Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: September 2013

simulations miscellany, 29 September 2013


Some recent items that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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At Forbes recently, Daniel Tack asked whether we were on the cusp of a games-based revolution in the way we teach:

Are serious games the classroom tool of the future? Is the future already here?  The tablet classroom may have once been the stuff of science fiction, but modern developments in technology and brain science may have come together to create a massive change in the way we think about education.

Certainly his interviewees are, with suggesting Nolan Bushnell “In some ways the world of education is going to go through one of the most massive changes in the next five years than it has seen in the last three thousand years. It’s a perfect storm.” I’m unconvinced. Certainly I think games have enormous educational potential. However I think over-hyping them as transformative overstates their impact. Indeed, the evidence on their effectiveness shows the effects are positive but limited, and that much depends on how they are integrtaed into more traditional curriculum.

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In the latest issue of International Studies Review 15, 3 (September 2013), Timothy J. Junio and Thomas G. Mahnken discuss “Conceiving of Future War: The Promise of Scenario Analysis for International Relations.” 

This article introduces political scientists to scenarios—future counterfactuals—and demonstrates their value in tandem with other methodologies and across a wide range of research questions. The authors describe best practices regarding the scenario method and argue that scenarios contribute to theory building and development, identifying new hypotheses, analyzing data-poor research topics, articulating “world views,” setting new research agendas, avoiding cognitive biases, and teaching. The article also establishes the low rate at which scenarios are used in the international relations subfield and situates scenarios in the broader context of political science methods. The conclusion offers two detailed examples of the effective use of scenarios.

Given the centrality of both scenario construction and counter-factual methods to conflict simulation, the article is one that social scientists using analytical games might find useful.

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At the must-read blog War on the Rocks, Adam Elkus explores the  the analytical and ethical issues that this raises about “good” versus “bad” models embedded within simulations:

From computer models of climate change to intricate simulations of future conventional conflicts, abstract models, wargames, and simulations remain prized tools for analyzing security problems. Models and simulations offer the ability to rigorously visualize uncertain complex situations with a vast array of variables and moving parts. Syria is no exception—think-tankers have created crisis simulations while gamers play topical tactical Syria-themed games. But while ethical and philosophical questions surrounding the Cold War analysis of nuclear strategy loomed large, today’s games do not receive similar scrutiny. There is no cinematic equivalent of Dr. Strangelove for today’s computational “web of war.”

It would be great if all models did was create a nice, simple abstraction of the world to inform good decisions. However, it’s a bit more complicated than that. A model can also influence the reality it seeks to abstract.  Both finance scholars and sociologists of science claim that financial theory has acted as an “engine” as well as a “camera,” building marketpractices around models and theories designed to explain and predict those very market practices. The simulation could very well alter the thing it simulates.

More common (and pernicious) is the way bad models dress up shoddy thought with walls of  intimidating mathematical formalisms and computer code. While a simulation should be an exercise in exploration and experimentation, but it frequently also functions as a way to validate a narrow vision of a desired future. For example, the famous Millennium Challenge 2002 wargame’s purpose was to test a new suite of military concepts. But red-teamers playing opposing forces quickly found themselves stymied when they exposed the fragility of these operational concepts.

However, simulation, modeling, and gaming do not possess some all-powerful guild that can coerce every modeler to adhere to modeling norms that remain fundamentally hazy and informal. And replicating many models and simulations in the security world is difficult for those without security clearances. To use economic modeling terminology, theinformation asymmetry such a situation creates can help dishonest modelers “strictly dominate” more scrupulous counterparts.

Thus, even those who dislike simulations, models, and games must adjust to a reality in which they will enjoy continued prominence. An effective way to become an informed consumer of models and simulations (and thus argue against bad ones) is to design/build or run/play one’s own. Powerful simulations were once only available to military organizations and research universities. Today, we live in an unprecedented age of computational abundance. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of programming can create powerful models and simulations on standard computing equipment….

Go and read the full thing here.

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RR331Looking for a scenario (and background information) for your next crisis game? How about Bruce Bennett’s detailed examination of Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse (RAND, 2013):

A North Korean government collapse would have serious consequences in North Korea and beyond. At the very least, a collapse would reduce the already scarce food and essential goods available to the population, in part due to hoarding and increasing costs. This could lead to a humanitarian disaster. Factions emerging after a collapse could plunge the country into civil war that spills over into neighboring countries. Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) could be used and even proliferated. This report examines ways of controlling and mitigating the consequences, recognizing that the Republic of Korea (ROK) and its U.S. ally will almost certainly need to intervene militarily in the North, likely seeking Korean unification as the ultimate outcome. But such an intervention requires serious preparation. North Koreans must be convinced that they will be treated well and could actually have better lives after unification. The allies need to prepare to deliver humanitarian aid in the North, stop conflict, demilitarize the North Korean military and security services over time, and secure and eventually eliminate North Korean WMD. Potential Chinese intervention must be addressed, ideally leading to cooperation with ROK and U.S. forces. Plans are needed for liberating North Korean political prisons before the guards execute the prisoners. Property rights need to be addressed. The ROK must sustain its military capabilities despite major reductions in force size due to very low birthrates. And ROK reluctance to broadly address North Korean collapse must be overcome so that plans in these areas can move forward.

Personally, I found the focus on military intervention a little precipitous, especially given the risks of it provoking conflict with China. Still, it would be interesting to game. Also, don’t forget the compendium of modern North Korea-themed wargames at Wargaming Connection.

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In the category of “things PAXsims missed when they first appeared,” have a  look at Scott Swanson’s piece on “Enhancing Red Team Performance: Driving Measurable Value and Quality Outcomes with Process Improvement,” at Small Wars Journal (5 October 2012).

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On the subject of red teaming, we’re regular readers of Red Team Journal. Recently John Sullivan had a particularly interesting piece there on “Analytical Red Team Exercises for Irregular Warfare.”

Irregular conflict–terrorism, insurgency, and criminal warfare (“criminal insurgency” and transnational organized crime)–is a complex challenge to many states. Ranging from street gangs–”local insurgencies” to drug/crime wars or “criminal insurgencies” through transnational criminal or extremist networks challenging regions–these threats require intelligence and analysis to understand and forecast potentials and craft interagency, intergovernmental solutions. Adaptive, analytical red teaming is a process of refining tradecraft for indications and warning (for a range of scenarios along the spectrum of current intelligence, early warning through strategic foresight). Specifically, analytical red teaming places a team of analysts against an active red team simulating a criminal opposing force, or forces. This short paper will describe the process and briefly recap the experience of two adaptive, analytical red team exercises (Operation Talavera and Operation Chimera) conducted by the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning (TEW) Group. Lessons learned and suggestions for refining the process, as well as conducting future red team exercises for irregular threats, will be discussed.

The article is particularly important in the wake of several recent acts of urban terrorism, notably this month’s attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

AFTERSHOCK: A humanitarian crisis game (beta release)

aftershock available

The final production version of AFTERSHOCK is now available! For information, see the AFTERSHOCK information page. The blog post below describes the conceptualization, beta release, and development of the game.

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It is still soon after the EMERGEMNCY phase, soon after earthquake. District 2 needs 2 medical supplies (red cubes), 2 water and sanitation (blue cubes), 1 food (green cube), and a team assigned to rescue. It meets those requirements, so aid efforts here will be successful.

It is still the EMERGENCY phase, soon after earthquake. District 2 needs two medical supplies (red cubes), two water and sanitation (blue cubes), one food (green cube), and a team assigned to rescue. It meets those requirements, so aid efforts here will be successful.

September 2013: After some additional playtesting and a few more tweaks, I am now making available a fully-playable beta version of the Humanitarian Crisis Game. The Humanitarian Crisis Game is a four (to eight) player game that explores the interagency cooperation needed to address the emergency and early recovery phase of a complex humanitarian crisis. The game is set in the fictional country of Carana, but is loosely modeled on disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

 Carana has suffered years of sometimes violent turmoil, and has only recently taken the first steps to tentative steps to national reconciliation and reconstruction. Poverty is widespread, government capacity is weak, and ethnic and political tensions remain high. Nongovernmental organizations and United Nations specialized agencies are active in the country, including a moderately-sized UN civilian police contingent. At dawn today, a powerful earthquake struck the capital city of Galasi, causing widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure. Tens of thousands of people are in need of urgent aid and medical attention. At the request of the Caranan government, military forces from several friendly countries—operating as the multinational Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force, or HADR-TF—are en route to assist, as are additional contingents of UN and NGO personnel together with relief supplies.

The game files required for the beta version are as follows (all in pdf format):

  • The complete game rules (updated as of 28/02/2015)
  • The various game displays
  • The event cards used to generate random events during the crisis
  • The at-risk cards used to denote humanitarian needs in each district
  • The cluster cards used to generate positive effects from coordination
  • Markers for supplies (optional, if no other tokens available)

Note that if you are currently thinking of using the game, you are strongly advised to contact us for a final production version. It looks much better, and contains a number of tweaks and revisions. For the various game markers I use wooden tokens purchased online from Game Crafter, but the file also includes cut-out markers if you wish to use those instead. I have distributed the files in their original (.pptx and .docx) formats to facilitate modification by users, but if you have trouble with any of them let me know and I’ll provide .pdf versions. I’ve now play tested the game extensively with students at McGill, and it has also been used in the classroom at Texas State University. If any PAXsims readers try out the game, please drop me a line with any thoughts and feedback you have.

Design Notes


Playing the game at McGill University.

No game can capture all aspects of a process, and humanitarian assistance is no different. A key design choice from the outset, therefore, was what elements needed to be most emphasized, and how those might best be represented. First, the game needed to highlight humanitarian assistance as a cooperative endeavour, but one in which different actors have slightly different perspectives and priorities. This was done by measuring assistance efforts both collectively (relief points/RP) and individually (operations points/OP). Addressing humanitarian need is a central priority for everyone, and if RPs are negative at the end of the game everyone loses. However, humanitarian actors also need public and political support to function, and failure to maintain this can result in losing for that reason too. The game also needed to highlight that different humanitarian actors have different strengths and weaknesses. This is difficult to do, because each of the four actors identified in the Humanitarian Crisis Game are, in the real world, themselves composed of many different elements with different skills and capabilities. However, for game purposes the rules give the local government primary responsibility for security, and some comparative advantage in local distribution; depicts foreign militaries as having strong logistics and security capabilities but with limited staying power and little capacity to promote sustainable development; and represents UN agencies and NGOs as having comparative strength in relief and development. The combination of differing goals and capabilities, in turn, sets the stage for the coordination challenges in the game. This has been treated in two complimentary ways. Players need to play cooperatively and coordinate their actions to win, both in terms of allocating their human resources and in deciding what kinds of assistance to deliver, where, when, and how. However, coordination is also an activity that they can invest game resources into, by participating in the various coordination clusters. Doing so delivers benefits, but these are not wholly predictable, and the process can even be a bit frustrating. Indeed, the game forces players to even cooperate in coordinating, since some activities may require that multiple parties prioritize the same sectors at the same time. Yet coordination involves opportunity costs too, since resources invested in coordination are not available for other tasks.

Playing the game at King's College London (Connections UK 2014).

Playing the game at King’s College London (Connections UK 2014).

The game uses “at risk” cards to indicate where humanitarian assistance is needed, and “event” cards to generate a challenging operational environment. The sudden and unpredictable operation of these is somewhat different, of course, than the steadier loss of human life in a humanitarian crisis. The mechanism was adopted, however, because it does generate some of the sense of chaos and limited information of a major disaster. It also reflects the extent to which humanitarian actors are struggling to deal with an array of challenges beyond their immediate control. The Humanitarian Crisis Game, like with real humanitarian operations, rewards risk assessment and contingency planning. It also forces players to make difficult decisions about priorities and triage: given limited resources, do they focus on those who are most easily saved, or those most in need? The first few turns of the game are likely to be overwhelming, with the players lacking sufficient resources to meet needs. The importance of randomly-drawn event cards also means that every game is likely to be quite different, and some will be much more difficult than others. In this sense, the game isn’t “fair” and in some cases players may be faced with an almost impossible sequence of events. However, real humanitarian crises aren’t “fair” either. All that anyone can do is to do their best (and do no harm).


Playing the game at Texas State University.

There is a considerable amount of politics represented in the game.  Actors need to maintain public and political support, generated both by their performance in the field and through media outreach. Carana itself is politically fragile, and a failure to address basic needs can be dangerous, especially in the latter part of the game after the initial shock of the disaster has worn off. I didn’t want to overemphasize the element of social unrest and insecurity, however, since it is often rather less than pundits anticipate (in Haiti in 2010, for example). Still, some risk is there. Badly handled the government of Carana—and, by extension, the other players too—could find themselves in serious trouble. The media is a significant presence in humanitarian emergencies, important to the various actors yet beyond their control. In the Humanitarian Crisis Game it moves across the country, highlighting some areas while ignoring others, and variously boosting or damaging the standing of players. Later it is likely to leave altogether as the broader public loses interest, or as other news stories command greater attention. Players of more conventional wargames will immediately notice that the game does not include a map, or more accurately doesn’t include map-based representations of spatiality. Part of the reason is that the design is intended to prioritize processes and thematic sectors over geographic space. Part of the decision was a practical one, too—I wanted the game to be easily reproduced with nothing more than a printer and standard paper, and a larger mapboard would have complicated that. Geography isn’t entirely absent in any case. As players will soon find out, transportation and logistics play an absolutely key role in providing relief in Carana. Unlike most conventional wargames, the design also uses a fictional case and country. This is to allow a broader range of issues to be explored than in any one single real-world case, and to relax some of the pressure to depict historical events with a high degree of fidelity. It also allows students to get past their knowledge and horror of, say, the Haiti case to focus on the broader processes at work in humanitarian crisis response. The Humanitarian Crisis Game can be played in about 3 hours, which is the upper limit for an educational game. It is probably best played in an educational setting with an experienced facilitator, rather than expecting students to self-teach themselves the rules. However, once play starts the game is fairly straightforward, with the various cards providing clear explanations of game effects. The cards themselves are designed to provide large numbers of “teachable moments,” highlighting issues drawn from actual humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations.

Game Strategy

While players might initially focus on getting vital supplies to hungry, thirsty, and injured survivors, it will soon become apparent that logistics are key. If resources can’t be brought into affected areas, they are almost useless. Carana and the HADR-TF have a comparative advantage in opening up transportation routes, and should do so early. Coordination through the cluster system is important, especially since it allows players to transfer resources amongst themselves. Without this sort of cooperation there will be duplication of effort on the ground. It is also impossible to deal with challenges like cholera without coordination. Earning operations points matters, but so too does using them. While they may be necessary to “win” the game, players should also remember that they can be  “spent” to acquire additional resources. Carana is often both the weakest, most over-stretched player and the most important one: it has a network for local delivery of supplies, it is primarily responsible for security, and if it does poorly all players suffer. Social unrest is usually not a major problem unless players perform poorly in the later weeks of the crisis. However, if problems do arise don’t leave them to fester. Finally, be mindful that local needs will shift between the emergency and recovery stages. Medical care and WASH tend to be the priority in the first few days, while food and shelter become more important as time moves on. Other than logistics, most infrastructure activities are better reserved for the recovery stage when needs are less acute and the opportunity cost of infrastructure is reduced.


The initial ideas for this game were drawn from participants in the Connections 2012 Game Lab, with special thanks to my co-facilitators David Becker, Brant Guillory, Ty Mayfield, Gary Milante, Joshua Riojas, and Brian Train. I also drew on the inspiration from the subsequent Crisis Response humanitarian assistance card game developed by Gary Milante, and from the Zombiton NHS zombies-in-a-hospital game developed with Jessica Barton. At McGill, the design of the game was refined and play-tested with input from Sean Anderson, Chloe Brynen, David Brynen, Islam Derradji, Bushra Ebadi, Thomas Fisher, Benjamin Foldy, June McCabe, Beth McKenna, Émilie Noël, Adriana Willms. I also benefitted from feedback from players and other participants at the Connections UK 2013 and Connections 2014 professional wargaming conferences.

Revision History and Updates

18 January 2014: Revised cluster cards uploaded

20 July 2014: A substantially revised version (beta4.0) has been uploaded. The major change is to do away with the dual “emergency” and “recovery” sections on each at-risk card (depicted in the older graphic at the top of this page). Instead, cards are now one or the other, and the deck is prepared before play to assure that the top two cards in each district always depict the “emergency” stage of the disaster, with greatest need for WASH and medical supplies, and the need to assign some teams to disaster rescue. This has the added advantage of pushing some of the more complicated cards (like Cholera or Squatters) deeper into the deck to ease player learning. Several rules have also been simplified, notably with regard to logistics. Several of the Cluster and Event cards have been changed. Finally, the game has been been shortened from eight turns to seven, in an effort to make in playable within two hours.

11 August 2014: I’ve made some small changes (beta4.1) as a result of feedback at the Connections wargaming conference. In particular, players now draw one Coordination card for each cluster they are attending, and then select which one of these to play. There have been a few other minor tweaks too. The game works well with a 15 minute introduction, 7 periods (turns), and 2 hours of play time. All changes have been uploaded.

12 December 2014: Some minor rule-tweaks based on recent playtesting. The game is now names AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. We plan to make the game available for purchase via GameCrafter in the second half of 2015.

15 January 2015: We’ve received permission from WFP and UNDP to use images from their photo libraries for the production version of the game.

15 March 2015: Due to the magical graphics skills of Tom Fisher, we are very near to completing the production version. You’ll find some of the (almost-final) game elements below. E6 CO7 AR1 airportdisp6 clusterdisp10 district1 1 April 2015: We ran four simultaneous games of AFTERSHOCK for students of the Canadian Disaster and HumanitarianResponse Training Program. It all seems to have gone very well indeed!

1 July 2015: We’re in production! See the AFTERSHOCK page.

Should the rules of war be included in computer games?

As the BBC reports, the International Committee of the Red Cross would like video game manufacturers to make their games more compliant with international humanitarian law:

The Red Cross wants to have a greater influence in the virtual world of battlefields.

The aid organisation is arguing that as virtual war games are becoming close to reality, the rules of war should be included.

It claims games such as Medal of Honour, or Call of Duty should make sure that actions which could be war crimes are not rewarded with victory in a virtual battle.

In the report, Bohemia Interactive—maker of the Arma series of realistic first-person shooters—notes that they have already have in-game penalties for inappropriate use of force. (Many of the scenarios in the Arma series also deal with stabilization operations, humanitarian intervention, and similar issues.)

For previous PAXsims coverage of this issue see:



NDU CASL: Roundtables on Innovation in Strategic Gaming (10/10/2013)


The Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University will be holding another one of their “Roundtables on Innovation in Strategic Gaming” on Thursday, 10 October 2013 at NDU.

National Defense University’s strategic gaming group, the Center for Applied Strategic Learning, would like to invite you to participate in the thirteenth session of our roundtable discussions on gaming. Our intent is to continue to build a regular forum for practitioners and scholars to exchange ideas and compare notes about issues relating to game design, the use of games for analytical and teaching purposes, and interesting projects in the field. We will also have an audio feed available via internet streaming or teleconference (depending on technical issues), which we hope will make it easier for colleagues outside the Washington, DC area to participate. (Please contact one of the organizers for more information about the audio feed.)

Each roundtable invites a few speakers to present short, informal, talks on some aspect of strategic-level games to spark discussion among the group. Please feel free to circulate this invitation to interested colleagues – we’re hoping this will be a means of getting to know and building lasting professional connections between gamers.

Speakers: Scott Martin of George Mason University will present on Mason’s academic initiatives in computer game design, as well as an overview of the Serious Games Institute. Kristan Wheaton of Mercyhurst University’s Intelligence Studies program will speak on “The Five Myths of Game-Based Learning.”

For further information, contact:, or the coorganizers:

Tim Wilkie, Research Fellow, Center for Applied Strategic Learning, National Defense University: (202) 433-4865,

Elizabeth Bartels, Research Analyst, Center for Applied Strategic Learning, National Defense University: (202) 685-2634,


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New French-language games journal: Sciences du jeu


Sciences du jeu is a new academic journal/website that has been launched with the aim of promoting and disseminating French-language research on games:

Revue internationale et interdisciplinaire, Sciences du jeu a pour mission de développer la recherche en langue française sur le jeu, de lui donner une visibilité, de nourrir le dialogue entre les disciplines autour de cet objet, et de susciter des débats. Elle a pour objectif de publier des articles scientifiques inédits sur le jeu. Elle est ouverte à toutes les approches ou méthodes disciplinaires, portant sur tous les objets ludiques (dont, mais non exclusivement, les jeux vidéo), et a pour ambition de présenter des recherches issues de différents terrains concernant le jeu dans un sens large (objets, structures, situations, expériences, attitudes ludiques).

Actuellement l’université Paris 13 à travers le centre de recherche EXPERICE (axe B) en assume la gestion pratique dans le cadre d’une association avec d’autres universités représentées au comité de rédaction de la revue. D’autres personnes et institutions pourront se joindre à cette équipe de départ. La gestion pourra également tourner en fonction des possibilités offertes par telle ou telle institution.

Sciences du jeu est disponible intégralement en libre accès. Les numéros sont thématiques, et peuvent aussi contenir des articles hors dossier dans une rubrique « Varia », ainsi que des comptes rendus. Si les propositions hors dossier de qualité sont abondantes, des numéros de varia (ou avec des dossiers réduits) peuvent être mis en chantier.

CFP: APSA Teaching & Learning Conference 2014


The American Political Science Association is currently inviting paper proposals for its 2014 Teaching & Learning Conference, to be held in Philadelphia on 7-9 February 2014. As usual, the conference will include a simulations and role play track:

Simulations and Role Play

Simulations and role play exercises help political scientists and students model the decision making processes of real-world political actors. Examples of these teaching techniques and strategies include Model United Nations, Model European Union, in-class self designed simulations, and on-line role playing exercises. Papers in this track will address such topics as: in what way can simulations and role-play expand student learning opportunities in political science? Which formats are most effective? and How do we measure the effectiveness of simulations?

Junior wargame analysts/researchers wanted

330303The online game portal is looking for “a couple of good junior researchers/analysts to grow as part of a global media services team in Austin.” According to Chris Keeling:

They should not be straight out of college and must be well versed in military technology and military history. Videogame experience is helpful, but transmedia experience (books, tabletop games, graphic novels, military simulations, etc.) is at least as good, if not better. While I am at it, I am also looking for an experienced technical editor with a military background (not necessarily service, but a solid understanding of modern military technology). Knowledge of Russian would be a big plus for this position.

And for those of you who haven’t seen our products, we’re part of, and we make modern free-to-play arcade-style but authentically modeled and researched online multiplayer videogames. And yes, it’s a great job and a fantastic company!  :-)

For further information contact Chris at

International Tug of War: Simulating Polarity and Alignment

A PAXsims contribution from Jeremy Wells (Texas State University).

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Teaching Polarity in a Nonpolar World

My generation–that is, the generation that only barely remembers the end of the Cold War–struggles to fully grasp the nature of bipolar competition. Anyone who was not more than a child before 1990 only knows the world as dominated by a single great power, the United States, leading us to the inevitable “End of History,” as Francis Fukuyama called it, where democracy and capitalism are not only the norm but the only viable game in town.

This makes it that much more difficult to explain multipolarity. A world of several great powers is an further intellectual stretch for the post-Cold War generations. How do you emphasize the critical importance of understanding multipolarity given the potential rise of China, Russia, India, Brazil, Iran, the European Union, or other potential powers when they know nothing but the dominance of the U.S.? How do you draw connections between pie-in-the-sky predictions of the future and the multipolar world of early 20th Century Europe, which students today regard as ancient history

Simulating Polarity

International relations professor Stephen Saideman has mentioned a few times on his blog a cool microsimulation he uses of multipolar politics: a six-sided tug-of-war. Essentially the old summer camp game, where two teams each heaved in opposite direction on a giant rope, is expanded by knotting at the center three ropes, allowing six individuals to all pull against each other. Naturally, given that there are now more than two sides, the opportunity for alignment is available. Throw in the promise of six bonus points to be awarded to, and split by, the victors, and you can sit back and watch the players strategize how to maximize points.


Today I did this in my Introduction to International Studies and International Security and Conflict classes. Both classes have been reading about and discussing the system-level approaches, particularly the Waltzian focus on the distribution of capabilities. In traditional tug-of-war, which represents a bipolar structure, the way to win is to have more strength on your side, or what Waltz calls internal balancing. In a multipolar setting, however, the only way to achieve more strength on your end would be to build more muscle, which is not time-effective. Instead, the best means of winning is to externally balance, which means to align yourself with others. The end result is that even a complex system of multiple great powers reduces down to a two-sided battle.

But which side should the individual join?

Alignment and Polarity

The upper-level Conflict class also read Stephen Walt’s 1985 article “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power,” in which he compares the dominant strategies of balancing against threats versus bandwagoning with them. In essence, Walt argues states should and do balance against threats, and both classes tended to do just that: one or two rather built guys in the tug-of-war would agree to split the six points evenly and join together, while the others would align to counter the threat.

What is most interesting however, was one suggestion from our post-game analysis in the Introduction class, which was the possibility of everyone dropping the rope and taking one bonus point each. This, a few blurted out, was the neoliberal approach. But then another student caught on to the realist counterargument: what would stop one of them from not dropping the rope, easily tugging the knot her way, and successfully claiming all six points, or in other words, becoming a hegemon? Returning to the neoliberal approach, the class discussed the advantages and disadvantages of hegemony: controlling all six points is nice in the immediate term, but what would happen if the other five demanded a share?

The next lesson returns us to Waltz’s arguments about how the bipolar, or traditional, tug-of-war is in the long-run a more stable and predictable system than the multisided game.


There are few teaching experiences more rewarding than seeing students having fun learning, and that definitely happened in these two classes today. For a generation where polarity holds little if any significance, these students seemed to have a much more real appreciation for the importance of the concept for international relations theory.

Jeremy Wells 

Simulation & Gaming (August 2013)


The new issue of Simulation & Gaming 44, 3 (August 2013) is now available:



Ready-to-use simulation

IPSI Syria Simulations Project

IPSI-Syria-Simulations-Project-ReportThe International Peace and Security Institute in Washington DC has designed two three -day simulations on the crisis in Syria, which it will run for interested organizations (presumably for a fee, although this isn’t made explicit anywhere):

As violence continues unabated, Syrians and the international community are seeking greater information on how to resolve the armed conflict and then transition the country from civil war to stability.  To address the question of how the Syrian conflict will end and what a possible transition might look like, the International Peace & Security Institute (IPSI) developed a series of half day-to-three day interactive, flexible multilateral simulations based on the conflict in Syria.

These simulations are important for both the value of the experiential educational process for participants (i.e. the ability to “get into the head” of conflict actors) and for their powerful predictive analysis (i.e. simulation players’ decisions have closely mirrored the future decisions of real-world actors).

Full simulations take three days to facilitate, although specific scenarios/modules from the larger simulations have been designed to run independently and can be tailored to the specific timeframes and learning needs of outside organizations, institutions, and government bodies.

SIMULATION UNIVERSE ONE: Set in a complex universe closely mirroring Syria’s current state, this simulation challenges participants to explore how conflict resolution techniques, including negotiation, facilitation, mediation, military intervention and nonviolent action, might contribute to a resolution.   Participants take on the roles of actors from the Assad regime, the opposition forces, and the international community to test how different actions may affect the conflict.

SIMULATION UNIVERSE TWO: The second simulation universe places many of the same conflict actor roles from Simulation Universe One in a fictionalized, post-conflict Syria. The participants are challenged to structure a holistic transition for the country, taking into account security, governance, development, rule of law with an eye towards restorative and retributive justice mechanisms, and social well-being.

The Syria Simulations Project Report briefly sketches the contours of the simulation, although it contains only limited detail or analysis of past simulation runs.

If anyone has taken part in one of these, PAXsims would be interested in hearing your impressions.

Leeds University: Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the Militarization of Social Media/the Politics of Videogames


Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the Militarization of Social Media/the Politics of Videogames

Fixed term until 31 May 2017, position available immediately

Working within the School of Politics and International Studies you will be working with a multinational research team to conduct qualitative or quantitative research into the way in which military videogames developers make use of social media through their promotional activity, the implications of that activity, and of the way in which members of the public respond to that content through their interactions within social media.

With a successfully completed PhD (or about to submit) in a relevant field of study, you will have clear research interests in aspects of the politics of social media and/or videogames and experience of conducting either quantitative or qualitative research. Your background may be in a range of fields, including political studies/science, international relations, sociology, economics, social policy, communications or geography, and you must be willing to work across disciplinary boundaries. You will also work with members of the School of Politics and International Studies and the international project team to organise events, publish in peer-reviewed journals and provide short reports on your research findings for various academic, professional and non-professional audiences throughout the course of the four-year project.

Further details are here.

University Grade 7 (£30,424 – £36,298 p.a.) please note that due to funding limitations, the maximum salary available will be £33,230 p.a.

Informal inquiries can be made to Dr Nick Robinson, tel +44 (0)113 343 4790, email

Closing Date: 27 September 2013 Ref: ESLPO0036

Northeastern University seeks Postdoctoral Research Associate on Gaming and Decision Making


The following position may be of interest to some in the PAXsims community:

Seeking a Postdoctoral Research Associate on Gaming and Decision Making


The Playable Innovative Technologies (PLAIT) Lab at Northeastern University is seeking a Post Doctoral Research Associate (Post Doc) to join our fast-growing game research group with expertise in Game User Research, Game Analytics, Game Artificial Intelligence, and Games for Impact (see The research position involves assisting in empirical studies and in writing research papers on the topic of gaming and decision making. Additional responsibilities include grant proposal preparation and laboratory management.

Playing games is about making decisions. In this project, the Post Doc will be involved with a number of small-scale, exploratory empirical studies using existing and newly developed games in the context of security and sustainability. On the one hand, the studies will investigate what we can learn from player decisions about the player and/or about decision making; on the other hand, the studies will investigate what players have learned from making decisions in a game. Novel methodologies, including eye-tracking, are used and developed and so the ideal candidate has a strong methodological background. The Post Doc will furthermore be involved with writing grants for large-scale studies and review articles and with building and managing a laboratory on this topic. An opportunity exists to become involved with the design of one or more games and supervise undergraduate students. The work will be performed under the guidance of Dr. Casper Harteveld, an Assistant Professor of Game Design. As most studies will involve collaborations with other PLAIT members and faculty from across Northeastern University, the Post Doc will experience a wide variety of interactions with various researchers.


We seek candidates who have a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), Management Science, Cognitive Science, or related areas. Successful candidate will have an interdisciplinary background, an interest in games for impact, and expertise in empirical research. With regards to empirical research, candidates should demonstrate knowledge of quantitative and qualitative methodologies and of being able to run experiments involving technology and people. Candidates should ideally also demonstrate coding abilities and expertise in grant preparation.

Additional Information

All applications must be submitted electronically at Salary is competitive. We expect the position to start January 2014 for 1 year with the possibility of a 1 year renewal contingent on funding and performance. Your application should include:

        •      Curriculum Vitae
        •      Cover letter
        •      Names and contact information for three references

Deadline for the application is November 1st. However, we will review the applications as they arrive. The position will be open until filled. For more information, please contact Dr. Harteveld (

The job posting can be viewed here directly:


British Forces News on the Connections UK wargaming conference

British Forces News has broadcast a short report on the recent Connections UK professional wargaming conference:

At the conference, several current and former British military personnel had rather critical comments about the under-utilization of wargames in the British military today. The fact that the title of the report hints at a certain degree of surprise that “War Games Still Used in Modern Warfare” may be an inadvertent confirmation of that concern..

Simulations miscellany, 8 September 2013


Some recent items on games and simulations that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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gaming-research-2The folks at GrogHeads have started a new monthly column for academic-focused research on games and wargames:

Hobby games and gamers – especially in the strategy gaming and wargaming world – have rarely been the subjects of much serious published research inquiry.  And yet, some of us know from personal experience that such research is, in fact, being conducted in graduate schools and academic institutions all over.  Distinct from marketing analyses in that they are not focused on improving commercial performance, these studies are frequently conceptualized and executed by members of the broader gaming community who are seeking to fuse their love for the hobby with an academic persuit in the social sciences or humanities.

Although there are a few academic outlets for such research – the journal Simulation & Gaming springs to mind – not every paper was written with the intention of journal or conference submission.  Nevertheless, the research is still interesting and useful, and for GrogHeads everywhere it is certainly relevant.  Papers shared may inspire better research by later investigators, and the ideas discussed may help designers and developers craft better games.

Here at GrogHeads, we’re kicking off a new monthly series on Research and Gaming.  The first of these papers was published in early August, and we plan to follow with one each month.  And we’d like you to submit your research to us.  We’re not a peer-reviewed journal, but we do have some academics on our staff and among our “Friends of GrogHeads” network that include PhD’s in history, political science, and business, as well as other grad degrees in social sciences and the humanities.  So if you’ve got something interesting that you want to share, here’s your chance.  Email us your papers at research-at-grogheads-dot-com . Make sure you include all of your citations and footnotes in the document, and attach any graphics as separate files.  We will also need a short bio from you about who you are and how people can contact you.  One great way for people to contact you is to create an account in our forums, so that you can join any discussions of feedback that go on there.  We even have an area dedicated to references and research.

A few caveats, of course:

  • Do not send us something you’re hoping to see presented at a conference, or in a peer-reviewed journal
  • Do not send us something you expect to try to claim on a CV when you’re hunting for a future academic job
  • Do not send us blatant marketing, political, or religious tracts
  • Do not expect detailed, in-depth critiques of your work from our advisory team, but do expect a lot of questions from our audience, many of whom do not have a great academic background, and for whom there will need to be some gentler discussion of the finer points of how your research got to where it is.

So please send us your tired, huddled research projects yearning to breathe free, and let’s share them with the wider gaming audience.  Who knows what great insights they may spawn for someone else to build on, what feedback you’ll get to improve your own work.  Either way, it’ll be in the public and being discussed, which sure beats languishing on a digital shelf somewhere, next to the Ark of the Covenant.

Their first piece, by Brant Guillory, examines “Entrepreneurship in the Hobby Games Segment of the Publishing Industry.”

* * *

The various slides and presentation recordings from the recent Connections UK professional wargaming conference are now online at the Connections UK website.

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JDMSAn article by Andrew Collins, John Sokolowski, and Catherine Banks  on “Applying Reinforcement Learning to an Insurgency Agent-based Simulation”  will appear soon in the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology.”

A requirement of an Agent-based Simulation (ABS) is that the agents must be able to adapt to their environment. Many ABSs achieve this adaption through simple threshold equations due to the complexity of incorporating more sophisticated approaches. Threshold equations are when an agent behavior changes because a numeric property of the agent goes above or below a certain threshold value. Threshold equations do not guarantee that the agents will learn what is best for them. Reinforcement learning is an artificial intelligence approach that has been extensively applied to multi-agent systems but there is very little in the literature on its application to ABS. Reinforcement learning has previously been applied to discrete-event simulations with promising results; thus, reinforcement learning is a good candidate for use within an Agent-based Modeling and Simulation (ABMS) environment. This paper uses an established insurgency case study to show some of the consequences of applying reinforcement learning to ABMS, for example, determining whether any actual learning has occurred. The case study was developed using the Repast Simphony software package.

* * *

Strategic Crisis Simulations, a student-run organization at George Washington University, will be conducting “Shattered Resolve: A Simulation of Conflict and Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula” at GWU from 11:30 AM – 5:00 PM on 14 September 2013. You’ll find registration details here.

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How might a  zombie elf help you get to college? The New York Times explains.

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The University of Denver sponsored an international humanitarian crisis simulation exercise over the 2013 Memorial Day weekend. You’ll find a very good video of the event below.

Review: Woods, Eurogames


Stewart Woods, Eurogames: The Design, Culture and Play of Modern European Board Games (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2012). 262pp. $40 pb.

Good “Eurogame” boardgames typically combine elegance of design and accessible themes and a rich depth of play. Stewart Woods’ book Eurogames does something much the same: it is a well-organized, clearly written, and intellectually rewarding study of the design, culture, and play of games of this genre.

The book has its origins as a PhD dissertation, and it shows—in a positive way.  The author makes very effective use of the existing literature, citing it frequently (and often further expand upon an issue at hand in lengthy endnotes). The bibliography (pp. 231-255) is extensive. The analysis offered in the book flows smoothly and logically from chapter to chapter and theme to theme. The author wisely refrains from the opaque jargon that characterizes some academic studies of games and ludology.

Eurogame85The first few chapters of the volume provide an introduction to hobby games, survey the evolution of Anglo-American and German boardgaming, and trace the emergence of the Eurogames genre. Next, the book offers an examination of the systemic elements (components, spatial environment), compound elements (ruleset, game mechanics, theme, interface, information), and behavioural elements (player, context) of Eurogames. Woods’ discussion of game mechanics is especially useful, combining an overview of the most common forms of these with a quantitative analysis of their appearance within a representative sample of 139 Eurogames (Figures 5.2 and 5.3—click thumbnail at right to view). The book also contains pictures depicting the use of several of  these mechanics within particular games. Later, a similar mix of qualitative and quantitative methods is used to examine major Eurogames themes (Figures 5.15 and 5.16—click thumbnails below right to view).


After exploring what a Eurogame is, Woods moves on to an examination of Eurogame players. Based on a survey of more than six hundred game enthusiasts from Boardgamegeek, Woods sketches a demographic profile of a hobby that is overwhelmingly male (96%), with players typically in their thirties or forties (average age 36) and having above-average income and education. He further discusses Eurogaming “geek” culture, game collection, and the frequent interaction within the community between players and game designers. His survey and questionnaire data is also used to provide insights into the gaming experience, addressing such questions as what elements players most enjoy in games (Figures 7.3 and 7.4—click thumbnails below right to view).



A key theme of the book is how players manage the apparent tensions between competitive game play on the one hand, and the convivial sociability of the game experience on the other. This includes such issues self-handicapping (whereby a strong player may deliberately make sub-optimal decisions to give weaker players a chance to win), and how players rationalize and limit in-game antagonism. As one of his respondents notes, “There is a fine line between trying to win and spoiling others’ enjoyment” (p. 186). Woods’ concludes that, for most players, “winning” is not the primary objective of the social experience of game play. This issue is further explored by focusing on in-game actions that might place stress on the balance between competition and sociality. In particular, Woods examines cheating, metagaming, deception, kibitzing, and king-making. While the players in his survey were universally and vehemently opposed to cheating, the other activities elicit a broader range of responses, varying between players (and likely between different social environments too).

Eurogames is an excellent book, providing a thoughtful examination of the genre. Its value, moreover, extends far beyond this to offer valuable insight into the social experience of game-playing more broadly.

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