Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Zenko, Red Team

Review of: Micah Zenko, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy (New York: Basic Books, 2015). 298pp. USD$26.99 hc.

Cover_lrg“Red teaming” is the practice of assuming the role of a potential adversary so as to expose vulnerabilities, stress-test plans, or anticipate some of an opponent’s possible actions. In this very useful book, Micah Zenko explores the application of red teaming in the context of military planning, intelligence analysis, homeland security, and the private sector. In doing so he goes well beyond describing red-teamers and what they do to offer his views on the strengths, weaknesses, and best practices of the approach.

Many readers of PAXsims will be particularly interested in Zenko’s take on military wargaming. One major portion of this chapter of the book is devoted to the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 wargame, in which Blue’s forces were resurrected following an innovative and devastating surprise attack by Red, and gameplay then resumed along largely scripted lines. (An excerpt from Zenko’s discussion of this was recently published at War on the Rocks, and can be found here.) I’ve previously argued that the shortcomings of Millennium Challenge were a little more complicated than he suggests, and Ellie Bartels has also taken up the issue of wargames and experimental design. More generally, Title X games (such as Millennium Challenge) are not the best examples of truly adversarial gaming to be found in the US Department of Defence. On the other hand, it is clear that many US  wargames are not very innovative or challenging, a shortcoming that has been taken up extensively in the past year by both senior officials and the professional wargaming community. Zenko doesn’t address any of this, although in fairness much of it has come since he likely finalized the book manuscript.

Having done both academic and policy work on intelligence assessment, I was also particularly interested in what Zenko has to say about the intelligence community. His focus here, as elsewhere in the book, is on explicit red teaming, wherein analysts are tasked with the devil’s advocate role of producing assessments that challenge conventional interpretive wisdom. His discussion of this is good. However, efforts to counter cognitive closure run much broader than red teaming alone, and include a variety of alternative analytical methods. Moreover, in my own experience some of the most effective red teaming is often not that generated by dedicated red team groups as a stand-alone exercise, but rather the internal debates that occur in a well-managed intelligence shop, where analysts are actively encouraged to assertively challenge their own work and that of their colleagues—regardless of seniority or conventional wisdom—in order to see whether other conclusions are possible from the same (or other) data. The quality and attributes of senior- and mid-level intelligence managers and the institutional culture within the organization are key to making this happen.

Overall, Zenko identifies six sets of best practices for red teams. I would have liked to have seen this discussion a little more deeply grounded in the growing research on predictive judgment, notably from psychology and decision science or predictive judgment—neither Richards Heuer’s classic work nor the the seminal research of Philip Tetlock and the Good Judgment Project on how individuals and groups predict the future are mentioned at all—but the ideas he puts forward are nonetheless valuable ones. Specifically, he argues that: there must be buy-in for the process from above; red-teamers much be outside regular analytical structures so as to maintain objectivity, yet inside enough to be aware and accepted; they must be fearless sceptics who know how to deliver their analyses with finesse and tact; they should be eclectic and unpredictable (“have a big bag of tricks”); senior officials must be prepared to hear bad news (or contrary analyses) and act on them; and one should red team enough, but not so much that it excessively demoralizes and distracts. Finally, he suggests that “the overarching best practice is to be flexible in the adaption of best practices”—a very, very important point indeed.

I equally liked his explicit discussion of red teaming malpractices, although I might have framed some a little differently. He cautions against ad hoc devil’s advocacy that is little more than token dissent; warns against mistaking red team outputs for policy; is critical of irresponsible freelance red treaming; and highlights the dangers of shooting the red team messenger when they deliver contrary views. He also stresses that red teams should inform, but not set, policy—that is, they should be but one input and perspective in the policy process. He concludes by making several recommendations for government, namely that big decisions should be red-teamed; red team efforts should be compiled to enable learning and sharing; red team instruction should be expanded, and military red team methods should be reviewed; and that red-teaming should be made more meaningful, and not simply a rubber stamp.

Overall, this book is a useful survey of the field. While primarily intended to introduce the topic to a general audience, even experienced red-teamers will find Red Team to be of considerable value.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 20 November 2015


PAXsims is pleased to present its latest round-up of recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers.



The latest—and long delayed—issue of Battles magazine finally arrived in my mailbox last week. In addition to all of its regular wargaming goodness, it contains several items that address the political and social diomensions of (simulated) warfare:

  • Matthew Kirschenbaum discusses gaming nuclear armageddon in “Let’s Play Global Thermonuclear War.”
  • Marc Guenette discusses the GMT COIN series in “You’ve Been Coined!” (previously reviewed at PAXsims here and here and here and here).
  • In “Among the People,” Joel Tappen discussed how his professional life has influenced, and been influenced by, the design of his game Navajo Wars.
  • John Burtt reviews BCT Command Kandahar (previously reviewed at PAXsims here).

Regarding game mechanics, Philip Sabin’s defence of “Igo-Ugo” systems is well worth reading too.



The Journal of the Philosophy of Games is a new open-access journal that will “explore philosophical issues raised by the study of games, with a particular emphasis on computer games.” You’ll find their call for papers for the inaugural issue here.


Wargames are often about exploring alternative histories, and using counterfactuals to examine conflict dynamics and test possible causal relationships. Philip Sabin has written about this extensively in Simulating War, and we’ve explored the issue a little at PAXsims too.

Given that, those interested in the analytical gaming will find much of interest in a recent issue of Security Studies 24, 4 (2015), which has a symposium devoted to counterfactual analysis. While none of the articles address gaming per se, they do tackle some of the bigger epistemological, methodological, and other issues at stake:

  • Symposium on Counterfactual Analysis: Note to Readers
    • Andrew BennettColin Elman and John M. Owen
  • Counterfactuals, Causal Inference, and Historical Analysis
    • Jack S. Levy
  • Counterfactuals and Security Studies
    • Richard Ned Lebow
  • “What If” History Matters? Comparative Counterfactual Analysis and Policy Relevance
    • Frank Harvey
  • What If? The Historian and the Counterfactual
    • Francis J. Gavin


The FBI was planning to roll-out a gamified website intended to counter violent extremism among youth this month. They’ve delayed this, however, amid a backlash within the Muslim community. According to the Washington Post:

The FBI has designed an unusual game-style Web site about extremism meant to be used by teachers and students to help the agency spot and prevent radicalization of youth, say Muslim and Arab advocacy groups who were briefed by the FBI on the program and fear it will foment discrimination against Muslims.

The law enforcement agency characterized the program, which appears to be the first aimed at the nation’s schools, as one that will keep youth from falling prey to online recruiting by terrorists. But some members of the Muslim and Arab advocacy groups invited to preview the effort complained that despite being described as combatting “violent extremism,” it frames the topic heavily through the lens of Islam and will lead to profiling of Muslim youth.

You’ll also find coverage of the issue in the New York Times and International Business Times.

Getting this right is difficult—games can risk stereotyping, appearing far too preachy, failing to connect with the target audience, or might even have negative and unintended consequences.

PAXsimsAlso on the issue of terrorism, the recent terrorist attackers in Paris generated much speculation that the attackers had plotted using the chat functionality of the PS4 game console:

[Belgian federal home affairs minister Jan] Jambon also reportedly warned of the growing use by terror networks of the PlayStation 4 gaming console, which allows terrorists to communicate with each other and is difficult for the authorities to monitor. “PlayStation 4 is even more difficult to keep track of than WhatsApp,” he said.

The gaming console also was implicated in ISIL’s plans back in June, when an Austrian teen was arrested for downloading bomb plans to his PS4.

Whether or not this turns out to be the case remains to be seen—initial reports like this often turn out to be inaccurate. However, concerns about game systems being used for nefarious purposes are not new—see, for example, the discussions here and here.


I’ll be travelling for the next several weeks, in part to attend the Connections Australia interdisciplinary wargaming conference in Melbourne on December 14-15. PAXsims updates may be a little less frequent during that time.


Game On! at Bishop’s University

Today I attended the Game On! conference on in-class simulation and gaming at Bishop’s University. The event was organized by Sarah-Myriam Martin-Brûlé and David Webster.

The first presentation by Kerry Hull (Department of Biology, Bishop’s University) explored the value of role-playing in the undergraduate classroom. Her simulations put players not in human roles, but rather in the role of biological functions (such as “Enzyme Man”). Such exercises are used to explore relationships, cause-and-effect, and complex regulatory pathways. She discussed a number of best practices:

  • establish trust and community among participants (including the use of Smarties to recruit classroom volunteers);
  • identify roles;
  • link the simulation to concepts.

She noted that physical environment matters, that it is worth repeating a simulation with different actors, and that students should be shown supporting data for the simulation. She also discussed the “too cool for school” problem, whereby games and simulation may seem too childish—but noted that participants generally see the value in the end. IMG_1319

Claire Grogan (Department of English, Bishop’s University) talked about her use of an innovative teaching technique in her course on war and literature. The challenge she faced was making WWI seem relevant to younger Canadian students. She addressed this by assigning each student the persona of an actual member of the Bishop’s community in 1914 who participated in the war, drawing upon the Bishop’s Remembers website and contemporary material from the student journal The Mitre. She wanted the exercise to be more than a lottery whereby students waited to find out what happened to their person, so she researched a rich dossier on each: their photographs, activities, writings, and so forth. This served to increase student identification with their assigned character, making them more real. These individuals were then followed through the war, with students updating their situation every two weeks based on historical records of unit deployments and the battles they were engaged in. Letters, other news, care packages, medals, or death telegrams were given to some students at the end of each class, reflecting the historical record. One particular sheaf of telegrams arrived in the middle of a class discussion of the Battle of the Somme. It sounded a sombre, and very valuable, experience for the class. IMG_1322

After a coffee break, Laurent Turcot (UQTR) made a presentation on digital humanities and Assassin’s Creed Unity. He started by noting that many historians are reluctant to use popular cultural representations of history (such as movies or video games) in the classroom—precisely because they are representations. However, video games often motivate players to learn about history. He was brought in by Ubisoft as a consultant on the game and its treatment of the French Revolution, to supplement their own (non-English speaking) historian in Paris. Specifically, he was asked to brief Montreal and Toronto staff on daily life in Paris during the revolutionary period—and to deliver it all in a single six hour lecture. He focused on a couple of quarters of the city, and offered an overview of architecture and daily life. He also drew up an encyclopedia of key individuals and events. He discussed his loss of control of material once he had produced it, and the risk of game developers using information differently than he intended. He briefly mentioned some of the political and historical debate the game generated in France. Finally, he noted the potential value of using such a game to provide a street-level view of what 18th century Paris looked like. However, there is little financial incentive for large commercial game publishers to produce educational spin-offs, so progress has been slow.

My own presentation looked at the various ways games and simulations have been used in my own classes. After a short discussion of the research on simulations and learning, I talked about:

  • quick and simple games;
  • using commercial games as reading/review assignments;
  • roleplay and negotiation simulations;
  • in-class demonstration games (of the “game show” variety);
  • matrix games;
  • online digital games designed for instructional use;
  • custom-designed boardgames (such as AFTERSHOCK);
  • student-authored games (including interactive stories, as well games on the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war);
  • complex and hybrid games (such as the Brynania simulation and the Syrian refugees in Lebanon simulation);
  • and games as extra-curricular activities.

I concluded with some thoughts on best practices and recommendations for further reading. You’ll find the full presentation here.


AFTERSHOCK with students at Bishop’s University.

Lunch was followed by an opportunity to try out some of the games. I ran a game of AFTERSHOCK, in which the players manage to overcome initial difficulties (and the accidental withdrawal of rescue workers from District 3 at a critical moment) to win the game with a few minutes left to spare on the clock. I also demonstrated the use of matrix games with a few turns of ISIS Crisis.

Overall it was a very good conference, and I’m grateful to the organizers for inviting me!

Food Chain Reaction: A Global Food Security Game

On November 9-10 the World Wildlife Fund and the Center for American Progress conducted a crisis game examining global food security, Food Chain Reaction. The game design was undertaken by CNA, with funding and technical support from Cargill and Mars.

According to a report on the simulation by Bloomberg:

The year is 2026. Flooding, worsened by climate change, has devastated Bangladesh and driven millions of hungry refugees to its border with India. Worried about unrest and disease, India asks other nations for help.

The U.S. and China respond — China with aid deliveries, the U.S. by boosting aid to Pakistan, which has its own food crisis that’s adding to India’s tensions. That assistance helps India focus on Bangladesh. The crisis recedes.

While the scenario was fictional, two food-price shocks since 2008 have prompted riots and fueled revolutions around the world. Experts say such disruptions are likely to occur more frequently as a warming climate plays havoc with global food production. That fear brought together representatives of corporate food producers, aid groups and governments for two days this week in Washington where they role-played a simulated food crisis. Bloomberg News also participated, representing how media would react to a crisis.

“With climate change, how we deal with food-security threats requires some serious rethinking,” said Kathleen Merrigan, a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture who participated in the exercise. “The ups and downs of prices and surpluses will only become more extreme.”

In the simulation — some called it the “hunger games” — at the U.S. headquarters of the World Wildlife Fund a fictional narrative was created to simulate real dangers that can emerge quickly as an increase in greenhouse gases contributes to volatile weather. In 2011, a real-life drought in Russia fueled food riots in North Africa that fed the Arab Spring uprisings, the aftermath of which reverberates in Syria today.

The fictional scenario began in 2020, with El Nino devastating crops in India and Australia, followed by a major drought in North America the following year.

Eight teams represented the U.S., European Union, Brazil, China, India, Africa, multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and World Bank, and global businesses.

Global food inventories declined through the first half of the simulated decade, with the Mississippi River flooding and drought in Asia. Food-importing nations in Africa saw demonstrations against rising food prices, while rising oil prices diverted more production to ethanol, further stressing supplies.

The crisis peaked in 2024, with record food prices generating unrest in Africa, South Asia and Ukraine. Both the U.S. and EU teams decided to repeal mandates requiring ethanol use, while Brazil ramped up production of all crops, including sugar used for biofuels. China invested in dams to protect scarce water.

‘Lifelike, Realistic’

The EU added a meat tax to discourage expensive livestock production and temporarily relaxed environmental regulations to boost its own production. The U.S. enacted a carbon tax, India taxed coal and support for a global climate deal was universal.

One point of the simulation was to create plausible scenarios to prepare participants to respond to real-life threats, said Kate Fisher, a game director with CNA Corp., a research organization that creates crisis simulations for the Defense Department and other federal agencies.

“It’s planning by doing,” forcing participants to make decisions and react to one another, she said. “We try to make it realistic. The players make it lifelike.”

These hunger games proved to be never-ending.

By 2027, the EU repealed its emergency measures on meat and regulations, as a series of large harvests built up supplies, though trouble persisted in Chad, Sudan and other parts of Africa that hadn’t invested in agriculture. Countries began working more closely with the United Nations to handle refugees from climate catastrophes.

New Normal

But prices, and temperatures, rose again at the end of the decade, showing how abnormal is expected to be the new normal in food and agriculture.

You’ll also find a report on the Cargill corporate website:

Over two days, the players – divided into teams for Africa, Brazil, China, the EU, India, the U.S., international business and investors, and multilateral institutions – crafted their policy responses as delegations engaged in intensive negotiations.

Cooperation mostly won the day over the short term individual advantage. Teams pledged to build international information networks and early warning systems on hunger and crops together, invest jointly in smart agricultural technology and build up global food stocks as a buffer against climate shocks.

In the face of a steep price spike with looming global food shortages in 2022, the EU at one point suspended its environmental rules for agriculture and introduced a tax on meat. Both measures were quickly reversed in 2025, as harvests went back to normal and tensions eased in the hypothetical universe.

The most eye-catching result, however, was a deal between the U.S., the EU, India and China, standing in for the top 20 greenhouse gas emitters, to institute a global carbon tax and cap CO2 emissions in 2030.

“We’ve learned that a carbon tax is a possibility in years ahead,” acknowledged Stone. “But before we can consider moving ahead with a measure like that, we must study it and understand it much better. We have to avoid sudden market distortions and unforeseen consequences.”

Stone said he was impressed with the complexity of the game and the second and third order consequences of some of the decisions that were taken. “Take the meat tax Europe wanted to impose, and think through that. What meat are you going to tax – does that mean poultry and beef or aquaculture as well? Where do you levy the tax, where does the money go, what are the unintended consequences?”

‘Not just putting out fires’

The game was built over the course of months, with maximal realism in mind. The scenario was extrapolated from events that have actually occurred in the real world, such as the food crisis of 2008-2009 or the recent string of hottest years and months on record.

Cargill economist Tim Bodin, who helped design the game and sat on the judges’ panel that evaluated the team’s moves, said he was surprised by the degree of cooperation. “Most people started out with a short-term perspective, but transitioned to long-term measure pretty quickly – they started working to strengthen resiliency instead of just putting out fires.”

The realism of the exercise exceeded expectations, said former U.S. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, who acted as a mentor to the players. “It’s much closer to the real world than you’d think. The people who play here are very committed and serious.”

Additional summaries can be found at the Food Chain Reaction and WWF websites.

Six Rules for Wargaming (and the challenges of experimental design)

WOTRMicah Zenko’s recent piece on the shortcomings of the (infamous) Millennium Challenge ‘02 wargame has spurred Gary Anderson and Dave Dilegge to offer some additional thoughts on the subject at War on the Rocks. Specifically, they suggest “six rules of wargaming” that MC 02 violated:

1. Never try to mix a seminar wargame, an experiment, and a real world exercise. You will end up with too many variables to analyze any single one properly.

The differences between the three types of events are widely accepted throughout the Department of Defense, and are provided by the U.S. Naval War College:

Peter Perla, author of The Art of Wargaming, defines a wargame as: “A warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operations of actual forces, in which the flow of events affects and is affected by decisions made during the course of those events by players representing the opposing sides.”

The Naval War College considers an exercise to be an “activity designed to rehearse or practice, with actual forces or assigned staff, specific sets of procedures” and an experiment as a repeatable scientific method designed to test a hypothesis.

As Zenko discusses in his account of MC ‘02, when the red team sank the blue American fleet, it was reconstituted several times so that the real world exercises could continue. Each time the blue force was reconstituted, red team capabilities were taken away until the blue team could finally hold its own. The reason given was that the live exercises had to continue. The control (white) cell promised red that the results of the previous runs would be noted in analysis. That did not happen.

2. Never allow the people whose concept is being tested to run a game. In MC ‘02, the JFCOM concepts personnel oversaw the white, red, and blue cells. There was no firewall between the concept developers and the game directors.  If the red team did something to embarrass the concept, the results could be overruled.

3. Never allow concept writers to run the analysis. This is akin to allowing students to grade their own tests, and that is what happened in MC ‘02. No independent analysis was ever released by the command.

4. Never claim that a single wargame has validated anything. Wargames will identify issues, and a series of them may fully discredit a truly bad concept. The Germans were still wargaming what became known as blitzkrieg to refine it even after they executed the concept in Poland. The result was an overhaul of their war plans for what became the successful invasion of France. The Naval War College tested the concepts that eventually won the Second World War against Japan in innumerable wargames. The word “validation” should not be used until after the war is won.

After MC ’02 ended, the JFCOM deputy commander claimed that the three concepts being “tested” were “validated.” This is what led the red team leader, retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, to go public on the flawed design and execution of the wargame.

5. A major wargame should be part of a program that lasts at least one year. No one-to-two-week game can adequately address all the objectives normally associated with concept development and experimentation. Elements of these objectives, as well as game design, methodology, and administration, should be put to the test in what are called “shaping events.” The earlier potential problem areas are identified and addressed, the better.

MC ‘02 did indeed have numerous shaping events to include a dry run (basically a rehearsal) that included a thinking and adaptive red team led by Van Riper. This event should have set off alarm bells as to what was in store for the blue team during the primetime event. Unfortunately, the results of the rehearsal were ignored and because these events were all seminar (conference-style) in nature, the ramifications of combining a wargame, an experiment, and an exercise were never addressed. Again, just as in the main effort, the concept developers should never run the analysis in shaping events.

6. Beware empowering defense contractors who work for concept developers and game designers, and “good idea fairies.” The former have a vested interest in pleasing their sponsors and the latter attempt to jump on the bandwagon as a program progresses and begins to garner increasing senior interest and press. For most of JFCOM’s brief history, contractors outnumbered active and reserve duty personnel as well as Department of Defense civilians. Contractors’ primary loyalties were to their government sponsor and to their company’s program manager, not to fulfilling MC ‘02’s stated objectives.

“Good idea fairies” come in many forms — active, civilian, and contractor — and have but one objective — using your efforts, grunt work, and money to highlight and “validate” their pet projects and/or wares.

That in turn led PAXsims associate editor Ellie Bartels to offer some thoughts of her own on Twitter:

Simulation & Gaming, June-August 2015


The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 46, 3-4 (June-August 2015) has now been published. It is a special symposium issue on system dynamics and simulation/gaming.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 6 November 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers. Nikola Adamus and Ryan Kuhns contributed material to this latest report.



War on the Rocks features a piece by Micah Zenko on the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 wargame, excerpted from his new book Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy. It makes for very interesting reading:

Since the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC ’02) concept-development exercise, run by the now-defunct U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), was leaked in the press 13 years ago, strong opinions have been expressed about its failure and lessons. When it was conducted, this exercise was the most ambitious and costly military simulation in American history. It pitted the U.S. military (with capabilities projected five years into the future) against a nameless potential adversary, with outcome intended to inform future strategy and procurement decisions. Controversy immediately arose when the opposition force, or red team, learned that the results were scripted to assure that the U.S. forces would win. Writing in September 2002, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof warned that it “should teach us one clear lesson relating to Iraq: Hubris kills.” (In that same column, Kristof admitted “I’m a wimp on Iraq: I’m in favor of invading, but only if we can win easily.”) MC ’02 was later popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, where the leader of the red team opposition force (OPFOR), retired Marine Corps three-star Paul Van Riper was praised for having “created the conditions for successful spontaneity” with a decision-making style that “enables rapid cognition.” More recently, a Marine Corps Gazette essay proclaimed that “JFCOM controllers changed the scenario” of MC ’02 and that the command “failed to understand the utility of the exercise and the feedback it provided.”

These perspectives are misleading, and generally told from one person’s view: Van Riper’s. Moreover, they lack important historical context and alternative perspectives about why the shortcomings of MC ’02 were inevitable, given congressionally required demands, misunderstandings of objectives, and unclear (and shifting) lines of authority. Furthermore, a more comprehensive account provides insights for how the military should think about, design, and conduct red team simulations. This article, adapted from my book, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, provides this more complete account as it is based upon interviews with most of the relevant senior officials, as well as the MC ’02 after-action report, which was only made public in 2010.

I’m reading the book at the moment, and will soon publish a review at PAXsims. I have to say, however, that I was a little disappointed that Zenko didn’t delve more deeply into MC ’02. Despite the introduction above, the account he gives is pretty much the standard one:

At the start of MC ’02, to fulfill the forced-entry requirement, blue issued red an eight-point ultimatum, of which the final point was surrender. Red team leader Van Riper knew his country’s political leadership could not accept this, which he believed would lead the blue forces to directly intervene. Since the George W. Bush administration had recently announced the “preemption doctrine,” Van Riper decided that as soon as a U.S. Navy carrier battle group steamed into the Gulf, he would “preempt the preemptors” and strike first. Once U.S. forces were within range, Van Riper’s forces unleashed a barrage of missiles from ground-based launchers, commercial ships, and planes flying low and without radio communications to reduce their radar signature. Simultaneously, swarms of speedboats loaded with explosives launched kamikaze attacks. The carrier battle group’s Aegis radar system — which tracks and attempts to intercept incoming missiles — was quickly overwhelmed, and 19 U.S. ships were sunk, including the carrier, several cruisers, and five amphibious ships. “The whole thing was over in five, maybe ten minutes,” Van Riper said.

The red team had struck a devastating blow against the blue team. The impact of the OPFOR’s ability to render a U.S. carrier battle group — the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy — militarily worthless stunned most of the MC ’02 participants. Van Riper described the mood as “an eerie silence. Like people didn’t really know what to do next.” Blue team leader Bell admitted that the OPFOR had “sunk my damn navy,” and had inflicted “an extremely high rate of attrition, and a disaster, from which we all learned a great lesson.”

Meanwhile, Kernan received an urgent phone call from Luck: “Sir, Van Riper just slimed all of the ships.” Kernan recognized that this was bad news because it placed at risk JFCOM’s ability to fulfill the remaining live-fire, forced-entry component of the exercise — a central component of MC ’02. The actual forces were awaiting orders at Fort Bragg, off the coast of San Diego, and at the Fort Irwin National Training Center. Kernan recalled, “I didn’t have a lot of choice. I had to do the forcible entry piece.” He directed the white cell to simply refloat the virtual ships to the surface. Bell and his blue team — now including the live-fire forces operating under his direction — applied the lessons from the initial attack and fended off subsequent engagements from the red team.

That’s true, but it also seems to miss part of what happened. Some of the things Van Riper did were beyond the capabilities of any US adversary, and probably should have been disallowed by the umpires. I have also been told by multiple participants that the overloaded White Cell failed to properly adjudicate defensive fires during the attack on the fleet—thus artificially amplifying its success. Finally, the point of the game was not to model a particular campaign or identify possible courses of action by Red, but rather to stress-test a number of ideas, approaches , and concepts—a process that would be derailed by an early catastrophic defeat of Blue.

None of this is to claim that MC ’02 was anything else but a poorly run game, which by all accounts it was. Indeed, similar criticism can be made of a great many DoD and service wargames, including many of the other high-profile Title X events. However, improving the analytical value of such games requires a not only a critical perspective, but also a nuanced understanding of all of the factors and constraints at work.


War on the Rocks also features a piece by Jonathan Altman on “What Texas Hold’em Can Teach About Geopolitics.”

Poker doesn’t immediately make you think of geopolitics. However, the game itself, specifically No-Limit Texas Hold ’em, is a remarkable analog for the international system as viewed through a realist lens. Not only is the construct of the game eerily similar to the geopolitical environment of today, but many of the strategies and choices in the game mirror those available to powers within the international system. Accordingly a more detailed examination of the game yields valuable insights into the affairs of nations in an anarchic world order. It’s time for future leaders to play poker instead of chess.



In recent weeks Graham Longley-Brown has posted a couple of interesting items on manual simulation and wargaming to his LBS blog:


Motherboard discusses a recent conflict simulation exploring the impact of drones on warfare, with a particular focus on their potential use by weaker powers and non-state armed groups:

The “Game of Drones” was designed to explore the different ways that drones could be used for tactical and strategic effect in a conflict.

The summit sought to address whether shooting down a drone might escalate tensions between countries or whether drones changed the character of a conflict by giving actors capabilities they didn’t have before. As more and more state and non-state actors acquire drones, the war game illustrated how drones could be used in creative ways to further political or military objectives.

“One of the things that we see with new technologies like drones, is that the marginal utility for that platform is much higher for weaker actors than strong actors,” Ben Fitzgerald, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and one of the organizers of the war game, said afterward. “For non-state actors, they get much more value in relative terms, because all of sudden they have airpower.”

The game was organized by the  Center for a New American Security.



The Center for International Maritime Security has introduced a new podcast entitled “Real Time Strategy,” which explores “the lessons and non-lessons of the simulations we use to both learn and entertain in the realm of military strategy, tactics, and history.” The first episode examines EVE Online, Civilization, Call of Duty, and other topics too.


The latest issue of the British Journal of Military History 2, 1 (2015) has an interesting article by Jorit Wintjes on “Europe’s Earliest Kriegsspiel? Book Seven of Reinhard Graf zu Solms’ Kriegsregierung and the ‘Prehistory’ of Professional War Gaming.”

The history of professional war gaming is usually understood to have begun around the turn of the 18th to the 19th century and mainly associated with the Prussian Kriegsspiel, with chess-based predecessors traceable down to a game published in 1664 by Christoph Weickmann. Yet already a century before Weickmann and more than two centuries before the invention of the Prussian Kriegsspiel a Hessian nobleman published a game of cards that was intended to be used both for preparing young noblemen for military decision-making and for supporting command and control in the field. It thus may well have been the earliest professional war game of the post-medieval period.


UPSEThe latest issue of the Journal of Political Science Education 11, 3 (July-September 2015) features an article by Michelle Hale Williams on “Using Simulations in Linked Courses to Foster Student Understanding of Complex Political Institutions.”

Political institutions provide basic building blocks for understanding and comparing political systems. Yet, students often struggle to understand the implications of institutional choice, such as electoral system rules, especially when the formulas and calculations used to determine seat allocation can be multilevel and complex. This study brings together an upper level Political Parties and Interest Groups course with an introductory Comparative Politics course through two-types of interaction: discussion board and a face-to-face election simulation. We administer a pretest and posttest to gauge student learning as a result of the simulation. We hypothesize that, by bringing together two courses with different levels (upper division and lower division) and emphases in bases of knowledge, we are able to enhance the experience of the election simulation to stimulate higher degrees of learning across both courses.

I have had quite a lot of success with simulations than span multiple classes: the annual Brynania civil war simulation at McGill involves students from POLI 450 (a senior undergraduate course on peacebuilding), POLI 650 (the graduate seminar version of the course), some students from POLI 227 (an introductory course in the comparative politics of developing countries), and on a few occasions an international journalism class at Concordia University.



McGill University’s Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning will be holding the Simnovate 2016 International Summit in Montreal on 6-7 May 2017 to “bring together simulation, education and innovation in the healthcare arena.”

With a focus on four domain areas (patient safety, pervasive learning, medical technologies, and global health), we are undertaking a broad review of current strengths and areas of focus, determination of future directions and zones of importance, and prescription of defined approaches to improve health care.

The summit is intended to be dynamic, interactive, engaging, and above all, an opportunity for the global community to come together with the common aim to improve the health of people across the world.

The official launch of Simnovate took place on 25 May 2015, at the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning. An academic symposium, followed by an innovation showcase, was well attended by the local McGill community.

The event also publicly launched the four domain groups, and the two co-chairs for each group. Since May 2015, the domain groups have each engaged seven to ten renowned individuals, who have passion, drive and enthusiasm for this process.

Each group is tasked with undertaking four teleconference calls, to be completed by January 2016. During each call, topics of the current status, future perspectives, and paths to achieve prospective gains, are discussed. The culmination of the teleconference discussions is first, for each group to produce a white paper, which summarizes the dialogue, thoughts and considerations of each groups’ conversations.

I certainly plan to attend.

The Different Games Conference will be held in New York on 8-9 April 2016, the organizers have issued a call for papers, presentations, and participants:

Over three years of presenting New York City’s first conference on diversity and inclusivity in games culture, Different Games has drawn more than 700 attendees to NYU’s Downtown Brooklyn campus, in addition to more than 100 arcade games and 150 presenters and speakers! We are thrilled to invite submissions for our fourth annual event which welcomes proposals from all members of the games community — whether designers, students, activists, researchers, journalists and others — to present as part of our two-day program.

yellow_logoSubmission Formats

Paper Presentations and Talks
We invite designers, academics and other creative minds to share recent projects as speakers on our conference panels. Possible submission topics may include, but are not limited to: post mortems, design methodology, reflections on playtesting, analysis/commentary on games content (theme, gender, sexuality, etc.), game reception, and game culture/communities.

Workshop or Breakout Groups
We invite topic-specific or exploratory discussions on challenges and solutions for promoting diversity and inclusion in the broader game community/communities and other pertinent subjects. Hands-on workshop sessions geared towards learning design, development or other creative and professional skills are also invited.

Arcade Games
We welcome submissions from designers interested in showcasing their game in the Different Games arcade, including pieces that will be in (beta) or playtesting phase as well as those further along in the development process. Analog games, non screen-based digital games and other types of media such as short films, installations or interactive art related to the themes of the conference are welcome as well.

You’ll find more details at their website. The deadline for most submissions is 15 December.


Rock, Paper, Shotgun reports on Top Secret, a forthcoming game inspired by the Snowden leaks and played by email. According to the game’s Kickstarter page:

Inspired by the incredible true story of the biggest leak in US history, Top Secret is a branching non-linear interactive fiction game, played in real time, by email.

A fresh recruit to the National Security Agency (NSA), you have a new mission: find out who’s leaking TOP SECRET documents to the press. Stop them by whatever means necessary.

A single selector (phone number, email address, name) is all it takes for your team to surveil a target. It’s your job to decipher the intel, and follow the trail to its source.

But surveillance has a price…

In the paranoid world of the NSA, anyone can become a target, and soon your friends are in the firing line.

Everyone has something to hide, will you reveal it?

The game’s webpage also has a link to a demo.


At Unicorn Booty (yes, there’s such a place), Matt Keeley discusses the 1965 card game Nuclear War, and the broader issue of playing the apocalypse.



In The New Yorker, Jon Michaud discusses “The Tangled Cultural Roots of Dungeons & Dragons” through the lens of Michael Witwer’s new biography of D&D inventor Gary Gygax, Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons.

GAME ON! at Bishop’s University

Next Friday I’ll be participating in the GAME ON! conference at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Québec, where we’ll be discussing the potential contribution of simulation and gaming in the classroom. We’ll be running a game of AFTERSHOCK too!

You’ll find full details below.


AFTERSHOCK in Springfield


While Missouri might be better known for tornadoes than tremors,* last week Missouri State University was the scene of a major earthquake—or, more accurately, a game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game, sponsored by the Department of Political Science.

At first the earthquake seemed to overwhelm aid teams from Carana, the United Nations, the NGO community, and the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force, but as they became more organized and the volume of relief supplies grew they all made increasingly good progress. HADR-TF moved quickly to repair Galasi International Airport. They were rather slower to repair the Galasi port, which caused some friction with the government. A cholera outbreak in District 2 was quickly contained and dealt with. Rapid needs assessment was complimented by more in-depth surveys in several districts, facilitating planning and resource allocation.

With 37 minutes left to play, and six weeks into the crisis, the players collective (

Six weeks into the crisis and with 37 minutes left to play, the teams’ collective (“Relief Points”) score is still in the red— although not by much (-3). The UN and HADR-TF have negative individual (“Operations Points”) scores too. The airport has been fully repaired, and HADR-TF has brought in the necessary materials to begin repairs to the port too. Some health and other social infrastructure has been reestablished in most districts. At the moment, teams are primarily participating in the health and WASH cluster meetings, as well as undertaking front-line tasks in the various districts of the capital.

By the end of two hours, all of the players had positive scores. Well done!

* * *

*It turns out that MSU was an even more appropriate place for a game of AFTERSHOCK than I realized at the time.  As Robert Mosher has pointed out to me, what is now Missouri was the epicentre of the 1811–12 New Madrid earthquakes. Indeed, the New Madrid Seismic Zone has been responsible for four of the largest quakes ever recorded in North America. 

ISIS Crisis at MIGS

1445365552992Yesterday, Tom Fisher and I ran a game of the ISIS Crisis matrix game at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University. Partly the purpose of the game was to explore the challenges involved in mass atrocity prevention in Iraq. Even more so, however, we wanted to give MIGS some experience with the method in case they found it of use in their training, research, or outreach activities.

Once again, the complex situation in Iraq was reduced to six key sets of actors:

  • “Islamic State”/ISIS
  • (Shi’ite-dominated) Iraqi central government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abidi (very ably played by Concordia colleague Ahmed al-Rawi)
  • Kurdish Regional Government (also, at times, playing the role of the Syrian Kurds/PYD)
  • Sunni “opposition” (representing tribal leaders and other non-ISIS Sunni political figures in Iraq)
  • Iran
  • United States

A lot went on during the game, almost all of it mirroring actual development in the region or options under active consideration by one or more of the parties.

Introducing the players to matrix gaming.

Introducing the players to matrix gaming.

Prime Minister al-Abidi sought to reach out to the Sunni minority, while seeking to build a Sunni “National Guard” to operate against ISIL in Sunni areas. While quite genuine in this, he faced serious constraints: the Sunni opposition was suspicious, and also faced the threat of ISIL reprisals. Efforts by the Prime Minister to deliver on promises were constrained by the machinations of rival Shiite politicians, most notably former Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki. The government’s attempt to modify current de-Baathification legislation failed in parliament, damaging the Prime Minister’s credibility with his Sunni interlocutors. Perhaps most damaging to his efforts was a decision to use Shiite militias to augment Iraqi Army units in the battle to regain control of Ramadi. While the militias substantially enhanced combat power and contributed to some military success, they also engaging in several atrocities against local Sunnis. The Iraqi army did ultimately succeed in mobilizing one Sunni National Guard “brigade,” but this was later shattered in further fighting around Ramadi.

Iraqi forces have taken Ramadi, but are demoralized and deterred from exerting effective control by a campaign of IEDs, snipers, and ambushes. ISIS would later recapture the city (again).

Iraqi forces have taken Ramadi, but are demoralized and deterred from exerting effective control by a campaign of IEDs, snipers, and ambushes. ISIS would later recapture the city (again).

The Sunni opposition decided quite early that they would tilt towards the government—provided that they received adequate rewards for doing so. The United States and Saudi Arabia offered arms and money. However, such moves led to a series of warnings from ISIS. Finally, when one tribe took a number of ISIS hostages and militias near Ramadi took action against local ISIS forces, the latter decided that it was time to make a very public demonstration of their power. Some tribal militias were crushed, and others joined ISIS out of self-preservation. Atrocities by Shiite militias and the Iraqi government’s close relations with Iran didn’t help the credibility of Sunni leaders trying to align with Baghdad.

The US announces stepped-up assistance for anti-ISIS Sunni tribes.

The US announces stepped-up assistance for anti-ISIS Sunni tribes.

The United States, concerned at the threat posed by ISIS, increased its assistance to local allies in an effort to push them back. This included the deployment of JTACs (forward air controllers), air support, and additional US special forces to buttress the Kurds. However, a premature Kurdish offensive towards Mosul went disastrously wrong, resulting in four American military personnel being captured by ISIS. This created pressure for US military escalation. One US prisoner was executed for a grisly ISIS propaganda video. However, the CIA managed to obtain information on where the remaining prisoners were being held in Raqqa, and a risky raid by US Navy Seals was successful in freeing them.

Iran provided arms, advisors, and other support for the Baghdad government and Kurds alike, matching the US as the two rivals sought to offset each other’s influence. The Kurds had initially been reluctant to take too much support from Tehran, but this attitude soon changed after their failed Mosul offensive. In one case Iran successfully conducted a covert attack against US advisors in Baghdad, which was then blamed on ISIS.

The KRG offensive goes badly wrong, and several US personnel embedded with Kurdish units are taken prisoner. ISIS recaptures Mosul dam. With KRG permission, Iran deploys some IRGC assets to Irbil to aid in the city's defence.

The KRG offensive goes badly wrong, and several US personnel embedded with Kurdish units are taken prisoner. ISIS recaptures Mosul dam. With KRG permission, Iran deploys some IRGC assets to Irbil to aid in the city’s defence.

ISIS had its most success in exploiting the mistakes or failures of others, or rapidly responding to their opponents’ initiatives and finding new vulnerabilities or courses of action. Throughout the game, there was frequent fighting on the Mosul-Irbil front (with control of Mosul Dam changing hands several times), and on the Raqqa-Hassakeh front in Syria. ISIS also made some effort to make gains in Aleppo at the expense of other Syrian opposition groups. It skillfully exploited US and Iranian support for Baghdad, the capture of US personnel, and the behaviour of the Shiite militias to rally support from both local Sunnis and foreign fighters. It also punished Sunni defectors harshly, crushing rebellious tribes when they showed too much willingness to work with the central government.

The ISIS player standing behind the Sunni opposition. Shortly thereafter he would unleash a punitive campaign against pro-Baghdad tribes.

The ISIS player standing behind the Sunni opposition. Shortly thereafter he would unleash a punitive campaign against pro-Baghdad tribes.

Overall, the game highlighted several key dynamics of the current situation in Iraq:

  • The constraints of Iraqi capacity and local politics, and the difficulty that the central government has in undertaking major reforms and military campaigns alike. The fight against ISIS is far from the only thing going on in the country.
  • The difficult position of Iraqi Sunnis, perched uncomfortably between an unpopular Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government and a brutal ISIS.
  • The risk to the Kurds of assuming a more assertive military role.
  • The difficulty that both Iran and the US face in using their assets and influence to affect substantial change on the ground—as well as the extent to which their rivalry affects the effectiveness of their support for allies. The US hostage crisis also highlighted the risk of more “boots on the ground.”
  • The intrinsic difficulty that the parties have in pursuing a sustained and coherent strategy, given the frequency and ease with which the actions of others or unanticipated events distract from campaign plans. In the game, efforts by the US and Iran to support a systematic Iraqi military effort towards Mosul with Kurdish and Sunni tribal support were constantly derailed by problems of coordination, US-Iranian rivalry, Shiite militia atrocities, Iraqi domestic politics, unreliable allies, and ISIS counterattacks in other areas (notably in Ramadi and towards Hassakeh in Syria).

Overall, the game ended with the Sunni opposition/tribes—a key pillar of US strategy—even weaker than they had started. The military situation was largely stalemated, with the offensive towards Mosul stalled. Ramadi was recaptured by the Iraqi Army, but they were unable to ever exert effective control. The US had stepped up its level of military engagement, but with little fundamental effect. ISIS faced severe difficulty in expanding its geographic control, but benefitted from a flow of local recruits and foreign fighters to offset its losses from Iraqi and coalition military activity—indeed, by the end it had actually augmented its capacity.

Most fundamentally, the game strongly suggested that there is no “magic bullet” in Iraq that delivers rapid victory over ISIS—only a difficult, costly, slogging campaign that mixes incremental gains with periodic reverses.

Zones of Control


Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming, coedited by Pat Harrigan and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, will be published by The MIT Press in the spring of 2016. The book contains more than sixty contributions by scholars, game designers, and practitioners—including two chapters from us (Rex Brynen, Ellie Bartels) here at PAXsims:

Editors’ Introduction

  • Pat Harrigan and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

Foreword: The Paper Time Machine Goes Electric

  • James F. Dunnigan


1 A Game Out of All Proportions: How a Hobby Miniaturized War

  • Jon Peterson

2 The History of Wargaming Project

  • John Curry

3 The Fundamental Gap between Tabletop Simulation Games and the “Truth”

  • Tetsuya Nakamura

4 Fleet Admiral: Tracing One Element in the Evolution of a Game Design

  • Jack Greene

5 The Wild Blue Yonder: Representing Air Warfare in Games

  • Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

6 Historical Aesthetics in Mapmaking

  • Mark Mahaffey

7 The “I” in Team: War and Combat in Tabletop Role-Playing Games

  • A. Scott Glancy


8 War Engines: Wargames as Systems from the Tabletop to the Computer

  • Henry Lowood

9 The Engine of Wargaming

  • Matthew B. Caffrey Jr.

10 Design for Effect: The “Common Language” of Advanced Squad Leader

  • J. R. Tracy

11 Combat Commander: Time to Throw Your Plan Away

  • John A. Foley

12 Empire of the Sun: The Next Evolution of the Card-Driven Game Engine

  • Mark Herman

13 The Paths of Glory Lead but to the Gaming Table

  • Ted S. Raicer

14 A New Kind of History: The Culture of Wargame Scenario Design Communities

  • Troy Goodfellow


15 Operations Research, Systems Analysis, and Wargaming: Riding the Cycle of Research

  • Peter P. Perla

16 The Application of Statistical and Forensics validation to Simulation Modeling in Wargames

  • Brien J. Miller

17 Goal-Driven Design and Napoleon’s Triumph

  • Rachel Simmons

18 Harpoon: An Original Serious Game

  • Don R. Gilman

19 The Development and Application of the Real-Time Air Power Wargame Simulation Modern Air Power

  • John Tiller and Catherine Cavagnaro

20 Red vs. Blue

  • Thomas C. Schelling

21 Hypergaming

  • Russell Vane


22 Wargaming Futures: Naturalizing the New American Way of War

  • Luke Caldwell and Tim Lenoir

23 Creating Persian Incursion

  • Larry Bond

24 Modeling the Second Battle of Fallujah

  • Laurent Closier

25 Playing with Toy Soldiers: Authenticity and Metagaming in World War I video Games

  • Andrew Wackerfuss

26 America’s Army

  • Marcus Schulzke

27 We the Soldiers: Player Complicity and Ethical Gameplay in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

  • Miguel Sicart

28 Upending Militarized Masculinity in Spec Ops: The Line

  • Soraya Murray


29 Wargames as Writing Systems

  • Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi

30 Playing Defense: Gender, Just War, and Game Design

  • Elizabeth Losh

31 Debord’s Nostalgic Algorithm

  • Alexander R. Galloway

32 The Ludic Science Club Crosses the Berezina

  • Richard Barbrook

33 War Games

  • David Levinthal

34 Troubling the Magic Circle: Miniature War in Iraq

  • Brian Conley


35 Wargames as an Academic Instrument

  • Philip Sabin

36 Lessons from the Hexagon: Wargames and the Military Historian

  • Robert M. Citino

37 Simulation Literacy: The Case for Wargames in the History Classroom

  • Rob MacDougall and Lisa Faden

38 The Amateur Designer: For Fun and Profit

  • Charles Vasey

39 Struggling with Deep Play: Utilizing Twilight Struggle for Historical Inquiry

  • Jeremy Antley

40 Model-Driven Military Wargame Design and Evaluation

  • Alexander H. Levis and Robert J. Elder


41 Gaming the Nonkinetic

  • Rex Brynen

42 Inhabited Models and Irregular Warfare Games: An Approach to Educational and Analytical Gaming at the US Department of Defense

  • Elizabeth M. Bartels

43 Chess, Go, and Vietnam: Gaming Modern Insurgency

  • Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke

44 Irregular Warfare: The Kobayashi Maru of the Wargaming World

  • Yuna Huh Wong

45 A Mighty Fortress is Our God: When Military Action Meets Religious Strife

  • Ed Beach

46 Cultural Wargaming: Understanding Cross-Cultural Communications Using Wargames

  • Jim Wallman


47 Wargaming (as) Literature 555

  • Esther MacCallum-Stewart

48 Tristram Shandy: Toby and Trim’s Wargames and the Bowling Green

  • Bill McDonald

49 Third Reich and The Third Reich

  • John Prados

50 How Star Fleet Battles Happened

  • Stephen V. Cole

51 Total Global Domination: Games Workshop and Warhammer 40,000

  • Ian Sturrock and James Wallis

52 When the Drums Begin to Roll

  • Larry Brom

53 War Re-created: Twentieth-Century War Reenactors and the Private Event

  • Jenny Thompson


54 War, Mathematics, and Simulation: Drones and (Losing) Control of Battlespace

  • Patrick Crogan

55 How to Sell Wargames to the Non-Wargamer

  • Michael Peck

56 Wargaming the Cyber Frontier

  • Joseph Miranda

57 The Unfulfilled Promise of Digital Wargames

  • Greg Costikyan

58 Civilian Casualties: Shifting Perspective in This War of Mine

  • Kacper Kwiatkowski

59 Practicing a New Wargame

  • Mary Flanagan

Zones of Control can now be preordered from Amazon.

CFP: Game Studies special issue on “WAR/GAME”


The online journal Game Studies has issued a call for papers for a special Issue on “WAR/GAME,” to be edited by Holger Pötzsch and Phil Hammond:

Video games are an important sector of the global entertainment industry and AAA titles often have budgets and audiences similar to those of major Hollywood productions. Many of the commercially most successful games are war-themed titles that play out in what are framed as authentic real-world settings inspired by historical events. Parallel to this development, significant changes have occurred in the way Western industrialized nations wage actual wars. It has been argued that postmodern war increasingly resembles a videogame and that this form of mediatization fundamentally changes how wars are justified, perceived, experienced, and waged. This, and other postulated connections between war games and actual wars merit critical scholarly attention and scrutiny.

This special issue of Game Studies interrogates the relations between games and war. Particular attention will be directed to digital games, but submissions dealing with board games, tabletop roleplaying games, and others are also welcome. We invite contributions that approach the war/game relationship from various theoretical and methodological vantage points. Interdisciplinary studies fall within the purview of the issue as do articles exploring the field from the point of view of distinct disciplinary traditions. Analysis and criticism of particular games or genres are equally welcome, as are empirical studies of players and player cultures, investigations of the political economy of games and gaming, theoretical inquiries into the socio-cultural roles and functions of games, or studies of the tensions between game forms and re-appropriative practices of play, for example. Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • The aesthetics of war games
  • Interconnections between the games industry, players, and the military
  • The relation of war games to historical knowledge, beliefs and attitudes
  • The history of war games and war gaming
  • War games and embodiment
  • Critical war game design and serious war games
  • Transgressive dimensions of war games and war gaming
  • The role of games in the mediatization and cultural framing of war
  • War games, minorities, and marginalization

Please consult the Game Studies submission guidelines before submitting your paper—only fully formatted articles will be considered for review. The deadline for submission is 1 December 2015. The issue will be published in December 2016.

h/t Nikola Adamus 

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 23 October 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers. Corinne Goldberger and Ryan Kuhns contributed material for this latest edition.


1510_n-square_g4c_banner_634pxThe N Square Challenge is offering a $10,000 prize for the best idea for a game on nuclear proliferation:

Nuclear proliferation remains one of the most vexing and complex issues of our time. Though the Cold War ended long ago, today’s nuclear security situation is more volatile than ever.

But with such a huge challenge comes an even bigger opportunity for innovation, and who better to tackle this issue than the gaming community, known for their creativity and collaborative problem solving. A new design competition is calling on innovators to save the world, in real life, by inspiring creative solutions and novel approaches that foster greater understanding of nuclear proliferation and its related safety and security challenges.

Games for Change is looking for ideas for games that address the risk of nuclear weapons.

The N Square Challenge is a $10,000 game design competition, sponsored by N Square, a two-year pilot working to inspire nuclear safety solutions.

The challenge invites anyone, anywhere, to conceptualize a game that will engage and educate players about the dynamics of nuclear weapons risk. No prior game design experience or subject matter expertise is required. You supply the idea, and we’ll design the game.

The winning design idea will receive a $10,000 cash prize!

The deadline for submissions is November 13. You’ll find further details here and here.

N Square is a collaborative effort between five of the largest peace and security funders in the United States: The Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Skoll Global Threats Fund.


Asymmetric Games is a website devoted to experimental strategy games. Their most recent offering examines rebuilding a post-apocalyptic America:

Asymmetric Warfare: Nation Building USA is a game that explores the complexity of conflicts that occur in failed states. Rather than look at a current conflict in a country where the basic functions of government have broken down (Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, etc.), this game assumes that the United States is recovering from a debilitating plague. To stop the spread of the plague, the US government had to put the US population under a prolonged quarantine and nuke a few cities where the plague was out of control. Forcing people to stay indoors for several weeks, in turn, caused the economy to collapse. Larger areas of the country have collapsed into anarchy, and millions of refugees are fleeing the fallout of the nuclear strikes. The US has become a failed state. You play a bankrupt US government, and you must reassert control over and rebuild the nation.

Below you’ll find a video highlighting the Asymmetric Games engine used in an earlier game, Baltic Gambit:


Rogue State is a digital game newly released on Steam:

Assume control of a Middle Eastern country recovering from a violent revolution. It is up to you: Forge alliances, grow your economy, invade your neighbors, or pacify your population. Rogue State is a geopolitical strategy game that will force you to always stay one step ahead of your rivals to survive.



Rumour has it that a well-known British wargamer (and occasional PAXsims contributor) was recently spotted in China too.

China is taking its wargaming and military exercises more seriously, according to Defense News:

China has greatly increased the realism of its Army training, attempting to improve readiness and interoperability, and unearth operational weaknesses.

These trends demonstrate the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) rising self-confidence in dealing with a variety of scenarios beyond its traditional focus of a conflict with Taiwan, analysts said.

Since 2006, the PLA has increased the number of trans-regional exercises, particularly units moving from one military region (MR) to another for training, said Roy Kamphausen, senior vice president for research at the National Bureau of Asian Research.

The PLA has made three key improvements in land warfare exercises, said Li Xiaobing, author of the book “A History of the Modern Chinese Army.”

First, the PLA has moved the exercises out of their training fields like the one in the Beijing region and into actual battlegrounds, including some remote, frontier areas like those in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Second, the exercises have become more practical in terms of real war conditions, such as command, communication and long-distance logistics.

“They even traveled long distance to Russia for a joint land exercise,” he said.

Third, the blue army or enemy force is now better prepared and stronger than the red army or PLA.

“The red army has to fight harder and smarter rather than expecting a guaranteed victory,” Li said. Li once served in the PLA and is now a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma.


Li said weaknesses of the recent land exercises remind people of the institutional problems of the PLA.

“Politics still has a role in the exercises, including site selection, commander appointments and battle designs,” he said. Problems include economic issues: “Some units were asked to use old weapons before their retirement and ammunition before the expiration dates.”

For more on wargaming in China, see Devin Ellis’ recent presentation on the topic at Connections UK 2015 (video below).


Mark Herman—designer of We The PeopleEmpire of the Sun, Fire in the Lake, Churchill and many other wargames–recently had an AMA (‘ask me anything”) on Reddit. You can read the questions and answers in the Hex and Counter subreddit.


live-like-a-refugee-for-a-weekend-in-rural-ohio-511-body-image-1444867210-size_1000In Ohio, Dr. Jeff Cook organizes an annual Refugee Weekend that aims to Refugee Weekend—an “immersion experience modeled on different refugee situations from around the world.” The event lasts two days and nights:

During one of my more memorable weekends in college, I fled a group of bandits trying to steal my belongings, plucked a scrawny chicken, watched a sheep get slaughtered so we could eat, and narrowly avoided frostbite after spending all day and night outside. In Ohio. In the middle of winter. The experience was called Refugee Weekend, an overnight class exercise meant to show our group of Midwestern, middle-class millennials just what it meant to exist on the margins. It was so cold that I melted the sole of my Army-issue borrowed boot as I tried to get warm at a campfire. Then a group of masked bandits raided camp, again, and I hobbled on an unevenly melted boot for the rest of the night. The hellish experience began on Friday afternoon, and ended in the early hours of Sunday morning—if only real-world refugees had that luxury.

Read more about it at VICE.

On a similar theme, the Webster University Journal reports on another refugee simulation:

The refugee experience tested the students both mentally and physically, just like a real refugee scenario. 

Sara Banoura, a journalism student and member of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement in St. Louis, said she was skeptical when she first read about the simulation. She said she did not know how close to reality it was. 

Banoura said the reflections made by those who participated reassured her that the refugee simulation has the potential to change hearts on and off campus. 

“The Syrian situation is eye-opening to every other refugee situation,” Banoura said. “It’s not just about politics, it’s about humanity.”



The latest issue of PS: Political Science & Politics 48, 4 (October 2015) contains an article by Kyle Haynes on “Simulating the Bargaining Model of War.”

This article outlines a classroom simulation for teaching the bargaining model of war. This model has become one of the most important theories of international conflict, but the technical notation often used to illustrate it is troublesome for some students. I describe a simple card game that can be integrated into a broader strategy for conveying the bargaining model’s core insights. I also highlight ways in which the game can be modified to focus on different aspects of the model’s logic.


The Journal of Games Criticism is seeking submissions for its January 2016 issue.
The Journal of Games Criticism (JGC) is a non-profit, peer-reviewed, open-access journal which aims to respond to these cultural artifacts by extending the range of authors to include both traditional academics and popular bloggers. The journal strives to be a producer of feed-forward approaches to video games criticism with a focus on influencing gamer culture, the design and writing of video games, and the social understanding of video games and video games criticism.
This issue’s submission deadline is November 15, 2015. See here for submissions guidelines.

…one crowdfunded video game project has stood out to me as a model for cultivating an audience and then effectively meeting its expectations—not to mention delivering a great game in the process. It’s Prison Architectwhich has raised more than $19 million through crowdfunding. Game designers and companies alike would benefit from studying its success.

In Prison Architect, an ambitious business/management simulation from British developer Introversion Software, players design and manage their own penal colony. It wasn’t funded through Kickstarter but through Valve’s game distribution platform Steam, whose “Early Access” program required that Introversion deliver a playable experience before anyone could even donate money. Consequently, Prison Architect’s concept had to be sufficiently fleshed out and coherent to yield a minimal prototype before its creators could ask anyone for money. Second, after releasing that prototype in 2012 Introversion updated the game almost every month with new features and functionality in order to get ongoing feedback from the funders. And third, Introversion never promised more than it could deliver—quite the opposite.

After being available for three years as an open, prerelease “alpha,” Prison Architectwas officially released two weeks ago and appears destined for long-term cult success….


While not exactly connected with conflict, it is all about simulation—so I’ll slip in a quick plug for McGill University’s  Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning, which supports simulated training in the health sciences.

Since its inception in 2006 the Centre has been an important part of the training of health care students and practitioners, having hosted over 110,000 learner visits, more than 60,000 of which have occurred in the past four years. The Centre’s academic team provides simulation-based training to students from McGill’s schools of medicine, nursing, physiotherapy and occupational therapy, communication sciences and disorders, and dietetics and human nutrition, as well as to non-McGill health care professionals and to industry.

Using sophisticated simulation technology, life-like mannequins and professional actors as patients, among other tools, the Centre’s users are able to practice a variety of skills from suturing to ultrasound to bedside manner to crisis resource management, clinical decision-making and interprofessional health care.

You can read more about it in the McGill Reporter.

PAXsims at the Royal Military College of Canada


On Monday I was at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston for a day of conflict simulation and gaming-related activities. I started off with a presentation that explored the value of simulation/gaming in the classroom, some possible methods and approaches, and suggestions as to best practices. You’ll find a pdf version of all of the slides here.


This was followed with a display of a few commercial (manual) wargames that illustrated the breadth of material on contemporary conflict, including Algeria, LabyrinthA Distant Plain, BCT Kandahar, Kandahar, Decision: IraqPersian Incursion, and others.



Next I ran a session of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. The players were a little overwhelmed at first with the devastation that the earthquake had inflicted upon Carana, but eventually got on top of the situation. The multilateral military Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief Task Force (HADR-TF) did an especially good job—before departing the country accompanied by pronouncements of “Mission Accomplished.” Collectively, all of the players achieved a narrow victory by the end of the two-hour game.

Members of HADR-TF withdraw from Galassi, the capital city of Carana, after three months of earthquake relief operations.

Members of HADR-TF withdraw from Galassi, the capital city of Carana, after three months of earthquake relief operations.

Finally, the evening saw a dozen players participate in an ISIS Crisis matrix game. Iran aggressively sought to displace the US as it supported the Iraqi government against ISIS, to the point of trying to broker Russian air operations in support of the Baghdad government. The US, not surprisingly, pulled in the other direction. Indeed, the dynamic very closely mirrored what was actually going on as we played.


Headlines in the media, two days after the ISIS Crisis game.

As the squabbling continued, the Iraqis prepare for an assault on ISIS-held Ramadi. However, this was preempted by a surprise ISIS attack on Fallujah that saw government forces routed. Alarmed by this, Tehran dispatched additional advisors, air support, and even a contingent of Revolutionary Guards to Baghdad to bolster the government.

Throughout, the Shi’ite-dominated Baghdad government had made political overtures to Iraqi Sunnis, but these were generally seen as too little, too late. The deployment of limited Iranian forces to Baghdad only further poisoned Sunni-Shi’ite relations.

In the north, ISIS and the Kurds skirmished both in the Raqqa-Hassakeh area (Syria) and east of Mosul (Iraq). The former was inconclusive. In the latter case, however, Kurdish operations went badly wrong towards the end, resulting in heavy Kurdish losses.

Another recent real-world headline that closely mirrored our game of ISIS Crisis.

Another real-world headline that closely mirrored our game of ISIS Crisis.

Meanwhile, Sunni tribal leaders perfected the art of fence-sitting. They successfully approached Saudi Arabia for funding as the non-ISIS Sunni alternative, but then contributed funds to ISIS when the Kurds tried to move towards Mosul. They took no steps against ISIS, yet convinced the Jordanians to extend arms and training, building the nucleus of a small force that might one day intervene against ISIS in western Anbar province. While critical to building a more cohesive Iraq, they had little incentive to align decisively with one side or the other—a move that would bring certain retribution from others.

As for ISIS, they ended the game with some tactical battlefield victories and some strategic gains in the information war. They, however, were also feeling a bit hemmed in: coalition and Iranian support made it difficult to make large, sustained gains in Iraq, while the fluid civil war in Syria presented both threats and opportunities. In the end they decided for a flexible approach of safeguarding their core interests and territory, strengthening their global appeal, while being prepared to rapidly exploit military and political mistakes by others.

The operational situation shortly before the surprise ISIS attack on Fallujah.

The operational situation following the surprise ISIS attack on Fallujah.

All-in-all, it was an excellent day. So too was the next day, when I presented an unrelated talk (on “Underpredicting the Arab Spring”) at the Centre for International and Defence Policy, Queen’s University. A number of opportunities for simulation/gaming collaboration with both RMCC and CIDP were identified, which we hope to build upon in the future.

Coming up soon: a game of ISIS Crisis hosted by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University on October 26, a trip to Missouri State University for a talk (and a game of AFTERSHOCK) on October 30, and another presentation on simulation and gaming at the University of Ottawa on November 23.

ICONS Project seeks researcher/simulation developer


Dear Readers,

I’ve not been posting much lately. In part due to the fact that I am under an extremely heavy workload. The good news, is that the ICONS Project is adding staff, so I should soon have a lot of time back! I encourage anyone in the PAXsims community who is interested in joining the Project to consider applying here and/or passing this notice on to your communities of interest.

The ICONS Project seeks a Researcher and Simulation Developer to support the ICONS Project’s growing portfolio of simulation-based research, education, and professional training programs. A substantial portion of this position’s time will be devoted to supporting projects looking at U.S. strategic planning and decision-making in the field of international relations and security.

The open position will join the Project’s simulation development team, reporting to the director of the Policy & Research program. Duties will include simulation design and writing, simulation maintenance, project management, research and development and instructional materials and tools, and technical support and customer service.

The position will be directly supervised by the ICONS Project Associate Director. The candidate will report to the ICONS Project’s lead simulation developer on overall creative matters, and to the appropriate principal investigator or program head on specific projects. The ICONS Project has a long history of growth and innovation, and we welcome applicants who are looking for an opportunity to shape and expand a position over time.

Best consideration date is October 27. The sooner we fill this role, the sooner I can turn to another “On Methods” posting…

Devin Ellis


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