Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: July 2010

Simulation & Gaming (August 2010)

A new issue of Simulation & Gaming (August 2010) is available online. It’s largely about simulation of manufacturing, so I’ll dispense with our usual practice of posting the table of contents here—instead, you’ll find it at the link above.

APSA Teaching and Learning Conference 2011

The American Political Science Association has issued a call for paper and workshop proposals for its 8th annual Teaching and Learning Conference, which will be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico on 11-13 February 2011. The conference includes a track on “Simulations and Role Playing,” and “especially welcome[s] papers that incorporate experiential learning, methods of assessment, the use of technology, and implications for diversity.”

You’ll find more details on the APSA website, including links to papers presented at earlier conferences. The deadline for proposals is September 15.

MODSIM World 2010

 The MODSIM World 2010 conference will be held in Hampton, Virginia on October 13–15, 2010. For further details, see the conference website here.

MODSIM Conference and Expo

MODSIM World is a unique multi-disciplinary international conference for the exchange of modeling and simulation knowledge, research and technology across industry, government and academia.

This year, the conference focus is 21st Century Decision-Making: The Art of Modeling & Simulation. Speakers, educational tracks, presentations, and product demonstrations will center on using modeling and simulation tools and practices in decision-making in today’s challenging operating environments. Attendees will learn about new applications and practices and have an opportunity to network with other industry professionals….


Ici, c’est la France! Impressions of an impressionable graduate student

As I mentioned in an earlier review of Ici, c’est la France!, my opponent for one game was a doctoral student writing her thesis on, appropriately enough, Algerian-French relations. Ginger has kindly sent on the review below from Algeria, where she’s currently doing her field research. As a non-gamer but subject matter specialist, her perspective provides a useful complement to my earlier review. In particular, she highlights the potential trade-off between the complexity and detail of a game on the one hand, and the overall sense and feel of the simulated conflict on the other—especially for those who do not habitually spend their weekends pushing little cardboard counters around on a map. (At one point Ginger refers to the “cacaphony of chits,” an evocative term I’m sure to use myself in the future when reflecting on the educational potential of commercial wargames.)

She also highlights a potential practical use of games like these as a possible catalyst for enabling groups to examine their own historical perceptions and senses of the “other.” If she does indeed manage to organize some games in Algeria at any point, we’ll try to post a report on those here in Paxsims.

* * *

As an absolute newcomer to the world of gaming, but with considerable interest in their value towards pedagogy and academic research, I was quite interested in seeing whether a round of Ici c’est la France would satisfy two obejctives that I had put forth for my own curiosity. First, I wanted to know whether the game would help to illuminate the difficulties involved in the war of Algerian independence from France, particularly insofar as allegiances and support networks were not divided along clear cut lines of metropole/ colony, nor of ‘French’/‘French of Muslim origin’ (as Algerians were called during the period immediately preceding independence and throughout the conflict). As a student researching contemporary Algerian-French relations, the incomplete and jagged ruptures of the 1954-62 war are of fundamental importance to the interaction between the two countries on both political and social levels, and indeed if we want to understand some of the most pressing issues in both countries we would do well to go back to the myriad issues that were crystallized in the war. This enterprise is not without its diffculties, as an open and honest discussion about France and Algeria, and France in Algeria, is in many ways akin to a minefield, with all sides and parties affected engaged in contentious exchanges over who has the dates right, who was there, and who did what.

The murkiness of the debates surrounding Algerian and French history and its link to the present is what led to my second objective, more closely tied to the pedagogical value of the game. However, I wanted to see whether a game like this, which attempted to include all of the social and political facets of the conflict, would be a useful way to begin a more fruitful conversation about this time period and the consequences it has had for both states. Could it be a useful tool in Algeria or France, for example, where people who had an actual stake in the conflict, or were particularly affected by the time period would have a chance to put themselves in the roles they or their relatives might have occupied, and whether through watching the game unfold they would be able to uncover their own memories or transmitted recollections? How far, and to what end, could we stretch the pedagogical value of the game? Could it be not only a tool for understanding from the outside in, but also for opening up a space from the inside out? As my research is primarily directed towards developing new methods for mediating social conflicts, or more directly in understanding the dynamics of social conflict and using innovative methods to catalyze transformations, I am particularly interested in whether or not a game like Ici c’est la France has the potential to serve as one of these methods. Therefore, while my two objectives were linked, I wanted to evaluate each separately, as well as paying some attention to the user-friendliness of the game (where my newbie status was a benefit rather than the detriment it should have been).

So what happened?

First, while the rules are voluminious to say the least, they are clearly laid out and easy to follow (especially if read a few times over in advance, and if given some assistance by someone vastly more experienced in these matters like, say, Rex Brynen). The game itself is also visually appealing, with ample room to move across the terrain and clearly see the different wilayas (zones) that remained throughout the actual conflict. Moreover, as someone familiar with the specificities of the war, I really enjoyed the fact that the game’s creator found ways to fit in so many of the different historical events that took place, both on and off the battlefield, and in the centers of what would become two different states by the end of the war. The importance of opposition to independence within Algeria by French settlers was of paramount importance both in the execution of military manouvers as well as the political tumult that accompanied French efforts. All of these elements are present on the board during play, and the cacaphony of chits, soldiers, fellagha, and FLN movements mirrors this frenetic environment.

That said, I know all of this because I study these two countries, and I have spent some time looking at how the war divided people along those lines. I can’t say that I learned that from the game, and I don’t know that I would say that the game could serve as a tool to transmit that knowledge to students or those unfamiliar with the conflict. As Rex mentioned in his review, one would do well to read one of the more comprehensive histories of the Algerian war of independence (he mentions Alistair Horne, I would agree with that for those looking for a user-friendly introduction). Indeed, while the players are provided with most of the major elements of the conflict in the game, the sheer complexity of the game (for a newbie gamer)  makes integrating all of these elements extremely difficult. For example, I often found the markers on the population and support level tracks shifting back and forth depending on the moves we made, but there complexity of the rules and the sheer number of markers involved rather blurred my sense of the impact of this on the game. Part of this was due to inexperience with the rules of the game, combined with the fact that we didn’t have time to play through the full campaign game (as I was leaving for Algeria soon after.)

But we are two people who have, between us, lots of experience gaming and lots of interest in the war between France and Algeria. For those who might not have either of these things motivating their participation in the game, would they appreciate these elements? How much would they try to integrate these factors into the game?

One particular game mechanic that I found a little problematic was the use of political (historical) chits. The chits selected by a player at the beginning of the game cannot be exchanged, so missteps early on can cost players dearly both in terms of available military options as well as a comprehensive understanding of the social, political, and military terrain. I found that, for example, having not selected the chit for augmenting “troop density” was a huge disadvantage for me as the French side, although it had not been clear to me at the outset of the game how much I would really need this. Moreover, players are given a very limited number of chits to select, and those like that for the kepis bleus had to be sacrificed in order to hold onto other important events, like the arrival of General Massu as commander in Algiers. Perhaps with a greater number of chits available to hold onto, players would be able to better merge the different dimension of the war. Perhaps also, if the game were played with four players (two for each side), more could be accomplished. All in all, there were moments where I felt that the very important detail the creator had put into the composition of the game were lost, and that in reference to my first inquiry, I am unconvinced that the game as it is might be a more useful tool than others to illuminate the intricacies of the conflict.

However, in terms of the second point I wanted to investigate, I think that the potential for the game to serve as a tool to illuminate debates between people who have some stake in the legacy of the war is quite intriguing. Throughout the game, the difficulties in coordinating troops, public opinion, and political order is evident on both sides, and for those who might need to understand these dimensions in order to better understand their own history within the conflict, this might be an extremely useful tool. For example, as I am currently a researcher at the Centre des Études Maghrébines en Algerie, I might propose a round of the game with players assuming opposite roles (as in, French researchers playing the role of Algerian insurgents, and Algerian researchers playing the roles of the French forces) with a debriefing afterwards to see whether or not they had some different appreciation of how the ‘other side’ was forced, or chose, to conduct their operations. In this way, the game could have considerable value as an alterative pedagogical tool, perhaps even more than the creator intended. For while the game is a snapshot of a time since past, the repercussions are both present and powerful, and the scale and ambition of Ici c’est la France allows players to appreciate this in living color.

Virginia DiGaetano
Oran, Algeria

Seers versus Sages: Some Thoughts on the June Roundtable on Innovation in Strategic Gaming

Tim Wilkie and Margaret McCown out at the Center for Applied Strategic Learning (with the very cool acronym CASL) hosted another in their quarterly series of roundtables on innovations in gaming in June.  Rex and I both, somehow, managed to roll the rare 20 on our availability charts and actually got to attend. 

It was a really great afternoon with two presentations, the first by John Hanley on lessons learned from strategic gaming and the second by Kirsten Messer on new technologies being integrated into the practice.  The “discussion” that followed was very interesting, as those of us gathered tried to reconcile the two presentations on “how should we be using games to learn, analyze or teach” and “what are new tools and how can they be integrated”.  I put “discussion” in quotes, because it was really more exchanged volleys between two camps, which, for the purpose of this narrative, I’ll call:

1)      The Seers:  Those who believe that properly designed, calibrated and modeled, simulations can be so representative of the complex universe that we live in that those simulations can teach us about likelihood of future events, vs.

2)      The Sages: Those who believe that it is the process of designing, engaging in, reflecting on simulations that teach us.  Contra to the seers, they would not believe that more complex models or computers or more runs of a simulation would be predictive in any sense.

Tim, as Moderator between the Sages and the Seers, tried his damnedest to keep the discussion open and inclusive, which was noble, but not necessary – it was interesting enough (for me at least) to see the two “camps” exchange and just sit in on an hour discussion between some seminal thinkers on this topic (Hanley, Peter Perla and others basically held court exchanging their opinions on the above). 

What really strikes me about the ongoing dialogue between the Seers and the Sages (which obviously extends beyond that roundtable) is the degree to which the Seers believe in the predictive ability of their models.  Despite evidence presented by Hanley that campaign modeling has historically been off by two orders of magnitude (one example being the gross overestimation of US casualties that would be incurred in the first Gulf War (see aside below)), Seers continue to argue and receive LOTS OF DEFENSE MONEY under the premise that sufficiently complicated modeling can be predictive.  As a theorist/scientist working in a policy organization, I completely understand where this pressure comes from – analysts that design models need to establish the relevance of their models and this work.  Policymakers have limited budgets and need to know what the utility is of locking up some eggheads in a room to design scale replicas of the universe that they can blow up – it is all fun and games when folks want to restage classic world war two battles with orc figurines in their basement with their spare time and hobby money, but with the kinds of budgets and computing defense puts toward these exercises, we’re talking about real money, manpower and resources being devoted here.  As a result, I think, the Seers need to (over?)promise the predictive quality of their exercises and eventually end up believing in what the models say – regardless of how opaque the black box was and how many ballpark assumptions were loaded into the model.   

Clearly, I place myself in the Sage camp – we use simulations to create environments where people can learn the skills necessary for working on these complex issues of development in conflict-affected countries.   We don’t think our model of the universe has any more predictive capacity than the expertise upon which the simulation is designed.    I am likely being a little unfair to the Seers and a bit provocative, but more in the interest of continuing the debate than in quelling it.  Would love to hear any other perspectives.

In any event, the discussion didn’t resolve the debate, but was useful to me in understanding it better.  Many thanks to Tim and Margaret for a great afternoon of discussion (and quite a hors d’oeuvres spread, too!).  Very much looking forward to the next discussion end of September.

[Aside on estimates of casualties in the first gulf war:  Actual US casualties were 240 for the First Gulf War, the closest, “best” estimate was three times that, the next best estimate was six times the actual and the majority were off by an order of magnitude (with some official estimates more than a factor of 200 implying casualties around 40,000).  While I don’t know the source for Hanley’s claim that 2 orders of magnitude as the rule, when you are multiplying half a percentage here and a quarter of a percentage there,  it doesn’t take long before you are talking about real discrepancies….  The data on casualties comes from Biddle (1996))  ]

Holy blogposts, Batman!

Yes, the lengthy lacunae has lapsed, and the growing gaggle of gaming gurus (as well as sizeable sections of serious simulation  scholars) can once more peruse the plentiful penetrating points of intense intellectual insight at A Horse of Peas.

All of which is to say that it seems that after an eight month absence, Tim Wilkie is once more posting material to his excellent blog. Pow! Bash! Zowee! Go check it out…

reflections on FIELDEX 2010

We’ve posted before on the 2nd Annual Field Exercise in Stability Operations (FIELDEX) organized in April by the Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services (ALLIES) at Tufts University. Today, we’re happy to feature a summary report by one of the organizers, Eileen Guo—together with some of her thoughts on what organizers of such an exercise need to keep in mind.

* * *


Eileen Guo

FIELDEX 2010 was designed to:

1. Allow the application of classroom theories to simulated real world crises.

2. Foster a greater understanding for and appreciation of the complexities of conflict.

3. Develop leadership and crisis management skills in fast-paced and challenging scenarios based on practitioners’ experiences in the field.

4. Introduce students to the operational and tactical realities that they may face as future leaders in military, civilian, government, and non-governmental organizations.

This year’s exercise centered around provincial elections in the fictional Roshan, Mazalastan – loosely based on Nawzad, Afghanistan.

Key Players

  • Coalition Forces (CF)
  • Mazal National Police (MNP)
  • Civilian Actors
  • United Nations Assistance Mission-Mazalstan (UNAMM) – both foreign and local nationals
  • International journalists
    • Villagers (Mazalis)
      • Village leaders
      • Political candidates
      • Villagers
    • Insurgents: Mazalastan Liberation Front (MLF)

    Simulation Summary

    FIELDEX took place over the course of April 16-17, 2010 at P&L Paintball in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.  Participants included undergraduates from Tufts University, MALD candidates from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, as well as cadets and midshipmen from all three service academies.

    Prior to the actual simulation, participants received a participant packet detailing the exercise background, their role description, and a suggested reading list.  Organizers chose participants’ roles with the goal of exposing them to new perspectives; thus, whenever possible, we placed students with military backgrounds (ROTC and cadets/midshipmen from the service academies) into either civilian roles, and civilian students into the role of the security forces. We also sought to put participants that would not work together outside of FIELDEX in the same role group, so that UNAMM, for example, was an even mix of Fletcher, Tufts, and military students.

    Participants playing combatants arrived on the evening of the 16th to receive introductory training.  The learning objectives of the military portion of the training were to introduce a sense of camaraderie and unit cohesion among the students, but also to show the difficulties of life as a member of security forces. It also prepared them for the roles they would assume during the scenarios the next day. All players received a brief on civil-military relations.  Then, the groups split up into Coalition and Mazali Forces.  CF training included basic military tactics such as prisoner apprehension and detention, basic military formations, urban warfare tactics, etc.  For the MNP and the MLF (whose identities were kept secret), the training was more cultural in nature, and focused on acquainting them with the local area and establishing team dynamics.

    In the morning, CF trained MNP in the same tactics they had learned the night before.  The civilian actors then arrived, and after safety and introductory briefs, the scenarios began.

    Scenario 1: Village Politics

    The first scenario was split into three story lines.  There was a meeting between the key leaders of the village, the security forces, and UNAMM.  Villagers got to know one another and their surroundings, and CF and MNP established a checkpoint at the trading post.  There were two simultaneous attacks on the shura and the village, in which seven villagers were killed by an improvised explosive devise (IED).

    Scenario 2: Voter Registration

    A joint CF and MNP patrol into the village was met by an immediate fire fight, including a friendly fire incident.  This early violence made election preparation, the scenario’s main objective, impossible.  Exercise staff “reset” the scenario in order to achieve its objectives.  Once the scenario was restarted, CF and MNP successfully patrolled and secured the area, and UNAMM registered the majority of the village to vote in the upcoming elections.

    Scenario 3: The Elections

    In the final scenario, elections progressed according to plan.  The opposition candidate was given a security detail to prevent her assassination.  The incumbent candidate won, and the elections were deemed fair by UNAMM.  However, a small amount of post-election violence occurred, with an IED attack that killed several villagers, and CF and MNP jointly confiscating several weapons caches.

    Areas for Improvement

    Provincial elections provided an excellent backdrop for the scenario to unfold.  Future scenarios should adopt the model of having a central theme.

    The exercise was organized so that participants learned from their own mistakes and failures, which allowed them to learn crucial lessons.  Scenario pre-briefs and post-briefs facilitated this process.  However, participants should be given more time in the pre-brief periods to plan for the upcoming scenario.

    Additionally, villagers should be given more concrete objectives to fulfill.  This year’s exercise had villagers trading goods in a basic market economy; improving the market and making the villager experience more realistic should be a priority.  The village culture should also be more defined, guiding villagers’ behavior and imposing consequences on CF and UNAMM when they cross cultural boundaries.

    Elements such as the key leader meeting were useful for participants to develop relationships.   However, to allow extra time for relatinoship as well as individual character development, all participants – not just those playing insurgents and security forces – should be given more role-specific training and preparation before the beginning of the scenarios.  Thus, all participants will take part in the overnight portion.

    Additionally, participants would benefit from a “classroom” portion of the exercise to give them a general introduction to the theory behind stability operations.  This would improve both the exercise experience itself as well as post-exercise takeaways.

    Participants’ Lessons Learned

    • Planning is key to mission success. When CF and MNP spent time devising a plan for security during the elections, they were better able to stay on task and deal with insurgent activity.
    • Missions are best accomplished with interagency and popular support.  Different institutions can benefit from each other’s areas of competency and produce a better outcome if they work together.  When CF and MNP provided security, UNAMM was able to carry out the elections.
    • A positive intra-agency dynamic, with strong leadership and a clearly shared strategic vision, can be just as important as interagency cooperation. Strong leadership was imperative to avoiding confusion and accomplishing tasks, as demonstrated by a lack of leadership in UNAMM that frustrated many.
    • Local buy-in is key to long-term stability. It is important to empower local leaders and work for those most affected by the local conflict.  Villagers felt very out of control when foreign forces entered their village and thus reacted negatively to them.
    • Despite the best planning, mission success or failure often boiled down to split-second decisions. Intuitive reactions in the heat of the moment often had great implications, like the failure to heed suspicions at a checkpoint, later leading to an IED explosion.
    • Despite best intentions, players appeared to ultimately be motivated by self-interest. In the provincial elections, for example, the corrupt incumbent candidate easily defeated the challenger even though the latter worked harder to better the village’s situation while he was merely buying and bullying votes.


    FIELDEX was designed to give students an additional frame of reference from which to understand current conflicts.  It was not meant to give its participants a “war experience” but rather to provide a glimpse into how difficult it is to accomplish one’s mission in a conflict/post-conflict environment.  Role-playing, even for a day, forces participants to step out of their comfort zone.  Indeed, according to feedback received, participants are already thinking differently.  Thus, FIELDEX achieved its objective of showing students how hard it was to prevent election fraud or obey rules of engagement – even when the only thing at stake was some splattered paintballs.

    …and some additional thoughts…

    A field exercise is unlike other simulation exercises in its complexity. Not only must organizers plan elaborate, realistic scenarios, they must also take into account such factors as increment weather, safety and liability issues, and general logistics. Where is the exercise going to take place? Is transportation necessary? Will participants be provided with food and water? Who’s on hand for medical emergencies? What medical issues might arise?

    In considering running a field simulation exercise , the organizers would do well to consider the following:

    1) Is a field exercise right for you? Field exercises are meant to simulate at least some of the real-life conditions faced in the field. They are often used to teach participants how to think on their feet, react quickly to varied stimuli, and to otherwise give participants a dose of reality. For the purposes of FIELDEX, it was never a question of whether our should be a field exercise, but what type of field exercise we should hold. Namely, did holding the FIELDEX at a paintball range significantly add to or take away from our purpose? We (and our sponsors) were concerned that the use of paintball guns would turn the exercise into a “war game” in the most trivial sense of the term and that our participants would be attracted to the exercise because of the potential of shooting some paintballs and letting off steam. But on the other hand, we believed that even if there was such an incentive in participation, this trigger-happiness would reflect the eagerness of many real soldiers to use force upon arrival in theatre. In the end, we decided that the benefits of using P&L Paintball (the realism) outweighed the negatives (implications of violence). And in the end, we made it sufficiently clear through promotional materials and pre-scenario participant packets that the exercise was not a paintball free-for-all.

    2) Always plan for the worst case scenario. If your exercise is going to take place outdoors, this means assuming the worst in terms of weather. In both this year’s FIELDEX and last year’s COINEX, we had bad weather. We tried to mitigate the cold weather (and in places unmelted snow) of last year’s exercise by holding FIELDEX 2010 in mid-April, but we didn’t account for April showers. We had told participants to prepare for bad weather, but for most university students with little outdoor experience, it’s hard to imagine just how cold it can get in the rain and at night. Having both participants and organizers plan for the worst – the latter by bringing back-up gear – is essential. While we could have done better to prepare for the unexpected foul weather, we were prepared logistically in terms of providing transportation (we rented a bus), hot-ish meals (through MREs), plenty of water, extra tents and sleeping bags (which proved essential as at least one of the tents flooded.)

    3) Have enough well-trained staff members on hand the day of the exercise. Because of the scope of the exercise – during some scenarios, we had three simultaneous story-lines, and the potential for safety and other mishaps, we had 10 main staff members as well as several observers to make sure that the exercise ran smoothly. We had one executive director that oversaw the whole exercise, and then the rest of the main staffers were split up among identity groups so that two staff members were the “advisor” to the participants playing Coalition Forces (CF), two more to the Mazali National Police (MNP), two to the United Nations Assistance Mission-Mazalastan (UNAMM), two to the Mazali civilians, and one to the insurgents. The advisors led debriefs between scenarios and answered their group’s questions during scenarios – and as the scenario continued, the staff got into their roles as well, becoming as or more engrossed in their identity groups’ success as/than the participants.

    In the planning phase of the exercise, there were five main undergraduate organizers and a graduate student who advised us. The day of the exercise, we had 10 staff members as well as several safety observers. We held a staff meeting and a quick run-through of the exercise the day before, but not everyone could make it. Thus, it is absolutely essential that all staff members are in contact and on the same page as to both the strategy and vision of the field exercise, as well as the exact details of the exercise itself.”

    These are of course only a small sampling of the lessons learned, but they’re a good starting point for anyone who wants to run a field exercise. Bottom line: have a clear strategic vision of objectives to accomplish, plan early and plan well, and recruit others because you’re not going to be able to do it alone.

    Eileen Guo

    BP board game foreshadows Gulf disaster

    I wonder if they’ll be doing a Gulf of Mexico version of this?

    BP board game foreshadows Gulf disaster

    LONDON — An obscure BP-themed board game in which players aim to avoid rig disasters has become an unexpected hit at a British toy museum.

    BP Offshore Oil Strike was released in the early 1970s and allows up to four players to explore for oil, build platforms and construct pipelines. The first player to earn $120,000,000 wins.

    Its “hazard cards” include “Blow-out! Rig damaged. Oil slick clean-up costs. Pay $1million.”

    You’ll find the full article on MSNBC here.

    h/t slapout9 at the Small Wars Council.

    Review: Algeria

    Algeria. Fiery Dragon Games, 2005. Designer: Brian Train. $22.95

    The French general reviewed the operations plans with satisfaction. Despite constant complaints from the leftist press in Paris, he had conducted the war against the FLN with grim determination. The first insurgent attacks on his forces in Bône had been crushed. When the nationalists had mounted strikes and protests in Oran, they had been dispersed with police clubs and the bayonets of his paratroopers. FLN cadres had been mercilessly hunted down and destroyed, even as support for the war effort weakened back in metropolitan France. Now, with the exception of a few armed bandits in the east, the very last political cadres of the Algerian liberation movement had been encircled in the Atlas mountains near the Moroccan border. Intelligence had revealed their location, and the pride of the French Army—a full division of regulars, several regiments of local Algerian troops, and two elite paratrooper battalions—had been sent in to flush them out. With this, the insurgency would be finished.

    It was then that radio operator handed him the fateful message. Somehow, something had gone wrong–very, very wrong. Although outnumbered more than seven to one, the FLN units had escaped the dragnet. What’s more, they had inflicted heavy casualties on several French units. It was a disaster.

    Back in Paris, the scandal made front-page news, and provoked angry questions in the National Assembly. In the political recriminations that followed, several French officers blamed the civilian politicians for the failure, and mounted a coup attempt. That too went badly wrong, destroying what little faith French citizens had in their army. Within weeks, the government announced its willingness to sit down with the FLN and negotiate independence.

    The war was over. Although on the verge of military defeat, the FLN had won.

    And so went—well, with some embellishment in the interests of a good story—the final turn of our playtest game of Algeria, the second wargame of the Algerian liberation war to be reviewed here on PaxSims. As the French commander I pursued a risky strategy that crushed much of the rebellion, but at high political cost. As victory seemed within my grasp, some very bad combat die rolls and a terribly failed coup attempt finally brought this simulated chapter of France outre-mer to an end—a result not all that dissimilar to the real thing.

    Game Contents and Play

    Algeria is a much smaller (and cheaper) game than Ici, c’est la France, which we reviewed here last month. The rules are somewhat simpler, military units are more abstracted (with no particular regimental or division identifications on the counters), the time period represented by each move more indeterminate, and the random historical events are rather more general. The map is highly stylized—and, to be frank, rather ugly. The various boxes in each district are necessary for the insurgency and counterinsurgency operations, indicating forces that are underground (UG), on patrol (PTL), available for operations (OPS), or have completed operations (OC). As with other games in this series it is a (10″ x 15″) small map. Still, the graphics could have been more evocative of Algeria.

    This is a minor quibble, however. What is really important here is the simulation system for the insurgency, and that certainly works very well. The FLN player has the option each turn of undertaking harassment missions (to damage opposing military units), propaganda missions (to raise FLN political support or lower that of France), organizing strikes (a more expensive and substantial way of affecting political support in urban areas), moving to other districts, or intimidating and attacking local government structures. The French player can patrol, use intelligence to locate underground units, conduct flush operations against identified insurgents, or react to FLN moves. S/he can also undertake civil affairs missions (to reduce FLN political support), undertake extensive “neutralization” missions (but at the cost of terror and political damage due to atrocities), and even resettle the rural population into controlled and defended villages. Air and helicopter units, naval interdiction, and border fortifications (following the independence of Tunisia and Morocco by random event) also make an appearance.

    The really key things here—as in most insurgencies—are the political support levels of the two sides. When these decline various adverse consequences kick in, and if they reach zero a player loses. This is a particular challenge for France, since even maintaining military units in Algeria involves a political cost, and once expended these points are hard to recover.

    In general we found play very fluid once we had mastered the rules. The rulebook is clear enough in most places, but it does leave some of the most important rules to the various separate summary cards and tables—so be sure to read these in detail before you play. In particular, the Prefect of Oran was especially surprised to find that the effects of strikes are multiplied by the roll of a d6, something that’s not directly mentioned in rule 9.1.3. Ah well, les paras soon dealt with them!

    Instructional Potential

    Algeria does not give quite the same rich feel of Algerian history as does Ici, c’est la France. On the other hand, it is simpler and faster to play, and is therefore probably more easily used as a student assignment. Moreover, the degree of abstraction in Algeria is pitched just right. The game isn’t excessively tied to one conflict, yet (unlike Battle for Baghdad) it really does give a sense of the political and asymmetric nature of insurgency, with realistic operational choices available to both sides. If being used to teach about contemporary insurgency and COIN operations—something it has been used for in the US government—it would be important to familiarize students with some of the peculiarities of the colonial setting. France’s efforts in Algeria, after all, were essentially doomed to failure in the long term by the inexorable tide of post-WWII decolonization. Still, there’s much potential for this game in the classroom, in both academic and professional settings.

    Game Mechanics and Adaptation Potential

    The game system in Algeria is easily modified and easily adapted to other conflicts. Designer Brian Train used a somewhat similar system in his earlier wargame of the Sendero Luminoso rebellion in Peru, and the Algeria game itself has itself been modified—in part, by being set in a fictitious country, and with computer-assist added—in the Algernon wargame. Indeed, no sooner had we finished our playtest game than we launched into a discussion of rules modifications, and how the game could be adapted to Afghanistan. In the latter case it is easy to imagine a version with additional players (such as the Afghan government, and the UN/NGO community), differential costs and missions across players,  multiple political tracks, NATO caveats, ethno-tribal differences… and much more. Now if we only had the time to design it! (Update: if you read Brian’s comments on this post, it looks like he’s already done it.)

    Concluding Thoughts

    I very much enjoyed this game. As Brian Train and Kim Kanger have both previously commented on PaxSims, there are both some similarities between Algeria and  Ici, ce’st la France, and some significant differences. For gamers and teachers alike, however, this translates into the good fortune of having available to us not one but two very good boardgames on this conflict.

    Counterinsurgency Training by ‘Virtual Human’

    Miller-McCune Online has an interesting article on Counterinsurgency Training by ‘Virtual Human’, profiling the impressive work of USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies:

    The Institute for Creative Technologies was founded in 1999 with a grant from the Army; its brief was to bring the technology expertise of USC together with the storytelling and other creative abilities of Hollywood and the video game world to make training simulations for the military. “We came to the conclusion that they had a pretty good handle on training someone to shoot a gun,” Swartout says, so the institute focused on the human dimension of military action. Though conceived long before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and subsequent U.S. military action in the Middle East, the focus now seems almost prescient, with ICT simulations training soldiers in any number of immersive, highly realistic ways to engage with and win over the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Sometimes that immersive quality is more a matter of concept than life-size graphic wow-factor, as with “Urban Sim,” a PC-based game in which Army trainees try to manage relations with the various factions in a digital version of an Iraqi city during a counterinsurgency campaign. (The current “Urban Sim” is based on actual experiences from Tal Afar, Iraq, that were then fictionalized, so the scenario was typical of the geographic region, without being specific to one place. Swartout says “Urban Sim” is now being adapted to support scenarios representative of Afghanistan.) Modeled roughly on the game “Sim City,” “Urban Sim” has teams of trainees decide how best to pursue counterinsurgency as the town’s various groups react in ways that are based on what commanders have actually experienced in Iraq, as translated to a computerized “deep social simulation” that incorporates the ways in which cultural groups and leaders in the city interact. As in Iraq, it is easy for a trainee’s actions to produce unintended negative consequences, and in the end, trainees are judged not by purely military objectives but by the level of support citizens show for military and civilian leaders.

    In one, a research prototype known as Stability and Support Operations — Enhanced Negotiation, Army participants negotiate with two virtual humans, an Iraqi doctor and elder who are responsible for a clinic located in a city market in Iraq. The trainee must convince them to move the clinic downtown, closer to an American base.

    In this complex negotiating scenario, the virtual humans are life-size, and they respond to trainees (and one another) not just by talking, but with a full gamut of facial expressions and body movements, all of which are based on a decision-making process that is driven by the virtual humans’ internal “mental state,” which is determined through artificial-intelligence programming and includes many factors, including a calculation of emotion. So trainees must respond not just to the practical requirements of moving the clinic — it will need a source of electricity, for instance — but to the Iraqi virtual doctor’s fear that his clinic will be attacked if it is seen as too closely associated with the Americans.

    You can read the full article at the article link above. The video of clinic scenario can be found below. I’ll admit to some doubts as to whether the scenario is better played out with responsive AI or a couple of moderately intelligent human role-players (frankly, I think I would vote for the latter), but a software package does have the advantage of being easily reproduced and distributed once made.

    You’ll also find a piece by Michael Peck on “Thinking Like an Insurgent” at Defense News (21 June 2010), discussing ICT’s Mobile Counter-IED Trainer, which integrates physical exhibits, AV briefings, and immersive computer simulation.

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