the supply of Angela’s pizza to force the other players to agree to send in some post-game thoughts for inclusion in this review.

The Afghan Government (Tom) confirmed the problematic nature of its relations with the Coalition:

I was afforded the opportunity to represent the Afghan government in A Distant Plain.  Following my first, utterly enjoyable, GMT COIN experience with Andean Abyss, I was very eager for this game.  It did not disappoint. The game mechanics, much like Andean Abyss, are smooth and simple to understand, but very complex in their effect.

As the government I quite quickly discovered I was tied too closely to the Coalition forces.  I wanted to accrue patronage  and bring the Afghan population under control—whether they supported the government or not.  This differed from the Coalition somewhat, in that they wanted enough government support that there was no longer any need for Coalition forces to remain in Afghanistan.  While these goals are parallel, government  patronage often comes at the cost of legitimacy and good governance.  The Coalition could also determine much of my spending.  While coalition forces are extremely effective at eliminating insurgents, my own ability to attract more aid was partly dependent on doing it by myself. However, my initial strategy of single-handedly assaulting Taliban bases to increase aid was thrown out the window when the Coalition decided it was their solemn duty to eliminate the Taliban with drones.  So I had to play along, and try to build up police strength in outlying provinces to eradicate Warlord bases which, unfortunately for the Coalition, eroded support while providing me with a small boost in aid. Eventually I also started to redeploying (or withholding) my police in such a way as to limit the Coalition’s ability to use “civic action” to build support. This led, of course, to some very interesting negotiations when the Coalition realized what I was doing. If this game set out to illustrate the frustrations and complications of the Afghan government – Coalition alliance, it certainly succeeded!

The government was further hindered by the warlords’ ability to suborn troops and police and the Taliban’s ability to infiltrate (and hence “turn” government units).

The game also captures, in exceptional fashion, the consequences of certain actions or events on the course of the conflict through the event cards.  The cards provide such a fluid, unpredictable dynamic that necessitate rethinking one’s plan.

The Taliban player (June) commented:

I had enjoyed the game mechanics present in Andean Abyss and was especially excited to see them applied in a historical and geographical context that I was more familiar with. A Distant Plain absolutely did not disappoint. All of my favorite aspects from Andean Abyss were present in the new installment along with some new dynamics that arose as a consequence of the actors involved.

During our game of A Distant Plain, I played the Taliban. Immediately, it was clear from the victory conditions that I would need not only to build popular support in provinces with significant populations, but I would also have to get some insurgent bases on the board. Unfortunately, for a great deal of the first quarter of the game, I had to spend my turns “burying” event cards to keep them away from the Coalition. Nevertheless the Coalition soon obtained the Predator drones card, and their inclination to use them led me to spend my available ops rallying in my safe havens across the border in Pakistan instead of marching or rallying a small numbers of guerrillas into a province. I feared that spreading my forces out wouldn’t have much strategic purpose if they would be met with barrage of Hellfire missiles.  The Coalition also snagged several other capabilities over the course of the game, some of them directly limited my actions while others changed how I thought I should play. In the end, I had a huge insurgent build-up in Pakistan but hadn’t managed to do enough terror in populated areas.

One of the most interesting aspects of this series of games is the depiction, through the event cards, of actual historical events. These certainly appeal to history buffs and political science geeks. Many of the events depicted were major junctures in the conflict and the real effects of these changes can demonstrated in the game as well. For me, maintaining my relationship with Pakistan was critical to my ability to rally guerrillas without a high resource cost. Cards like “US-Pakistan talks” thus had the potential to help or hurt the Taliban a great deal.

The only aspect that we did not utilize to its full extent were the Lines of Communication. Although the Government, Taliban, and Warlords could all benefit from using or sabotaging them, it wasn’t clear to us initially how important they could be. I think the next time I play A Distant Plain I will have to be more aware how LoCs affect gameplay. Certainly the Taliban could have interdicted government movement and resources to a much greater extent through sabotage.

Overall, A Distant Plain managed to be fun for everyone while simulating the power dynamics and strategies of the different parties involved in the war in Afghanistan. I think it is a strong installment to the series and a great contribution to the genre of modern warfare board games.

Finally, the Warlords (Sean) enjoyed themselves too, and not just because they won:

I had a great time with A Distant Plain and am glad the game mechanics and card system are being employed in multiple settings. Having studied and lived in Colombia, I had really enjoyed Andean AbyssA Distant Plain really effectively translated that game system into the Afghani context. As the Warlords, it was fascinating to try to contest control of provinces without garnering too much attention from the other players. I initially pushed too hard by building many bases, but quickly learned I had to be more subtle. The game’s balance worked really well. It successfully demonstrated the complexity and difficulty of successful coordination between the Afghani Government and Coalition in the face of constant pressure from the insurgents. Once I discovered the power of the “suborn” special activity, I became a much more effective threat. It allowed me to buy off the opposition in order to relieve military pressure or remove an opponent’s control in a province. It ended up being vital in stopping a wave of government forces from attacking my Northern strongholds. I also thought the cards worked well in terms of pushing strategy in certain directions (e.g. Predator or Reaper drones) while not being overpowered. Overall, I really enjoyed the game and it was great to see firsthand the power-dynamics in that context. I am looking forward to playing Cuba Libre sometime soon.

Final Thoughts

There are a number of minor quibbles I could raise about A Distant Plain. Although I was pleased to see patronage built into the game,  I’m not entirely sure the system fully captures its complex effects. I might have designed the operations and special activities slightly different. It might also be interesting to tweak the win conditions in many of the COIN series games to allow narrow conditions under which two players might win.

These, however, are rather trivial objections, and are really testimony to the degree of interest the game generates than criticisms of how it plays. Let’s face it, this game is fun. I have no idea what play time for the COIN series is supposed to be, but our games (pizza included) easily go on for six hours or more—largely because of the political banter and negotiation the game generates. In the playtest, for example, we Coalition players developed the annoying habit (annoying to the insurgents that is—not to us) of making constant droning noises during periods of critical insurgent decision-making just to remind them of the death circling above. The Taliban seemed to get genuinely Talibanesque in its growing hatred for the foreign presence in Afghanistan (the drone noises didn’t help win any hearts and minds either), and both the Afghan Government and Warlords were even more duplicitous and cunning than usual.

As I noted with Andean Abyss, this isn’t a game well-suited to classroom use, in part because of the length of game play. However it could be used as a facilitated optional activity.

reapersAt the end of the game, I think two things most stood out. One was the difficulty of maintaining a consistent strategy in a dynamic, multi-actor environment. No matter how much one tried to plan several turns out, things would simply happen that altered your calculations. When they did, one was forced with an often difficult decision whether it would be better to stay the course (despite changed circumstances), or revise one’s approach (thereby having possibly wasted a turn or two of preparation). This is a useful antidote to those who see political-military strategy, whether in wargames or real wars, as something akin to a cake recipe. It is far more uncertain than that, at times as much Kenny Rogers as Clausewitz.

The second real take-away from the game was the path-dependency noted earlier, and the ways in which capabilities influenced strategy and tactics. Both of the insurgent players clearly feared the Coalition’s growing ability to use drones and airstrikes, a capability into which we had invested considerable effort through acquiring the relevant event cards. However, in retrospect, I am painfully aware of the ways in which our low-risk counter-insurgency-by-remote-control tactics came at the expense of other actions. We had been slow to push a Coalition presence out into the countryside. We had been slow to train the Afghan military. We had depended too much, perhaps, on UAVs in the sky rather than boots on the ground. We had done too much on behalf of our allies, instead of building their capacity to do more themselves. Cognitively, we had somewhat fallen prey to the “law of the tool”: “if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”— or, in this remotely-piloted case, “if you have a Reaper, every problem looks like a target”. True, we had done well in the game—had we been able to pull our troops out quickly, we might have even won. But could we have done even better if we had been less seduced by new gadgets?

I suppose answering that question will have to await our next game of A Distant Plain.

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Want this review in Russian? Here’s a translation, courtesy of StairsGames.

Simulations miscellany, 21 August 2013

miscellanySome recent material on peace/conflict/development simulations and gaming that may be of interest to our readers:

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Registration is still open until August 23 for the Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference to be held at King’s College London on September 3rd and 4th. I’ll be there, as will be several other PAXsims contributors.

Registration for the conference (including lunches and dinner) costs £100, and should be done via KCL.

I’ll also be running and demo and playtest of the Humanitarian Crisis Game that I’m developing for classroom use, based on ideas from the Connections 2012 “Hati HADR Game Lab” (see here and here and here), as well as Gary Milante’s Crisis Response card game (featured on PAXsims here). I could do with a few more volunteers for the game, so if you’ll be attending Connections UK and are interested, let me know.

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The McGill Humanitarian Studies Initiative as offering a multi-disciplinary program that includes both in-classroom learning (one evening per week, September 10 to December 17) as well as a 3-day Field Simulation (Spring 2014):

The course provides registered medical students, residents, public health students, and other graduate-level students with relevant backgrounds, mid-career professionals and humanitarian workers with the globally recognized competencies relevant to humanitarian work.  The course is created so course participants gained competency-based essentials in humanitarian response practice recognized by Non-governmental Organizations (NGO’s), Canadian universities and government as the standard for professional-level humanitarian training.

You’ll find further details at the HSI website. You can also find a review of the Spring 2013 version of the course by PAXsims contributor June McCabe here.

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The North American Simulation and Gaming Association will be having an online discussion on Twitter (#NASAGAchat) on August 29:


Time: August 27, 2013 from 9pm to 10pm (EDT)
Location: Twitter, Twubs
Organized By: Melissa Peterson

Event Description:

One of the things we discussed last time was the large difference between the design and implementation of in-person games, board games and virtual or video games.

This time we will be delving into that in more detail. What are those differences, what are the pros and cons of each, and how do we decide what the best option is for a particular project?
Join us to learn or provide your expertise!

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The annual conference of the Digital Games Research Association will be hosted by Georgia Institute of Technology at the Georgian Terrace Hotel in Atlanta on 26-29 August 2013:


This year’s proposed theme is a playful linguistic remix of the terms “frag” and “defrag.” Defragging is the computer term for reducing file fragmentation. Fragging, derived from the military term for killing a superior officer of one’s own unit, has become video game parlance for the temporary killing of another player.

In the early game studies community, a good deal of fragging (in all three senses) took place between various camps, schools of thought and disciplines. This included discussions as to whether or not game studies should split into more discipline-centered communities; however, the overall trend has been to continue to grow our field as an “interdiscipline” that includes humanities, social sciences and psychology, computer science, design studies, and fine arts.

Borrowing from the computer engineering term, the theme for DiGRA 2013 highlights this process of defragmenting, which both embraces and better articulates our diverse methods and perspectives while allowing the game studies research community to remain a coherent and unified whole.

DiGRA 2013 will take place immediately proceeding Dragon*Con, America’s largest multigenre fan convention. For more information, visit:


Questions about the conference?

Celia Pearce, John Sharp, Helen Kennedy
DiGRA 2013 Conference Co-Chairs

DiGRA Students have put together some useful research resources:

As our updated version of the Games Research Positions Map ( has received so much positive feedback, the new “Games Research Journal Map” has been structured in a similar way. It is completely searchable, sortable (by journal name, discipline, publisher, or frequency of publication), and contains a range of important information about the different academic journals in the field that regularly publish games-centric research (e.g., impact factor, word limits, link to submission guidelines, etc.). Check it out here:

We hope that this will soon become a valuable resource for students and academics alike! Please feel free to pass this information along to any other mailing lists/researchers who may be interested in such a resource.

Also, if there is a journal that has been overlooked, or see an error in one of the postings, please let us know via this thread ( on the DiGRA Student forums. As the only known list of its kind, we would like to keep it as accurate and comprehensive as possible.

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In a very thoughtful review at BoardGameGeek, game reviewer (and insurgency groupie) extraordinaire Tom Grant has high praise indeed for Andean Abyss:

Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss recently won the Charles S. Roberts award for best post-World War II boardgame. That deceptively simple statement means a lot more than it might seem at first glance. Andean Abyss is one of the most important wargames published in the last decade, a real watershed in the history of the hobby. And it’s a damn good game, too.

We were very positive about the game too, as you’ll see from our earlier review.

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This month in Seattle, the world championships for the fantasy-themed computer game DOTA 2 featured the largest ever prize for a digital game competition, $1.4 million. As noted in the  BBC’s reporting on the competition, it follows an earlier decision by the US government to grant P1 visas to professional gamers, much like internationally renowned athletes or entertainers.

Alas, D&D never paid like that…

Review of the Canadian Humanitarian and Disaster Response Training Program SimEx 2013

June McCabe is an MA student in political science at McGill University, whose research interests including peace operations, humanitarian assistance, and simulations. She participated in the Canadian Humanitarian and Disaster Response Training Program in May, and offers these reflections on the experience.


Recently, there has been a growing trend in humanitarian response to use simulation exercises to train personnel for work in the field and improve organizational capacity by familiarizing humanitarian aid workers with protocols and standards for effective provision of aid. Simulations can be useful not only in research and knowledge creation but also as a method to teach in a practical way that is difficult to get from classroom experience alone. Moreover, simulation can help to provide a strong foundation for future aid workers pre-deployment so that when arriving on scene in a real crisis they have the personal and professional skills to cope. The Emergency Capacity Building Project has identified three distinct types of simulations used in humanitarian response: skill drills, where specific skills and knowledge are utilized and tested; functional simulation, where participants act in a role they could fulfill in a real crisis; and table top simulations, which involve discussion and problem solving of an aspect of a real or hypothetical crisis (Barnhardt, Bulten, Hockaday, Sitko, Staples 6).

HTIprogramFor over 10 years, the Humanitarian Academy at Harvard has offered a highly regarded training program, the Humanitarian Studies Initiative, which employs all three of these simulation methods to train both university students and aid workers in the basics of humanitarian response. This May, I participated in the first ever Canadian Humanitarian & Disaster Response Training Program conducted by the Humanitarian Training Initiative, which emulates the original Harvard program including the three day simulated humanitarian crisis called the SimEx.

By the end of the 10 day course, my knowledge of humanitarian aid had been greatly expanded. I now feel ready to consider aid work with a grasp on how it must be to work in the field. The sim showed some of us that we never want to do humanitarian aid work, while others of us found it invigorating and are preparing for deployments to the DRC. The simulation was the part of the course that brought what we had learned during the long classroom tutorials into focus. It challenged both our abilities and our ideas about being an aid worker. In the end, the SimEx was one of the most multifaceted and complex learning experiences I have ever had.

The SimEx Scenario

During the first week of the course, we learned about the cluster system, the Sphere core standards, as well as ethics and the history of humanitarian aid. Lectures were supplemented by table top exercises culminating in a mock aid project pitch where we created a project with short and long-term goals, a timeline, materials projections and budget estimates for an IDP camp in Côte d’Ivoire. The last three days of the course, the SimEx, took place on a campground at Sparrow Lake, Ontario made into the fictional country of Simlandia. The SimEx placed students in the midst of a complex emergency scenario where aid workers struggled to reach populations affected by a tsunami while dealing with tight military controls as well as rebel activity in the area. The simulation scenario itself touched on some of the most challenging aspects of a complex emergency including child soldiers, government manipulation of aid flows, celebrity appearance and of course, high security risks to NGO personnel.

THTIhe SimEx was built on both functional simulation and skill drill components. Upon arrival at the camp, students were broken into NGO teams (i.e. Oxfam, World Vision). Within the team, each student was assigned a cluster specific role (i.e. WaSH, Shelter, Security). During the day, NGO teams would rotate through different “stations” performing skill drills relating to a specific cluster. Each station challenged the students to employ knowledge of Sphere standards and skills learned during the first week of the course. Information collected at these stations also contributed to an overall picture of the developing humanitarian emergency. In contrast, the functional aspect of the sim focused almost entirely on the emotional and physical demands of being a humanitarian aid worker during the first day, week and then month of an emergency (time conversion on Days 1, 2 and 3). How to work as a team and communicate while being hot, hungry and tired was one of the most fundamental lessons the sim was designed to teach us.

Overall Assessment

Overall both the functional and skill drill portions of the simulation were educational and illuminating. The skill drills allowed students to utilize the training materials and information that we had learned during the previous week and carrying this out successfully was very motivating. The functional part of the simulation really allowed us to experience the stress and fatigue that can occur during a deployment immediately following a disaster. The most valuable and rewarding part of the functional portion of the simulation was learning how to work as a team and to rely on teammates for emotional and physical support. The course as a whole also provided a great networking opportunity for students trying to enter the humanitarian aid sector. The SimEx facilitators were very high caliber founts of knowledge, one of the program’s strongest points. Being able to work with such experienced and knowledgeable people like Dr. Kirsten Johnson and Dr. Hilarie Cranmer was a great learning opportunity.

While the simulation was largely constructed and executed well, the combination of skill drills and functional simulation as well as the short time allocated for debriefing post-simulation were areas in need of some improvement. The following sections will elaborate on these challenges and provide suggestions for future iterations of the SimEx.

Organizational Difficulties between Functional and Skill Drill Components

One of the primary reasons for including the SimEx in the humanitarian training program is to allow students to experience the stages of a humanitarian emergency scenario without the actual loss of life and accompanying emotional stress. However, the stress of trying to manage one’s team objectives, deal with the media, and function in the woods with little rest and food is still a difficult task in and of itself. These team objectives, coordination, report writing, lack of food and rest can all be considered part of the functional simulation component. The skill drill stations were interspersed with other big-picture events such as meetings with UN OCHA. Teams were often unprepared or unaware of what would happen at the next station because these big-picture functional events took so much time and focus. In the worst cases, the skill drills actually functioned in opposition to larger team objectives. For example, while trying to coordinate a food distribution in an IDP camp, we were brought as part of a skill drill to a meeting that ICRC had set up between my team and the local rebels, who happened to be child soldiers. We had not planned this meeting, nor did we understand the larger objective. In the end the meeting went poorly and we lost valuable time to plan the food distribution. In future years, the SimEx could be improved by tying the skill drills more closely to the larger scenario events and allowing teams more freedom to decide when, where and how they would attempt a skill drill. Although it is reasonable to have both functional simulation and skill drills in the same scenario they need to be integrated more smoothly for the students to truly benefit from them. A slightly less contrived station rotation would also help to maintain suspension of disbelief. To achieve this may require fewer skill drills or fewer events and assignments in the functional component. Students will continue to feel the stress of the scenario even with far fewer events to complete.


Another critical aspect to simulation is the debriefing portion. Due to time constraints, debriefing was quite short in the SimEx. The Emergency Capacity Building Emergency Simulations Administrators’ guide recommends a debrief period equal to the time of the exercise itself (Klenk 50). Three whole days of debrief may be unnecessary, but a much greater emphasis should have been placed on debriefing after skill drills as well as the different stages of the functional simulation. It could be constructive to utilize the “experimental learning cycle” which breaks activities into stages of concrete experience, reflection, generalization, application and then a return to experience (Klenk 57). It would help students in the future to practice a skill drill or a specific event or scenario, debrief and then attempt a similar event utilizing the same skill. Debriefing in the middle of a scenario can disrupt the realism, however it is better to do so than not debrief. Perhaps this presents another difficultly in trying to integrate skill drill and functional simulation methods into the same scenario.


The program certainly achieved its goals to improve disaster preparedness of humanitarian aid workers attending the course. Through coordination of organizations like HTI, the long-term goal of improved operational capacity of NGOs and inter-sector communication seems quite possible. Students from these programs are receiving a standardized education of the field and the Sphere project, creating a common language that can be used during a crisis. The SimEx is an incredibly valuable learning tool and opportunity for growth. The specific goals of the SimEx were also met; the vast majority of students came out of the experience with a greater understanding of a humanitarian aid operation and whether they would like to participate in one in the future. Finally, as the Canadian training program expands and matures, hopefully some of the first time difficulties we experienced can be reflected on and used to improve the SimEx in the coming years.

June McCabe


Barnhardt, Daniel, Odile Bulten, David Hockaday, Pamela Sitko and James Staples. “Simulating the worst to prepare the best: a study of humanitarian simulations and their benefits.” ECB Project Case Study May 2013: Web. July 2013.

Humanitarian Training Initiative. “The 2013 Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program. ” 8-9 May. Web. August 2013.

Klenk, Jeff. “Emergency Simulations: Administrators’ Guide.” ECB Simulations Project 2007: Web. July, 2013.

Voting open for the 2012 Charles S. Roberts wargaming awards


Voting is now open for the Charles S. Roberts Awards for excellence in wargame design, in nineteen different categories:

  • Best Ancient to Napoleonic Era Board Wargame
  • Best Post-Napoleonic to Pre-World War 2 Era Board Wargame
  • Best World War 2 Era Board Wargame
  • Best Post-WW2 Era Board Wargame
  • Best Pre-20th Century Era Computer Wargame
  • Best 20th Century Era – Modern Computer Wargame
  • Best Science-Fiction or Fantasy Board Wargame
  • Best Science-Fiction or Fantasy Computer Wargame
  • Best Magazine Game
  • Best Desktop Published (DTP) / Print-and-Play / Postcard Game
  • Best Expansion or Supplement for an Existing Game
  • Best Board Game Graphics
  • Best Computer Game Graphics
  • Best Professional Game Magazine
  • Best Amateur Game Magazine
  • Best Historical/Scenario Article
  • Best Game Review or Analysis Article
  • James F. Dunnigan Design Elegance Award
  • Clausewitz Award HALL OF FAME

To vote, click the link above.



Review: Andean Abyss

Andean Abyss: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Colombia. GMT Games, 2012. Game designer: Volko Ruhnke. $75.00.

pic1381149_mdAndean Abyss was released last year to much acclaim, and indeed is currently ranked as one of the top forty wargames of all time by members of BoardGameGeek. I recently played a game with a group that included three political science graduate students, one of whom is Colombian, another of whom taught in Colombia on a Fulbright Fellowship, and all of whom specialize in the study of intra-state conflict. Joining us was a professional game designer who develops simulations on money laundering, terrorism, and corruption for financial intelligence and anti-corruption agencies. It was as tough a bunch of critics as I could possibly assemble, given the topic.

The bottom-line verdict up front: everyone loved it. But before we get to that, let’s first look at the game design, and then move on to explore its possible use in an educational setting.

Game Contents and Play

Andean Abyss is a four player game of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Colombia, in which players assume the role of the government, the leftist guerillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), right-wing paramilitaries of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), or the drug cartels. The game can also be played with less than four, and even has a fully-developed solitaire version. In our case there were actually five of us, with two forming a sort of collective revolutionary leadership of the FARC. Since much of the game revolves around plotting, fleeting alliances, and political expediency, the more the merrier.


The game includes a 22″ x 34″ mounted game board, 170 wooden markers, a set of cardboard markers, a deck of 76 cards, player aids, and dice. You can find the rules online at the GMT website, and videos describing game play can be found both there and at BoardGameGeek.

The cards are the central mechanism of the game (see below). Each may be played for its event (which often comes in two versions, either helping or harming a player), or to enable an operation to be played. Each card has a symbol for each of the four players across the top. The first player indicated gets to decide first whether they will play the card for its event value, perform an operation (or operations), or pass. Up to two players can act on a given card, and if a player acts in one turn they usually lose their ability to act on the next card. Since two cards are face-up at any one time (the current card, and the next card), it is vital to plan ahead. You won’t win this war by making it up as you go along.


Each actor has a slightly different mix of actions they can perform. The government may train forces, patrol, conduct sweep operations, or undertake assaults against previously-identified guerrilla units. The various non-state actors can rally support, march, attack, or terrorize. Each actor also has special activities that they might be able to conduct as well: air lift operations, airstrikes, or drug eradication in the case of the government, and ambush, extortion, kidnapping, assassination, drug cultivation, and drug processing depending on the particular insurgent. One can quibble about the way some of these choices are structured. I wasn’t entirely convinced of the logic of separating the government’s “sweep” operation (which identifies underground insurgents but doesn’t eliminate them) from the “assault” operation (which kills them), since in practice both things generally occur together. Political hearts-and-minds activity by the government (“civic action”) occurs in conjunction with the “train” operation, while it might have been better separated out as a separate operation type. While the FARC can use “terror” to mobilize opposition to the government, it has fewer opportunities to build support through the more positive “agitation” (equivalent to the government’s civic action). However, these quibbles are minor. Overall, the game system works very well.

Operations generally cost resources, so players also need to pay attention to their financing. The government must keep the major highways and oil pipelines free from sabotage, or their income will drop. They may also benefit from US and other aid—especially if they seek to eradicate drug cultivation. The insurgents can variously generate resources from extortion, kidnapping, and drugs.


Pinky-promising with a drug lord. Not that either of us trusted the other in the slightest!

The victory conditions for each player are very different. The government and FARC each need to maximize their degree of popular support. The AUC needs to weaken the FARC. The cartels need to establish bases and earn money. While the players can wheel and deal as much as they want (and trade resources and drug shipments as they do), in the end only one player wins. The game is scored and reset, government troops return to cities and bases, and a new Colombian administration with slightly different policies might be elected, each time a “propaganda” card comes up in the deck. At this point, a player can win. Otherwise,  the game is ends when the last propaganda card comes up, and the player closest to their victory conditions wins. The cartels might have something of an advantage if the game goes this long—after all, they benefit from keeping the country in chaos.

In our game, the FARC spurned an early deal with the drug cartels, which cost them heavily. Every other player was briefly in a winning position at some point. In the latter part of the game, the government and drug cartel agreed not to target each other, allowing the former to concentrate efforts on regaining control of, and political support in, former FARC-held areas while the latter grew rich on drug proceeds. They planned to double-cross each other, of course–but the final propaganda card came up before the drug lords could be cut down to size, and they ultimately won the game.

Instructional Potential

Our playtest group ran the gamut from a boardgaming neophyte to those with considerable experience. I, however, was the only one who had played Andean Abyss before. Everyone picked it up quickly. The game lasted closer to six hours than the four suggested on the box, although that was in part a function of new players, a two-person team, and the obligatory break for Angela’s pizza. The rules are clearly written, and the playbook does a very good job of walking a player through a few sample turns, summarizing player capabilities and priorities, and explaining the design choices made in the game, That being said, I don’t think this is a game that non-gamer students could simply be told to play as a course assignment. Instead, one would need to either directly facilitate games (which is difficult in all but the smallest classes), use a “train-the-trainer” strategy of recruiting students to help other students play the game, or make it an optional assignment or project for the most highly motivated. Game time is obviously too long for in-classroom use. One could, however, have a single ongoing game through a multiweek course, with multi-student teams representing each actor, and a few moves each day.

The key question, however, is not how easily game play can be adapted to the instructional constraints of audience and available time, but whether the game actually offers useful insight into modern Colombian political history, insurgency, counter-insurgency, and similar topics. Here I think that it is a little less self-explanatory than a previous Volko Ruhnke-designed game, Labyrinth, which focused on the post-9/11 “global war on terror.” Most audiences—outside Colombia, at least—would be unfamiliar with many of the events summarized on the event cards, whether it be “limpieza social” (“social cleansing”) killings, the assassination of special prosecutors María del Rosario Silva Ríos and Carlos Arturo Pinto Bohórquez, or Policía Nacional chief General Rosso José Serrano Caden. I also found that the very clever card mechanism—which I liked a lot—drew so much attention that the insurgency itself was a little overshadowed at times. For that reason, this is a game that would require a lot of briefing and debriefing in an educational setting.

It should be noted that, during our playtest, none of the players had any objection to the general depiction of the Colombian conflict. On the contrary, my money laundering expert was pleased to find he could use narco subs and cross-border drug-processing labs, while the players with the most expertise on Colombia were impressed at the appearance of historical events (“We get FARC zones? Cool!”), even if—as with most card-based games—not all events occurred in historical order or with similar effect.

Concluding Thoughts

Andean Abyss wasn’t designed as an instructional tool to explore counterinsurgency, but rather as a boardgame for conflict simulation hobbyists. As a game, it rocks. It is well-balanced, enjoyable, and features a very elegant card-based system at its heart. The replay value is high too, since the card system guarantees that each game is quite different. I strongly recommend it. Indeed, it is probably my favourite insurgency-themed boardgame of all time, with the possible exception of Freedom in the Galaxy (SPI, 1979).

SPQRWallp-FORUM(RBM)ssThe design is also the first of several in what GMT Games bills as its “COIN Series.” A Distant Plain (an Afghanistan conflict simulation codesigned by PAXsims contributor Brian Train) is currently in production and will be shipping soon, as is Cuba Libre (a game of the 1957-58 Cuban revolution, codesigned by Jeff Grossman). A fourth game in the series focusing on the Vietnam war, Fire in the Lake, is currently in development, codesigned by Mark Herman.

* * *

Update—The Quick Play Version

Volko Rohnke has kindly passed on the quick play scenario for Andean Abyss, previously published in C3I Magazine #26 (2012).

Quick-Play Scenario

by Volko Ruhnke

This setup allows for completion of a game of Andean Abyss in less than half the usual time and is well suited to introduce new players to the COIN Series system. It depicts, roughly, the Pastrana and early Uribe eras, the middle portion of the period of Colombian history covered in the full game.

Deck Preparation: Shuffle the 72 Event cards and deal face down 4 piles of 6 cards each (24 Event cards total). Set the rest aside—they may not be inspected and will not be used. Shuffle a Propaganda card each into the 2nd and 4th piles, then stack the piles into a draw deck, 1st pile on top, 4th pile on the bottom. The remaining 2 Propaganda cards are not used.

Game Board: Set up forces and markers per rule 2.1 (see Rules of Play page 14 and the images on the map). Then modify the set up as follows—

  • Medellín: Add 4 Cartels Guerrillas and 1 Cartels Base.
  • Cali: Place Active Support. Remove the Cartels Guerrilla and Base. Add 4 Police.
  • Bogotá: Add 6 Troops.
  • Santander-Boyacá: Add 1 AUC Base.
  • Arauca-Casanare: Remove Opposition (the space starts Neutral). Add 1 AUC Guerrilla.
  • Meta West: Place a FARC Zone. Add 4 FARC Guerrillas.
  • Huila-Tolima: Place Active Opposition. Add 3 FARC Guerrillas, 2 AUC Guerrillas, and 1 Cartels Base.
  • Vaupés: Add 2 FARC Guerrillas.
  • Edge Track: Adjust Resources to AUC 5, FARC 10, Cartels 20, Government 30; Opposition+Bases to 22; and Total Support to 56. (Leave Aid at 9.)
  • El Presidente: Advance to Pastrana.
  • Propaganda: Skip the Victory Phase (6.1) of the first Propaganda Round—Factions cannot win until the second (last) Propaganda card.

Flip the first card and have at it! Be aware that, with far less time for development of board position than in the full game, different strategies may be needed! – vfr 


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