Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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 warmers—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 means they stacked 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 have 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.
  • Using Methods of Social Inquiry in Wargame Design, Elizabeth Bartels
  • 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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

simulation and gaming miscellany, 10 February 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulation, and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers…

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GMT Games has added Labyrinth II—an expansion set by Trevor Bender for Volko Ruhnke’s very successful game of global counterterrorism—to its P500 preorder list:

On December 17, 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi committed an act of self-immolation to protest harsh treatment by local authorities.  His sacrifice brought down the Tunisian government a month later and sparked a popular movement to be known as the Arab Spring that spread across the Muslim world, toppling 6 governments and igniting 3 Civil Wars.  The Western world struggled with how to influence these disparate struggles for good while Jihadists and other reactionary elements deftly maneuvered to fill the power vacuums created.

LABYRINTH II: The Awakening, 2010 – ? expands on LABYRINTH: The War on Terror, 2001 – ?, a 1-2 player card-driven boardgame simulating at the strategic level the ongoing bid by Islamic extremists to impose their brand of religious rule on the Muslim world.  The expansion continues where LABYRINTH left off adding new rules and cards to cover the last five years of history.  Included are new mechanics to simulate the grass roots political movements of the Arab Spring and the resulting Civil Wars.  LABYRINTH II provides 90 all new event cards, additional markers, cubes and cylinders, and 7 new scenarios, including 2 that are playable to conclusion in 7 turns or less.

I’ve already preordered my copy. You’ll find a PAXsims review of the original game here.

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Syllabus is a peer-reviewed publication of course syllabi and other teaching materials. The latest issue is devoted to “Teaching With and About Games,” and while heavily geared towards video games, nonetheless includes a number of very useful articles and syllabi.

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The latest (February 2015) issue of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association  newsletter SIMAGES has been published.

  • Note from the Chair by Melissa Peterson
  • Conference Report by Anastasia Salter
  • NASAGA Awards for 2014 by Linda Slack
  • Getting Wild with Goose Chase by Brent Darnell
  • The Gamer Society:  An Alternate Reality Game by Anastasia Salter
  • The Long Game: An Approach to Game Design by Veronica Brown
  • Interview with Mohamed Bahgat, First Impressions of NASAGA  by Linda Keller
  • Taking Storytelling to the Next Level by Thiagi
  • A Special note about volunteering with NASAGA

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At a recent model UN event at Harvard university, real Chinese politics seems to have spilled over into the simulated version:

During the first HMUN2015 meeting, which took place at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston on the evening of Jan. 29 , the head of the Chinese delegation discovered that the conference handbook contained the word Taiwan in its list of “international participants by country” (some of the participants were from the Taipei American School). Immediately, the Chinese side requested that the “error” be corrected. Taiwan, they said, is not a country and it isn’t a UN member. As such, the handbook should be modified to read “country or region.” The Secretariat refused, however, and the dispute continued the next day, with the Chinese side accusing the organizers of having a “poor understanding” of international relations. The situation continued to deteriorate until the organizers asked security personnel at the hotel to remove some members of the Chinese delegation and threatened to call the police. “Your presence makes us uncomfortable,” they said.

You’ll find more details (from a website sympathetic to the Taiwanese position) here. The responses to the blogpost are also revealing of what a sensitive issue this is.

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At the New Republic, Jen Doll reviews Mary Pilon’s recent book The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game. The game was first invented by a woman, Lizze Magie, who had progressive intentions:

In March of 1903, a single woman in her late thirties walked into the U.S. Patent Office to secure her claim to a board game she had been diligently designing in the hours she stole from her day job as a stenographer. Lizzie Magie was an exception to the female norms of the time, not just because she had remained unmarried well beyond the conventional marry-by date, but also because she was an avid supporter of the teachings of progressive politician and economist Henry George, an outspoken and influential tax reformer who advocated policies that would keep more money in the hands of the poor and working class.

The invention Magie wanted to patent, was, in fact, a kind of tribute to George: The Landlord’s Game was “a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” Magie explained in The Single Tax Review in 1902. She included two sets of rules: one in which the aim was to crush opponents through monopolies, and one in which the creation of wealth rewarded all. The moral was not exactly hidden. The Landlord’s Game, Magie believed, would help make the world a better place.

However, it didn’t work out that way:

The man who ultimately received the credit for creating Monopoly is a Pennsylvanian named Charles Darrow, not an inventor, but an opportunist. An unemployed family man with an ailing child who was trying to survive in the midst of the Depression, Darrow was given a copy of the game by a friend, sneakily enlisted another pal to illustrate it (for free), and sold the reinvented product to a sinking Parker Brothers as his own (for $7,000 plus residuals), subsequently amassing a fortune. By 1936, the game had earned millions, saving not only Darrow, but also the company, from financial ruin. Darrow was given a place in history; his descendants continued to profit from the game for years after his death.

One of the great ironies of Monopoly, of course, is that it was originally intended to be exactly the opposite of what it has become. And then there is another irony, as well: Monopoly came to be controlled by a company that fought tooth and nail to maintain its own monopoly over it. But part of the Monopoly story is surprisingly straightforward: Its path from progressive teaching tool to capitalist iconwith a mythology to spur it along as a money-making brandmakes it something of an American archetype of its own.

The original rules and game board can be found here.

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At Lifehacker, Patrick Allan discusses “The Surprising Benefits of Role-Playing Games (and How to Get Started)

When you hear about role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, you probably picture a dimly-lit basement filled with people in silly robes rolling dice, but there’s much more to it than that. Not only are role-playing games incredibly fun, but they can actually teach you skills you’ll use in the real world.

When I first heard about role-playing games, I immediately thought it was something that was just for the nerdiest of nerds out there. I could only imagine how ridiculous it would feel to sit around a table with other people and act like someone—or something—else, pretending to fight goblins and dragons. The entire premise just sounded way “too geeky” for me—even as someone who was way into video games and other “nerdy” things.

Fast forward a couple years, and I found that I was completely wrong. As soon as I took a moment to strip away the facade of monsters and swords, role-playing games revealed themselves to be something far more interesting than other traditional games. Behind the fantasy adventures was a fun social gathering that required you to think on your toes, solve problems, be creative, and ultimately learn how to become a team player. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s because it’s like every job out there. It turned out that it really wasn’t about the dungeons or the dragons at all—it’s about thinking critically and working like a team.

Now I indulge in role-playing games as often as I can. It’s nice to have an escape from the toils and troubles of the real world, but with every game session I play, I find that I actually learn something as well. Maybe it’s about myself and the way I think, maybe it’s something about one of my friends that brings us closer together, or maybe I just find a new way to look at something that I hadn’t thought of. I’ve learned that role-playing games are about more than playing a game, and more importantly, that they are for everybody.

I couldn’t agree more. An awful lot of my professional game design and facilitation skills are rooted in many years spent playing D&D and other role-playing games.

Revisiting the “ISIS Crisis”


Last week a group of us assembled at the University of Ottawa to matrix-game the current conflict concerning the self-styled “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria. For practical reasons and to limit the number of players/teams, the game largely focused on Iraq. The purpose, as with an earlier game held at the UK Defence Academy, was to explore the value and limits of matrix games as an analytical method.

Six actors were represented:

  • Iraqi government
  • ISIS (aka ISIL, Da’ish, or the Islamic State)
  • non-ISIS Sunni opposition
  • Kurds
  • Iran
  • US

ISIScrisismapMatrix games are not rules- and capabilities-based wargames, but rather a series of structured sequential arguments and debates. They can be conducted in several ways, but in this case outcomes were resolved as follows:

  1. The phasing player announces an intended action and the desired effect if successful (“The Iraqi Army will attack city X, defeating ISIS forces there and recapturing it.”). A base score of 7 or more on two six-sided dice is needed for success.
  2. The phasing player then identifies reasons why their action would be successful (“I have substantially greater forces available in this area than the defender. My forces are better armed. Iranian advisors are deployed with my forces. I enjoy US air support. In addition, my forces have been bolstered by Shiite irregulars rallying to the call-to-arms issued by Ayatollah Sistani.”) Each plausible argument gains a +1 to the dice roll.
  3. Other players may contribute arguments for or against the success of the proposed action. (“You will fail because your army is corrupt and your troops poorly led. In addition, the Sunni inhabitants of the city have been alienated by Shiite rhetoric and the excesses of Shiite militias, and will resist you. The morale of the ISIS defenders is high. The lack of forward air controllers means that US close air support is largely ineffectual.”) Each positive argument contributes +1, each negative argument -1.
  4. The dice are rolled, adjusted for arguments pro and con, and an outcome determined. The facilitator has some leeway both in accepting the validity of arguments, and in specifying results based on the dice: a very high score would mean a very successful result (“the enemy is destroyed and your morale bolstered”), while a very low score would mean a disastrous failure (“you suffer a catastrophic defeat, and will suffer a penalty to your next combat operation”).

The map and the various units and other markers on it are largely used to represent and help illustrate the unfolding narrative, rather than being an essential and central part of game play.

In this game (as it our previous experiment) players were assigned various initial characteristics. The Iraqi government suffered a -1 penalty to all dice rolls to reflect corruption and inefficiency, and an additional -1 when conducting combat operations outside Baghdad or Shiite-majority areas. The Kurds similarly suffered a -1 to all military operations outside Kurdish areas. ISIS gained a +1 bonus in Sunni areas, and a -1 outside. The Sunni opposition also gained a +1 bonus in Sunni areas, but suffered a -2 penalty acting against ISIL. The US suffered a -1 penalty to military actions, reflecting Washington’s unwillingness to get too deeply involved. Iran, should it take an unsuccessful action against ISIL or the Sunni opposition, provided that actor with a +1 to their next roll to reflect an anti-Iranian backlash among Iraqi Sunnis. Finally, the”Curse of Unforeseen Consequences and Second and Third Order Effects” mandated that any time a double was rolled ISIS would get an immediate free counter-action.

These initial conditions worked well in tilting players towards realistic behaviours without over-determining actions and outcomes. As we had done before, a seventh unaffiliated subject matter expert was able to take one action per turn so as to highlight the consequences of player actions, introduce actions by other unrepresented actors, or nudge the game back towards more realistic outcomes—again, without over-determing the course of events.

Our players and teams were well qualified: wargamers and operations research analysts from Defence Research and Development Canada, game designers, political scientists, and current or former Middle East intelligence analysts. How did it all work out?

The Game as Narrative

As one possible future narrative of the “ISIS crisis” it all went very well.

IMG_2634ISIS made initial efforts to expand its territorial control southwards closer to Baghdad, but was unable to do so. Consequently it embarked on a series of terrorist bombings in the capital, hoping thereby to pin down government troops. In the north the Kurds focused on building up their military strength, both to defend themselves from the ISIS threat and to bolster any future efforts to assert independence. Neither the US nor Iran would provide them with the heavy weapons they sought, such as tanks or tube artillery. The Kurds skirmished with ISIS forces around Mosul, but were reluctant to undertake a major offensive. Indeed, their one effort to infiltrate the outskirts of the city went badly.

Iran undertook a major build-up of troops along the Iraqi border, and sent additional military advisors to assit Iraqi and Kurdish forces. It coupled this, however, with extensive outreach to the United States. Over time, the two sides were increasingly successful in deconflicting their operations and actions.

IMG_2628The Iraqi Army launched a major offensive to clear ISIL and allied militias from Diyala province, as well as to secure Taji and Samarra and even push on towards Tikrit. They faced stiff resistance, however. Progress was slow, and even when areas were captured the Iraqi security forces were still subject to numerous IED and sniper attacks.

A second offensive was then launched to secure Falluja and press on towards Ramadi. Again, progress was slow. Efforts to reform the Iraqi Army and improve its  combat effectiveness were unsuccessful.

All this fighting created a growing humanitarian crisis as populations fled areas of combat. The US increased its contributions to the UN and other humanitarian agencies to help address the problem.

The US launched a high-risk special forces operation to rescue an American hostage held by ISIS in Raqqa, Syria. This was unsuccessful. ISIS retaliated by executing the hostage. Unable to capture additional terrain in Iraq, ISIS undertook a surprise raid against Jordanian border positions in an effort to project a sense of political momentum. This was initially more successful than anyone anticipated, but was soon driven back by Jordanian and American troops.

IMG_2633Throughout the game, both the US and Iran urged Baghdad to reach out to dissatisfied Sunnis and lure them away from the ISIS orbit. In practice, little of this happened. On the contrary, the Iraqi government increasingly relied on Shiite militias to bolster its strength, and offered little in the way of compromise or inclusion. The Sunni opposition—whose extensive demands were likely too much for the government in any case—only grew angrier. As Iran’s role grew, the Sunni opposition exploited this to secure some modest financial support from Saudi Arabia.

Finally, Tehran decided enough was enough, and pressed hard on Baghdad to open formal reconciliation talks with credible Sunni opposition leaders. The Iraqi government balked, then agreed provided the talks were held in Baghdad. The Sunni opposition insisted on a more neutral location. Tehran proposed Oman—and, when the Iraqi Prime Minister initially declined, made it clear that rejection was NOT an option. Prime Minister al-Abidi reluctantly agreed.

IMG_2636When the game ended, the talks were about to take place. ISIS, however, had begun to issue threats against the family or tribe of any Sunni leaders who attended…

The Game as Analysis

There two major ways in which the game functioned as an alternative analytical technique:

  • Players were required to develop strategies in a dynamic adversarial context. While we did not heavily instrument the playtest (two participants were tasked with taking notes), it would be quite simple to require players to record their actions and rationale as part of game play.
  • Game play generated long lists of factors that might enable or undermine particular actions. It also generated debates among players around the nature and importance of those factors.

To some extent game play is distorted by the limited number of teams (6-7 seemed a practical limit if a lively discussion was also to be maintained) and the consequence simplification of Iraqi and regional politics. Then again, players are not limited to arguments pertaining to their own actors, but can invoke those not represented in the game. The “seventh” player/subject matter expert also helped to assure that unrepresented issues, actors, and consequences could be brought into the game.

As suggested above, the trajectory of the game is certainly shaped by both the actors represented and any special rules or initial conditions assigned to them. However, this session also highlighted how important the social engineering of team assignments and roles can be. Players who were calm and calculating tended to play their roles in this way; others who were more likely to be confrontational tended to play their roles that way too. I suspect that, even with everything else held constant, the game outcome would have been quite different with different people in different roles.

One of the participants—a former senior intelligence analyst and manager, renowned for his skill at facilitating very productive conventional BOGSAT (“bunch of guys/gals sitting at a table”) discussions—offered these observations:

I found the Iraq simulation an interesting exercise. The methodology might be adaptable for the purposes of thinking about analytical issues related to Iraq. It is a good way to induce analysts to think about aspects of the situation that they might not consider otherwise or look at differently.

However, I wouldn’t see it an alternative to an analytical discussion session, but rather as a preliminary step. The model I would see is a two-part session, starting with 2-3 hours for the simulation and then continuing with another couple of hours of discussion revolving around lessons and insights inspired by the game.

The game by itself has limited analytical usefulness. Inevitably, players get caught up in the competitive game aspect of the simulation and take whatever steps they can think of to “win,” quibbling about the game mechanics, making unrealistic moves, etc. Some players might get too personally invested in the game and lose sight of the fact that the purpose is to get a deeper understanding of the situation and to think differently than they normally would about it. For example, the reasons put forward for the success or failure of a move are not necessarily well thought-out in the heat of the fray. One possible way around this would be to require the players to list in writing their arguments for and against a move: this would slow things down just a bit and hopefully inspire better arguments. It would also have the advantage of providing a record of the arguments for the later discussion.

The true value of the game would be to provide the basis for a structured discussion afterwards. This could include discussion of several things, including:

  • Insights from players on aspects of the simulation that surprised them: do they now have a different impression of the strategic situation of one or more sides, of the tactical options available to them (and the restraints they are under), a different understanding of the overall balance of forces, etc.
  • A more considered discussion of the pros and cons for each of the (major) moves during the simulation: were all of the relevant factors considered, were they given proper weighting, etc. This is where a written record of the arguments would be useful, recorded either by the players at the time and given to the umpire, or compiled by neutral observers.
  • Thoughts from the players on the goals being pursued by their side; their goals may well have shifted as the game progressed. The introductory notes outlining the situation for each side logically contain general guidance on what that side should be seeking to accomplish, but I must say that in my case I did not pay much attention to the notes and leaped in with my own views on what I wanted to achieve. I think a subsequent discussion of actual and game goals would have been useful.

Overall, a very interesting exercise, and one that has forced me to rethink my previous (rather negative) views of the potential usefulness of simulations in intelligence analysis.

Materials for an earlier version of the ISIS Crisis matrix game (including the map and counters seen above) can be found at Tom Mouat’s matrix game download page. The briefings used for the game described above can be found here. For more information on matrix games see also Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, published by the History of Wargaming Project.

PAXsims Goes to Carlisle

Barracks-e1376937377369I will be attending the upcoming China Futures Wargame at the USArmy War College Feb. 18-19. The game is unclassified and will focus on a strategic look at the US-China relationship outside the traditional Asia Pacific AOR (i.e. Africa and latin America). The event should be interesting, and there will be high quality attendees including some of my China expert colleagues Michael Swaine from the Carnegie Endowment and Will Norris from Texas A&M, as well as NIC wargame master Dan Flynn. I will plan to report as appropriate.


LBS: RCAT does the Falklands War

As part of the ongoing verification and validation process for the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset a simulation of the 1982 Falklands War was recently conducted on 13-14 January. RCT is intended “to enable the rapid testing (validation) of all phases of a campaign plan to identify areas of risk at the military strategic level.” It is being developed by Dstl (UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) and and Cranfield University, in conjunction with a team of top UK wargamers.

According to the LBS blog:

RCAT-OCT-set-up-complete1The aim was ‘to compare an RCAT simulation of the 1982 Falklands War to the historical outcomes and command experience, identify variances and examine the reasons for these in order to improve the validity of the RCAT system.’ The operational commanders present were Gen Julian Thompson and Cdre Michael Clapp, respectively Comd 3 Cdo Bde and Comd Amphibious Task Group during the Falklands War. As such, they had perhaps the most immediate and detailed view of events at the level simulated at the OCT and were ideally placed to validate RCAT in accordance with the aim.

The two days delivered numerous insights and observations.

Phil-Julian-and-Mike1Perhaps the most telling quote was a joint statement from the two commanders: “We liked [the manual simulation] very much and wish we had had such a system in Ascension with Fieldhouse, Moore, Trant, Curtiss, Woodward, Comd 5 Bde and us sitting around the map table thrashing through possible courses of action and, hopefully, agreeing a thoroughly well-considered plan.”

And that, of course, is the point. Wargames, supported by both manual and/or computer simulations, deliver more than merely interesting events. The aim of the current RCAT V&V programme is to develop a system that is fit for the purpose of helping commanders make decisions. These might range from force development to operational situations. If Gen Thompson and Cdre Clapp recognised the utility of such a system in planning the Falklands campaign then I hope we are going in the right direction.

Indeed, Commodore Clapp’s closing comment was: “I feel that I’ve been properly de-briefed for the first time in 33 years.”

You’ll find the full LBS report here.

Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program (May 2015)

The Canadian Consortium for Humanitarian Training (CCHT) will again be offering the Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program in Montréal on 4-17 May 2015. This multi-disciplinary training program includes in class learning and a 3-day field simulation, providing students and mid-career professionals with the core humanitarian competencies that are essential for anyone involved in disaster response and/or humanitarian assistance.


PAXsims will be contributing to the course, running an instructional game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game to help students explore the challenges of interagency coordination during a humanitarian crisis.

You’ll find June McCabe’s 2013 PAXsims review of the Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program here.

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

Although we’ve mentioned it before at PAXsims, this seems a good time to remind everyone that Georgetown University will be hosting a very promising conference on exercises, gaming and simulations for intelligence and national security on 24-25 March 2015.


Reviewing Third World Farmer as a class assignment

twf-ss4Simulations need not to be complicated, sophisticated, or even accurate to provide teachable moments. In my own classes, for example, I have had students review and critique the “banana republic” simulator Tropico as a way of encouraging them to think about how game play does—and does not— reflect real world processes of politics and economic development.

Prof. Sarah-Myriam Martin-Brûlé at Bishop’s University sends on another example—a simulation review assignment from her second year course on international affairs:

 The course presented an overview of the main political, economic and social issues in the developing world.  Throughout the course, various simulations were used to illustrate the themes covered in class. Students were asked to pick one of the simulations proposed in the course outline and provide a debriefing on how the game reflected /diverged from the political, economic, and social dynamics at play in a real developing country/area.

On of her students, Danielle Keating, chose to compare the game Third World Farmer to rural life in Sub-Saharan Africa. In her debrief Danielle argues:

Online games and simulations have become increasingly popular with teachers and professors in the undergraduate classroom. Many find that they are an excellent way of illustrating complex and challenging materials in an alternative way (Wainwright, 2014). 3rd World Farmer (TWF) is an online game that hopes to simulate what it is like to be a farmer in the third world. Its goal is to generate an emotional reaction from player in industrialized countries when they realize the plights those living in the rural third world might face (3rd World Farmer Team, 2014). The game is set in Africa, however, the issues explored in the game are common in many developing countries. The purpose of this paper will be to explore how well 3rd World Farmer simulates the reality of farm life in the developing world. I will argue that although TWF does an excellent job of showing the volatility in external factors and the impacts these factors can have on farmers in the third world, the game fails to demonstrate the often permanent effects of external, uncontrollable factors, and further ignores many impacts of family based issues on the lives of these people. In order to accomplish this, I will compare TWF to rural life in Sub- Saharan Africa (SSA). Three major themes will be explored; farmland and factors that can increase or decrease its size and ability to yield crops, the impacts of illness on family life, and fertility rates in SSA.

You’ll find—with Danielle’s permission—her full (4,000 word) review here.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 27 January 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulation and gaming that might be of interest to PAXsims readers:

* * *

In the wake of North Korea’s apparent cyberattack on Sony, the US and UK announced joint cyber wargames. The BBC discusses what these might involve.

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Students at Georgetown University – School of Foreign Service in Qatar recent held a crisis simulation involving “a fictional maritime claim conflict in the South China Sea.” You’ll find some details here.

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Battlefront’s Combat Mission: Black Sea has been added to our PAXsims list of Ukraine crisis wargames.

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Also related to the crisis in the Ukraine, a tongue-in-cheek game about repelling a Russian invasion (“Comrade Puu’s Russian Invasion”) is now for sale in Estonia.

Russia Today (ironically enough) has a report on the game here.

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At Grogheads, Robert Mosher has written an excellent piece on the 19th century American wargame Strategos (1880):

strategos-front-sIn 1880 D. Appleton and Company of New York and then-First Lieutenant Charles A. Totten, (Fourth Artillery, United States Army), published STRATEGOS: A Series of American Games of War Based Upon Military Principles and Designed for the Assistance Both of Beginners and Advanced Students in Prosecuting the Whole Study of Tactics, Grand Tactics, Strategy, Military History, and The Various Operations of WarStrategos presented a layered set of games that addressed tactics, grand tactics, and strategy, supplemented by material for the study of military history, with an appendix that included statistical studies relating to the conduct of war.

In Strategos Totten designed a system that used the same apparatus and related study material in examining several aspects of war and warfare:

  • The Minor Tactical Game
  • The Grand Tactical Game
  • The Battle Game
  • The Advanced Game

Strategos: The Advanced Game represents Totten’s contribution to the family of “kriegsspiel” level war games relevant to this study. Totten’s game was identified as a useful training tool by a specially convened board of Regular and National Guard officers at San Francisco in 1879 to examine his war game and its apparatus. The Board cited several attributes of Totten’s work for particular praise:

  • The rules were described as having greater fullness and being more explicit as guidance for the Referee; and
  • A “more minute analysis” of actual conflict and greater accuracy in the system tables used to resolve conflicts in the game.

Their conclusion recommended acquisition of Strategos and its apparatus for the army, although it is not clear whether it was ever actually acquired on any large scale….

The rules can be found for free on Google Books.

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The FiveThirtyEight data blog has another couple of recent articles on boardgaming, based upon quantitative analysis of BoardGameGeek. One identifies “The Worst Board Games Ever Invented.” Monopoly and The Game of Life—both of which I enjoyed as a child, and which have been major commercial successes—make the list. The other article suggests that “Stop Playing Monopoly With Your Kids (And Play These Games Instead).”

Inadvertently, however, the articles may highlight the numerical-data-exists-therefore-I’ll-crunch-it problem with big data, whereby inadequate thought is given to adequately contextualizing and interpreting data analysis. BGG doesn’t rate how much children enjoy games, or what the average game player enjoys in a game. Rather, it represents what a very small minority of ubergeeky game players (myself included, since I rate games there too) like—which is not entirely the same thing. Heck, as a teen I enjoyed multi-week games of SPI’s War in Europe (3600 counters, four rule books—BGG rating 6.96) and The Next War (2400 counters—BGG rating 7.36), but I suspect those aren’t to everyone’s taste.

Another possible data point is that Monopoly (BGG rating 4.41) has sold 275 million copies since 1935, and been played by over half a billion people. So feel to continue to play it, enjoy it, and introduce your kids to it.

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The Fifteenth Annual Institute of the Reacting to the Past Consortium will be held on June 11-15, 2015 at Barnard College:

…this year’s Annual Institute promises a stellar program, including a keynote address from Sam Wineburg, author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, who has challenged instructors to go beyond mindless memorization, and from the team of J. Robert Gillette and Lynn G. Gillette, who recently energized the Lilly Conference on College Teaching with a lively presentation on embracing active learning. These will be added to a rich engagement with games and sessions as detailed below, and a keynote from our own Mark Carnes.

The institute will feature twelve games, including the revised, Norton-published editions of The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C.;Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791Charles Darwin, the Copley Medal and the Rise of Naturalism, 1861-64Patriots, Loyalists and Revolution in New York City, 1775-76; and Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman; along with a number of unpublished games: Frederick Douglass, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Constitution: 1845; and Mexico in Revolution, 1911-1920The Second Crusade: The War Council of Acre, 1148The Collapse of Apartheid and the Dawn of Democracy in South Africa, 1993Challenging the USDA Food PyramidConstantine and the Council of Nicaea: Defining Orthodoxy and Heresy in Christianity, 325 CE; and Title IX and the American University.

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The Third International Competition on Educational [digital] Games at the European Conference on Game-Based Learning (ECGBL), which is being held in Steinkjer, Norway on 8 -9 October 2015:

The aims of this competition are:

  • To provide an opportunity for educational game designers and creators to participate in the conference and demonstrate their game design and development skills in an international competition.
  • To provide an opportunity for GBL creators to peer-assess and peer-evaluate their games.
  • To provide ECGBL 2015 attendees with engaging and best-practice games that showcase exemplary applications of GBL.

Games submitted to the competition are expected to accomplish an educational goal. We welcome contributions relevant to all levels of learning (primary, secondary, tertiary or professional. Both digital and non-digital games are encouraged. Competitors should be prepared to explain their design and evaluation process, why it is innovative (the game itself or its educational setting) and how they achieved (will achieve) the impact they seek. The game should be in a development state that engages the player for at least 10 minutes. The closing date for submissions is the 16th of June.

You’ll find further detail on ECGBL 2015 here.

PAXsims thoughts on Ducharme on COA analysis gaming

Earlier this week, Devin and ! both listened to a great talk by Naval War College’s Dr. Doug Ducharme for the MORS Wargaming Community of Practice on best practices for wargaming in support of Course of Action (COA) analysis. This is second of three posts: the first summarized Doug’s talk, and the third will have some thoughts from Devin.

I found Doug’s presentation, as well as the discussion that followed his talk, to be very insightful and thought provoking. It was particularly useful that Doug offered concrete guidance for game designers to improve their practice. The suggested best practices mirror well with my own experiences, and serves as a useful set of guidelines for new gamers. However, there were two points that I want to explore more: Doug’s distinction between educational and analytical gaming, and his distinction between free and rigid adjudication.

Doug argued that all games are experiential. What differentiates educational and analytical games is whether the goal of the game is to change the participants, or to change our base of knowledge. This definition is related, but somewhat different from what I’ve used in my own work. In past work, I’ve defined the types of game purposes using the 2×2 below:


As a result, I tend to think of analytical games as seeking to gain a better understanding of a problem, while education games seek to make people better able to solve similar problems in the future. I need to think more about how the distinction Doug points to fits into this model.

Doug’s definition also suggests to me a somewhat troubling fact: the majority of events that are run to improve US strategy today are actually focused on improving decision makers’ future capacity. On one hand, I think gaming can provide excellent educational value and professional development. On the other, I don’t want that to come at the expense of thinking though strategy and plans to make them as robust as possible. I left Doug’s talk hoping that the comment made by another participant that “all games are both educational and analytical” is right!

The second point I want to tease out a bit more is Doug’s definition of adjudication methods. The talk, and the discussion after, clarified for me something that has been bothering me about how gamers talk about adjudication for a long time. A lot of discussion around gaming for analysis argues that the more rigid the system of game is, the more analytical it is. As a qualitative/mixed methods person, this rush to quantification always rubs me the wrong way, and I think this talk gave me a new way to frame why it bothers me.

I think that most of the time when gamers talk about free or rigid methods, we are actually conflating two different ideas. The first concept is a decision made by the game designer about how structured a technique to use to capture and analyze data about adjudication. Here, we can think about a spectrum that ranges from very loose adjudication, where rulings are made with few restrictions (and likely little documentation), to a very rigid system with detailed protocols for documentation and adjudication. The second concept deals with how specified of a model is used to generate the outcomes of player decision. Unless a game designer misses something in their research, this factor is limited by the state of knowledge on the issue being gamed. In some cases, we may have a very concrete and detailed theory of what should happen, but other times our models of cause and effect are less well developed, and we are left to deal with some pretty underspecified models.

While I do think that it is easier to establish structured adjudication rules when we have a well specified theory behind our adjudication, I don’t think the two concepts are necessarily the same. For example, one participant on the call referenced matrix gaming, which can provide a great deal of structure to game adjudication, even when causal models behind adjudication are fairly nebulous.

Treating the two design criteria like they are connected, or even the same, lets us get away with under-designing games when we are dealing with complicated poorly defined issues. For example, often “free” method games relay on expert judgment for adjudication, who make determinations about the effects of player action without providing much more justification then their credentials. However, by having less structure in the adjudication, game designers often give themselves a pass from looking carefully at what mental models experts are using to determine outcomes. As a result, we end up not ever really knowing how specified the model that drove the action of the game actually was, producing enviably nebulous and unsatisfying post-game analysis.

I’d argue that game designers should treat structured approaches to adjudication as critical to good game design. Then, even when the underlying models are underspecified, games can contribute to clarifying the models that do exist, and over time, to increasing model specificity. This is a concept that has been discussed with regard to wargaming emerging issues, but I think it needs to be applied much more broadly.

This is a topic that a lot of my recent work has focused on, and I’m due to speak to the MORS COP on the topic next month. I’m hoping to be able to share some of my thoughts here in advance of that presentation. As a result, even more than usual, I’d love folks’ feedback on these ideas!

Ducharme on COA analysis wargaming

Earlier this week, Devin and Ellie both listened to a great talk by Naval War College’s Dr. Doug Ducharme for the MORS Wargaming Community of Practice on best practices for wargaming in support of Course of Action (COA) analysis. This is the first of three posts: the first summarizes Doug’s talk, and the second and third provide some thoughts from Ellie and Devin.

Wargaming is the recommended technique in military doctrine for analyzing COAs during the joint operations planning process’s 4th step. In actual practice, restrictions on staff time, skills, and commander involvement can all critically compromise the ability of the military to actually follow through on this. Doug states that he has seen an increase in the attention paid to these games in the last few years. However, he stated that there is not enough work done to document what gaming methods do and do not lead to successful COA analysis.

To set up his discussion of COA analysis gaming best practices, Doug started by defining gaming (using Peter Perla’s often-cited definition), and discussing how games differ from one another. He established that games can be defined along two axes: 1) whether the game has an educational or analytical purpose, and 2) whether the game examines concepts or capabilities. In this model, COA analysis is defined as being educational and conceptual.

Doug noted that with increased interest in COA analysis games, there has also been interest in incorporating other analytical techniques to support COA analysis. In particular, leveraging campaign analysis techniques has become more popular. Doug used his two-by-two to show why this can be an uncomfortable melding. In Doug’s model, campaign planning is an analytical technique, focused on capabilities. This places it in the opposing quadrant to the educational, concept-focused purposes of COA analysis gaming.

He then moved on to lay out five best practices for COA analysis gaming:

  1. While doctrine suggests several methods for COA analysis, it does not offer strong guidance about how to select techniques. Given that games, by definition, are focused on decision making, Doug recommends defaulting to the critical events method which focus analysis on decisions and their potential impact.
  2. Doug argued that the use of an active red cell is critical to COA wargaming. He specified that the cell’s objective should be to improve the COA, not to “win” the game, and that there should be a facilitator in the cell who can remind participants of this goal if they go off track. He also has found it helpful to keep the red cell to a roughly equal size with blue, and staff it with both intelligence officers and planners. These strategies create an active, but not overly competitive, red that can provide a strong critique of the COA.
  3. Doug argued that rather than defaulting to a format of sequential moves with alternating action by red and blue, COA wargaming moves should ideally be made simultaneously to better mirror reality. If turns must be sequenced, game designers should determine who ought to have initiative based on the scenario in play, rather than defaulting to a blue first move.
  4. Doug described adjudication options as a plane, with one axis running from move-step to running time, and the other axis from a free to a rigid method of adjudication. He argued that even when using relatively free methods of adjudication, having a structured process to evaluate player decisions is important. He also argued that most COA Analysis games have “open adjudication” with fairly move-step time, and fairly free adjudication methods. He also tied this point back to his earlier discussion of the difference between COA Analysis and campaign analyses, which have much more rigid adjudication rules.
  5. Finally, Doug stressed the importance of providing clear criteria for evaluating COAs in advance. Doing so is critical to determining how to assess the COA’s strengths and weaknesses. This then naturally leads into the next step of JOPP, COA comparison, where pros and cons are discussed.

Doug ended his talk by arguing that if we are looking to add rigor to the COA analysis process, it would be better to focus on approaching games with an analytic mindset rather than trying to incorporate campaign planning tools that may not be the right fit. He provided a few examples the use of Analysis of Competing Hypothesis, and Analytic Hierarchy Process as tools to strengthen COA analysis games to show how post game analysis can also strengthen findings.


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