Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: December 2012

PAXsims 2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

This blog was viewed about 70,000 times in 2012.

In 2012, there were 170 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 552 posts. There were 231 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 157 MB. That’s about 4 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was July 9th with 890 views. The most popular post that day was COIN in Afghanistan: A Distant Plain.

Click here to see the complete report.

Review: Persian Incursion


Persian Incursion. Clash of Arms Games, 2010. Designers: Larry Bond, Chris Carlson, Jeff Dougherty. $71.50.

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This is among the games that has been sitting on my shelf for far, far too long, awaiting the opportunity for a proper playtest. I finally got around to it last month—and, as you’ll see in the review below, I found it both to be problematic as a game but insightful as a military simulation.


Frustrated by the apparent ineffectiveness of sanctions and viewing Iran’s nuclear program as a growing threat, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave the order: Israel would attack. Operation “Lovingly Detailed but Incredibly Complex and Time-Consuming Strike Planning for a Boardgame” would seek to inflict heavy damage on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and thereby convince the Islamic Republic that there was little point in continuing its nuclear programme into the future.

MIDEAST-ISRAEL-US-F16INot knowing how much time the international community would permit them to complete the task, the Israeli leadership emphasized to IDF planners that first strike needed to be as decisive as possible. Additional tankers were procured to assure that more than 120 Israeli aircraft—F-15s and F-16s, Shavit ELINT platforms, and Eitan drones—would be committed to a long-distance mission via Jordanian and Iraqi airspace. Some aircraft would be allocated to suppressing the air defences that the IAF would encounter en route, and still others to escorting the strike packages. Most, however, were heavily laden with bombs intended  for three major targets: the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the heavy water plant and reactor at Arak, and the deeply-buried uranium enrichment facility near Qom. Improved EGBU-28C “bunker-buster” bombs were obtained to facilitate penetration of the underground centrifuge halls at Natanz and Qom. Insufficient aircraft were available to target the uranium conversion facility, zirconium production, and fuel manufacturing plant at Isfahan on this first strike, which would have to await a return visit.

Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) grumman F-14 Tomcat supersonic, twin-engine, two-seat, variable-sweep wing fighter missile bvr long range154 AIM-54 Phoenixaim-7 9 132  (2)Initially all went well, with an electronic/cyber attack partially disabling Iran’s air defence network. The SEAD missions were partly successful, but one lucky S-200(SA-5) battery escaped damage, and then was even luckier still when it managed—against all odds—to successfully engage an IAF F-15, shooting it down.

For the most part the obsolete Iranian air force could offer little substantial resistance. However, two patrolling Iranian F-14 pilots detected the strike mission headed for Natanz and managed to shoot down one Israeli F-16 with a long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missile before they were destroyed. No sooner had they done so than a flight of four Mig-29s took advantage of the distraction to close the range, downing a second F-16 before also being destroyed by the Israeli escorts. One IAF pilot survived and was captured by Iranian troops, providing Tehran with a minor public relations coup that it would later exploit. IAF planners had considered the option of allocating more aircraft to escort and fighter-suppression missions, but had opted to maximize the ordnance that could be delivered on target.


The damage from the Israeli attack at Natanz: heavily damaged, but not quite destroyed.

The air defences at the target sites proved less of a hindrance. While the GPS jammers that Iran had installed at its sensitive sites confused some of the Israeli bombs, most found their marks. The facilities at Qom and Arak were completely destroyed, while Natanz was heavily damaged.

As the Israeli aircraft left Iranian air space, they were once more intercepted, this time by small numbers of F-5Es and F-7M fighters. These were quickly and easily downed long before they had closed to within range of their own much inferior air-to-air missiles.

Although Iranian air defences had been lucky, the bombing was largely successful.

In the court of international opinion, however, the Israeli did less well. Perhaps it was Israel’s refusal to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or open its nuclear facilities to international inspection; perhaps it was the impressive skills of Iranian diplomats; or perhaps it was astute card-play and some very good dice rolls, but within a matter of hours and days it was clear that there was little support for a continuation of military operations. Jordan emphasized that it would not allow its airspace to be used again for an attack, and the northern route (through Turkey) and the southern route (through Saudi Arabia) were equally unavailable. Even the United States seemed unhappy at Netanyahu’s unilateral move.


While domestic support for the government remains (top track), high, the international community is less approving (middle tracks). However, the attack and subsequent Israeli sabotage activities are slowly undermining Iranian resolve (bottom track)

Iranian retaliation was swift but largely ineffectual. Salvos of Shehab-3 missiles were fired at Israel, although only a handful made it past Israel’s Arrow-2 and Patriot PAC-3 ballistic missile defences, and these did little real damage. Twice Iran partially and briefly closed the Straits of Hormuz to signal its displeasure, but these actions only antagonized the international community and were quickly abandoned. Hizbullah and the northern border with Lebanon remained eerily quiet.

For its part Israel—unable to launch another airstrike because of the negative attitude of Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—instead launched a serious of night-time special forces raids against key Iranian economic infrastructure. These had considerable effect over time, aggravating the domestic economic and political problems of a beleaguered Islamic republic already under severe pressure from international sanctions.

In the end, however, it wasn’t enough. The regime remained in power, undeterred, and committed to rebuilding its  damaged nuclear infrastructure . Israel’s gambit had failed to win more than a brief respite from the perceived Iranian threat, and at the cost of greater international isolation.

Game Review

And thus unfolded our playtest game, which was played using a slightly tweaked version of the “real world” scenario in the game. It was unusual in that Israel able to launch only a single attack (most games involve several), largely due to some very lucky Iranian diplomatic dice. The Iranians were lucky too in managing to shoot down any IAF aircraft, let alone three. The overall outcome was actually quite realistic, both in terms of the damage inflicted to Iranian nuclear facilities and the diplomatic challenges to Israel of sustaining an extended unilateral military campaign.

pic825374_mdPersian Incursion comprises one 17×22″ map, 280 cardboard counters, two decks of cards, data cards for all major aircraft cards, game rules, a target folders (including satellite photographs of each major site), and a background briefing package, and dice. It really consists of two interlinked games, one modelling an Israeli airstrike, and the other representing the broader diplomatic-political context within which military action occurs.

As suggested in the account above, the airstrike part of the game is extremely detailed, with the Israeli player having to quite literally decide on the precise loadout and target of every single aircraft in every single strike, escort, or SEAD package. Since many buildings are individually profiled, some sites include more than thirty different aim-points. The range and probability to hit of every type of air-to-air missile, surface-to-air missile, anti-radiation missile, and guided bomb used by the combatants is rated, as is the effectiveness of each aircraft type. Planning a single attack can take the Israeli player up to an hour—during which time the Iranian player has little do besides practice his rhetorical condemnations of Zionist aggression. Once an Israeli strike arrives on target, the effects must be determined by rolling dice for every single bomb. Since this could conceivable involve a few hundred rolls, it provides another extended period when the Iranian player watches while uttering angry Farsi threats of revenge.

pic774032_mdConversely, the political-diplomatic component of Persian Incursion is a highly abstracted. The changing political position of the various international actors determines how many political, military, and intelligence points a player collects at the start of each turn. These in turn are expended to conduct military operations or to attempt to influence domestic opinion of key regional and international states. Attempts at political influence are carried out through the play of cards, each of which has general labels like “collateral damage,” “spin control, ” or “careful planning,” and each of which affects different target countries to different degrees. Unlike airstrikes, the card play runs proceeds at a rapid pace.

Our play test game was quite exciting in the end, with Israeli special forces raids bring the Iranians perilously close to the point of political defeat before the game ended. However, the ponderously slow airstrike process is problematic from a game design point of view since it exclusively engages only the Israeli player most of the time. Some of this detail is unnecessary too: I’m not convinced there is a real need to have separate aim points for every single building (although it does highlight the need for some targeting redundancy in real-life strike planning with pre-programmed GPS-guided weapons), while the rules of anti-aircraft guns are entirely superfluous given that the IAF almost invariably drops its guided bombs well outside the AAA engagement envelope. Indeed, had our game included the usual several Israeli airstrikes instead of just one, I have a sneaking hunch my opponent would have called it a day before the game ever finished. In an attempt to speed both strike planning and adjudication, the game designers have released several rules modifications that simplify targeting and allow for faster resolution of bombing effects. In similar fashion I also put together my own revised set of target sheets targets that I will likely use in future games, and there are some useful player-made spreadsheets and record sheets available at BoardGameGeek.

The other military options available to players—Iranian ballistic missiles, Israeli special forces operations, terrorist attacks, closing the Straits of Hormuz—are much less complex. The game does not, however, include any option for Iran’s close Lebanese ally Hizbullah to launch major attacks against Israel in retaliation for Israeli attacks on Iran. Indeed, Hizbullah is only briefly mentioned in the  background briefing package, where it is peculiarly placed in the section on the Palestinians. While I don’t believe Hizbullah would necessarily become involved in the fighting after a single Israeli strike, the chances of it doing so would increase if Israel were to launch a sustained campaign. From a game perspective, it certainly would be more interesting for the Iranian player if there were some sort of substantial Hizbullah option that forces Israel to divert its air assets to hunting Hizbullah rocket launchers, but risks a weakening Hizbullah’s military and political status in Lebanon.

Persian Incursion as a Serious Game

How useful might this game be in educational or other “serious game” settings? It certainly has considerable potential, but only if used in certain ways.

This is not a game that can be easily played by students. It is far too long and complicated for neophytes. The asymmetry in role demands and the long delays while Israel plans strikes also would render it highly unsuitable.

On the other hand, the core airstrike game “engine” is excellent, covering everything from the effectiveness of various weapons platforms and ordnance to electronic counter measures, aircraft readiness rates and maintenance, ground control interception, Iranian air defence zones, decoys, and the hardening of targets. The game engine is easily tweaked too, in most cases by simply changing certain ratings or percentages. Playing through a strike or a full game offers considerable insight into the complexities of mission planning, as well as the capabilities and limits of the two militaries. One could even use it to model a potential future “Syrian” route to Iran, predicated on the declining effectiveness of Syrian air defences as the civil war there intensifies.

Given this, the best way of using Persian Incursion in a serious game setting would be with multiple players and an assigned division of labour, some focused on the political side of the conflict and others wholly devoted to military staff planning. One wouldn’t need to use the diplomatic-political subgame that the designers have developed—a standard negotiations role-play or seminar crisis game format could do equally well, or even better if the major international community actors were included too (although this could conceivably also be handled by the game controllers/white cell). The Israeli military staff planners would need to keep detailed tasking orders ready to go for when their political leadership required it, updating this as developments and resources changed. This would also generate some interesting internal dynamics between the political/diplomatic and military components of the Israeli (and Iranian) teams, especially when the politicians wanted more than the military could deliver, or when military hubris might cause it to over-promise mission results, leaving diplomats to make the best of a bad situation. Throughout, only the game controller would really need to know all of the rules, using these to adjudicate the effects of each strike.

An implementation of the game something like this (but exclusively weighted towards the military element) was undertaken by the folks at the “War College” at the 2011 Origins Game Fair—you can see a sample of this in the videos above and below.

Overall Assessment

If you are a serious gamer interested in this era and issue, Persian Incursion is certainly worth buying, but probably best played with the quick strike rules unless the Iranian player has enormous patience and/or something else to busy themselves with while the Israeli plots plots targets, strike packages, and weapons loads. If you’re an inexperienced wargamer, this is not the best game for you. If you are an instructor thinking of using it in the classroom to examine the challenges of airstrikes and preemption and have enough gaming experience to handle its complexity, the game could be very useful—provided you are willing to put in quite a bit of effort in to modify it for your particular needs, and provided you do so in a way that keeps much of the complexity “under the (adjudication) hood” and away from the participants.

If time allows, I plan to give the game a try with students (and possibly a Middle East intelligence analyst or two) in the coming months. If so, I’ll report the results here at PAXsims.

simulations miscellany, 14 December 2012


Some recent items of interest on conflict simulations, serious games, and similar stuff like that:

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Recent research by E.D. van der Spek finds that introducing elements of surprise can substantially improve learning outcomes in serious games. According to a forthcoming article by van der Spek, Herre van Oostendorp, and John-Jules Ch. Meyer in the British Journal of Educational Technology:


Serious games show great potential, but many fail to live up to that potential. One way to improve serious game design could be to introduce surprising events linked to the instructional material. We modified our serious game for triage training, called Code Red Triage, to include three surprising events pertaining to decision-making moments in the triage procedure. Forty-one participants were divided into two groups: one group played a version of the game with the surprising events, and the other group played a control version of the game. A pre-posttest design showed no significant difference in engagement and surface learning, but did show the participants in the surprising events condition obtained significantly superior knowledge structures, indicating that surprising events in a serious game foster deeper learning.

Practitioner Notes

What is already known about this topic:

  • (Very little.)
  • That serious games often fail to reach their potential.
  • That a surprising event can lead to a better comprehension of text.
  • But that a narrative background in a virtual learning environment led to worse learning.

What this paper adds:

  • A thorough, single-blind, controlled empirical experiment on the effects of serious game design on different factors of learning and engagement.
  • That introducing small surprising events in a serious game leads to improved deep comprehension of the instructional material.
  • That this intervention has no ostensible effect on engagement.

Implications for practice and/or policy:

  • Surprising events should be introduced in a serious game to improve learning.
  • Serious game designers should therefore carefully consider how to embed instruction in the game narrative.
  • Research in serious game design is worthwhile (and highly needed) because it can lead to better serious games.

You’ll find a pre-print (but gated) link to the article above, or you can read his 2011 PhD thesis on Experiments in  Serious Game Design: A Cognitive Approach.

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Defense News discusses how “More Realistic Avatars Could Revolutionize Training” by incorporating the individual characteristics of participants into the simulation process.

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The Pearson Centre recently provided a media team to act as journalists in the Canadian Armed Forces “Maple Resolve 2012” exercise:

In mid-October, a team of twelve media specialists from the Pearson Centre’s Community of Experts participated in Canadian Army’s Maple Resolve 2012 exercise, providing media simulation services to the exercise Media Cell. The exercise, which took place at the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, Alberta, was the biggest field exercise in Canada this year, involving over 3,000 troops and 900 vehicles.

The media team works together to replicate the process of gathering information by interacting with the training audience, and creates the daily print and electronic products that cover the operation. These media products provide perspective on how a mission is perceived at home and abroad, and can also be a valuable source of information and intelligence.

The products – daily television news updates and several print sources, reflecting in-theatre, Canadian and international news sources – were disseminated to the training audience and exercise control staffs. Military commanders and their public affairs teams were expected to be proactive in dealing with the media as part of a broader information operations strategy.

The Wainwright training area represented a region within the fictitious failed state of “West Isle”, in a scenario based on a UN-sanctioned intervention by an international taskforce including Canadian and other elements. Other civilian role-players supported the realism of the exercise by representing local populations, community leaders and humanitarian aid workers. This was complemented by state-of-the-art weapons effects simulation technology to represent the dangers of conflict. Throughout the exercise, media team members faced the risk of being “killed” or “injured” by virtual gunfire or improvised explosive devices….

One wonders if, for full realism, whether the simulated reporters had a simulated bar.

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At The Peasant Muse, Jeremy Antley muses on attitudes to, and player experiences of, digital and manual games in “Coding Mystique vs. Banality of Cardboard.”

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The undead walk in Guilford! Simon Usherwood (University of Surrey) has developed a simple zombie pandemic simulation for his international relations students, intended to address negotiation dynamics. You’ll find discussion of it here, at the Active Learning in Political Science blog. While you’re at it, also check out his How to Do Simulation Games website.

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If you are considering attending the Connections 2013 interdisciplinary wargaming conference (to be held this year at Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton Ohio), you might want to help the organizers plan the event by complete this online survey.

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Ernie Gygax and Luke Gygax—sons of the late, great Dungeons & Dragons (co)inventor Gary Gygax—are among those bringing out a new new tabletop gaming magazine called Gygax, under the TSR imprint. This seems likely to bring with it a whole bag-of-holding of potential legal complications. As GeekNative reported last month:

But… wait. This isn’t the TSR that was bought by Wizards of the Coast and which previously published Dungeons and Dragons. As it turns out, Wizards of the Coast let the trademark lapse in 2003 (they’re expensive and hard to defend if you’re not using them).

A company called Hexagonist registered a new trademark for TSR in late 2011. Right now, redirects to

A chap called Jayson Elliot owns the sites. It turns out that he’s not running Gygax Magazine himself, although he’s the editor. Also on the project are Ernie Gygax, Luke Gygax, Tim Kask, James Carpio and Jim Wampler.

Gary Gygax’s gamer sons are on board with the project and, of course, can use their own name for the magazine.

After the news broke that there would be a Gygax Magazine and that some of the Gygax family were involved, Gail Gygax wrote to EN World to say;

I wish to clear up any confusion I am the proper owner of the use of the name of my late husband, E. Gary Gygax. And furthermore would ask respect from his public and children from his first marriage, who are fully aware I own all rights to the use of his name and likeness, and all intellectual properties.

We have previously informed Jason Elliot of my ownership rights.

I can understand the enthusiasm for this project and will remain neutral in regard to its merits however, not at the expense of the Gary Gygax Estate, which represents his wishes.

There’s also the Gygax Memoiral Fund. They’re now involved in the communication around the magazine too. In response to a tweet from David Flor, Dianne Curtis the Coordinator for Educational Programs and Special Projects at the Gygax Memorial fund (and sister-in-law of Gary Gygax) said;

Thank you so much for bringing this project to our attention. We are aware of a group from NYC, which includes Jayson Elliot, that bought the TSR trademark. Not sure if they can legally use it in the way they want to.

In answer to your question, Gail Gygax, Gary’s widow, represents Gary Gygax’s estate, and is the sole owner of all trademark for the name and likeness of Gary Gygax.

With regard to this magazine, we were approached by Jayson Elliott’s group about a year ago and were not interested in a business relationship with them, as they presented no specific business plan for this magazine, yet were requesting use of the trademark. Therefore, this magazine does not have any legitimate endorsement by the representative of the Gary Gygax estate or Gygax family.

As Morrus at EN World notes there is no one using the name “Gary Gygax” in this project. It may be overly simplistic to say the Gary Gygax Estate does not support the Gygax Magazine without knowing who or what exactly the “Gary Gygax Estate” comprises of, their remit and views….

You’ll find more in this long thread at EN World.

MORS professional wargaming workshop (26-28 March 2013)


The Military Operations Research Society will be holding a workshop on professional wargaming on 26-28 March 2013 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland:

This special meeting focuses on professional gaming  as an analytic practice and will produce initial content for a Professional Gaming Practitioner’s Handbook. The meeting will bring together members of the community of practice to consider best practices, taxonomy, existing applications and appropriate analytic methodologies in an effort to codify the fundamentals of game design and analysis. The meeting is designed for information exchange and participant exposure to professional practice; there is no intention to conduct a game or for attendees to participate in game play.

Military and business leaders throughout history have practiced gaming with storied successes in planning and education so much so that the Department of Defense offers professional education in and develops war games. Gaming is popular and nearly everyone has played complex and informative games as well as participated in the seemingly ubiquitous military ‘war game.’ The term itself is used to describe a very wide range of activities and has come to mean nothing specific. Gaming comes in many levels of fidelity and scope; there is a big difference between a tactical board game and a strategic computer assisted game. Game designers who change organizations find that previously successful techniques and approaches do not align with differing organizational perspectives.

The principles of war gaming have changed little over time while methods and tools have continued to develop. Historically, games were kept small in scope, ‘moving pieces’ were limited and adjudication was performed manually. Modern technologies provide infinite fidelity storing millions of individual data and allowing players to select the ‘level of play’ while software aggregation provides a meta-data operational picture commensurate with that level of play. Efficiencies in data collection, processing and visualization that significantly improve capability. Concerns of old that ‘games are too abstract’ are based somewhat on limits to player cognitive capability but mainly due to limited identification and tracking of second/third order details. This, however, can lead the game designer to include many extraneous metrics, overwhelming players and generating confounded results.

Gaming is an analytic methodology that seeks to provide, for example, empirical support for hypothesis testing or virtual exposure to complex interactions, but struggles with acceptance possibly due to non-repeatability, lack of rigid methodology and the qualitative nature of data. There is a need within the gaming community to establish baseline practices for design of professional games as well as quality data collection procedures and assessment techniques. Designers should have a quality threshold against which professional games can be measured to ensure minimal standards are met. Junior analysts should have a reference of terminology, design processes, assessment tools and best practices.

The workshop will be based on the discussions and output of several working groups, plus a synthesis group:

  • WG 1: Gaming Ontology and Taxonomy
  • WG 2: Objective Development
  • WG 3: Game Design & Development
  • WG 4: Data Collection and Analysis Methods and Tools
  • WG 5: Adjudication Procedures
  • WG 6: Aligning Games with Larger Studies and Methods
  • WG 7: Professional Game Execution
  • WG 8: Quick-Turn Design or Rapid Development

Registration fees for the event are $575/$675 for government/non-government MORS members, and $650/$750 for government/non-government MORS members (this being the peculiar defence and security world where “non-government” is assumed to be richer defence contractors, not poorer academics, NGOs, and commercial/hobbyist designers). Further details are at the link above.

Layout wonkiness

2012_maya3Visitors will notice that the layout of PAXsims has suddenly changed, with the sidebar having mysteriously vanished and reappeared as a footer—which doesn’t look right at all.

We’re not sure why this has happened—perhaps its some sign of the approaching Mayan apocalypse—but we have a support request into WordPress to get it fixed.

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UPDATE: And, as strangely as the problem arrived, it seems to be fixed. We’ve even tweaked the font for good measure. Thanks be to the capricious Mayan gods!

ANOTHER UPDATE: Apparently the new font displayed poorly on some versions of IE, so it’s back to the original one.

Simulation & Gaming (December 2012)

SimultionGamingThe latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 43, 6 (December 2012) is now available:


Ready-to-use simulation



simulations miscellany, 8 December 2012

We’re pleased to present the latest news on conflict simulation and serious gaming, gathered by our world-wide PAXsims network of reporters (that is, the two of us). Suggestions for other items to include in the future are always welcome!

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guns_dice_butter_small_logoThe latest edition of the excellent gaming podcast Gun, Dice and Butter features a panel discussion on gaming insurgencies with some of the biggest names in the field:

Welcome to Episode X of Guns, Dice, Butter.

0:01 Intro

0:06 Conversation with Mercury Games: Richard Diosi (Doc Stryder) and Kevin Nesbitt

0:32 Panel discussion with Mark Herman, Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke regarding insurgencies and wargames: Wide ranging discussion examining wargames that model insurgencies (see website for link to games on insurgencies and national/strategic will games), political dynamics of insurgencies and insurgency games in the pipeline from this group of designers (A Distant Plan {Afghanistan}, Fire on the Lake {Vietnam}, etc).

2:18 Wrap up

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Defense News reports that an old boardgame is making a new comeback:

ORLANDO — In the midst of a flashy I/ITSEC floor full of simulators running high-definition visuals, one product hearkened back to a simpler era of wargaming.

“Ranger,” a 30-year-old solitaire board game based on the tactics and techniques used by the Army’s elite soldiers, is being turned into a computer game for laptops and tablets.

The game’s inventor, Bill Gibbs, is working with the Orlando-based company Engineering and Computer Simulations on the application, which is slated to be available by download in early 2013.

The original “Ranger — Modern Patrolling Operations: Swamp Terrain” included two maps, 24 missions, and, for those who haven’t attended Ranger training, a booklet on tactics and procedures.

Gibbs said he has extensively researched and revamped the tactics to reflect changing times, and the gear now matches contemporary loadouts. But he said he was surprised to find few other necessary changes.

“The actual concepts and doctrine and principles were all still the same,” Gibbs said.

The digital version will let users control and plan for a mission, including squad reconnaissance, platoon ambushes or raid patrols. While a player might flip through pages of the play booklet in the board game, the digital version pops the information up on the screen.

Other features will include a patrol record log, tactical and map views, and a way to freeze the patrol during the mission.

Future editions of the game will include a downed-pilot mission and gameplay set in different terrains such as mountains and deserts.

Gibbs is also working with ECS to change the interface and adapt the game for the iPhone; that version should be available in April.

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Red Team Journal has started to compile a somewhat tongue-in cheek (but oh-so-true) list of the “Laws of Red Teaming.” They’ll all be very familiar to professional pol-mil gamers.

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According to the Washington Post, the US and Chinese militaries held a tabletop exercise on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief last month.

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The blog War Studies Publications recently featured an interview with Prof. Philip Sabin (King’s College London) on “conflict simulations, ancient warfare, and airpower. You’ll find it here.

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The folks at Wikistrat have posted to their website a summary of their latest “Wikistrat crowdsourced simulation” on “Pakistani Nukes Go Loose.” Despite the name, there really isn’t much simulation here—rather, it is simply an analytical summary of crowd-sourced discussion and scenario-generation on the topic, all wrapped up with some flashy jargon and graphics. Analytically, that might well be a very good way of generating some interesting thinking. However, it also highlights the use of the term “simulation” itself as a marketing tool, something we’ve commented on before here and here.


Reflections on “A Reign of Missiles”


Last week Foreign Policy magazine posted for comments “A Reign of Missiles,” a draft print-and-play solo conflict simulation of the 2012 Gaza war designed by Paul Rohrbaugh. Not surprisingly both the timing and the topic of the game generated a little online controversy, coming so soon after the war itself.

Nevertheless, my son David and I printed it out and give it a try this weekend. We used the map version originally posted at FP—a much nicer quality version has since been posted at ConSimWorld which you can see above.

In the game the player assumes the role of Israel, attempting to strike at Hamas’ missile capabilities (and win “military victory points”) while at the same time keeping a wary eye on the potential civilian casualties caused by your strikes, and the negative effects this can have on Israel’s diplomatic standing (indicated on a “diplomacy track”). As the Israeli player you deploy Iron Dome anti-missile systems, aircraft, drones, a naval units, and (potentially) special forces. After you have finished conducting military operations each phase the surviving Hamas rocket launchers fire missiles in random directions. If you are unlucky some might slip past your defences and strike populated areas. Random events also affect game play.

Since the game is still in draft form, parts of it are still a bit rough, and the rules certainly need a good edit. There are very few design notes to let you know what the designer was hoping to achieve in the various game rules.

What about the actual gameplay, though? Here we divide our comments into three categories: player choices, representations and realism, and game mechanics/play.

Player Choices

Games are all about choices and trade-offs. In A Reign of Missiles the Israeli player’s primary choices revolve around:

  • Which targets to attack. Typically this is an obvious choice, since the longer-range Fajr-5 are both easier to suppress and are more dangerous. Hamas leadership and supply targets can also be attacked once per turn. It is rarely seems worth attacking the short-range Qassam rocket units.
  • How to attack. Aircraft and drones can attack separately, but if they combine their efforts into a single attack they are more likely to succeed and less likely to cause collateral damage.
  • How to defend. The Israeli player may deploy and redeploy Iron Dome defences, the availability of which can vary from turn to turn. As noted below, this is a bit odd—Iron Dome interceptors are rarely if ever moved during the conflict, and they are used to protect particular urban areas. Once these are deployed at the start of the game there shouldn’t be many more decisions for the Israeli player to make.

Overall, we didn’t think there were enough interesting choices to make the game particularly interesting. This might be addressed by allowing the Israeli player to make some pre-war resource allocation decisions about whether to, say, invest in more Iron Dome batteries, more drones, better intelligence, or other military capabilities. The intelligence collection part of the game could also be enhanced through using dummy markers. If markers were face down, for example, dummies/decoys were also used, and civilians were scattered among them, the Israeli player would face the dilemma of having to decide whether to attack the target on suspicion, or use drones or other intelligence to confirm its identity.

Representations and Realism

APTOPIX Mideast Israel PalestiniansWe very much liked that the game tracks both diplomatic and military dimensions, and that you need to do well on both to win the game. This accurately reflects a situation whereby Israel could maximize the damage and destruction it causes (in game terms, this is largely achieved by using drones and aircraft separately), but at the cost of civilian casualties, alienating world opinion, and handing Hamas a diplomatic victory. On the other hand, the game doesn’t model at all the important domestic element of the conflict: in reality, both Hamas and Israel are playing to domestic as well as international audiences.

In the game, the level of diplomatic support each side receives affects the level of military resources available to it each turn. The logic for this isn’t entirely clear—especially since it means that successful Hamas rocket attacks, which can have the effect of weakening Israeli diplomatic standing, also decrease the level of available Israeli military assets in future. In the actual conflict, I would think the reverse is true: particularly devastating Hamas attacks create Israeli domestic pressures for expanded military operations.

1121-iron-dome-israel-630x420The Iron Dome anti-missile system could be better portrayed in the game. In A Reign of Missiles, Israel has up to ten Iron Dome batteries, whereas in real life it only deployed four in the initial stages of the Gaza war, with a fifth being rushed into service to defend Tel Aviv. Iron Dome batteries aren’t moved much, if at all, once a conflict has started (since they would be unable to conduct interceptions while being relocated), whereas in the game their number and deployment usually varies from day to day. The game also seems to reflect a common misunderstanding that Iran Dome has an interception range of 5-75km. While this number is often reported in the press, it actually refers to the types of missiles that can be intercepted: missiles fired from less than 5km don’t leave the system enough reaction time, while those fired from further than 75km away are travelling too fast for the system to intercept. One Iron Dome battery provides protection for about 150km2 around the battery—that is to say, only one city (or square in game terms). The game also suggests that Iran Dome batteries can become depleted, presumably when they run out of missiles. There’s no evidence this ever occurred in 2012, although if it had it might well have been withheld from the public. In the game, Iron Dome seems to have an interception rate of 20%, whereas in 2012 it appears to have been closer to 85%.

Strangely, Sderot—the Israeli town of 24,000 most associated with rocket attacks from Gaza—is not depicted on the map.

Fajr-5 units fire the most rockets in a turn (4) of any rocket launcher type, while in practice these larger rockets were fired singly or in smaller numbers.

We thought the random events could have been much more diverse interesting. During the 2012 war, for example, the presence of visiting dignitaries in Gaza (such as the Egyptian prime minister) sometimes forced Israel to halt certain military operations.

On a minor note, while in the game all Israeli aircraft are depicted as F-15s, the IAF actually has far more F-16s.

Game Mechanics and Play

Overall, we found the first few phases interesting. After that, however, the multiple die rolling for each rocket coming out of Gaza grew rather tedious: a single Grad rocket launcher firing 3 rockets will require roughly 15 dice to resolve (up to 3 dice for movement, 1-2 dice for Iron Dome interceptions, 1-2 dice for each surviving rocket striking the ground). One wonders if this couldn’t all be much simplified into a smaller number of card draws or chit pulls. Overall the game play seemed less engaging than the often rather tense draw of a card in the “State of Siege” series of solo games published by Victory Point Games. A card would also be able to address the effect of the strike, and contain some flavour text.

It seems impossible to hit Ashkelon. Qassam missiles (which can only reach the green boxes) will fall short. Grad missiles (which start on the last black box) will overshoot it, as will Fajr-5s (which carry on to the final boxes).

There seemed to be little incentive to hold back military resources to the second and third impulse of each turn, when instead you could suppress or destroy missile launchers on the first impulse and prevent them from firing for the rest of the turn.

In the game, the Israeli player has perfect intelligence about Hamas assets and their deployment. As suggested above, some sort of blind system would be more interesting. Hamas units might then be revealed either by firing, surveillance (drones), or intelligence collection. Senior leadership figures, civilians, SAMs, and the press could be treated in the same way. As the game goes on, the ratio of military to civilian targets could further shift towards the latter, this modelling the latter parts of the war when Israel’s intelligence existing target list began to run short, and greater collateral damage began to accrue.

The game counts a 0 on a d10 as a zero, rather than (as is more conventionally the case) as a ten. I have no idea why.

The game ends immediately when the Israeli and Hamas diplomatic markers reach the same point on the diplomatic track. I’m not quite sure what the political logic is for this.

Finally, it would be interesting to add a two player option. While Hamas might have only a limited number of decisions to make once the game started, it would have many to make beforehand (for example, whether to invest in fewer long-range Fajr 5s or more shorter-range Qassams and Grads, how much to invest in ground defences, command and control, camouflage/decoys/deception, and so forth).

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