Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Brynania 2015


In a couple of hours, the 15th annual edition of the week-long Brynania civil war simulation starts at McGill University. I’ll be neck-deep processing around 15,000 student communications during that period, so don’t expect any PAXsims updates from me for the duration!

The Brynania simulation involves 100 undergraduate students from my undergraduate POLI 450 course on peacebuilding, plus a smaller number of graduate students from my POLI 650 seminar. In addition, a small group from Prof. Megan Bradley’s course on refugees is taking part as a UNHCR policy unit, while students from Prof. Lisa Lynch’s journalism class have established the World News Service to cover events in war-torn equatorial Cyberia. Various other people play the role of “public opinion” and private donors to aid organizations.

For further information see the simulation resource website, this article from PS: Political Science & Politics on the SIM, video coverage by TV McGill and McGill University, and a blogpost by Lisa on how her journalism students participate.

Reconstructing Afghanistan!


Recently, students from my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) class played a modified version of the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game. The game itself is quite abstract, and shouldn’t be seen as modelling Afghanistan with any granularity or fidelity—as you’ll see below, simulated Afghanistan (unlike the real version) turned out to be a glowing success story, almost a Singapore of Central Asia. In this regard, the whole thing was a bit of an idyllic COIN clear-hold-build fantasy, and I need to tweak the game more to make it harder.

However, the real point of the exercise was to examine the challenge of coordination across multiple actors (Afghan government, NATO, international NGOs)., and for that purpose it served very well. In the original version, the impact of the Taliban is depicted purely through random event cards; in the modified version they are represented by an active team.

The account below (and several of the photographs) are provided by one of the students involved, Isabelle Dufresne-Lienert.

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Eighteen McGill students met up in the Interuniversity Consortium for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (ICAMES) building on Saturday, 14th of March, to reconstruct Afghan—in the simulated form of a boardgame.

The reconstruction process had a very rough start. With a lack of investment in key sectors like agriculture and health, we saw a cholera outbreak in Kandahar and famines in Khost and Kunar, setting the stability in the country to an all-time low.

2015-03-14 12.19.08

After a brutal winter, the Afghan president announced a “Spring of Hope” and launched a major (although costly) anti-corruption campaign. Some actors at first were wary of such a large investment, arguing that they had a more immediate need for resources. However, local critics decided to focus on their more pressing problems rather than to start a dispute with Kabul. The Taliban shook the hearts and minds of the population with the major bombing of an NGO development project, using a video of the events as propaganda which garnered extra local support for them. With resources from drug smuggling and high opium prices, the Taliban were also able in these months to establish a major base of operations in Kandahar, destabilizing the province. Overall, weak rule of law and a growing resentment of the large foreign presence in the provinces kept the Afghan situation in a situation of grave instability during this disappointing spring.


With Kandahar so badly affected, a major surge of resources was planned for the Summer. This helped the province to invest in building up the local governance capacity. A major investment was also made by NATO and Afghanistan into establishing security in the province. This prevented several major Taliban attacks. Still, the “fighting season” was filled with heated combat: the Afghan Army successfully defeated a coordinated attack in Kunar and NATO protected a local shura from intimidation. On the other hand, bombs went off damaging a local sanitation project and a Taliban suicide bomber destroyed a CIA outpost, an attack funded by diverting aid.


While the resilience of the projects was being built up, stability slowly increased throughout the Fall thanks to effective security services. With local governance continuously being reinforced, a number of potentially disastrous events were avoided, such as the diffusion of tensions between local leaders in Khost and the foiling of an attempted terrorist attack on security forces. However, many events brought the reconstruction process back a step; a local warlord pledged support to the Taliban, allowing them to establish a post in Kunar; local projects were attacked twice, devastating the work of the NGOs. Overall, however, aid efforts continued to have a positive outcome, contributing to the stability of the state.

Throughout the second year, strengthened security services in the country countered attack after attack from the Taliban. After only a few drawbacks caused by foreign mishaps and attacks, all projects had been completed. Thanks to successful project development and strong local governance, things were looking bright; stability in Afghanistan was at an all-time high and reconstruction was successful.

IMG_2704What lessons are learned from what happened in this particular simulation?

  1. The anti-corruption campaign proved very important. The government was at first hesitant to invest in this, but in the end it averted three major possible corruption events which might have been devastating for the effectiveness of local reconstruction efforts.
  2. A concentration of resources into building up security forces at the beginning of the reconstruction efforts proved to be essential for effective work. Security has to be established for anything else to be developed.
  3. Legitimacy was essential. Without the support of the local community, you couldn’t ensure the sustainability of the project. If there is too much heavy-handed foreign intervention and no capacity building for local governance, it can alienate locals and undermine the stability of the country, because you are not building a sustainable system that will ensure rule of law and local ownership.
  4. It was important to build reliance into projects, so that they weren’t easily undermined by insurgent attacks or unforeseen events.

In the end, we can happily say that Afghanistan was successfully rebuilt with all projects developed thanks to a great strategy for reconstruction… and to the fact that the Talibans were really bad at rock, paper, scissors (the system used to resolve attacks and combat).

Isabelle Dufresne-Lienert 

Armstrong: The Navy Needs a Wider Look at Wargaming


In an op ed today in the US Naval Institute News, Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Armstrong calls upon the US Navy to reexamine and reinvigorate its wargaming practices:

Today, wargaming is absent from the core curriculum at the Naval War College. The games which occur in Newport are conducted only by special small groups of select students. This isn’t enough. A reinvigorated program should look to expand this experience across more of the student body in Newport, as well as National Security Studies students at the Naval Postgraduate School, and even look at including the Fleet Seminar programs.

The Navy should also develop ways to introduce wargaming at fleet concentration areas at the Type Command level and below. Modern technology can be used to create gaming systems which offer more elaborate, and even sometimes exciting, versions of old school “table top” games or wardroom workshops. For example, crews from a Destroyer Squadron could use a computer based system to fight crews from an opposing Destroyer Squadron, testing some of the foundational ideas of the new “Distributed Lethality” concept. Rather than scripted training evolutions built on doctrinal and procedural compliance, the Navy should give its innovative junior leaders an opportunity for what gamers call “free play” to explore new ideas and tactical concepts.

Work’s call to reinvigorate wargaming is vital to addressing the numerous threats and developments of the 21st century. However, it does not go far enough. The Navy must look to its history to chart an even more effective course forward. By developing our wargaming at all levels, both for the senior leaders and analysts in the Pentagon but also for our creative junior leaders across the fleet and in our education system, we will continue to lead the world in understanding the future character of war and evolving our position as the world’s leading maritime power.

Warfare Masterclasses 2015


The Journal of Military Operations and Infinity Journal have announced their Masterclass programme for 2015. Both will be held in Cambridge, UK.

On 17-19 July 2015 they will hold a Graduate Warfare Class, aimed primarily at participants who have not previously attended an event in this series:

The Graduate Warfare Class will be an authoritative programme of classes designed to expand and broaden participants’ knowledge and understanding of the conduct of war on land. It will consist of a series of linked sessions and exercises, each analysing a key aspect of contemporary warfare.The syllabus will cover both regular and irregular warfare. It focuses on developing an in-depth understanding of the conduct of war on land across the spectrum of conflict. Participant numbers will be strictly limited to ensure a participatory, interactive event.

These sessions will be followed by two short group exercises aimed at exploring the realities of time,space and distance in warfighting and COIN operations. In this way the Graduate Warfare Class will consider how land forces actually operate. It will not ‘discuss the discourse’ of how academics think, or write about, how land forces operate.

We’ll forgive them for their snippy comments about academics.

On 14 to 16 August 2015 they will conduct a hands-on  Seminar Wargame:

The Seminar Wargame will walk through the planning and conduct of a major land operation through the perspectives of both opposing forces. Working in ad- hoc teams, participants will consider some of the problems, realities and dilemmas faced by land force commanders and staffs.

The Wargame will expose both the consequences of planning decisions and the realities of a live, responsive enemy which will fight for its own objectives and according to its own plans. The scenario will be set at the higher tactical and theatre levels.

The Wargame will revolve around an imagined scenario of conventional land warfare. It will include aspects of irregular warfare and consideration of influence operations. It will avoid high-technology, computer-based simulation and instead focus on consideration and discussion of the dynamics of land warfare.

The Wargame will not be tied to any one nation’s military doctrine.It will therefore present an opportunity for practitioners to think beyond their own national approaches. It is expressly intended to widen horizons and encourage open thinking. As with the Graduate Warfare Class, numbers will be strictly limited.

The Masterclasses will take place at St John’s College, Cambridge. Each Masterclass costs £380, including dinner in College on both evenings, lunch, coffee and afternoon tea. Single en-suite accommodation in College costs £80 per night.

Further information is available at the link above.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 14 March 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulations and serious gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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russia-series1Stratfor has made available some of their findings from their recent “wargaming” of a possible larger-scale Russian military intervention in Ukraine.

To answer this question, Stratfor examined six basic military options that Russia might consider in addressing its security concerns in Ukraine, ranging from small harassment operations to an all-out invasion of eastern Ukraine up to the Dnieper River. We then assessed the likely time and forces required to conduct these operations in order to determine the overall effort and costs required, and the Russian military’s ability to execute each operation. In order to get a baseline assessment for operations under current conditions, we initially assumed in looking at these scenarios that the only opponent would be Ukrainian forces already involved in the conflict.

Part 1 looks at the forces and time required for each of the scenarios.

Part 2 looks at a possible NATO response—although the analysis is really about how long it would take US airpower to deploy to Europe. It contains virtually no assessment of NATO ground and naval assets, or even European air assets.

Part 3 looks at the geopolitical imperatives that would shape Russian strategy.

In fact, their analysis does not seem to be a proper adversarial wargame at all—something we suspected earlier this month, when the series was announced. It doesn’t seem to have been a true simulation either.  Rather it appears to have been a desk assessment, likely based on some fairly standardized assumptions regarding necessary force levels, densities and rates of advance through terrain. Without more information on methodology, it is rather difficult to know how much weight to place on it, although it does highlight some of the limits of both Russian military power and a possible NATO response.

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New downloadable graphics content is available for the digital game This War of Mine. Proceeds from the sale of this benefit the charity War Child. You can read more about this at Boingboing, and check out James Sterrett’s earlier review of the game at PAXsims.

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Law of the Jungle is a “free game that combines the open-ended adventure of a role-playing game with rigorous content drawn from the social science research literature.” It is produced by the Social Rules Project:

The Social Rules Project is the result of efforts by over 100 students from the Claremont Colleges and the California Institute of the Arts.  Artists, computer programmers, environmental studies majors, musicians, and many others contributed countless hours to make these materials available.  The goal of the project is to raise awareness about the institutional underpinnings of environmental problems and what it will take to solve them.  This is accomplished by using innovative multi-media approaches to translate insights from the social science literature and make them accessible to a broad public.

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The dates have been confirmed for this year’s third annual Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London:

On September 8th we will hold introductory sessions as we did last year, with the focus this year being on wargame design techniques.  Then on September 9th and 10th will come the main conference, with an increased focus on hands-on participation in the many games on offer in the Games fair.  Please put the dates in your diaries, and visit the Connections UK website for the latest info and registration details.

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The Military Operations Research Society is planning to hold a Professional Gaming Workshop from 28 September to 1 October 2015, in Alexandria, VA. Further details will follow when available.

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The World Peace Game Foundation will be holding “Master Classes and Camps” in Emmersdorf, Austria (April 7-11), Boston, MA (April 20-22), Charlottesville, VA (June 22-26), Corvallis, OR (August 10-14). For more details, see their listing of forthcoming events.

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The Strategy Page has a recent article on wargaming in the Chinese military (h/y Rory Aylward ).

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Prof. Phil Sabin of King’s College London is BoardGameGeek’s game designer of the month!

This month’s BGG Wargame Designer of the Month is Philip Sabin.

Mr. Sabin has been a wargamer for over 40 years, and became Professor of Strategic Studies at King’s College London’s War Studies Department. Over the past 20 years, he has published several board games on ancient warfare through the Society of Ancients. In 2007, his book ‘Lost Battles’ was published, reconstructing three dozen different ancient battles using a common rules system. A deluxe board game edition was published by Fifth Column Games in 2011. In 2012, his book ‘Simulating War’ was published, containing eight different simple wargames which he has used in his military history classes. One of these (Hell’s Gate) was published in a deluxe edition by Victory Point Games in 2013, and VPG has just published a second game from the book (Angels One Five).

Besides using wargames to help his BA students to understand conflict dynamics, since 2003 Mr. Sabin has been teaching a very innovative MA option module in which students design their own simple board games of past conflicts of their choice. Many of these are available for free download (Google ‘Sabin consim’). He also writes regularly for ‘Battles’ magazine, and works closely with defense wargamers in the UK and overseas.

Find out more about his philosophy and experiences of game design here.

Updated ISIS Crisis materials

Syrian refugees in Lebanon simulation — the video

Abigail Grace has produced an excellent video of January’s refugee simulation at the University of Exeter. You’ll find it below.

ISIS Crisis at McGill

The Interuniversity Consortium for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at McGill University was the latest location for an ISIS Crisis matrix game. The roles and rules were the same as for our recent game at the University of Ottawa. The players this time were largely drawn from graduate and undergraduate students with an interest in the Middle East.


Once again, our primary interest was one of examining this particular game approach as an analytical methodology. Replaying exactly the same game with a different group gave us an opportunity to further map out the strategic decision space—that is, get a fuller sense of player options and responses. It also offered some insight to how idiosyncratic factors, such as player knowledge, personality, and game style, might affect game dynamics and outcomes.

The War in Iraq

At the uOttawa game, the Iraqi government had fallen back on sectarian appeals to mobilize Shiite domestic support for military operations against ISIS and its Sunni allies, hoping to destroy the former and force the latter to negotiate on Baghdad’s terms. In this game, however, the Iraqi government started with a strategy of reaching out to the Sunni opposition, hoping to draw them away from ISIS and into a more inclusive government. They also hoped to recruit predominately Sunni “National Guard” units, and use these to help the largely Shiite Iraqi Army (and the extremist Shiite militias allied with it) to recapture ISIS-controlled areas.

This proved easier to say than to do, however. Iraqi Sunnis were deeply suspicious of Baghdad’s overtures, and worried about the risk of being drawn into a confrontation with ISIS. A reconciliation meeting —held in Oman, because the Sunni opposition was nervous of meeting in Baghdad—collapsed amid acrimony. It didn’t help when Prime Minister Haider al-Abidi promised a relaxation of the de-Bathification laws (a Sunni demand), only to prove unable to muster the necessary parliamentary majority.

ISIS sought to assuage growing Sunni tribal concerns by holding a shura meeting with tribal leaders. That also didn’t go well.

Both the US and Iran were broadly supportive of Baghdad’s strategy. Iran provided significant support for a planned Iraqi offensive to seize Takrit and consolidate control of Highway 1 linking the city with Baghdad via Samarra and Taji. When this offensive was first launched, however, it stalled amid fierce resistance. A second effort some months later was a little more successful.

President Obama finally secured Congressional authorization to use military force (AUMF), and conducted airstrikes against ISIS mobile oil refineries in Syria. (ISIS responded by stepping up its destruction and looting of antiquities.) In Syria, a government offensive pushed opposition forces back from Aleppo, further increasing the pressure on ISIS.

At this point, a local dispute in Ramadi between ISIS gunmen and local tribal militias escalated into open warfare, and the latter were successful in pushing ISIS fighters out of the area altogether. Seeing an opportunity, the US and Iraqi government offered to make Ramadi the nucleus of the new National Guard, with Baghdad also expressing a willingness to discuss some degree of regional autonomy for Sunni areas.

The Kurds spent considerable time trying to secure shipments of heavy weapons from the US or Iran, but neither was willing to provoke Iraqi and Turkish displeasure by doing so. Iran, however, did provide substantial quantities of light and medium weapons for the Peshmerga and for allied Assyrian Christian and Yazidi militias. Armed with these, Kurdish forces launched an offensive towards Mosul. This made some headway, bringing the Kurds to with a few kilometres of the city. However, the Kurds were reluctant to press on alone into the city itself, fearing that its capture could come at a very heavy cost. Sunni opposition leaders also urged them not to.

As tensions between ISIS and its former Sunni allies grew, a tug-of-war developed for the support of the Mosul population. ISIS sent reinforcements to the city, only to have them spotted en route by an Iranian drone and—after this information was urgently relayed via the Iraqi Army—destroyed in a heavy US airstrike. Led by a charismatic local sheikh(a), the Sunni opposition and tribes rallied and finally forced ISIS fighters from the city. Not long after, ISIS forces retaliated in al-Qa’im, driving out other Sunni groups.


At this point, urgent information reached the Iraqi government that serious cracks had begun to appear in Mosul Dam, threatening a catastrophic release of water that would inundate Mosul and flood the Tigris River valley as far as Baghdad. Fortunately, Iraqi engineers were able to stabilize the situation.

The first (Sunni) National Guard unit is formed in Ramadi.

The first (Sunni) National Guard unit is formed in Ramadi.

The game ended with ISIS force having lost its momentum, but still in control of substantial areas of Syria and a diminished portion of Iraq. Trained by American advisors, the first National Guard unit graduated in Ramadi. (ISIS had, however, already made arrangements to infiltrate this unit, hoping to conduct a future green-on-blue attack against US trainers.)  Despite ISIS’s departure from Mosul, there was still no agreement between the central government and Sunni leaders on new governance arrangements, nor had any Iraqi forces been able to enter the city. Washington was pleased with the attrition and degradation that ISIS had suffered, but concerned both by evidence of growing Iranian influence in Iraq as well as a string of victories by the Asad regime against the opposition in Syria.

Methodological Comments

This version of the ISIS Crisis unfolded pretty much in keeping with current coalition strategy. Interestingly, everyone felt very constrained: ISIS was frustrated it could not recapture the sense of momentum it had enjoyed in 2014; the Sunni opposition was fearful of ISIS and dubious about Iraqi central government; the Kurds were unwilling to take risks or casualties in capturing non-Kurdish territories; both the Iranians and US were unwilling to get sucked too deeply into a ground combat role in Iraq, simultaneously suspicious of and in need of each other, and well aware that if they were too heavy-handed their actions could easily backfire. The Baghdad government itself found itself constantly distracted by crisis after crisis, and hampered by corruption and inefficiencies.

The fact that all the players knew the situation in Iraq well certainly helped keep the game on a relatively realistic track. There is always the risk in matrix games that players will, deliberately or through ignorance, act in ways that would be highly unlikely in real life, thereby distorting the evolution of the game narrative. We’ll need to run some tests with players with less knowledge of the situation to see how those effects can best be managed. Most of the players ended up internalizing their roles to some extent, which made their interactions and antagonisms all the more genuine. Once again, I had socially engineered the role assignments to some degree—it wasn’t a coincidence, for example, that the Iraqi Sunni player was of Iraqi Sunni origin, or that the Iranian player was originally from Tehran.

Player feedback was positive. Quite apart from everyone enjoying themselves (and the pizza), many said they thought the process had illuminated a number of key issues and dynamics.

Why wargame the Ukraine?

stratforThe private sector intelligence and analysis firm Strafor recently posted a video discussion extolling its forthcoming wargame series on Russian intervention in the Ukraine. In it, founder and company chairman George Friedman describes the value of wargaming in the following terms (emphasis added):

George Friedman: Well wargaming goes the gamut from extremely computerized automated models down to desktop gaming. But the purpose of it is something as fundamental to any military analysis. It goes back to Napoleon, to anticipate the issues that you might face as a general or as a politician by taking a look at the what ifs, examining the military capabilities of each side, looking at terrain at which they’re going to fight, understanding the political reasons that they might decide to fight. And then try and understand how likely various strategies are and how likely they are to succeed in them.

David: I mean in this case we took apart of the maybe six options that Russia might have and the way that western NATO forces might respond. It’s interesting to me as a tool of empathetic analysis. Is that a fair characterization that it is a way to get into the mind of Russian military planners?

George: It is partly to try to understand what’s in their mind. But actually Wargaming is less interested in the intentions of the generals or politicians as to their capabilities. So what you’re really trying to do when you try to model a conflict is to identify those things that are impossible. Casual conversation you may imagine that the Russians have the military to charge all the way to Romania or Poland and so on. In fact, they probably don’t have that capability or anything close to it. Similarly you may assume that the United States has the ability to rapidly deploy multiple divisions to block them in Ukraine. The United States probably doesn’t have that. So the most important thing that comes out of military modeling is eliminating the impossible. Because until you get down into the details, until you consider how much fuel is required to move so many tanks so far, until you’ve really examined that, you seem to have these infinite numbers of options and all sorts of capabilities. And when you look at it carefully you find out well there are really very few options on all sides.

David: Right. So we do a lot of this constraint analysis at Stratfor. In some sense it’s a check on political rhetoric. In another sense it’s a way to perhaps pre-empt even the bluffing that either side participates in. Is that?

George: Well, politicians, generals, businessmen, constantly make statements. The question is not what these people say in that they may be very honest in what they want. But to go to a very simple and unpleasant place: What’s possible? And one of the things that Stratfor does is it does not focus on the intentions simply. But it really focuses on what can be done and what can’t be done. And in the case of military modeling, where this goes back well before Clausewitz, this is essential. You’ve got to really understand what can’t happen.

David: While not being a forecast in the sense that we publish forecasts, it’s nonetheless predictive, in that it takes off the table those scenarios that are not possible and allowing us to examine a more limited number of scenarios that are realistic indeed.

George: Our name is strategic forecasting.

David: Right.

George: And in strategic forecasting what we do is forecast. This is a step in the forecasting process. It doesn’t say that any of these things will happen. It examines, however, which of them would happen, what the consequences would be from a military standpoint and so on. So what it does is eliminates a whole bunch of options and allows you to really focus down on what might happen. This doesn’t even assume that the Russians are going to take any military action. It doesn’t assume that the Americans would respond. It makes no assumption on what political decisions may be made. What it does ask is what political solutions can be made.

This emphasis on wargaming as primarily an exercise in constraint analysis seems a bit strange. Certainly, analytical games can highlight constraints. However, as a method it potentially offers a lot more than simply narrowing down options on the grounds of (physical/resource/capability) viability. A wargame generates some sense of possible adversarial dynamics and interaction. It encourages participants to think about challenges in new ways—a sort of intellectual cross-training of sorts. It may, far from narrowing options, actually enlarge them by generating new ideas. Finally, it can help assess information gaps, critical junctures, and other things that are important.

In any case, it will be interesting to see what Stratfor does—and does not do—with this game series.

h/t Rory Alward 

ISIS Crisis at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

The following summary of the game has been provided by Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK). For other games, see here and here. (Note: the game scenario is intended to familiarize players with the methodology, not as any sort of official examination of the conflict with ISIS.)

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We had another go at running the ISIS Crisis Game on 25 February, courtesy of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) Wargames Club, and taking place in the wonderfully atmospheric surrounding of one of the historic rooms. We had 11 participants, most of whom were academics and a few military.


The game followed a briefing on “Wargaming Effects”, including the research showing that role-play can be a more accurate predictor of outcomes (on average) than individual experts or Game Theory. They were provided with updated briefings provided by Professor Rex Brynen (which also included “starting conditions” which were already “established facts” in the game, such as the endemic inefficiency of the Iraqi Army) and were ready to go after a few minutes to read into their roles.

The thing I found particularly interesting in this game is that the players immediately starting doing off-table deals with each other. It could be that the academics were more comfortable with the idea of role-play or it might have been that I had unconsciously emphasised that aspect of play during the briefing – but normally it takes a while before players think out of the box like that.

  • Turn 1: The USA pressure the Iraqis to attack Fallujah (to dismay of the Prime Minister!), Iran trains Shia militia in the south, ISIL captures a few soldiers and terrorises the Iraqi forces opposite Fallujah with propaganda videos, The Prime Minister halts the offensive and tells troops to dig in, the Sunni Opposition joins in with ISIL in Fallujah, and the Kurds move up to outskirts of Mosul.
  • Turn 2: USA deploys SF in support of the Kurds around Mosul, Iran trains more Shia militia, ISIL increase recruiting (which becomes a standing argument), the Prime Minister withdraws forces from Fallujah, the Sunni Opposition recruit in Fallujah (in the face of the obvious threat), and the Kurds reinforce the units around Mosul with Peshmerga.
  • Turn 3: USA deploys B52s to Kuwait ready to support attacks on Mosul with precision weapons, Iran sends military advisers to Baghdad to support Iraqi units (with the support of the Iraqi Prime Minister), ISIL attempts to capture Kurd troops for a propaganda video and fail spectacularly in the attempt (and are captured themselves), the Prime Minister cuts a local deal with Sunni Opposition and withdraws troops from Ramadi, the Sunni Opposition recruit local “self-protection forces” in Ramadi, and the Kurds finally launch their offensive on Mosul (supported by large numbers of US Special Forces and B52s with precision weapons).
  • Turn 4: In this game I allowed ISIL to change the turn order during the game to represent their ability to shake things up a bit. They chose to exercise this on this turn and they launch a spectacular in France (using suicide bombers on a Paris landmark) and increased foreign recruiting and support, the USA sends aid in cash and humanitarian aid to Sunni groups, Iran pumps money into the Iraqi government using cheap loans, the Prime Minister authorises aid distribution centres and “camps” in Sunni areas in an effort to placate the Sunnis, the Sunni Opposition come to agreement with UK SF patrols to ensure they are not targeted, and the Kurds are winning in Mosul and take the opportunity to reinforce Kirkuk.
  • Turn 5: The USA puts pressure on the UK to intervene in Jordan in support of the Jordanian Government (with a mix of bribery to do with the Joint Strike Fighter and threats) (so the UK deploys a liaison team to Amman), Iranian advisers and Iraqi troops move into Falluja, this time with the support of the Prime Minister, ISIS capture Dair Az-Zaur in Syria, the Sunni Opposition join ISIL to defend Falluja, and the Kurds drive ISIL out of Mosul but don’t follow up and remain in Kurdish areas.
  • At the game end, Falluja looks messy and the Iraqi offensive isn’t going anywhere. The Kurds are happy but ISIL finish the game with more forces than when they started – and they have come to the conclusion that if they leave the Kurds alone the Kurds will leave them alone. Iran has managed to comprehensively penetrate the Iraqi Government and Armed Forces, the Iraqi Prime Minister has lots of money and feels more comfortable about the situation since the game start, the Sunni Opposition are conflicted and the USA doesn’t really know what is going on…

In the end I was very pleased. We had generated a credible narrative about the future situation unfolding and I was reasonably happy that the players had stuck to their briefing objectives. I had excellent help from a couple of my MSc students (which is why I can give a report). I felt the game ran smoothly, helped a lot by previous experience and the insights provided by some of the contributions by Professor Rex Brynen and the essays on Matrix Games kindly provided by previous players, such as Ben Taylor’s excellent “Towards Serious Matrix Games” and Paul Vebber’s presentation on “Narrative Games and Story Arcs“.


I feel that there is a now a need for some sort of “Matrix Game” companion book, making those essays accessible, as well as a few other insights from other events (such as how to run a 50-player Cyber Defence Matrix Game!).

Tom Mouat 

Not just bits and pieces: Culture, praxis, and aesthetic in game design


My boxes of gaming bits and pieces.

Like more than a few PAXsims readers, I have a large supply of markers, pawns, chips, meeples, and various other miscellaneous things that might be useful when designing a game. Recently I’ve been giving some thought to the ways in which the tactile and visual aspects of a game interact with player expectations and game mechanics to produce a ludic experience. Some of this, of course, is quite obvious: a map or board needs to be laid out in a clear and functional way. Game pieces need to be practical. Attractive components can enhance player immersion and engagement.

Some of it is more complicated, however—especially when it relates not to clarity or ergonomics but rather to player preconceptions. That issue has come up in several ways at McGill in recent months, as we have worked on games ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to refugees, the Syrian civil war, and the Arab Spring.

origOne aspect of this is the treatment of probability and chance. As Nicholas Edwards (King’s College London) noted in his excellent MA thesis on the topic, not all audiences and players are equally comfortable with the various different ways of incorporating this into a game. Hobby gamers are perfectly willing to accept dice as a mechanism for determining probabilistic outcomes. Military officers, however, are often notoriously hostile to their appearance in serious games since they tend to associate dice with much more juvenile pastimes. Ironically, those same officers are perfectly willing to accept random number generation tied to such things as a Pk (probability of kill) when buried unseen in the software of a digital simulator. In AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game we decided to use random event cards and other card-draw mechanisms to introduce uncertainty into game play because we were also concerned that some audiences (for example, professionals in the military, humanitarian assistance, or development communities) would see dice as too “random” or “childish.” Cards, on the other hand, have a deep cultural resonance in the West, and some other cultures as well, as bearers of fate and fortune. Players thus treat a shuffled deck of cards as a hidden-future-yet-to-be-revealed, while a series of functionally-similar dice rolls might be seen as little more than snakes-and-ladders.

9619ab0234d7068480971f964bfe252798c3abfdAnother way this came up in recent months was in the design of Alex Langer’s Syrian civil war game Road to Damascus. The student playtesters—all of whom enjoy hobby games, but none of whom are traditional hex-and-counter wargamers—were adamant that they did not want cardboard chits in the game. These, they argued, were fiddly and difficult to manipulate, even if they are cheap and easy to produce, and can easily be marked with unit types and attributes. Instead, wooden disks and avatars were used to depict units and warlords respectively. This had the advantage that it was quick and easy to see the contents of a stack. Moreover—and equally important—wooden game pieces are firmly established in both conflict simulation and eurogaming traditions as a frequent component of many quality games. They are, after all, so woody.

The stacks, however, did have a tendency to tip over if incautiously manipulated. There were two obvious solutions to this problem.

95ccfcee07d20f0bca065e4fb57315a3306a328bOne was to use poker chips instead of wooden disks. The colour of these can still be “read” from the side, yet their grooves allow them to stack much better.

A second possibility was to use either stackable plastic peg-pawns or a joystick pawn-and-rings system. From a technical point of view these too would have very nicely fitted with the game mechanics.

b3d9be56f8a3c8e88741ec6d1808fbd38879cab1Everyone, however, rejected these out of hand—myself included. Poker chips looked, well, too “poker-y.” They would have taken away from the conflict simulation gravitas of the game, and would have reminded everyone of gambling. The plastic peg-pawn or pawn-and-ring systems looked too childish. Once again, they were not anything anyone associated with serious conflict simulation.

In other words, what worked in the game was not solely a function of practicality, but culturally-embedded aesthetics and the associations that objects create in the minds of players. (Conversely, everyone agreed that little plastic planes were great as airstrike indicators.)

90bf9c1c3f0b7657516927fba4ecbe16690f1eafAnother issue that came up in the design of Road to Damascus was how to track resources. The obvious way—frequently used in many commercial wargame designs—was to use a resource track, with a marker to indicate current values.

One day, however, we forgot the display sheet where resources were tracked, and I suggest that we use instead some of the fictional currency that I had in my office for another game. I thought that players holding bundles of fake cash would work nicely—after all, this is a conflict where various countries and intelligence services really do transfer briefcases full of cash to opposition commanders and weapons smugglers, so it recreated something characteristic of the real world. Almost everyone else felt that this was too akin to “Monopoly money,” and would be too game-y. In this case, the two options—track and currency—function equally well in a practical sense. Indeed, I think currency is a little easier to play with, especially in a game where players are allowed to transfer it to others. However, associated memories of currency as a component of “less serious” games won out.

80373e1fe5b81080b58827f9e6d27a60c2f55fedConversely, in our recent simulation of the refugee dimension of that very same conflict, there was no question that currency notes were the way to go. Using them allowed us to recreate experience of refugees carefully managing their scarce financial resources, as well as the necessary but sometimes degrading experience of lining up for cash handouts from aid agencies. A record card or something similar might have allowed us to more carefully track who spent what where for the debrief, but it just wouldn’t have contributed to the ambiance of the game in the same way.


The design of serious games is both art and science. As Peter Perla and Ed McGrady argue, wargaming in particular works in part by virtue of “its ability to enable individual participants to transform themselves by making them more open to internalizing their experiences in a game.” A element of that, they suggest, are the “kinesthetic cues” that players derive from moving through and playing with the game and its tangible elements. My observation here is that such cues are shaped to a significant degree by the prior experiences and preconceptions that players bring to the table. For some, dice are tools for adjudicating probabilistic outcomes, for others they are children’s toys that substitute blind luck for serious skill. Poker chip may be carefully engineered to stay stacked when manipulated, but players may imbue them with other meanings. When a player’s perception of game components differs from their perception of the game’s purpose and subject matter, it may jar them away from the intended immersive experience.

In short, game components aren’t simply mechanistic components of play, the value of which is solely determined by how well they enable game mechanics to be played. Rather, they can also deeply shape the ludic experience itself.

Update: International Conference on Exercises, Gaming, and Simulations for Intelligence and National Security

Jan Goldman has passed on an update regarding the forthcoming International Conference on Exercises, Gaming, and Simulations for Intelligence and National Security, to be held at Georgetown University on 24-25 March 2015. This includes a list of some of the topics that will be addressed:

  • Strengthening Intelligence in Times of Crisis, Elena Sanchez Blanco
  • Synthesizing Theory into Game Design, Roger Mason
  • Games as Experiential Learning Platforms, Peter Perla,
  • Modeling Systems and Effects, Joseph Miranda
  • Developing The Spy Immersive Experience, Amanda Ohlke and Jacqueline Eyl
  • Developing the Cuban Missile Crisis Simulation, Jacqueline Eyl
  • Global Positioning System (GPS) -based Spy Games in the City, Amanda
  • Ohlke
  • Technology for Intelligence Simulation and Gaming
  • Computational Simulation in Intelligence Analysis, Edward Waltz.
  • Composite Signatures Analyst Learning Tool: Supporting the Analyst with
  • Scenario-Based Methodology Training, Benjamin Bell
  • Panel: Gaming and Modeling Before a Crisis to Prevent Harried Thought
  • During a Crisis, Kenneth Kligge (moderator)
  • Use of Gaming and Exercise as Part of an Engagement Strategy, Hyong Lee
  • Understanding Post-Transition Political Trajectories through Modeling
  • Pre-Transition Regime and Opposition Interaction, Katrina Dusek
  • Gaming the Nexus between Intelligence and Policy, Timothy Wilkie
  • Challenges of Demonstrating Cyber Attacks for Health Care Training, Ramon Balut and Jean Stanford
  • Timeless Lessons Learned from Historic Innovations in Exercises, Gaming, and Simulations – and their Applicability to Contemporary Challenges, Paul Byron Pattak
  • Cyber-Attack and Ethics Simulations, Pablo G. Molina
  • Intelligence Analysis Capstone Projects, Stephan Marrin
  • Panel: Only for the kids’ eyes: bringing institutions out from the shadows or the need for a simulation/gaming program in Spain
  • Looking at Primary and Secondary Education Through the Lenses of Intelligence Culture Fernando Velasco
  • Experiencing the Tradecraft: Designing the Iintelligence Learning
  • Experience with Simulations and Games, Rubén Arcos
  • Learning Devices and Interactive Multimedia Communications, Manuel Gértrudix and Sergio Álvarez
  • Teaching Structured Analytic Techniques for Cyber Security through Role Playing Exercises, Jim Jones, Jr.
  • Induction Game and Intelligence Education, William F. Lawhead
  • Virtual Training Systems and Survival Humanistic Factors, Randall Murphy and Darrell Rosse Comparing the Utility of On-line Learning Technologies, Randy Pherson
  • Induction Game and Intelligence Education, William F. Lawhead
  • Educating Competitive Intelligence clients and consumers, Nan Bulger
  • Simulations for intelligence and security education and training: serious gaming and how to create visionary practitioners and policy makers, Cristina Ivan
  • Potential in Nonrepresentational Concrete Tabletop Exercises for Analysts, Noel Hendrickson
  • PANEL: Linking Analysis with Reporting Through Games
  • “The Body in the Bag”: A scenario-based approach for developing the links between analysis, assessment and reporting, Julian Richards
  • Predicting Migratory Patterns Through Gamification and Simulation, Melonie K. Richey
  • Simulating Stress and Crisis within an Intelligence Driven Scenario, Omid Townsend

The conference looks outstanding, and while I can’t make it—I’ll be running my own simulation at McGill that week—others from the PAXsims crew will be there to report on the discussions.

Simulating the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon


Last month I had the pleasure of running a classroom simulation on the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon at the University of Exeter with Prof. Mick Dumper for his POL 2046 course on The Refugee Crisis in the Modern World. Gamers extraordinaire Tom Mouat and Jim Wallman came down for the day to assist, along with graduate student Abigail Grace. Today I ran the same simulation at McGill University for some of the students in Prof. Megan Bradley‘s POLI 359 course on the international refugee regime, together with a few from my own POLI 450 course on peacebuilding. This time ICAMES graduate research fellow (and teaching assistant) Ecem Oskay was there to help.


The Exeter Control team, complete with empty sack of goat food.

Both simulations involved around two dozen students. Both simulations went very well, I thought.

A variety of roles were represented in the simulation:

  • The Lebanese Prime Minister, plus various cabinet ministers (from the Future Movement, Phalange, Hizbullah, Free Patriotic Movement, Progressive Socialist Party) and the Lebanese Armed Forces. This gave some differentiation in terms of portfolios and responsibilities, and also recreated some of the political and sectarian tensions between the “March 8″ and “March 14″ coalitions within the Lebanese government.
  • Various UN agencies (UNHCR, UNRWA, UNICEF, and World Food Programme)
  • A (fictional) local charitable association.
  • Human Rights Watch.
  • The European Union ambassador (representing the donor community more broadly).
  • The refugees themselves. Each of these had a different back story in terms of geographic origin, occupation/social class, family needs and situation, sectarian affiliation, and political views. One was a female-headed household.  Two of the refugees were secretly opposition organizers, for the Free Syrian Army and ISIS. Some were Palestinian refugees from Syria, rather than Syrian citizens.

The Lebanese cabinet makes a joint announcement, hoping to dampen down sectarian tensions. (Exeter)

In designing the simulation I wanted to avoid a simple seminar-type negotiation exercise in which the stakeholders all sit down around a table and try to achieve an agreement on something. For a start, such an approach wouldn’t generate the sense of overbearing crisis that Lebanon feels, a small country hosting some 1.2 million refugees from the bloody and dangerous civil war in neighbouring Syria. In addition, it would also misrepresent the dynamics whereby refugee policy emerges. Refugees do not, as a rule, play any sort of direct role in policy formulation. Instead, their actions and coping strategies provide the context.

Consequently, this simulation was really two linked simulations in one.


The Lebanese Armed Forces questions refugees, looking for evidence of militants and paramilitary activities. (McGill)

At one level, refugees were tasked with simply trying to survive. Each hour they would have to make choices about how to try to earn money (beg? work illegally in Lebanon? try to cross back into Syria?), where to live (a squatter camp? a squalid flat? a middle class apartment?), and what additional goods did they want to buy (basic durables? medicine? forged papers?) Choices had consequences–they might be arrested, deported, or shot crossing the border, or their children might get ill from poor accommodations.

The refugees sit in their make-shift shelters while aid workers undertake a needs assessment. (Exeter)

The refugees sit in their make-shift shelters while aid workers undertake a needs assessment. (Exeter)

The refugees were also given tarps, ropes, cardboard, old carpets, and other materials and were required to construct their own makeshift shelters in the classroom—which at one point were then torn down by angry Lebanese farmers seeking to reclaim their fields. They were required to undertake manual labour, representing the sort of unskilled jobs refugees typically take: in Exeter this consisted of endlessly moving furniture from one end of the classroom to the other and back again, while at McGill they had to carry heavy bags up and down four flights of steps. In their spare time they might beg, or protest, or even smuggle weapons.


Refugees build shelters near the United Nations compound as a member of the Control team looks on. (McGill)

Each hour a random event card would be drawn. Some of these were good: relatives in Europe might send money, or a refugee might reconnect with old friends. Many others were negative: agonizing moral choices, sexual assault, sickness. Refugee resiliency was tracked with tokens. If refugees ran out of these their coping skills were sharply diminished, or they were instructed to just sit and sob in their shelters until someone offered them some help. Throughout, all of the refugees kept handwritten diaries of their experiences.


The Lebanese Army arrests a refugee. (Exeter)

Everyone in the simulation was provided with lunch—except the refugees, who were expected to “buy” it with their meagre simulation income. Depending on their luck and decisions, some didn’t eat for hours, and others not at all. Refugees were also prohibited from sitting in chairs or accessing their telephones or laptops unless they “paid” to use these too. Their rooms were often plunged into darkness, unless they illegally connected to the Lebanese power grid. In Exeter we opened the windows on what was a cold and damp day to increase the refugee discomfort level (it was -18C in Montreal, which didn’t really make that a viable option).

This unfortunate refugee didn't make it—shot by Syrian border guards. (McGill)

This unfortunate refugee didn’t make it—shot by Syrian border guards. (McGill)

The aid actors had some resources (cash, food, other items), but not enough. The UN in particular had to register the refugees and undertake a needs assessment to make sure that the most vulnerable received priority.


Angry refugees protest their treatment. (McGill)

At another level, this was a more traditional policy simulation. The UN team was tasked with drawing up a comprehensive refugee strategy to which the Lebanese government might agree. The Lebanese government was concerned not only with this, but also with a number of other challenges that cropped up (a bomb attack, jihadist suspects hiding in a Palestinian refugee camp, complaints that the Syrians were pushing Lebanese workers out of jobs, crime, illegal electrical connections, a measles outbreak among the refugees—among others). The EU sought to promote a more effective response to the refugee crisis, and had some funds to support this. Human Rights Watch tried to raise human rights issues with Lebanese policymakers and the international community. The refugees were largely absent in any direct sense from these discussions and negotiations, although their choices or even protests fundamentally shaped the policy environment.

All of the policy actors were expected to take notes and minutes, and prepare formal presentations or reports that were submitted during the simulation.


Officials listen to a presentation by Human Rights Watch. (Exeter)

In both the Exeter and McGill simulation runs, the Lebanese grew increasingly concerned at the economic, political, and security challenges presented by the refugees. The UN proposed an integrated refugee strategy after several hours of consultation, but in both cases the Lebanese government rejected the proposal and called for further discussions.


The Lebanese cabinet poses for a photograph, shortly after rejecting UN proposals and calling for further discussions. (McGill)

In both simulations, despite significant local and international aid, the refugees felt they largely had to fend for themselves, and grew resentful that more wasn’t done to help them. In the debrief, many of the well-meaning internationals were rather surprised to hear this.

In the debrief session we were careful to identify the artificial aspects of the simulation—for example, more simulated than real refugees were involved in paramilitary skullduggery, and real refugees would be less likely to organize protests for fear of arrest or deportation. But there were also many, many realistic outcomes that we could point to and discuss. The refugees in particular got a sense of marginalization and vulnerability, but also how refugee communities could organize to help each other in sometimes small but important ways.

This was not a simple simulation—it was 6-7 hours of intense activity, involving a 3-4 person control team. However, those who participated seem to find it well worth the time spent.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 20 February 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulations and serious (or not-so-serious) games that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

* * *

UPSEA recent issue of the Journal of Political Science Education 10, 4 (December 2014) has an article by Mary McCarthy on  “The Role of Games and Simulations to Teach Abstract Concepts of Anarchy, Cooperation, and Conflict in World Politics“:

Games and simulations are increasingly used in courses on international politics. This study explores the hypothesis that games are better than simulations (as well as only reading and lectures) in introducing students to abstract concepts integral to an understanding of world politics. The study compares a two-level Prisoner’s Dilemma game created by Joseph K. Young with a role-play simulation of India-Pakistan negotiations over nuclear disarmament in the 1990s. The study subjects are 149 undergraduate students. The findings suggest that, although an active-learning activity (game or simulation) promotes greater student learning than reading and lecture alone, whether the activity is a game or a simulation generally does not make a statistically significant difference with regard to knowledge gained. This is with the exception of the importance of regime type, which was understood better by those who played the game, and the effect of anarchy, which was better understood by those who were part of the simulation. Student perceptions of learning also tended to be higher among those who played the game.

I’m not at all convinced, however, that it is possible with this sort of research design to evaluate the question of abstract games versus immersive simulations—the findings simply show the relative impact of this game, and this simulation, embedded in this particular curriculum with this particular player group. there are good games and bad ones, as well as effective and ineffective course integration.

* * *

In PS: Political Science & Politics 48, 1 (January 2015), Richard Arnold examines “Where’s the Diplomacy in Diplomacy? Using a Classic Board Game in ‘Introduction to International Relations’“:

One of the challenges of teaching American undergraduates in an “Introduction to International Relations” course is finding a way to make topics and themes seem relevant to students. This article recounts the author’s experiences using the board game “Diplomacy” in his course. The game places students in the role of decision makers in the international arena and simulates the international politics of pre-World War I Europe. In addition to being a powerful simulation of the difficulties of international relations, the game teaches students about one of the most debated wars in the history of the discipline.

* * *

TUHH2015On 26 March 2015 a one-day conference on “Simulation in der Ausbildung erfolgreich anwenden”[Successfully applying simulation in education] will be held in Hamburg, coorganized by the Technische Universität Hamburg-Harburg and the General Staff College of the German armed forces. With apologies for the Google translation:

Managers must often make decisions in a very short time. In addition, a networked environment ensures that not all the consequences of a decision are immediately visible. Experience proves to be a decisive advantage in such situations, sometimes is even necessary for a successful action. An increasingly important opportunity to build this wealth of experience to provide simulations. These teach, in a virtual environment, the contexts and consequences of decisions – risk for decision-makers and their environment, buth with no impact on real processes. This method is increasingly recognized as a key technology in education.

While training with simulations have become indispensable in aviation or medicine, there is still a lot of potential in the economy. This event offers the opportunity to experience simulation as a training method in various fields of application and experience as well as to share expertise in successful application.

You’ll find additional details here.

* * *

763px-Lucas_van_Leyden_-_The_Game_of_Chess_-_WGA12919Following on from Connections, Connections UK, and Connections Australia, a Connections Netherlands is in the work—possibly to be held in October 2015. PAXsims will bring you additional details when they are available.

* * *

The second issue of YAAH! magazine (from Flying Pig Games) will feature tow Brian Train abstract game designs, Army of Shadows and Uprising. Read more about it at Brian’s blog.

* * *

Brian has also posted his impressions of the Connections 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference, held at Quantico in July. You’ll also find that at his blog.

* * *


Matt Kirschenbaum (University of Maryland) is interested in learning a lot more about sandtables: their origins and history, design and construction, and current usage in both recreational and professional gaming. If you have anecdotes of insights to share with him, email him.

* * *

Settlers of Catan as a Hollywood movie? Apparently that’s exactly what could be happening. According to Time magazine:

Producer Gail Katz has acquired the movie and television rights

The popular board game The Settlers of Catan could actually hit the big screen.

Gail Katz, a producer known for Air Force One and The Perfect Storm, has acquired the movie and television rights to adapt the strategy game, according to Deadline. In the game, players are tasked with developing strong communities and outwitting competitors for natural resources on the make-believe island of Catan.

Katz said in a statement that she was introduced to the game by her college-aged kids and called Catan “a vivid, visual, exciting and timeless world with classic themes that resonate today.” More than 22 million versions of Settlers have been sold, and downloads have topped 1.6 billion.

* * *


In Quebec, board games meet the politics of language:

The Game of Life is usually fairly simple — unless, it seems, you’re the owner of a store specializing in board games that does business in the province in Quebec.

The owner of Chez Geeks on St. Denis St. received a letter from Quebec’s language authorities about the way he does business.

Giancarlo Caltabiano says the OQLF is faulting his store on several points, including for speaking to his customers in English.

Caltabiano also says the OQLF has a problem with what he’s selling, and how he’s selling it. He was told that any board game he sells must have a French equivalent — otherwise it can’t be sold. And, it seems, he also isn’t able to keep versions of an English board game in stock if the French versions are all sold out.

“Some of my board games come from the United States, so they don’t have a French equivalent. I have flyers up explaining the game. Apparently, that’s not allowed.”

You’ll find more on the story here and here.

* * *

Some more red teaming wisdom from the folks at Red Team Journal:


Ellie Bartels on Research Design for Gaming


I’ll be giving a talk later today on how I use social science case methodology to think about game design. For those who are not able to attend, I wanted to post both my slides and a brief summary of my talk. This is part of an ongoing research effort, so feedback and thoughts are very much appreciated!

MORS Gaming COP Game Design from Social Science

There has been quite a lot of recent interest in expanding the use of gaming while ensuring that games are rigorous so they have a positive impact.  Traditional instruction on game design, such as NWC War Gaming Handbook or Peter Perla’s Art of Wargaming, stresses the need to make design choices in a thoughtful way in order to achieve game objectives, but does not provide much specific help translating objectives into choices about game roles, rules, and environments. More tools to help gamers think through design choices and communicate the potential impact of these choices on findings can help bridge this gap.

Recent work by other wargamers has discussed tools to apply more rigorous techniques to analyzing game results (see work by Wong and Cobb, Vebber, and Ducharme). However, as I discussed in an earlier post, some recent work conflates how structured the problem examined by the game is with how structured an approach is used to guide game design and analysis. Gaming is well-suited to examining unstructured problems, but to be done rigorously, it needs to be done in a structured way.

The goal then should be to find techniques for structured study of unstructured problems. Vebber and Wong and Cobb both use types of narrative analysis as one such approach, but there is also a role for a more generalized approach that might be useful for more types of games.

To that end, I propose a revision to the traditional design process based on case study methods from the social sciences.  While gaming and social science have been in dialog in national security analysis circles for the past several years, there is still not a well-developed collection of work connecting the two fields. However, because social scientists work on similar types of problems, it is worth considering what we gamers might be able to learn about structuring research and analysis.

Case study methodology is a particularly promising area of social science research design to tap into for gamers. Like gaming, case studies are used to study fairly unspecified problems, so are useful for theory creation and variable identification, as well as theory testing. Case study methods are also designed to focus on the mechanism that connects causes and effects, and are able to document complex causal relationships. As a result, case study methods are easier to apply to the type of unstructured problems we game than more quantitative techniques are.

I argue that we can often think of games as analogous to single case studies that look at variation over time or in comparison to a counterfactual in order to identify the mechanisms that link potential causes to outcomes of interest. While the findings of these approaches are not considered as strong as paired case studies (which are more commonly used in social science research as a result), they have a robust history of producing insights that advance our understanding of complex political, military, and social problems.


Applying the logic of case study research design then allows us to apply best practices from case study design to the development of games’ purpose and objectives; concepts; selection of scenario setting; definition of scenario, rules, and roles; and data collection.  I review some initial thoughts in this presentation, including the need to:

  • Identify common game objectives, such as pattern analysis and variable identification, which can provide ways to categorize games. This can allow us to develop best practices for tackling similar design problems even when games address different problems for different clients.
  • Require designers to explicitly state their understanding of the problem being gamed and how that hypothesis shapes what issues are highlighted or ignored in game design.
  • Encourage designers to clearly define input and outcome variables of interest, particularly the role of player decisions. Designers should also think through what confounding variables may appear in a game design, and how they might shape what can be concluded from the game.
  • More carefully select the scenario setting for games based on what type of analysis is being performed.
  • Consider how inevitable logistical limitations shape the testing environment of games, and how these limits should scope the applicability of game findings.
  • Better tailor data collection to strengthen analysis.

Each of these areas offers potential avenues for further development of more detailed best practices and techniques.


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