Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Jargon Wars (the NATO ACT edition)

Your intrepid PAXsims editors have just finished attending the NATO “Countering Hybrid Threats” conference/experiment in Tallinn. It was an excellent meeting, with impressive people (well, other than us), good discussion, and stunningly efficient conference organization—all held in a fascinating , beautiful, and very welcoming city. We both took pages and pages of notes, and will post something in the next few days on both the subject matter and the scenario-driven experiment format that was adopted for the event.

In the meantime, as we participated in a full week of discussions we couldn’t help but be reminded of the extraordinary amount of time that military, diplomatic, aid, NGO, academic, and other professionals can spend on developing, debating, modifying, and remodifying their professional language. That observation, of course, inevitably led to a quick game design… Jargon Wars.

While the version presented below is intended for NATO ACT CHT meetings, the template can easily be modified for World Bank consultative groups, academic conferences, diplomatic parleys, NGO retreats, and similar exercises. Why, you might even say it is a whole dynamic repurposeable interactive gaming system!

* * *

The Game

Jargon Wars is a two player game in which you attempt to score points by building and using jargon, while at the same time defending yourself from the jargon of your opponent with counter-jargon. Playing the game requires a deck of playing cards, including both jokers. If you’re playing with a deck of Estonian Explosive Ordnance Disposal cards provided by a local friend and fellow-traveller from Small Wars Journal, each side starts with ten extra points. That has no actual effect on game play, but is very cool.

During the game, a player will hold a hand of up to 5 cards, hidden from their opponent. As the game progresses there will also be a discard pile.

Each player will also have up two small groups of cards known as jargon or counter-jargon groups. Each group consists of up to three RED cards and one BLACK card. If the black card is a CLUB, the group is said to be a jargon. If the black card is a SPADE, it is said to be a counter-jargon. If a group contains no red cards or no black cards, or too many red or black cards, it is said to be unintelligible. Each jargon or counter-jargon is usually face-down, but may be examined at any time by the owning player. At various points in the game a player might have zero, one, or two groups in play, which might be all jargons, all counter-jargons, or one of each.

The game is played until the last card is drawn from the deck.

Game Play

Start the game by dealing each player 5 cards. In turn, each player may then carry out one of the following actions:

  • Move a single card into or out of one of their groups (or establish a group if you don’t yet have two of them).
  • Discard a card from their hand and draw a new one from the deck.
  • Randomly exchange a card from their hand with one from their opponent’s hand.

If at the end of their turn a player has less than 5 cards in their hand, they draw one card from the deck. There are also two types of special cards:

  • JOKER: As soon as this is played from a hand onto the discard pile, take all current groups, shuffle them together, and play the cards back to the players (starting with the phasing player). As the card is received a player must immediately assign it, face-up, to a group. This may, of course, result in the formation of unintelligible jargon.
  • ACE: When played from a hand onto the discard pile there is an immediate scoring round.


The game is scored whenever an ACE is played, and immediately when the last card is drawn and the game ends.

Each side calculates the value of its jargons and counter-jargons using the following formula for each group:

  • (sum of red card values) x (black card value)

If a pile lacks at least one red and one black card, or if it has too many cards of one type, it is unintelligible and counts zero. Otherwise, the value of each card (and the term it represents) is determined using the following chart:

Diamond Heart Club Spade
K hybrid (4) comprehensive (4) walrus (4) walrus (4)
Q complex (3) capstone (3) threat (3) doctrine (3)
J cyber (3) integrated (3) adversary (3) strategy (3)
10 virtual (2) cooperative (2) challenge (2) partnership (2)
9 global (2) asymmetric (2) dilemma (2) technology (2)
8 agile (2) mixed (2) force (2) capability (2)
7 next-generation (2) robust (2) challenger (2) concept (2)
6 emerging (2) joint (2) enemy (1) force (2)
5 effective (2) bio (2) activity (1) cell (2)
4 new (1) adaptive (2) irritant (1) report (2)
3 diplomatic or political (1)* military or security (1)* process (1) assessment (2)
2 social or economic (1)* information or intelligence  (1)* trap (1) roadmap (1)

As noted earlier, the ACE and JOKER cards have special functions and hence have no scoring value. In recognition of 3D and whole-of-government approaches, DIME, PMSEII, and similar schemas, any jargon that contains three of the four terms marked * counts triple value.

Explaining the walrus reference would require more information than PAXsims is able to provide at this time. For further details, contact David Becker, Senior Research Fellow (and Large Animal Analogy SME) at the Center for Complex Operations.

Having worked out the value of each group, the players then separately compare the value of their jargon group to their opponent’s counter-jargon, if any. If a player has more than one counter-jargon group, always use the one with the highest score.

If the value of the jargon is higher than that of the counter-jargon, then the exchange scores 5 points for the former plus the points difference between the two piles. If the counter-jargon group is worth more, the jargon earns no points. In short, counter-jargon blocks jargon from scoring.

Both players then discard their groups, and the game continues. If there are no more cards remaining in the deck, after the final scoring round the player with the most points wins.


Seeking to develop your own context-specific individualized dynamic game revision? It’s easy enough—just substitute some of the terms on the scoring chart above.

  • World Bank: Try such classics as gender-sensitive, environmental, infrastructure, structural, pilot (RED) and projects, programs, initiatives, fora, fund, consultations, review, adjustment, and evaluation (BLACK).
  • NGO: In addition to those above, grass-roots, consultative, stakeholder, humanitarian, civil society, human rights, equity (RED) and response, empowerment, and committee (BLACK) would work well.
  • Academics: Try adding post-, sociological, quantitative, comparative, historical, dynamic, conceptual, theoretical (RED) and concept, theory, approach, synthesis, and study (BLACK).
  • IT/Cyber: Switch in such terms as digital, on-line, encrypted, synchronous, parallel, super- (RED) and software, platform, code, processor, media, and game (BLACK).

* * *

Game Report

The following game—played as a joint World Bank/McGill University collaborative, culturally-embedded learning exercise in a pub in Tallinn under the watchful eye of a blonde Estonian barmaid with a (plastic) sidearm—illustrates Jargon Wars in action.

Each round the players variously drew cards or placed them into their jargon groups. When an ACE was played, of course, a scoring round was commenced.


Gary had prepared a Next-Generation Mixed Joint Challenge ((2+2+2) x2 = 12) to which Rex had only an incomplete, and hence unintelligible (0) counter-jargon. Gary thus scored 17 (12-0+5) points.

Rex offered an Agile Global Threat  ((2+2) x3 = 12) to which Gary had only an incomplete, and hence unintelligible (0) counter-jargon. Rex thus also scored 17 (12-0+5) points.


Gary put together a formidable Cooperative Hybrid Bio-Adversary ((2+4+2) x 3 = 24), to which Rex could only offer an ineffectual Robust Diplomatic Capstone Concept ((2+1+3) x 2 = 12). Gary scored 17 (24-12+5) points.

Rex. however, had been preparing his own rhetorical assault, and unleashed a Comprehensive Cyber Threat ((4+3) x 3 = 21), which easily overwhelmed Gary’s Effective Virtual Social Assessment ((2+2+1) x 2 = 10), netting Rex some 16 (21-10+5) points.


Gary revealed a New Emerging Force ((1+2) x 2 = 6), but it is easily neutralized by Rex’s Adaptive Walrus (2 x 4 =8).

No sooner have the tusks settled, moreover,  when Rex advanced a Complex Dilemma (2 x 3 =6), which devastated Gary’s pathetic Security Intelligence Cell ((1+1) x 2 = 4), thus bringing Rex 7 (6-4+5) more points.

With no more cards left in the deck the game is over. Rex has earned 40 points to Gary’s 34, and emerged as the winner!

5 responses to “Jargon Wars (the NATO ACT edition)

  1. Rex Brynen 26/05/2011 at 2:11 pm

    While some were were focused on the double-overtime hockey triumph that placed the Vancouver Canucks into the Stanley Cup finals, the eyes of Jargon Wars fandom (all six or so of them) were focused on a pizzeria in Washington DC, where the Jargon Wars world championships were being played out. Rex, fresh from his triumph in the recent European finals in Talliin, would be up against formidable wordsmith Tim Wilkie from National Defense University’s world famous Center for Applied Strategic Jargon.

    As usual, the players drew cards and assembled their jargon and counter-jargon until a scoring round was initiated:

    Round 1

    Rex launched a Mixed Complex Capstone Capability ((3+3+2)x2=16) against Tim’s Agile CyberTechnology ((2+3)x2)=10), scoring 11 (16-10+5) points

    Tim, however, has a Comprehensive Emerging Effective Challenge ((4+2+2) x 2=16) up his sleeve. It overcame Rex’s Hybrid Doctrine ((4×3=12) to score 9 (16-2+5) points.

    Shortly after this, play of a Joker caused a reshuffle of new jargon-in-progress.

    Round 2

    Tim had prepared an Adaptive Military-Intelligence Dilemma (((1+1+2)x2=8) which was clearly too much for Rex’s Bio-Strategy (2×3=6), scoring (8-6+5) more points.

    Rex’s jargon was unintelligible (as was Tim’s counter-jargon), so he scored nothing. Tim thus edged into a narrow five point lead with more than half of the Star Wars-themed card deck now played.

    Round 3

    With two Aces in his hand but few good cards in his jargon, Rex played for time. Inevitably, however, the final scoring round came when the deck was exhausted.

    Rex revealed a Next-Generation Asymmetric Social Trap ((2+2+1) x 1=5), but had strategic forewarning the NDU challenger was about to reveal a devastating riposte.

    First he easily blocks Rex’s rhetorical assault with a Joint Global Walrus ((2+2)x4=16). He then reveal his own Virtual Integrated Cooperative Walrus ((2+3+2)x4=28) which brushed aside Rex’s all-too-soft-power New Diplomatc Partnership ((1=1)x2=4) to score a devastating 29 (28-4+5) points. Yes, you read that correctly: Tim played two Walruses in a single round!

    With an overall score of 45 to 11, Tim thus secured the Jargon Wars world title—and gives his name to a powerful combination of offensive and defensive jargon that will forever be known in the annals of gaming history as the Wilkie Redundant Walrus (WRW) strategem . Lucrative endorsement contracts will undoubtedly follow.

    Congratulations Tim!

  2. Rex Brynen 14/05/2011 at 8:56 am

    We’ll be bringing out Jargon Wars expansion packs, of course, so everyone should feel free to post their favourite thematic jargon here.

    I should probably explain the walrus thing too. Gary and I had started the conference by each choosing two terms, with the intention that we would score a point each time our jargon was used in a plenary discussion (and 3 points if it was on a powerpoint slide). He took coordination and institution, while I took partnership and capacity-building.

    After 90 minutes or so it was clear I was cleaning up with “partnership,” which was clearly the buzzword of the day. Thus was born a new challenge: 5,000 bonus points to player who could introduce “walrus” into plenary discussion.

    Neither of this seriously pursued this–after all, we’re both serious conference participants–until the final plenary session, when a senior speaker referred to an “elephant in the room.” David Becker (who was next to me and knew of the competition) poked me and whispered that I had missed my chance. However, I had a serious point I had wanted to make anyway, and introduced the issue as the “walrus in the room” (which oddly made sense in context).

    Game, set, and match. Walruses rule!

  3. ELyssebeth 13/05/2011 at 9:14 pm

    Thank you for a rolling on the floor laughing start to the weekend. This game is magnificent. And i do hope the blonde waitress with sidearm had no need of the latter to resolve any Adaptive Walrus moves.

  4. Rex Brynen 13/05/2011 at 6:20 pm

    Brian, I should have mentioned that your PARANOID DELUSIONS game was one of the inspirations!

  5. Brian 13/05/2011 at 6:17 pm

    Welcome back.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: