Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: October 2012

Policy simulations and high-level participants

Mr. Punch’s Victorian Era: An illustrated chronicle of the reign of Her Majesty the Queen, Volume 2 (1888), via Google eBooks.

Two months ago a discussion began via PAXsims on simulation design when Natasha Gill (TRACK4) posted a guest contribution on “Happy endings, doomsday prophesies, and the perils of think tank simulations,” responding in part to earlier comments I had made on a Syria simulation at the Brookings Institution. Devin Ellis (ICONS Project) then offered some reflections on Natash’a’s points and the “Dance of the Simulation Designer” (to which Natasha, in return responded).

Today we offer round three of this valuable discussion, as Devin addresses some issues and questions raised by Natasha and myself, and offers more thoughts on policy simulations and high-level participants.

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Policy Simulations and High-Level Participants – Continued

Devin Ellis, ICONS Project

Natasha Gill wrote a very thoughtful response to my spur-of-the-moment comments on her initial post, and I promised Rex that I would continue the dialogue on high-level participants (I think I’m going to give up and go for an acronym – HLP from here on in). I have been distracted by my day job for the past month, but I am hoping to answer Gill’s question(s) and further clarify some of the points in our discussion. I am doing a lot of think tank work right now, watching much more of it as an invited guest, and I have kept this discussion firmly at the forefront of my mind. Assessing what I thought was valuable and not valuable about what I’ve witnessed the past few weeks sharpened my thinking on this subject.

Gill asked:

My question to Ellis is this: he writes that the purpose of the exercise is to “explore possible policy reactions to a crisis” but in the same sentence admits that “no one…believes the purpose of a well designed and run wargame is to predict the ‘real future’ in a complex policy environment.

I think this means that although facilitators and participants are well aware that the details of the future can’t be known, the responses of various players to a crisis might be generally predictable in a simulation, in such a way as to be informative or useful for policy makers.

But upon reflection, if this is what Ellis meant, I’m not sure it makes sense to me. If a simulation can’t predict the future, then how much is it really telling you about possible ‘policy reactions’? And how much of what it does tell you about these actually useful (rather than merely interesting) to real policy makers?”

Gill is almost right about what I meant. I did not originally frame it this way, but I stand by the idea that a think tank simulation can tell you a great deal about possible policy reactions without having to be predictive of the one specific future – indeed the well run policy planning simulation should do exactly that.

She also, however, throws in the existential dilemma for all of us in this business: how much of what you get out of this is actually useful to policy makers vs. merely interesting? My answer to this two part question is that I believe there are a lot of circumstances under which think tanks should not do policy simulations. But if they do them it should be with HLPs, and they should not attempt to get them out of their own background and experiences. I argue that this very formula can be what gets your desired outcome: a set of possible courses of action which are useful for planning.

My answer raises two questions: 1) What does a ‘good’ think tank simulation need to deliver? 2) Why do HLPs help get you there? Here we go…

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s the Saban Center!

The think tank simulation is a different beast from an in-house policy planning exercise for an agency or office. It is also very different from a simulation used for training. Usually the objective is not to give the participants in the exercise new insight into the issue – if they get it, bully for them, but that’s secondary. The objective is to influence current and possibly future policy makers who are almost never, themselves, participants.

In Stephen Downes-Martin’s talk this year at Connections, he emphasized one of his key questions to the client: “When do you rotate out of here?” He asks that (and we all should!) because with an in-house program you want to make sure that client is served by the time frame of your exercise and the recommendations that emerge from it. For a think tank, your recommendations often go public, and even when they don’t your client is usually an SME, not an SES/O-8-O-9er. This has implications.

As a think tank, you need to be able to defend your conclusions to:

  1. The current decider
  2. The next decider
  3. Their numerous opponents and critics.

What does this mean? The content of the simulation needs to be either non-partisan or bi-partisan in significance; it’s best not to assume any specific political agenda or personality for the actors in major democratic powers (the U.S.); the more your exercise focuses on core thematic and structural issues, the longer its shelf life and the wider its acceptance. In short, you benefit from less – not more – situational and personality specificity.

My first question to the think tank interested in running a crisis simulation is: “what do you want this exercise to tell you about policy planning options?” If the answer is “I want one exercise to reveal the hidden truth of how we are going to untangle the mess in Syria” then I will try and get them to re-think their agenda. If the question is: “I want to better understand what courses of development might face us in the event that US decision makers are confronted by scenario X,” then a good simulation might just be for you!

Admiral, if you could put down the putter for just one moment please…

On doing what we do, I could not say it better than Peter Perla:

Wargames, on the other hand, focus precisely on human behavior, particularly on human decision making. The learning that comes from wargames comes both from the experience of making decisions (playing) and from the process of understanding why those decisions are made (game analysis)… Wargames do not do very well at producing quantitative measures because they are often little more than a single realization of a complex stochastic process. Instead, the value of a wargame lies in qualitative assessments of why decisions are made.

The think tank’s sim has to work for multiple real world audiences, so the specificity of things like political leanings and psychology that would make role sheets for a simulation examining a very specific set of parameters so vital are instead counterproductive. The think tank’s sim is looking for a very particular type of outcome – it’s an exercise in identifying problems and options which can be generalized.

Rather than trying to break the HLPs out of their shells, I am in fact looking for those instinctive, experiential elements they bring. Their professional background – if not their political party or personal feelings – is usually representative of their near peers. When you analyze the thought processes they went through, how they decided what to do, and what they did, you can draw inferences about how a real world administration would likely be advised of its options. Doing so can show you both areas where they are presenting good ideas, and also areas where you can point to problems with myopic thinking, lack of creativity, and constraints on policy choices which should be addressed BEFORE the crisis happens. If a good think tank sim can do these things, it is well worth the time spent on it.

Go Ahead, Kill the Messenger

It will come as no surprise, given the proceeding, that I don’t do role sheets for HLPs in a think tank simulation. As I said, what I’m looking for are their real life assumptions, reactions, and ingrained knowledge. It would be total hubris for me to assume I know more about the gritty details of each of their specialized realms than they do, and the last thing I want is to impose a filter. Also, from a purely practical standpoint, most HLPs are not going to read all their materials if you give them more than half a dozen pages. I love the ones who will, but I plan for those who won’t.

What does this mean? Your scenario has to be superb – it has to withstand the critical glare of your participants, and it has to drive the key elements you want them to focus on in the simulation. Part of my problem with many think tank simulations and wargames is that scenarios are often not rigorously enough vetted for both realism AND their ability to elicit the responses you are most interested in examining in your exercise. Additionally, I am in 100% agreement with Gill on the deleteriousness of throwing endless, seemingly unconnected injects at your participants to stir things up (“let’s see how they’ll react to this! And now this! Etc”). Stick to your story.


Rex raised a good point: for the think-tankers to sell their conclusions, it helps to have those big names attached. Many good ideas only make the leap from academia to policy after a big name policy shop has written them up with the implicit endorsement of beltway heavy hitters. Of course it cuts both ways, and plenty of trash has been given marketing sparkle by former cabinet members. Garbage in, garbage out – at all levels. I think it’s up to the savvy consumer to look at the simulation product much the same as he or she would any other think tank product.

She Don’t Like Firefly…

Yes, I can see this would be a problem.

Review: Peterson, Playing at the World

Book review: Jon Peterson, Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People, and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role Playing Games (San Diego: Unreason Press, 2012). 632pp + bibliography and index. $34.95.

Despite its lengthy (and slightly misleading) subtitle, Playing at the World is really about one thing: the evolution, development, and impact of the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons from its earliest precursors to the late 1970s. Yet this narrow focus is, at the same time, both far-reaching and exhaustive in its treatment of the subject. Peterson masterfully tells the story of D&D in the broader context of wargaming since the 18th century, in reference to the gaming subculture and networks that shaped it, and with due attention to both the economics of the nascent RPG industry and the key personalities of the day. He does this, moreover, in exquisite detail and on a foundation of truly stunning primary research, with copious footnotes and an extensive bibliography that runs the gamut from original game design notes through to rare hobby newsletters and fanzines to historical texts and academic analyses. The result is a thoughtful, erudite, yet highly readable book that should be viewed as a seminal contribution to the history of an important gaming genre.

The book itself is divided into five main chapters, plus an epilogue. The first chapter  explores the immediate context in which D&D was born. This includes the rise of wargaming clubs, wargaming of the medieval and the fantasy settings (including the publication of D&D’s precursor rules, Chainmail, cowritten by Gary Gygax), Dave Arneson‘s Blackmoor adventure campaign of the early 1970s, and the collaboration between Gygax and Arneson that produced the three-booklet original edition of Dungeons & Dragons (1974).

In the next two chapters, Peterson shifts focus to explore the inspirations for D&D. Chapter 2 thus examines the medieval fantasy genre, and the literary influences that would shape the emergence of RPG classes, equipment, and scenarios. In Chapter 3, the book traces the historical evolution of wargaming from the late 18th century onwards, and in doing so demonstrates the emergence of game design elements and concepts that would be incorporated into D&D and similar games.

In Chapter 4, the focus shifts once again, this time to the notion of role-playing itself, and how campaign games embed players in imagined world. In large part this is told through the lens of significant wargame club campaigns, some of whose participants were (or would be) influential figures within the broader hobby. Chapter 5 then returns to continue the story begun in Chapter 1, recounting the popularization and expansions of D&D into the mid- and late-1970s.

Finally, the Epilogue to the book shows how the fantasy RPG genre would make its first transition to computer games. This is in many ways the least satisfying part of the volume, taking the reader no further than the late 1970s and Zork. Then again, by this point the page count is already up to over 600 pages of meticulous analysis. Anything more and the book might be reclassified as a two-handed weapon (doing the same d6 damage as every other weapon in original D&D—but increasing to d10 by the time of the 1975 Greyhawk supplement).

For many readers the analytical value of the book will happily complemented by the sheer gaming-geek-pleasure of being transported back to the era of early D&D, reading about the first origins of the thief character class, or seeing once more the advertisements for the 1970s Miniature Figurines “Mythical Earth” wargaming figures (a set of which is still packed away in my gaming closet—minus the hobbits, which have more recently been converted to hungry undead children for gaming the near-future zombie apocalypse). Make no mistake about it, however: Playing the World is a serious piece of cultural and intellectual history. While the author apparently chose to self-publish the volume so as to retain full editorial control (and, doubtless, to avoid an editor’s insistence that he shorten his manuscript), I worry that this might make it less likely to appear in public and university libraries where it rightly deserves to be. Readers would be well advised not only to put it on their own Christmas lists this season, but to suggest it to their local collections librarian as well.

Jon Peterson’s “Playing at the World” blog can be found at

Channel 4: Nuclear War Games

The Channel 4 (UK) current affairs programme Dispatches will be airing a report on 5 November 2012 that explores the regional and international implications of an Israeli attack on Iran via crisis simulation:

Nuclear War Games: Channel 4 Dispatches

On the eve of the US presidential election Dispatches explores one of the major international issues facing the world: the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The programme has gained exclusive access to an Israeli ‘war game’, in which an Israeli attack on Iran is played out in detail.

The outcome of the imagined scenario could help Israel decide whether it goes to war with Iran. Dispatches examines how such a conflict could have dire repercussions for global stability and goes inside a country that lives with the permanent threat of war…

Behind closed doors in Israel’s elite Institute for National Security Studies, Israeli diplomats, former government ministers and spies are role-playing what could be the most audacious military strike in Israel’s history. All the potential players in this drama – the US, Iran, Israel, the EU, the UN, the Arab World and Russia – are represented in the game by Israelis, who chart out likely responses to an event that will ripple throughout the world. Will Israel escape unscathed? Or will the region explode into war – possibly dragging the West along with it…?

Producer/Director: Kevin Sim

Prod Co: Blakeway

Registration now open for TLC 2013

Registration is now open for the American Political Science Association’s 2013 Teaching & Learning Conference, to be held in Long Beach, California on 8-10 February 2013. The conference includes a track devoted to simulations and role play in political science education.

An early registration discount is available for those registering before December 12.

Beitrag zum Kriegsspiel (1876)

While serving as a lecturer at the Prussian military academy, then Colonel Julius von Verdy du Vernois proposed a revision of the earlier Kriegsspiel developed by the von Reiswitzs a half century earlier. In particular, he called for doing away with the increasing cumbersome system of charts and tables used in the adjudication of wargames, and adopting in their place a more fluid and flexible system whereby umpires would make determinations of outcome based on their experience. These ideas were published in a small book in 1876 entitled Beitrag  zum Kriegsspiel [Contribution to the Wargame]. As the author notes in the Preface:

The utility of the War Game is universally acknowledged at the present day. Nevertheless, cases are often met with in which attempts to practise it have been very speedily abandoned. As excellent books which contain instructions for carrying out the Game, and by means of which it has been practised for many years with great advantage, are easily accessible, this state of things is remarkable, and calls for closer investigation. Now, when I have inquired into the reason, I have, in most cases, received the answer, “We have no one here who knows how to conduct the Game properly.”

So far as relates to the solution of the military problems which occur in the course of the Game, this answer cannot be always considered satisfactory. For what the Game especially requires is a knowledge of the capabilities and fighting power of all arms, as well as of their principal accepted formations. Now, the elementary training of an officer ought to have laid the foundations of these acquirements; and even when it has not sufficed to do so, the very playing of the Game would develop more fully such knowledge as might be already possessed. Again, as every officer, as soon as he attains field rank, is liable to be called upon to command bodies composed of all three arms, he ought, of course, to prepare himself beforehand for such duties; and in the War Game he will find an opportunity for solving the questions which arise in connection with them.

But even if the previous knowledge of the young officer should prove insufficient; even if the decisions of the Umpire should be questionable—such a state of things arises in very many military exercitations, even when carried out with troops on actual ground.

To these causes the neglect of the War Game cannot be to any great extent referred; the source of that neglect must be sought for elsewhere, and, so far as my experience goes, I have found it to lie chiefly in the purely technical part of the conduct of the Game, the novice failing to understand the Rules, or the use of the Dice and the Tables of Losses.

It is, indeed, only by severe toil and a great expenditure of time that any one who has not learned the Game by actual practice can, through unassisted study of the books of instruction, so thoroughly master the subject as to be competent to undertake the conduct of an exercise of this kind. So it comes about that there are assuredly in the smaller garrisons many officers who should be especially fitted, from their position, to take the matter in hand who utterly shrink from doing so.

I in no way underrate the service which the received books of Instruction, with their Rules, Dice, and Tables of Losses have rendered, and will

render in the future. It consists chiefly in this, that the Umpire finds in the Rules, fixed principles by which the limits of the capacity and fighting power of the troops are defined, that the effective use of weapons gains full credit by means of the Tables of Losses, and that the dice, which give to chance its due influence, provide an apparent security against partiality in the decisions.

The question, however, arises, whether the Game might not be made even more useful than it is if the difficulties of execution and the expenditure of time, which the above-mentioned devices involve, could be avoided. Experience shows that this question must be answered in the affirmative.  (Translation by J.R. MacDonnell)

Verdy du Vernois’s call for a more easily-playable “free” kriegsspiel was taken up by others, and his work was soon translated into other languages. In London, an English translation by J.R. MacDonnell was published under the title The Tactical Wargame in 1884. In the US, another translation by Captain Eben Swift was published as A Simplified Wargame in 1897. The trend towards simplified rules was also partly reflected in the UK War Office’s Rules for the Conduct of the War-Game (1884).

 * * *

All three of these books are freely available online, via Google eBooks (here and here) or the US Combined Arms Research Library Digital Library.

War Office, Rules for the Conduct of the War-Game (1884)

As part of the current PAXsims mini-series of free 19th century wargaming material on the internet, we’re pleased to present the official UK War Office Rules for the Conduct of the War-Game (1884).

According to the preface, the rules were a revision of an earlier set released in 1872:

The present Rules for the War Game are revised from the original Rules published in 1872 by command of HRH the Field Marshal Commanding in Chief.

The revision has been made by a Committee of Officers assembled at Aldershot under the presidency of Major General F Willis CB In carrying out their instructions the Committee have aimed at consolidating the Rules and making them more easy of reference rather than at devising a new Code. The changes in War Material and organization which have taken place in the twelve years that have elapsed since the first issue of Rules have necessarily led to a great many changes in details in the Tables of Losses Possibility &c. The Committee have written to a large number of Officers interested in the War Game and have taken advantage of their suggestions in many particulars

They wish to acknowledge their special obligation to Colonel Lonsdale Hale for the valuable suggestions made by him

August 1884

SOURCE: Google eBooks.

P.A.G. Sabin’s Time Machine

Prof. Philip A.G. Sabin‘s recent book Simulating War (2012) makes a powerful argument for the usefulness of wargaming both an educational tool and as a method of historical inquiry. Little did we know, however, that Phil apparently had been making the same arguments more than a century ago, writing as an anonymous contributor to the 15 November 1890 edition of The Saturday Review. (Click the image above for a link to the original piece.)

After suggesting a possible alternative explanation for Edward IV’s successful march to London from the North during the Wars of the Roses, the unnamed scholarly author reveals that these insights were generated from a wargame of the events leading up to the Battle of Barnet:

Where then and on whose tables was the campaign of Barnet fought anew? Of whom was the smoke not of battle that curled round the umpire’s head as he passed to and fro between the armies of York and Lancaster and with masterful finger ruled the issues of their moves? We may not reveal the time and place but it was in no garrison or orderly room nor were the players men of war. It was in a peaceful seat of learning they were scholars historians men of books even clerks in orders are believed to have been among them on this or other like occasions.

One of the vulgar errors not dead yet is the notion that type of a successful student is a pale faced creature poring books with midnight oil Increase of common sense students will soon have deprived this notion of such in fact as it ever had. All steady workers know that except the rarest cases midnight oil is the most wasteful form of expense. Oil was burnt by this party within reasonable hours but it illuminated no solitary and silent work. The maps with red and blue pieces and counters the pieces for player’s troops the counters for the more or less vaguely enemy were the centre of eager discussion and expectation. A spectator privileged to visit both rooms and boards might inwardly chuckle not without instruction on each party’s conjectures of the enemy’s strength mid position and their from the fact.

Sounding just like an 1890s version of Phil on the subject, he then stresses the efficacy of wargaming as a form of experiential historical learning:

And this kind of historical interest may well we should think he used as a regular and valuable adjunct to the teaching history in our Universities and even in public schools. A man who has followed a Kriegspiel over the ground of some commander’s campaigns and has heard the umpire point his commendation and criticism by reference to the actual course of on the same ground will have both a tighter and more intelligent grasp of the story than if he had merely read it in a book looking now and then at a map when the text ceased to intelligible otherwise or perchance not even having a map look at. But this it may be said requires more time than common way of reading history. Quite so learning well takes more time than learning it superficially but the difference in result is not a mere difference of less or more it the difference between knowledge which may be of great and a pretence of knowledge which must be worthless .

The article goes on to argue that wargaming might also help scholars to retain sight of the critical role that generalship can play in the outcome of military operations:

Another consideration is perhaps not too farfetched to bring the Kriegspiel table. At present we are at the height of a reaction against “drum and trumpet” history as JR Green called it. The modern historian loves to trace the secular growth of social forces and to allow as little as possible to individual genius or to anything else in the nature of things and man that is outside the principal movement. Is it not possible to carry this reaction too far ? Certainly there are great days in history when no valour or genius can fight against the stars in their courses. We may admit that Napoleon could not have restored a durable French empire if he had won at Waterloo. Perhaps Athens must have broken herself later on Carthage or Home if she had not broken herself on Syracuse. But after all considerable issues are sometimes decided for a generation or more by fighting and the conditions of a decisive fight may be such as to make the issue very doubtful beforehand and then individual qualities even far short of the superiority that exceptional genius gives will tell in the balance. Who can say what flag would now float over Quebec if Wolfe had not devised his master stroke as an almost desperate venture. Would the flying Mede have fled if Darius or Xerxes had commanded the services of a Hannibal? Or what would have been the terms of the Treaty of Frankfort if certain of the French leaders on the Loire in the winter of 1870 had been, we will not say abler men, but ten years younger? Or as in our case where would the White Rose of York have been Warwick bad been a little more active and Clarence a little less fortunate? The business of history is to generalize that which can be generalized and if drum and trumpet history means the crude statement of military results without appreciation of the military reasons or conditions the fault is common enough to deserve strict reprobation. But it is to be corrected by understanding the military side of history not by ignoring it. History cannot be reduced to social formulas and any historian who flatters himself that he has completely his history will find out too late that it has been formulized the cost of ceasing to live.

Phil notes (on page 57 of Simulating War) that variation in wargames outcomes “is a very salutary corrective to conventional historical accounts that often give little or no sense of contingency, as if what happened was somehow ‘bound’ to happen.” Or, as the mysterious (time-traveling?) contributor to The Saturday Review opines (p. 558):

It is a note of heretical pravity or at least of temerarious levity to speak of chances in history nowadays. But it may be allowed that Kriegspiel has chances.

We have our suspicions. PAXsims readers visiting the Department of War Studies at King’s College London are well advised to keep a sharp eye out for one of these:

SOURCE:  The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, Volume 70 (1890), via Google eBooks.

Iranian student simulation of the Syrian crisis

As of late PAXsims has featured a great many US (or Israeli) simulations of Israel (and/or the US) attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, or US simulations of the Syrian crisis. This time, however, we bring you an Iranian simulation of a United Nations Security Council debate on the Syrian crisis.

The “Model UN”-type exercise was organized by the International Studies Journal  in cooperation with the United Nations Information Centre in Tehran on 20 September 2012. It involved some 36 graduate students from various universities across Iran.

The clip above (the third in a series of nine) is the only one to feature a student speech in English (starting at 1:37)—the rest of proceedings, obviously, were in Farsi. You’ll find the full set of videos on the UNIC Tehran YouTube page.

International Games Day

November 3 is International Games Day, sponsored by the American Library Association:

Communities across the world are coming together in the spirit of play for the American Library Association’s 5th Annual International Games Day @ your library. This year’s event expects to draw more than 20,000 people at more than 1,200 libraries.

This year, participating libraries will again hold a variety of gaming activities including board games, role playing games, an international “Epic Super Smash Bros. Brawl” tournament, and more.

For further information, and to check for possible activities in your area, consult the ALA website.

Utilizing Convict Labour to Reduce Wargame Production Costs: A Historical Study

One of the biggest issues facing the contemporary boardgaming industry is the high cost of materials and production. With the trend towards artfully-designed Eurogames and  finely-finished components, it isn’t unusual for a game to set the would-be gamer back $50-$100 or more. Needless to say, this can put a real dent in the gaming budget at a time of global economic recession and financial austerity.

Consequently, one frequently hears the call these days (especially among those who like to game historical periods when corvée labour was commonplace) for more games to be produced at lower cost through greater use of forced, indentured, or conscripted labour.[1] However, such calls have rarely been subjected to any great analytical rigour.[2]

Fortunately, historical economics provides some insight into this pressing contemporary debate. Of particular interest is the era when British prisoners were required to produce wargame maps and pieces as part of their prison employment. The report of the governor of Brixton Prison for the year 1876, notes that—among other things—the prison’s 411 inmates produced some 245 individual “kriegspiel maps,” and six full sets of maps, as well engraving the scales used to measure distance and colouring the wooden blocks used to depict military formations. Might this economic model be appropriate for the present day?

As can be seen from the tabulated information below, the value of each map produced by the prison was estimated at 2/4 ( 2 shillings and fourpence). Allowing for both historical inflation and the modern British decimal system, works out at around £10 per map, which seems somewhat expensive for the usual folded paper hex map, but which might well be quite economical if these were nicely mounted pieces with attractive decorative elements.

It is more difficult to calculate the per-unit cost for colouring kriegspiel blocks. Although the records inform us that inmates were paid between 9 1/2p and 1s per day for this (between £3.80 and £4.80 per day in current values), no data is provided on how many wooden kriegspiel blocks were produced per worker per day (WKBpwd). Based on my own participatory ethnographic research on the tedium of applying hundreds of small stickers to little wooden blocks this seems quite a bargain. Overall, our research strongly suggests real economic advantages in shifting to a prison-based system of games manufacture, although the return on investment would obviously be greatest in those gaming areas where incarcerated criminals have the most substantial comparative advantage.

Finally, we can’t help but notice that Brixton Prison appears to have shrunk in size by 141 inmates during 1876—and that, according the table above, some inmates were employed in the task of “drawing prison plans” and “opening drains”. Whether there is a correlation between work tasks and the rate of successful prison escape is thus an interesting area for future scholarship (or, for that matter, a possible Brian Train boardgame).


[1] No, we made this up.

[2] This, on the other hand, is absolutely true.

SOURCE:  Great Britain, Parliament, House of Commons, Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons on the Discipline and Management of Millbank and Pentonville Prisons and of Borstal Brixton, Chatham, Dartmoor, Portland, Portsmouth, Woking and Scrubs Prisons for Male Convicts with Eulham and Woking Prisons for Female Convicts Also the Convict Establishment in Western Australia for the Year 1876, via Google eBooks.

Prince Arthur on wargaming

For those whose daily business might not permit them the most informative & erudite pleasure of perusing the pages of the Siam Repository—A Summary of Asiatic Intelligence, we are most pleased to report from the July (1872) issue that Queen Victoria’s third son, the young Prince Arthur, has been extolling the virtues of wargaming among his fellow officers. According to reports now reaching these dominions, colonies, and distant foreign lands, the Prince has expressed the belief that these tabletop exercises (imported from the Continent) could be of great value to officers training for war.

Our esteemed Canadian readers will know Prince Arthur well, of course, from his service as a young officer with the Montreal detachment of the Rifle Brigade, which played such an important role in safeguarding the safety & security of Her Majesty’s most loyal Canadian subjects against the pernicious aggressions of the Fenians. Indeed, the Prince himself served with honour at the Battle of Eccles Hill, where a Fenian invasion from Vermont was turned back by rifle, sword, and bayonet.

One only hopes that this young man—imbued with remarkable skills both diplomatic and military, beloved of the common person, and so insightful in matters of wargaming—might, in his later years, serve as 10th Governor General of Canada.

Source:  Siam Repository—A Summary of Asiatic Intelligence (1872), full text via Google ebooks.


Never enough space to game?

Have trouble fitting everyone in the room during your wargaming sessions? You’re not alone, as is evident from this 21 March 1873 exchange in the British House of Commons between MP Henry Samuelson and Secretary of State for War Edward Cardwell:


Source: Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, Third Series, First Volume (6 February 1873 – 21 March 1873), via Google ebooks.

Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran?

On October 19 the Truman National Security Project released “Tell Me How This Ends,” an online wargame of US military action against Iran’s nuclear programme. In it, the player assumes the role of President of the United States:

During the campaign, you promised to establish a red line: If Iran accumulated enough medium-enriched uranium—that’s 20% enrichment—for a single nuclear bomb, the United States would retaliate militarily.

Intelligence now indicates that your red line has been crossed.

Consequently, you’ve decided to attack. But how, with whom, and against what? The game gives you several choices at each step, and provides text and video briefings of the outcomes.

SPOILER ALERT: All of the outcomes are bad, resulting in escalating conflict, high oil prices, and mounting casualties, and no easy end in sight. This was very much the point of the game in the first place, which forms part of an advertising campaign by the Truman National Security Project intended to highlight the costs of a war with Iran, and to emphasize the use of other (predominately diplomatic and economic) tools to limit Iranian nuclear capabilities and ambitions. According to their press release:

Tell Me How This Ends challenges players to deal with the aftermath of a decision to attack Iran, engaging the American people in an honest discussion of the likely costs and consequences of a war with Iran. The simulation was developed in close consultation with former senior Department of Defense officials and national security experts. It represents a realistic, if simplified, scenario for military engagement with Iran. The game is largely based upon the Iran Project Report which details the costs and benefits of military conflict with Iran.

The game is named after General David Petraeus’ famous quote expressing the reality that wars are easy to start, but the end game is often far from clear.

The accompanying television ad, which features US Army veteran Justin Ford, will run in various markets during the national security presidential debate on Monday, October 22. Ford emphasizes the risk of going into war without a plan to get out.

“Truman Project has produced a valuable tool for honestly assessing the costs of war with Iran and communicating it to the American people. It’s a public debate we need to have if we’re going to avoid the mistakes of the past,” said Janine Davidson, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans and current Professor of national security at George Mason University.

“At the start of the Iraq war in 2003, when General David Petraeus said, ‘Tell me how this ends,’ he was expressing the reality that wars are easy to start, but the end game is often far from clear. Iraq turned out to be the second longest war in America’s history; Afghanistan has been the longest. General Petraeus’ simple question is one that every leader should ask before committing U.S. troops to battle,” said Truman Project Executive Director Michael Breen, a former US Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Inside the beltway, a strong community of simulators has been educating policy makers and opinion leaders about Iran for years. This is an opportunity to take that approach to the American people so that our nation can make an informed decision about military action against Iran,” said Leigh O’Neill, Policy Director of the Truman Project.

The result is, as Mark Jacobson suggests at Foreign Policy, something which is a “wargame” or simulation in much the same way one of those children’s choose-your-own-adventure books is, except that it is much shorter,  the genie is a nuclear one, and you are fighting Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats instead of the usual brigands.

How useful is it? Jacobson is very positive in his appraisal—but, then again, he is also “a senior advisor to the Truman National Security Project” so that may not be so surprising. Overall, it certainly falls into the category of what I would term simuvocacy—that is, using a simulation format to make an advocacy point. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Many think-tanks, corporations, NGOs, and even branches of the military do the same. It is certainly more interesting than many other ways of conveying a message. Moreover, just because it is advocacy doesn’t mean the advocates are wrong. In this case, the game narrows your initial options considerably (you are forced to undertake a military strike), and there appear to be only three possible final outcomes: the US escalates to a full-scale boots-on-the-ground invasion of Iran in an effort to overthrow the regime (resulting in an occupation even messier than those in Iraq or Afghanistan); the US withdraws (and a fearful Iran builds a bomb); or the US maintains a heightened (and expensive) presence, bombing Iraq periodically to prevent it from rebuilding its nuclear facilities. One could certainly nitpick many of the Iranian responses the game presumes, for example, whether Iran would commit economic suicide by blocking the Straits of Hormuz, or whether Hizbullah would retaliate knowing that it would thereby provide grounds for a major Israeli ground operation in Lebanon.

However, the central point—that one just doesn’t know, and that it is difficult to control escalation once the bombs start dropping—is certainly an important one, as the recent Newsweek crisis simulation also highlighted.

You’ll find further discussion of “Tell me How it Ends” by Michael Peck at Forbes (in two parts). There has also been some commentary on a few defence and game websites, but so far most of this has simply repeated the information in the initial PR release. I will also be adding this to the list of Iran-related wargames at Wargaming Connection.

Vego: German War Gaming

The Autumn 2012 issue of the Naval War College Review has an article by Milan Vego on “German War Gaming,” which explores professional military wargaming in Germany from the von Reisswitz Kriegspiels of the early 19th century through to WWII:

The Germans invented and developed the modern war game. By the end of the nineteenth century, the German-style Kriegsspiel had been adopted in most of the major militaries of the day. In the interwar years (1919–39), the Germans greatly increased the number and diversity of war games, which collectively became one of the main means of educating and training future commanders and their staffs at all levels. Prior to and during World War II, the Germans proved to be masters of the use of war games throughout the chain of command for rehearsing plans for pending and future operations. In peacetime, they used war games to test the validity of new doctrinal documents and for force planning. Though German methods of organizing and executing war games cannot and should not be blindly followed, yet many aspects of their practice could be successfully applied today. Moreover, the role and importance of war gaming should be greatly enhanced in the present era of smaller forces and shrinking financial resources.

In the conclusion of the piece, the author suggests that “The German way of war gaming was the product of the German national character and way of warfare. It cannot be easily transplanted elsewhere, if at all.” The notion of “national character” is a rather slippery one, of course—partly because it leads to casual stereotyping, partly because attitudes can vary widely within a given national population, and partly because the attitudes of military officers are often quite distinctively different from those of the general civilian population. Moreover, traditions of military doctrine and professionalism are different things again (and, as has long been evidenced in the US, can vary quite widely across branches within the same military, and hence in their implications for wargame use). Still, I’m not sure anyone has ever undertaken a systematic cross-national study of of the adoption, uses, and techniques of wargaming (and crisis gaming) across countries and branches to show how professional cultures, organizations, resources, and other factors affect this—it could be quite interesting as an exercise in military sociology.

Perhaps I’ll add it to my ever-growing list of research projects that I would like to undertake (but almost certainly won’t find the time for)…

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