Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: June 2012

simulations miscellany: the 100,000 visitors edition!

We’re pleased to report that PAXsims reached its 100,000th visitor today. Of course, that’s not a huge number in the world of the interwebs—indeed, a blog by a nine year-old Scottish girl about her school lunches has over 6.8 million hits now—but we’re quite pleased with it nonetheless. We would like to think all of our contributors, commentators, and regular readers who have made it such a pleasure to work on this project. Onwards to the next 100,000!

We’re also pleased to report that a special issue of Simulation & Gaming devoted to “simulations and games to build peace” is now working its way through the production process at SAGE. In addition to an introductory article by us, it will feature contributions by  Elizabeth Bartels, Margaret McCown, and Timothy Wilkie on level of analysis, scenario and role specification in peace and conflict exercises; Richard Powers and Kat Kirkpatrick on teaching conflict resolution through simulations and games; Julian Schofield on classroom modelling of nuclear war fighting; Tucker B. Harding and Mark A. Whitlock on  leveraging web-based environments for mass atrocity prevention; Roger Mason and Eric Patterson on wargaming peace operations; Sean F. McMahon and Chris Miller  on simulating the Camp David negotiations; and Peter Landwehr, Marc Spraragen, Balki Ranganathan, Kathleen M. Carley, and Michael Zyda on integrating games, social simulations, and data in the “Sudan Game.”

Finally, in other recent simulation news:

  • The second annual Serious Play conference will take place 21-23 August 2012 at the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Washington.
  • In his “Best Defense” column at Foreign Policy magazine, Tom Ricks has been discussing possible cuts and constraints at the National Defense University. Among the alarming news (in this case, reported by an anonymous NDU staff member) is this: “The research, gaming, and publications arms of the university — a major part of the big-think, future concepts and policy business here — will be cut to somewhere between half and a third of their original sizes.” This would indeed be both short-sighted and a tragedy—the Center for Applied Strategic Learning is a true centre of excellence in the policy gaming field, and has been immensely important in building a broader gaming community that reaches outside the military to include interagency folks, academics, commercial game designers, and others.
  • Over at Defense News/Training & Simulation Journal, Michael Peck reports that military budget cuts will increasingly force the US Army  to rely more heavily on simpler, lower-end simulation exercises.
  • The video game company Valve has hired an economist to study in-game virtual economies. He has a blog too.
  • A reminder, once again, that the Connections 2012 interdisciplinary wargaming conference will be held on August 23-26 at NDU in Washington DC. If you haven’t done so, register soon.

One step closer to the Abyss…

Well, here’s good news: GMT is now charging pre-orders of its forthcoming boardgame of insurgency/counter-insurgency in Colombia, Andean Abyss:

Dear Rex Brynen,

We’re writing to let you know that game Andean Abyss is one step closer to being completed and shipped out to you! Please note that today we charged your card for your order of 1 copies for a total of $65.00. As with all P500 games, this charge is made when the game in in our final printing process, so it won’t be long now until the process is complete and we can ship your game.

We will update the completion and ship dates for Andean Abyss on our website,, so please check there regularly if you want status updates. We hope you are as excited as we are to receive the finished product!

Thank you,

GMT Games

This is certainly the most anticipated COIN game of the year. Based on both game designer Volko Ruhnke’s past work in this area (Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?) and having played a pre-production version, I predict that Andean Abyss is going to be another success for GMT—and perhaps even another Charles S. Roberts Award winner.

NDU CASL Roundtable on Strategic Gaming (26/6/2012)

Yes, it’s that time again—the announcement has gone out for the next iteration of the regular quarterly series of roundtables on strategic gaming at the Center for Applied Strategic Learning, National Defense University:

The Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL) is pleased to announce another session in our quarterly series of Roundtables on Innovation in Strategic Gaming. The event will take place on June 26 at the NDU campus, located at Ft. Lesley J. McNair in SW DC. Details of exactly when and where will be provided to those who RSVP (see below).

Our speakers for this session will be Michael Wasserman of the Intelligence Community Simulation Center and CDR Phil Pournelle of OSD Net Assessment.

Please RSVP to by June 22 if you would like to join us in person or remotely via audio streaming (and please specify one or the other or both, if you need to keep your options open). We will be using the NDU streaming service, so if you would like to listen in please follow the link and watch one of the saved events to make sure this service works on your computer. You will still need to RSVP to receive the speakers’ slides.

Please note, this stream of the roundtable will NOT be saved or archived for later access, unlike the events in CASL’s Lectures on Strategic Gaming series, which are maintained for future download. The Roundtable series is meant to stimulate ongoing professional discourse within the gaming community, while the goal for the Lectures is to gradually create a set of saved presentations for journeyman gamers to have available for reference.

Whether you are a newcomer to the roundtable or a veteran participant, we hope that you will be able to join us in person or online. Our goal of creating a regular forum for gaming practitioners to meet and discuss issues in the field is being realized and it is thanks to you, the gaming community, and your continued interest.

These are excellent meetings, and well worth attending (in person or online) for those with an professional interest in strategic gaming. I’ll certainly be watching and listening to the livestream.

Simulation & Gaming (June 2012)

The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 43, 3 (June 2012) is now available online (although to read beyond the abstracts in most cases you will need a subscription). The issue focuses on “research methodology in gaming.”

Guest Editorial

Research Methodology in Gaming: An Overview

  • Frans Mäyrä, Jussi Holopainen, and Mikael Jakobsson

Symposium Articles

Social Constructionism and Ludology: Implications for the Study of Games

  • Markus Montola

Social Interaction in Games: Measuring Physiological Linkage and Social Presence

  • Inger Ekman, Guillaume Chanel, Simo Järvelä, J.Matias Kivikangas, Mikko Salminen, and Niklas Ravaja

Studying the Elusive Experience in Pervasive Games

  • Jaakko Stenros, Annika Waern, and Markus Montola

Natural Language Processing in Game Studies Research: An Overview

  • José P. Zagal, Noriko Tomuro, and Andriy Shepitsen

Players as Coresearchers: Expert Player Perspective as an Aid to Understanding Games

  • Kristine Jørgensen

Design for Research Results: Experimental Prototyping and Play Testing

  • Mirjam P. Eladhari and Elina M. I. Ollila

Rethinking Playing Research: DJ HERO and Methodological Observations in the Mix

  • Tero Karppi and Olli Sotamaa

Some Saturday afternoon thoughts on technology-enhanced role-play


On both her own blog and the blog of the CHNM 2012 THATCamp (the Technology and Humanities Camp currently underway at the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University—one of many THATCamps held each year), Adeline Koh raises the question of classroom learning, role-playing games, and the contribution of current and emerging technologies:

We are being increasingly encouraged to “gamify” the classroom. Educators such as Cathy N. Davidson (Now You See It(@cathyndavidson) and Jane McGonigal (Reality is Broken) have suggested that games can help engage students in deeper ways than traditional learning methods.

I’d like to discuss how we can best implement Role Playing Games, or RPGs, in higher education. RPGs are well suited to the classroom because of their structure, which encourages students to identify with their characters and game objectives. Some excellent pedagogical examples include Reacting to the Past at Barnard, a series of elaborate historical games where students roleplay real historical characters with the possibility of changing historical events through mastery of historical and cultural knowledge (for more information, see my blog post here), and the Practomime project, where Latin students have to thoroughly assimilate into the ancient Roman world to save the world.

The following questions may be helpful in guiding discussion: how we can use digital tools to enhance role playing learning efforts (course websites, wikis as “codexes”, social media for team building/knowledge sharing)? Further, how, and should, these role-playing become digital in form? Most successful classroom RPGs have been “fleshspace” based, where gameplayers meet in person. How can we use the digital to enhance the “fleshspace” experience, and to augment or transform it?

Skip Cole has written on this issue too, coining the useful term “technology-enhanced role-play” (TERP) to describe his vision of how computers and digital media can enrich the already considerable advantage of roleplay-based experiential learning techniques. Although they don’t use the same terminology, similar issues are explored in even greater depth by Sandra Wills, Elyssebeth Leigh, and Albert Ip in their excellent (and, in a practical sense, very useful) book on the power of role-based e-learning.

Implicit in the TERP concept is the notion that technology is acting as an adjunct and multiplier for traditional role-play methods, rather than as something possibly transformative in the way that Adeline Koh raises in the very end of her blogpost. I don’t doubt that technology might, in the end, ultimately transform education role-play in important ways. Indeed, I think we already see this in digital entertainment RPGs in some ways. However, I think we’re very far from this in educational settings, and that for now the TERP focus is still the one where the bulk of our energies might best be applied.

Then again (and on a very geeky RPG side-note), Finius Ludd—my character in our local gaming group’s Shadowrun cyberpunk campaign—is an avowed technophobe who refuses neural or cybernetic implants, simsense, or even wifi-enabled devices that would connect him to the matrix. Perhaps he’s an unconscious projection of my frequent criticism of excessive hypertechnoludovangelism.

My own Brynania civil war simulation is, for the most part, one really, really big TERP: over one hundred players playing in semi-real time over more than 80 course-related hours. Despite its very serious subject matter (refugees, humanitarian assistance, war fighting, peace negotiations, peacekeeping, transitional justice), it is very much a huge game of political D&D in terms of its original design inspirations. Student response has always been overwhelming positive, underscoring how useful role-playing can be in a university setting. In one survey we did a few years ago, students reported positive learning effects in almost every category (scaled 1-7, where 1= “no, not at all”  and 7= “yes,completely”):

  • Did the simulation increase your understanding of the real-world constraints on peace operations? 6.20
  • Was the simulation more useful to you than a week of readings on the subject? 6.18
  • Did the simulation increase your understanding of the bureaucracy involved in politics? 5.87
  • Did the simulation increase your understanding of organizational processes involved in
  • politics? 5.80
  • Did the simulation increase your understanding of the material covered in the class readings?    5.51
  • Did the simulation improve your understanding of negotiations?    5.49
  • Did the simulation enhance your information management skills? 5.47
  • Did the simulation enhance your empathy for others in conflict situations? 5.04
  • Did the simulation enhance your leadership skills?    5.00
  • Did the simulation enhance your written communication skills?    4.89
  • Did the simulation enhance your time management skills? 4.62
  • Did the simulation enhance your verbal communication skills?    4.36
  • Did the simulation enhance your social skills?    4.02

What has that particular experience, and more than a decade of repeated plays of the simulation, suggested to me about the intersection of technology and educational RPGs?

The technology base. I very much rely on existing off-the-shelf, freeware, and public domain technologies. Students, in addition to meeting face-to-face, communicate by mobile phone, SMS texting, email, instant messaging programs, voice/video-over-IP, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and so forth. I provide them with the email accounts (largely so that we can rely on the McGill server for speed and reliability) and set up two listservs. Beyond that, it is up to them. They make it work. (I also don’t have to worry about issues of software and browser compatibility, or running IT support while I’m running the simulation. They can safely sort all that out themselves.)

By contrast, one can use purpose-made software, whether resident locally or server- and web-based. Skip’s Open Simulation Platform is an example of the former, the ICONS project would be an example of the latter. My “use what’s already out there” route has the advantage of familiarity (all students use email, many use IM, Skype, Twitter, blogs, etc.), and of constant upgrading as services and freeware improve. It also harnesses student skills and creativity as they develop communications methods. The “dedicated software” approach, on the other hand, has the advantage of in-built monitoring and debrief tools, tutoring, and other potential capabilities.

With regard to the educational use of wargames, Phil Sabin has stressed the value of relatively parsimonious, manual (non-digital) games because of the ease with which they can be tweaked or reworked—something that is much harder to do with a software platform. I think his point (with which I agree) also applies to a significant extent with RPGs. too.

Face-to-face matters. My students send more than 10,000 emails during a typical week-long simulation, and probably spend thousands of hours collectively in the phone, Skype, IM, and so forth. That’s a lot of technology. However, the single most frequent debrief comment I get is how much they prefer “fleshspace” to “cyberspace,” and value actual face-to-face time. Part of the reason for this is probably personal—that is, students enjoying the experience of meetings, coordination, negotiation, and so forth. Part of it may be the new friendships and post-graduation personal networks formed during the simulation (we’ve even had players get married!). Much of it, however, is also the perception that personal contact was more productive in terms of advancing their simulation goals.

Interestingly, although students express a preference for face-to-face meetings, social and interpersonal skills are among those where they note the least effects of the simulation. (Then again, one would expect that , since these have already been shaped by 18+ years of personal socialization before I ever get them in a classroom.)

Too much technology can potentially detract. There have been times when some students have become too focused on creative uses of technology, and haven’t thought enough about means, goals, and so forth. Attempts to create a virtual conferencing spaces, via Second Life or other packages, almost always end up consuming far more student time and effort than is warranted by the gains in role-play effectiveness.

Moreover, the rather obvious limits and rough edges of my use of technology allows participants to recognize that the simulation is indeed a simulation—thus avoiding the potential pitfalls of excessive apparent fidelity.

By way of conclusion, it needs to be kept in mind that these are all impressions and conclusions derived from running a very particular simulation on a very particular topic in a very particular educational setting—it might well be that other role-plays on other topics with other audiences could use (or not use) technology in very different ways.

However, given that caveat, I do tend to answer the questions that  Adeline Koh asked with a combination of both enthusiasm and a little caution. Yes, technology can extend and enhance the classroom RPG experience in a myriad of ways. I’m less convinced, however, that our primary efforts should be aimed at replacing non-digital educational role-play with digital versions. Try too hard to “transform” for transformations sake might well obscure the payoffs to be had from a more modest “enhance” and “augment” approach to the topic.

Image below: The classic Will McLean cartoon from the Advanced D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979).

piracy returns to MMOWGLI

MMOWGLI—the Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet, developed by the Naval Postgraduate School—is relaunching their piracy game on June 18, with naval personnel, NPS students, and other professionals and subject matter experts from around the world involved. As Don Brutzman reported last month on the MMOWGLI blog:

This week we had an excellent meeting at Oceans Beyond Piracy headquarters near Denver Colorado.  Together we have prepared an excellent game plan for the upcoming relaunch of a long-running piracy MMOWGLI game.  We will be examining and challenging the Lines of Effort found in their Independent Assessment Report on maritime piracy.

Our Piracy 2012 Call To Action video illustrates the importance of these topics.  We will be asking professionals to spend 30 minutes each week considering key questions facing the anti-piracy community.  Details are kept up-to-date on the Piracy MMOWGLI Games page.  The first weekly Line of Effort is Naval Operations.

The “slow start” exercise this past month was useful.  The next phase of activity will be more dynamic as we prepare the foundation for long-term community efforts.

For those interested in the development of the crowd-sourcing platform, you may want to have a look at this overview and status report presented by members of the MMOWGLI team to a January 2012 US Navy Maritime Liaison Office (MARLO) symposium, as well as the PAXsims archives for our previous reporting on the project. In addition to having previously examined the Somali piracy issue in earlier games, MMOWGLI has also been used to explored the challenge of naval operations in an era of increasingly scarce (and expensive) fossil fuels.

simulations miscellany, 14 June 2012

For no particular reason at all, it’s the lolcat edition of simulations miscellany—with recent news on games and simulations that may be of interest to our readers:

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The folks at NDU’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning offer a “demo strategic game” online, in which players can choose a course of action in response to a terrorist threat. (It may have been on their CASL website a while, but I’ve only just noticed it.) Go give it a try.

* * *

Volko Ruhnke’s long-awaited boardgame of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Colombia, Andean Abyss, is likely to be shipped by GMT Games next. While you’re anxiously awaiting your chance to play a drug lord or right-wing paramilitary, you can have a look at the final version of the rulebook and playbook on the GMT Games website.

* * *

Also on the insurgency/counterinsurgency theme, over at Grogheads Christopher Davos has posted the second part of his “developer’s diary” for The Long War, a strategic card-driven game about the current war in Afghanistan. There’s also a forum to discuss the game concept.

* * *

It’s an old thread (2009) but a good one: if you’re thinking of using the classic board game Diplomacy in the classroom, have a look at this informative post (and subsequent discussion) at BoardGameGeek.

* * *

Speaking of games of nations, Reddit user “Lycerius” has been playing the computer game Civilization II (1996) for ten years—that is to say, the same game of Civ II over 10 years:

I’ve been playing the same game of Civ II for 10 years. Though long outdated, I grew fascinated with this particular game because by the time Civ III was released, I was already well into the distant future. I then thought that it might be interesting to see just how far into the future I could get and see what the ramifications would be. Naturally I play other games and have a life, but I often return to this game when I’m not doing anything and carry on. The results are as follows.

  • The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.
  • There are 3 remaining super nations in the year 3991 A.D, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.

-The ice caps have melted over 20 times (somehow) due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn’t a mountain is inundated swamp land, useless to farming. Most of which is irradiated anyway.

-As a result, big cities are a thing of the distant past. Roughly 90% of the world’s population (at its peak 2000 years ago) has died either from nuclear annihilation or famine caused by the global warming that has left absolutely zero arable land to farm. Engineers (late game worker units) are always busy continuously building roads so that new armies can reach the front lines. Roads that are destroyed the very next turn when the enemy goes. So there isn’t any time to clear swamps or clean up the nuclear fallout.

-Only 3 super massive nations are left. The Celts (me), The Vikings, And the Americans. Between the three of us, we have conquered all the other nations that have ever existed and assimilated them into our respective empires.

-You’ve heard of the 100 year war? Try the 1700 year war. The three remaining nations have been locked in an eternal death struggle for almost 2000 years….

The epic game has provoked much discussion online, both in terms of strategy for ending the war and with regard to the situation that has developed on his virtual earth after a decade of game play.

(Interestingly, part of the fascination here is that the game is a digital one, where the “half-life” for continuous play is expected to be quite low due to the eventual obsolescence of software or the lure of upgraded editions or subsequent more sophisticated competing games. By contrast, there would be quite a few manual pen-and-paper role-playing games that have been going for two or more decades without attracting attention from NPRThe Guardian, The AtlanticForbes, news agencies, and hundreds of electronic gaming and technology publications and blogs.)

* * *

Tiltfactor is “a conceptual design lab that researches, designs, launches, and publishes games and interactive experiences related to technology and human values” founded by Mary Flanagan. It produces some very interesting games, including POX—a game that educates about vaccination and group immunity. Now they are introducing ZOMBIEPOX, a zombie-themed variant of that same game. The reason for doing so isn’t just because they’ve seen the blood-spattered writing on the apocalyptic wall, but rather to see whether reconfiguring a health education game with a zombie theme will affect the way players accept and learn from it:

…ZOMBIEPOX is an evolution of POX: SAVE THE PEOPLE®, which was originally conceived as a game of disease control that came out of a partnership with the Mascoma Valley Health Initiative to stop the spread of misinformation concerning the effects of vaccination.

Previous research at Tiltfactor has found that players can apply concepts and systems thinking learned through playing POX: SAVE THE PEOPLE to problems outside the game. Currently, Tiltfactor is conducting research to examine the gameplay and learning outcomes of ZOMBIEPOX and how the zombie narrative compares with the original POX: SAVE THE PEOPLE game….

War(games) are hell: Unified Quest 2012

The Unified Quest 2012 wargame(s) wrapped up recently at the Army War College, and according to the report by AOL Defense reporter Sydney Freedberg Jr.the results were rather messy—which is a good thing, from the point of view of the exercise:

In the end, it was a near-run thing. The US-led coalition broke through to the refugee camps and began delivering aid. But their supply lines were stretched thin across land and sea, with an entire Army brigade embarked on rented cruise ships at one point. Ashore, the troops took heavy losses from local Islamic militants whom they never entirely defeated. In the end, indeed, it didn’t really end: US troops were left in the middle of a conflict that threatened to escalate to a wider regional war. It’s just that the wargamers ran out of time.

This year’s wargame at the Army War College was one of the toughest in years, participants told AOL Defense, and that’s a good thing. Since they began in 1997, the annual games had gradually gotten less rigorous over time, say critics, which meant that Army leaders were pleasantly unsurprised by the results. With wars in both Afghanistan andIraq, there were enough ugly surprises in real life to force hard thinking. Now, as the Army looks beyond withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, it could postulate more comfortable scenarios. But the Army can hardly afford to go easy on itself in the face of shrinking budgets, increasing inter-service rivalry, and an administration strategy that rejects the kinds of counterinsurgency missions it spent the last decade doing. Fortunately, the wargame is getting usefully nasty again.

“I was initially skeptical,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who started the annual wargame when he was commandant of the Army War College and had been displeased by its direction. “I’ve been very much a stern critic of this game over the years,” he told AOL Defense, but this time, the players portraying the enemy — the “Red Team” — were once again given freedom to wreak havoc on the good guys in innovative ways, forcing the US and its allies — “Blue” — to innovate in turn. Said Scales, “that led to a lot of legitimacy and credibility in the game, which I found frankly very refreshing.”

You can read the full report at the link above. For more on Unified Quest 2012, the earlier PAXsims post here.

Conference report: games in the teaching of politics, IR, and related fields

Phil Sabin (King’s College London) has kindly allowed me to repost his report below on the recent workshop on “The Use of Simulations, Board Games and Virtual games in the teaching of politics, international relations and related fields,” held at the University Of Westminster on 8 June 2012. The item was originally posted to Phil’s Simulating War Yahoo group.

The picture below (of games made by the staff and students of KCL) is taken from Richard Barbrook‘s Facebook album on the conference.

* * *

The Higher Education Academy workshop I mentioned at Westminster University took place on Friday, and proved very interesting. Around 30 people came (mainly academics from Britain and overseas), and there were 10 presentations during the day.

Simon Usherwood from Surrey University talked about how to overcome common problems with political simulations in politics classes. See his site at:

Frands Pedersen from Wesminster (one of the organisers) then gave some examples based on his modules on Diplomacy and EU Governance. See his very useful repository of political sims at:

Malin Stegmann-McCallion from Karlstad talked about Swedish political sims, especially one on the vexed issue of wolf hunting. A lady from Lund University gave more details from the floor of their own gaming

The morning ended with an inspirational keynote address by Professor Mary Flanagan of Dartmouth College NY, in which she described her own many projects in gaming and game-based art, all focused on public engagement. She described the use of simple games to get people thinking and to challenge entrenched prejudices about issues like race, unemployment and immunisation. She suggested that the simpler the game, the richer the discussion, and she made the very interesting point that introducing fantasy elements (eg by converting the immunisation game Pox into Zombiepox) often increases the game’s popularity by appearing less earnest and worthy, while still achieving the central aim. For more, see:

The afternoon started with my own introduction to Simulating War. This led neatly into Richard Barbrook’s talk about how they have begun their own BA module at Westminster in which students play and critique board wargames and then design their own simple board games on subjects like the IRA bombings in Belfast or last year’s London riots, based heavily on my own MA option course. See:

Richard also described his continued championing of Guy Debord’s ‘Game of War’, as laid out at:

Our panel finished with a very lively presentation by Russell King from the Royal Free Hospital on his use of games as a training medium in the National Health Service. He ended by getting us to make a decision about freeing up beds in the face of a reported plane crash, with lives depending on us striking the right balance.

The final session began with Nick Robinson from Leeds describing his work on the social and cultural dimension of mass market videogames, and the ‘possibility spaces’ which their virtual words create. His website is:

Daphne Economou from Multimedia Computing at Westminster then gave a richly illustrated presentation on how they are trying to create templates which will allow non-programmers to build their own virtual games instead of falling back on the greater design accessibility of board games. The workshop finished with Govinda Clayton from Kent reporting on research to provide stronger empirical support for the alleged effectiveness of simulations as a teaching tool compared to traditional lectures and seminars. This very important research is available in his paper at:

Overall, the workshop was a great opportunity to get together, exchange ideas, and realise the sheer diversity of the use of simulations and games in education. As Rex and Bill have pointed out here repeatedly, wargames are only one of the many ways in which games are being used educationally, and they are currently very much the poor relation compared to ‘talking games’ and very simple abstract games which make a serious point. (Mary Flanagan, for example, discussed the value of something as simple as a pair of card decks which in combination produced pairings such as ‘female scientist’, with players then having to name someone falling into the category concerned.)

This all has a lot of bearing on the issues we have been discussing already in this group, and I hope that it will spark further discussion, especially when you get a chance to follow up some of the web links I have given above.

Philip Sabin
King’s College London

Review: 1989—Dawn of Freedom

1989: Dawn of Freedom. GMT Games, 2010. Game designers: Ted Torgerson & Jason Matthews. Game developer: Bruce Wigdor. $65.00

It is 1989, and popular protests and uprisings have swept across much of Eastern Europe. In Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria the old communist regimes have been swept away. The Baltic republics are well on their way to independence. In Poland and East Germany the contending forces remain more finally balanced, while in Romania the regime appears to have an upper hand. Pro-democracy activists in East Germany take a desperate gamble, hoping to translate their narrow lead in popular support into a successful campaign to unseat the dictatorship. In the ensuing power struggle, however, they fail: for the third time in less than a year, the East German regime survives. The failure reverberates across Eastern Europe, bringing to an end—for now at least—further hopes of political reform.

And so it was that, as the forces of democracy, I lost my first session of GMT’s recent boardgame 1989: Dawn of Freedom. Although I had overturned communist regimes in three countries and nearly toppled the Polish government too, my third high-profile setback in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik had cost me dearly.

Game Contents and Play

1989 is a two player card-driven game, in which one player plays the role of various communist regimes seeking to maintain power, while the other represents democratic forces seeking to topple them. The game contains a good quality mounted map of Eastern Europe, two sets of cleanly-punched counter sheets, a deck of 110 “strategy cards,” a second deck of 52 “power cards,” a rule book, and two dice.

Game play is similar in many ways to GMT’s very popular cold war-era boardgame Twilight Struggle (2005)—hardly surprising, given that both were co-designed by Jason Matthews. Each turn the players are dealt a hand of eight strategy cards. They then alternate in playing a card each, either for its operations value or for the event (and associated effects) printed on it. When eight such rounds have been played, new cards are dealt to top up each player’s hand. As the game progresses, the initial “early year” strategy deck has first “middle year” then “late year” cards added to it, thus assuring that key events occur in a loosely semi-historical sequence.

Two sorts of actions are possible when a card is played for operations points: a player may either place “support points” on the map in an effort to secure key locations, or undertake “support checks” to try to reduce the other player’s support (and possibly build their own). Locations are each associated with a particular domestic constituency (workers, farmers, students, intellectuals, the church, bureaucrats, or elites), each of which can offer advantages during power struggles.  Certain locations are also denoted as “battlegrounds,” and have additional importance in scoring victory points.

“Power struggles” are where political competition for the destiny of each country  comes to head. Each player receives a number of power cards, depending on the number of locations they control in the country. These are divided into four suits (petitions, strikes, marches, and rally in the square) plus constituency leaders and wild cards. The competing players then play a sort of modified “go fish” card game. The result determines the outcome of the power struggle, which—if the democratic player wins—can also result in regime change.

The game ends after ten turns, or when one player reaches 20 victory points.

The card-driven nature of 1989: Dawn of Freedom, in which the historical contents of the strategy cards help to drive both the game and its narrative, makes for immersive game play. The process by which power struggles are played out as a cardgame-within-the-card-driven-boardgame makes for nail-biting tension, even if the cards are really abstractions that—apart from the names of the “suits”—do not especially match with any actual political process. The rules are relatively straight-forward, and the rule book clear and easy to read.

I had two quibbles with the game, one minor, the other more substantial. My minor quibble related to the two possible operations a player can conduct, namely placing support points and undertaking support checks. While the former was clear enough (representing the organizational and mobilization efforts by the two sides as they seek to expand their power bases), it wasn’t clear to me what real-world process a “support check” was supposed to represent. It certainly wasn’t a clash with the opposing side, since it presented no material risks to the player undertaking it. Instead, it simply seemed to be a copy of the “realignment” operation that players can make in Twilight Struggle. I definitely would have preferred an operations choice that related to something the contending sides actually did (or perhaps even asymmetric options, different for each side).

My major quibble with the game was the way in which it models the domino effects of East European regime changes—or rather, the way it doesn’t. Toppling a regime may score you victory points and end further power struggles in that country, but it doesn’t have any particular effects on game play in the remaining communist countries. However, during the actual historical transformation of Eastern Europe, the “demonstration effect” of regime change in one country emboldened populations in other communist countries too, boosting their morale, weakening the deterrent effect of regime repression, and generally giving populations an expanded sense of new political possibilities.

Perhaps the designers didn’t want to create a runaway train effect, whereby the democratic player could establish unstoppable momentum by the mid-point of the game. However, in our game I found it a bit odd that successful revolutions in three communist countries had no discernible effects in the other three.

That having been said, 1989: Dawn of Freedom is certainly a very enjoyable game. Game play is interesting and nuanced. It is also immersive and exciting. 1989 is likely to become one of those games I frequently play, and I would certainly strongly recommend it to those interested in the genre or the subject matter.

Instructional Potential

This being PAXsims, we’re interested in more than just the game value of a game, however. What of the potential use of 1989: Dawn of Freedom in an educational setting? Here too my assessment is very positive.

The game plays relatively quickly (about three hours), and is relatively easy to learn. The historical description on the cards (expanded upon further in the rules) would certainly acquaint students/players with the key historical developments of this period. While two player games can be problematic with larger classes, the game could easily be adapted for team play in the way that we early suggested for GMT’s “global war on terror” game Labyrinth. Indeed, given the many similarities between the two games, much of what we have earlier suggested for using Labyrinth in the classroom (here and here) would equally apply to 1989.

  • Students could be asked to play the game through, and then write a critical evaluation (based on class readings, lectures, and outside research) of how it depicts the events and political dynamics associated with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe—much as one might write an academic book review. Such an assignment would challenge students to think critically about how the actual processes of repression and regime change might beset be captured within a set of game rules.
  • Students could be asked to suggest new rules or events (strategy cards), outline their proposed game effects, and justify these with reference to actual historical processes.
  • Students might be asked to play this and several other games of revolution and political change, and then design their own game of a completely different case.

As a scholar of the Arab world, I was particularly struck by the potential to use a modified version of the 1989 game system to design a game about the 2011-12 “Arab Spring.” There are many parallels between the two periods, especially with regard to the role of demonstration and domino effects. On the other hand, ongoing Arab political transformations were not occasioned by the declining power of a regional hegemon, unlike the pivotal role played by changing Soviet policy in the 1980s. Moreover, while the Arab Spring has involved East European-style mass protests in many cases (Tunisia, Egypt), it has also seen heavily militarized civil wars, with a degree of overt (Libya) or covert (Syria) external involvement. The transitional processes in some Arab countries (notably Libya and Yemen) are also even more uncertain than those Eastern Europe. Addressing those aspects in a game would require some substantial changes to the 1989 game system.

In short, 1989 could be used not only in teaching about the fall of communism, but also to generate some interesting educational and analytical perspectives into the decline and fall of regional authoritarian orders more broadly. Indeed, I may try using it in that way in a classroom setting during this coming academic year. If and when I do, I’ll certainly report the results back here as PAXsims!

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For further discussion of 1989: Dawn of Freedom, see the game listing, reviews, and forum at BoardGameGeek.

UPDATE: Also, game co-designer Ted Torgerson has offered some thoughtful responses to the points I raised in the review, so be sure to read the comments section too.

Connections 2012 conference registration open

Registration for the Connections 2012 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at National Defense University (23-26 July 2012) is now open:

On behalf of Col Matt Caffrey, USAFR (Ret.), I am pleased to announce that registration for Connections 2012 is now open. This is the second year that the Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL) at National Defense University (NDU) will be hosting the Connections Inderdisciplinary Wargaming Conference, and we are proud to be a part of this longstanding tradition. This year’s dates are July 23-26.

Connections is the only conference that captures the full range of educational, analytic, research, policy, and commercial wargaming. The 2012 conference theme is “Methods for Tomorrow’s Wargames.” This theme will be reflected throughout the conference in speaker panels, working groups, and a new workshop element, the Connections Game Lab.

The invitation link below also provides a link to the conference website with more information, including the current draft of the conference agenda.

Click here to view the invitation and complete the R.s.v.p. form:

IMPORTANT NOTE: You may receive an error message from your browser that says something to the effect that the site’s certificate is not valid. This is because most browsers do not by default accept certificates generated by U.S. government sites as valid, and this website is a product of the Air Force Institute of Technology. If your browser gives you the option of proceeding to the site anyway (which Internet Explorer and Firefox should), you can click through, secure in the knowledge that this is a common issue that does not mean whatever terrible thing your browser is trying to tell you it means. If your browser does not allow you to click through (as Google Chrome seems to), you can try a different browser or download the certificate authority by following the instructions on this page.

Thank you and we hope to see you at Connections 2012.

Timothy Wilkie
Research Analyst
Center for Applied Strategic Learning
National Defense University

Both of PAXsims editors both attending so we hope to see you there.

Unified Quest 2012

AOL defence columnist Sidney Freedberg reports on this week’s US Army “Unified Quest” wargame at the Army War College:

All this week, at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the Army is conducting the latest iteration of its annual wargame. In the fictional future of the game, set in 2020, 120 players will wage a two-front war in the two regions that have come to dominate US strategy, with one scenario set in the Middle East — which I’ll get to sit in on — and another in the Pacific — which is classified. In the real world of here and now, however, what’s at stake is how the largest but least glamorous of the four military services plays catch-up to the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marines in reinventing itself for the post-Afghanistan era.The Army War College has hosted similar wargames every year since the 1990s, but this year is different, because the world has changed. US troops left Iraq last December and are drawing down, albeit slowly, in Afghanistan. At home, budgets are shrinking and the Army’s shrinking with them, slated to shed eight combat brigades and at least 87,000 troops between now and 2017 (or far more, much faster if sequestration happens). To thrash out the Army’s response, the service’s intellectual hub, the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), has convened a whole series of conferences and seminars on the future of the service, collectively entitled “Unified Quest 2012,” which began in October and led up to this week’s wargame as the climactic event. Out of that months-long process emerged the key themes that the assembled players are wrestling with this week.

Above all other issues rises the Army’s role in projecting US power abroad. The administration’s strategic guidance, released in January, formally swore off “large-scale, prolonged stability operations,” the very kind of counterinsurgency that’s been the Army’s all-consuming mission since 2003. Now the chief strategic challenge is how to shape events abroad without having large forces already on the ground, whether through the subtle influence of a small cadre of advisors or a sudden surge of reinforcements in a crisis.

Advisor teams and other aspects of “building partnership capacity” are something the Army is on top of after years of working with the Afghans and Iraqis; the conventional forces of the “Big Army” are now adept in foreign partnerships that were once a marginalized mission reserved for the Special Forces. Rapidly deploying forces to a distant warzone where they must fight their way in against sophisticated opposition, however, is something the Army has hardly practiced since 2003.

The other services, meanwhile, have all already returned to that kind of power projection as their primary focus. The Marine Corps has been emphasizing its return to its sea-borne, swift-striking roots in amphibious expeditions. The Air Force and Navy have joined intellectual and political forces to advance the concept of “AirSea Battle,” aimed at cracking open the “anti-access / area denial” defenses of regional powers like Iran or even China. The strategic problem in many ways resembles that of the 1990s, when the Army War College’s annual wargames began and the Army’s leaders were increasingly fixated on rapid deployment overseas, but today’s problem is even tougher. Potential adversaries have access to an ever-proliferating arsenal of techniques to hinder US deployment into their regions and hamstring US operations on arrival, a so-called “hybrid threat” that blends low-tech weapons like roadside bombs, naval mines, and suicide bombs with high-tech ones like long-range guided missiles and cyber-warfare.

The Army’s own briefing for wargame participants highlights the linked problems of the “hybrid threat” and enemy “anti-access/area denial” strategies on the first page and returns to it repeatedly thereafter. It also explicitly raises the question of the Army’s role in the AirSea Battle construct, so far dominated by the Air Force and Navy. This isn’t only an Army wargame. Besides Army officers and civilians, the players include officers from the other US services, liaisons from foreign militaries, and representatives from a range of civilian agencies. Most of the participants will play as members of the simulated American command, but about one in nine will represent the neutrals that the US must sway or the adversaries it must defeat. Later in the week, another 60 or so senior officers and outside experts will convene to address the high-level strategic issues raised by the two theater-level games. Friday will see the final briefing to Army senior leaders. The final formal product will be a revision of the Army’s “Capstone Concept” later this year, but the larger issue is the Army’s struggle to assert its strategic relevance in the post-Afghanistan era.

You’ll find further information on the process and the game on the US Army’s official blog:

The Army Chief of Staff’s future study plan, Unified Quest, is about ideas – generating, exploring, growing ideas, and transitioning them to concepts that will drive the Army of 2020.  Unified Quest events examine critical issues for the future of the Army and develop solutions through workshops, seminars symposiums and wargames.

For the past year, Unified Quest events have explored issues critical to the Army of 2020 – what the Army must do as a part of the joint force, how the Army should fight in the future, and how the Army should build partners and capacity, among other issues.

Unified Quest’s capstone event is the Army Future Game-where the ideas and solutions generated from previous UQ events and emerging concepts are tested in a rigorous seminar wargame.  This year, two operational working groups will examine the Army’s ability in 2020, as part of a Joint Force, to gain and maintain access and counter anti-access and area denial operations within a hybrid strategy as part of a complex environment.

Two scenarios will set the stage for these examinations – one in set in the Middle East and one in the Pacific area, regions selected to align with the new National Security Strategy.  Through these scenarios, the working group participants will explore issues including special operations and conventional force interdependence, and cyber operations, and the Army’s role in the Air-Sea Battle concept and how to leverage it, among other issues.

A third working group of experts in the areas of governance, U.S. national strategy, security policy, economics, science and technology, and military art and science will be presented with several Army-level issues.  During facilitated discussions, the strategic working group members will apply their experiences and expertise to illuminate the potential outcomes and effects associated with issues of strategic importance to the Army.

On the final day of the Future Game, senior leaders from throughout the Army will discuss with the working groups their insights and recommendations. The results from the working groups will help analyze and evaluate the Army Capstone Concept and Army Operating Concept revisions, as well as inform revisions of the Army functional concepts in the context of new strategic guidance, and a future operational environment.  The results will also inform Army issues for Quadrennial Defense Review 2014.

The Unified Quest website is here, and—in a sign of the times—their official Facebook page is here. the video below also provides a good overview of the sorts of scenarios under discussion.


At AOL Defense, Sidney Freedberg provides an update on the wargme(s) in progress:

US ARMY WAR COLLEGE: It’s a week into the war, and things are getting ugly. Fifty American and allied troops are dead, four hundred are wounded — some in city fighting against Islamic militants, some when the surprisingly sophisticated foe shot down their aircraft with shoulder-fired missiles and anti-helicopter mines.

Now the US-led task force has seized the two seaports that were its objectives, only to find the enemy has sabotaged the dock facilities. No supplies are getting through to the refugees that the intervention was meant to protect in the first place. Meanwhile, cruise missiles and cyber-attacks have hit the coalition’s staging bases in Italy. Reports have come in of radiological “dirty bombs” and a toxic chemical spill at an industrial site too ill-timed to be an accident. The enemy irregulars fight, while across the border the hostile nation-state that armed them in the first place is threatening to unleash its own regular military in the guerrillas’ support.

Fortunately, of course, all this is fiction, a status update yesterday morning at the Army’s annual wargame held here at the War College. Even the warring countries are fictional, with the imaginary Muslim-majority nations of “Greenland” and “Redland” superimposed on the real-world geography of the Balkans and Ukraine respectively. (Wargame planners use this trick so they can assess their moves against real-world terrain and transportation infrastructure without seeming to rehearse a war against any real nation).

A brief (musical) history of video games—in three minutes

This video is a very clever history of the evolution of modern video games, using only sounds and music from within the games themselves. Produced for by Reverse Enginears, featuring P Sus.

More episodes will be made available at the computing/social media/gaming website The Verge.

h/t Lisa Lynch

Games for Change: What are the top 100 games everyone should play?

In cooperation with ESI design, the Games for Change folks are putting together a crowd-sourced list of the 100 top games that everyone should play.

At Games for Change, we use the power and fun of games for social good, but when it comes down to it, we’re just folks who love playing games.

At our Festival each year, Newcomers to gaming ask us, “What should I play to get started?” Some are referring to social impact games, but others just want great gaming recommendations.

Now, Games for Change and ESI Design invite you to answer that question by helping to create “The 100” – a crowdsourced list of the games everyone should play.

Connect with us and nominate your favorite game. Here’s how:

1. SIGN IN – You can use your Facebook, Twitter or other pre-existing accounts. You can also create your own unique login to The 100.

2. NOMINATE a game you think people should play to learn about good  gaming. Any format works, so it can be digital, physical, social, whatever. It can also be about any subject – it doesn’t have to educational, just great to play.

3. VOTE other games up or down to help decide which games make it into the top 100. Voting closes at 5 pm EDT on June 20. Don’t forget to join the discussion about each game you vote on!

To register and vote, click here.

Learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through simulations: The case of PeaceMaker

Peacemaker (2008) is a computer game produced by ImpactGames, in which players seek to bring about a successful negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the guest blogpost below, Dr. Ronit Kampf (Tel Aviv University) and  Dr. Esra Cuhadar Gurkanyak (Bilkent University) examine the impact of  the game on the attitudes of Israeli, Palestinian, Turkish, and American students, and find it to be” an effective teaching tool concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for both parties to the conflict and third parties.” For further information on their research and findings, also see their conference paper here.

* * *

We examined the effectiveness and usefulness of technology as a pedagogical tool in teaching conflict resolution. There is very little research on this question and none of the assessments involved a cross-cultural experimental study. We conducted a cross cultural experiment in four different national groups (i.e., Jewish-Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and Turks) using PeaceMaker, a computer game simulating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We were specifically interested in the following questions: Does the game affect participants’ acquisition of knowledge about the conflict? Does the game contribute to attitude change regarding the conflict? Are there any differences in terms of knowledge acquisition and attitude change between participants that are direct parties to the conflict (i.e., Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians) and those that are third parties (i.e., Americans and Turks)?

In PeaceMaker, a player can assume the role of the Israeli Prime Minister or the role of the Palestinian President and engage in a series of decisions with the aim of satisfying constituents on both sides of the conflict. The game can be played in English, Hebrew or Arabic on calm, tense or violent conflict levels, differing in the frequency of events that appear on the screen and are beyond the player’s control. In order to deal with these events a player can select actions pertaining to three main categories: security, political and construction, each branching into a variety of sub-categories (e.g., checkpoints, speeches). In order to resolve the conflict in the game, scores for both Israeli and Palestinian sides must reach 100 points each. If either score drops below -50, the player loses the game.

167 undergraduate students of political science participated in the study, including 38 Turkish students from Bilkent University, 50 Jewish-Israeli students from Tel Aviv University, 39 American students from the School for Overseas Students at Tel Aviv University and 40 Palestinian students from Bethlehem University.

After being introduced to PeaceMaker, the participants filled in a short questionnaire focusing on knowledge questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and attitudes toward the conflict. The students were then asked to play the role of the Israeli Prime Minister and the role of the Palestinian President in random order. After playing the game twice, participants filled in a second short questionnaire, almost identical in content to the first questionnaire with the exception of a few additional questions regarding participants’ experience with the game.

Resolving the conflict in the game

Overall 33% of the participants resolved the conflict in one role and 11% of the participants resolved the conflict in both roles. In the Israeli role, 8% of Turkish participants resolved the conflict, 21% of American participants resolved it, 32% of Israeli participants of Jewish origin resolved it and 40% of Palestinian participants resolved it. In the Palestinian role, 30% of Turkish participants resolved the conflict, 23% of American participants resolved it, 34% of Israeli participants of Jewish origin resolved it and 40% of Palestinian participants resolved it.

3% of Turkish participants resolved the conflict in both roles, 10% of American participants resolved it in both roles, 16% of Israeli participants of Jewish origin resolved it in both roles and 15% of Palestinian participants resolved the conflict in both roles.

Explaining conflict resolution in the game

In both roles, participants that were more knowledgeable on the conflict  successfully resolved the conflict, while those that were less knowledgeable were not as successful.  Thus, in line with our expectations, participants that are direct parties to the conflict (Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli) resolved the conflict more successfully in all situations compared to the third parties (Turkish and American).

Political attitudes, the order of playing the Israeli role and the Palestinian role (which one is played first), gender, religious affiliation, average number of weekly hours playing computer games and average number of weekly hours spent online did not explain successful resolution of the conflict in the game for the Israeli role and for the Palestinian role.

PeaceMaker aims at a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, envisioning Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace. Therefore, we examined whether support of a two-state solution explained resolving the conflict in the game. Results suggested that support of a two state solution did not explain resolving the conflict in the game for both Israeli and Palestinian roles. In other words, participants opposing a two state solution resolved the conflict in the game no less than those supporting it. 55% of the Jewish-Israelis, 40% of the Americans, 35% of the Palestinians, and 32% of the Turks that played the game supported the two-state solution.

Action type in the game

We examined whether the four groups (Jewish-Israeli, Palestinian, Turkish and American) differed in the action type they took in the game (Security, Political or Construction), separately for the Israeli role and for the Palestinian role.

The only significant result was obtained for security actions in the Palestinian role. Jewish-Israelis took the highest proportion of security actions, while Palestinians took the lowest proportion of security actions. The Turkish participants and the American participants took more security actions than Palestinians but less than Jewish-Israelis.

Game effects on attitude change

Turkish and American students became more impartial toward the Gaza operation (i.e., Israelis and Palestinians are equally right regarding the Gaza operation) after playing the game, while Jewish- Israeli and Palestinian students did not change their attitude toward the Gaza operation after playing the game. Jewish-Israeli students thought that Israelis are somewhat right regarding the Gaza operation, while Palestinian students thought that Palestinians are somewhat right regarding the Gaza operation. In addition, the four groups did not change their attitudes concerning key issues in the conflict (i.e., Jerusalem, water, security, refugees, settlements, borders) after playing the game.

In sum, the game had an effect on the attitudes of third party students only with regard to the Gaza operation. This may be because of differential familiarity of the issues especially for third parties. The Gaza operation was a recent event at the time of the study which received extensive media coverage and public debate as opposed to other issues. Participants, considering their age, might be more familiar with this issue and therefore the game has a limited impact on attitude change.

Game effects on knowledge acquisition

All participants acquired more knowledge on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a result of playing the game. After playing the game, American participants acquired more knowledge on the conflict compared to Turkish, Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian participants, but the latter two groups already held in the beginning high levels of knowledge on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, so did not have much more to gain.

In sum, although the game increased the level of knowledge for all groups significantly, the effect was again stronger for the third parties to the conflict. Overall, the game was an effective teaching tool concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for both parties to the conflict and third parties. Even with the Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian participants that are already knowledgeable about the conflict, it had a positive effect. Despite the limited effect on changing attitudes, increased knowledge acquisition by itself is an important outcome considering our earlier finding which suggests that the level of knowledge is highly correlated with the ability to successfully resolve the conflict. PeaceMaker is a teaching tool that is useful to introduce conflict assessment and resolution skills in a sophisticated and context rich simulation.

Ronit Kampf 

Esra Cuhadar Gurkanyak 

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