Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

The National Security Decision Making Game

The National Security Decision Making Game has been going strong for more than two decades now, at educational institutions, game conventions, and elsewhere. PAXsims would like to thank Mark McDonagh for passing on this account of what they do, and how they do it. Those who are interested will get a chance to see them in action at Origins and GenCon later this summer.—RB

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National Security Decision Making Game: A Hybrid Seminar and Role-Playing Simulation for Educational and Entertainment

Mark McDonagh, Capt./USN (ret.)

Here’s the game in a nutshell:  “You players are the Legislature.  You over there, you’re the Cabinet.  You folks in the corner are the military leadership.  This guy’s the President.  The scenario is: it’s the world as you know it today.  Fix it.  Start now.”

 NSDM Game Background

The National Security Decision Making (NSDM) Game is a hybrid seminar-live action role playing simulation that serves to instruct players in international affairs, cultures, political processes and decision criteria, geopolitical situations and challenges of other nations, and military and economic considerations.  The basic, signature game is eight hours, but a streamlined version is available that runs in four.  Contemporary (“world-as-you-know-it-today”) and Cold War (1960) variants are available, and we are currently working on a variant for the U.S. Civil War.

NSDM was initially developed at the U.S. Naval War College as a civilianized, demonstration version of games run there to explore issues.  It has evolved since then into a unique tool to explore decision-making in the international and domestic arenas.  NSDM, Inc. is a non-profit educational organization with no current, lingering affiliation with the Naval War College or any other governmental body, although members of our staff have worked in several governmental departments with national-security related missions.  While educational in nature, the NSDM staff also embrace its entertainment value as a game, and NSDM is routinely run at civilian wargaming conventions such as Origins, GenCon, DragonCon and major Historical Miniatures Gaming Society events.  This is NSDM’s 21st year in operation.

How NDSM is Played

NSDM is designed to be run with medium to large groups.  The largest recorded game had 82 players.  NSDM can run with groups as small as five, but is better with larger groups.  The theoretical upper limit is about 150, and we’ve put together contingency plans to go to 225.

The players in a game are divided into national cells, with typically between 10 and 25 players in each.  Each player is assigned a position within that cell’s decision-making structure, from which he or she can affect the formulation of national policy, laws, budget allocations, foreign affairs and decisions regarding security, law enforcement activities and the use of armed force.  A player in the U.S. cell, for example, may be the leader of a congressional faction, a Cabinet Secretary, or Chief of Staff of one of the armed services.  In the Chinese cell, the player might be commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the Foreign Affairs Advisor for the Communist Party of China, or an entrepreneur running a massive business and financial conglomerate in Hong Kong.  Each player is provided with a written motivation, for that position, that describes what his/her character believes in and works toward in the development of national policy.  The player then acts within the decision making/political structure, interacting with other players in their respective roles.  In each cell’s decision-making structure (simulating the nation being played), participants try to move national funding, policies and practices in their desired direction. They also react to injected events in a manner that is true to each group’s nature, as they try to advance their agenda and work toward political ascendancy.

The set of player motivations for each nation-cell, as written, is designed to represent the body politic and describe current, important issues of that nation, but also to bring each player into alliances with other players in pursuit of common goals and to put them at odds with other groups of players.  While that is going on, the game control staff injects additional events and/or information (e.g. military, insurgency and terrorism threats, pandemics, natural disasters, substantial events in the world economy) that challenge the players’ abilities to react within the nations’ decision-making structure.  The body of players in a nation-cell, having formed into factions, with personal agendas and holding positions of personal power, decide how to respond.  Meanwhile, overlapping national interests draw the nation-cell toward cooperation with other nations in some areas and discord in others.

NSDM is more about decision-making and politicking within the nation cell than it is about the interplay between nations.  Although multiple-nation-cell games are most common, sometimes NSDM is run with only one nation-cell, the rest of the world being represented by the game control staff.  NSDM has rules to simulate over 20 nations in the Contemporary period and four in the Cold War period, each with unique military, political, economic and security issues, all based on real-world conditions and situations.  We are also exploring the use of cells representing non-state players, reflecting their increasing role in global affairs.

As a design feature, a consequence of the interaction between the staff and players, no two games are the same.

At the end of the game, a debrief is held during which the players come clean about their agendas and the techniques they used to advance them, and all players learn something about the events in the other nation-cells and why/how individuals make decisions.

In most venues, the NSDM staff selects winners and provides prizes.  Individuals win NSDM, not nations-a player who achieves his/her objectives, as provided in their motivation, can win the game even though their country might be a smoking ruin.

NSDM Value as an Educational Tool

As an educational tool, each participant will hopefully come away from an NSDM game with a better understanding of:

  • the issues of the day seen from new perspectives
  • the nature and political system of other nations
  • world geopolitical, economic and military affairs
  • the respective importance in good decision making of time and reliable information.

NSDM is also a useful tool to exercise communication, team-building and negotiating skills.  Our Cold War game variant is a good history exercise, immersing the player in a different era, and it provides insight into the superpower struggle that no number of books and lectures are likely to bestow.

How NSDM is Run

NSDM practices Dynamic Game Control.  Unlike most professional games, which are designed to go in a certain direction in order to achieve specific objectives, the NSDM game control staff will typically follow the players’ decisions and must be prepared to take the game anywhere that the players’ decisions logically transport it.  The Control Staff is prepared to adjudicate combat anywhere in the world on short notice, to assess the national, regional and worldwide implications of major trade agreements, and to simulate the reaction of the Rest of the World to significant actions taken by the players.  There is no lock-step time clock ticking away as the game progress, as facilitators and controllers collaborate to move game time forward as slowly as needed to fully develop player interactions, or to pick up the pace to keep players engaged and to cover the game events that need to be covered.

NSDM is road-mobile, running out of a set of boxes and suitcases totaling about 30 cubic feet.

Our team structure to run these events is:

  1. Game Director to coordinate the actions of staff members.
  2. Country Controllers assigned to each nation-cell, overseeing the mechanics in the cell, running elections and organizing votes on legislation, providing deadlines for budget and policy submission, and controlling the flow of information on events in the cell with the rest of the staff.  Acting as the single-source of information on what is going on in the cell, including any illicit dealings that the players have become involved in (and so, determining if and when to let Law Enforcement catch on).  The set of Country Controllers form the primary committee that determines who won the game.
  3. Facilitators to provide realistic responses for the nations of the world that are not represented by player nations, plus various non-governmental entities, such as the U.S. Secretary General, World Health Organization, International Committee of the Red Cross, Al Qaeda, or Colombian Drug Lords.  They also provide a useful mechanism to make game injects.  A Facilitator Controller makes facilitator assignments, including assigning new roles, on the fly, as requested by the players or as needed as scenarios unfold in unanticipated ways.  He also controls the sequence and timing of major threads injected into the game.
  4. Military Controller who is the central adjudicator for military actions and the clearing house for intelligence resource allocation and intelligence take-away.  He is also the advisor for players who have drawn military positions but do not have the necessary background.
  5. Economic Controller who adjudicates the effect of players’ policies and actions, such as major trade deals, on the growth of the nation’s GDP, providing the tax basis for follow-on actions.
  6. Media Controller representing all of the non-partisan international news media sources, coordinating the information flow between nations, and is also a useful resource for players to make announcements and attempt to spin events.

In small games, many of these positions may be combined.

The NSDM Game Control Staff

NSDM is a hobby for the control staff.  Run initially by two brothers, with experience from the Naval War College, NSDM has picked up a series of fellow-travelers along the way, folks who admire what the game tries to do and have chosen to devote time and energy to the endeavor.  This team includes former members of all four services, professors, retired State and Energy Department officers, lawyers, IT professionals and, inevitably, a nucleus of hard-core gamers.  NSDM, Inc. has no paid positions, everyone has a day job and uses vacation time to help run games.  The game has no budget, members donating the consumables needed and absorbing the travel costs.  NSDM has asked for honoraria to offset expenses in some venues, but usually just asks for hotel space.  NSDM survives on donations.

NSDM staff members also contribute to various venues by providing lectures and running seminars on current and historical geopolitical and military topics within their respective areas of expertise.

NSDM Legacy for Education and Training

  • NDSM has had a long association with Ashland University, running a game every Fall semester since 2006.
  • NSDM ran a demonstration game at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. in 2010, focused on displaying the techniques that we use for Dynamic Game Control.
  • NSDM ran two leadership training tabletop exercises at the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity in Quantico, Virginia.
  • NSDM also had a large, highly successful game at Ball State University.
  • NSDM has been run on the high school level, where the focus is on providing a deeper insight into current affairs and developing communications skills.

More Information

For more information, check out NSDM’s website at as well as the the NSDM Facebook page, where articles of current geopolitical and military interest are posted and discussed.

To observe NSDM in action, NSDM will be running four-hour Contemporary and Cold War games at Origins 2011, in Columbus, Ohio, from Wednesday, June 22 through Friday, June 24, with our legacy Contemporary eight-hour game on Saturday, June 25.

NSDM will also be running four-hour Contemporary and Cold War games at GenCon 2011, in Indianapolis, Indiana, from Wednesday, August 3 through 5, with our legacy eight-hour game on Saturday, August 6, and hopefully a beta test of our two-hour U.S. Civil War game on Friday, August 5.

NSDM is hoping to return to Ball State and Ashland Universities in the Fall, but specific dates are pending.

One response to “The National Security Decision Making Game

  1. David Becker 20/05/2011 at 4:19 pm

    I note that the game was used last year at National Defense University. I wonder if NDSM has been used with foreign students playing the US roles, and vice versa, US students playing foreign roles? The National Defense University has about 150 foreign students, from Lt Col to Brigadier General rank, and this might be a very interesting way to put them in the shoes of American leaders trying to deal with the world and domestic politics simultaneously. Another option would be for the US students to play a foreign country.

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