Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: October 2013

Review: A Distant Plain

A Distant Plain: Insurgency in Afghanistan. GMT Games, 2013. Game designers: Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke. $78.00.

416Earlier this year PAXsims reviewed Andean Abyss (2012), a game of Colombian insurgency and counterinsurgency—and we liked it very much. Two other games using the same general  system have since been since been published as part GMT Games’ COIN series: Cuba Libre (the Cuban revolution), and A Distant Plain (insurgency and counterinsurgency in contemporary Afghanistan). A fourth game, Fire in the Lake (the Vietnam War), is currently in development.

A Distant Plain was codesigned by Volko Ruhnke (architect of the COIN series, and designer of the Charles S. Roberts Award-winning games Andean Abyss and Labyrinth) and Brian Train (well-known among both hobbyists and professional wargamers for his counterinsurgency games, notably Algeria). Expectations were thus high. Our expert playtest group at McGill University included an academic who works on fragile and conflicted-affected countries (me), a professional game designer who works on simulations for anti-corruption and financial intelligence analysts (Tom), and three graduate students (June, Alejandra, and Sean) interested in complex humanitarian operations, war crimes, insurgency/counterinsurgency, and related issues.

As you’ll see below, we certainly weren’t disappointed. A Distant Plain is a highly enjoyable and engaging game that gives a real sense of the strategic challenges and trade-offs of the Afghan conflict.

Playing the Game

As noted above, the core game system in A Distant Plain is similar to that of its predecessors. Once again there are up to four players, in this case the Afghan Government, the Coalition, the Taliban, and the Warlords. Extensive rules for 1-, 2- and 3- player versions are also included. Each turn, players can choose to either play event cards or undertake one of a series of possible operations, with the sequencing of initiative determined both by the event card and by who acted in the previous turn. Most of the primary operations are similar to Andean Abyss: counterinsurgents can train, patrol, sweep, or assault, while the insurgents can rally, march, attack, or terrorize. Some of the special activities allowed to each faction have been customized to the Afghan setting, however. The Coalition may thus “surge” its troops in or out of the country, the Government may “govern” (or misgovern, since this often involves converting aid into patronage), the Taliban may “infiltrate” and subvert non-Coalition forces, and the Warlords may “suborn” enemy units, using resources to buy off government or Taliban troops.


Indeed, despite a similar core game system, A Distant Plain should not be seen as Andean Abyss in the Hindu Kush—it plays and feels rather different. Perhaps most notable of all is the subtle relationship between the Afghan government and the Coalition. Neither side can win without considerable help from the other, but in the end only one player can win. Neither side can attack the other. Their interests and victory conditions overlap but differ: while the government cares about establishing patronage and bringing the country under COIN (Government + Coalition) control, the Coalition is, in a reflection of population-centric COIN doctrine, more anxious to establish positive legitimacy (“support”) for the Afghan political system, avoid casualties, and eventually go home. The Coalition has unlimited resources, but joint operations draw upon the scarce resources of the Afghan player, who can quickly grow resentful at the having his/her priorities determined by a bunch of foreigners.

For the Taliban, on the other hand, Pakistan looms large in their strategic calculations. Its stance is determined both by player actions (such as Coalition drone strikes) and the play of event cards. When supportive, the Taliban are able to use Pakistani border areas as a sanctuary in which to build up and move their forces.

Game play is also very  shaped by the quite different, Afghanistan-specific event cards, and the options they present. The COIN game system creates both interesting trade-offs (do I conduct operations, or invest time and resources in building longer-term capabilities?) and it tends to generate an interesting sort of path dependency, whereby acquiring a capability often leads a player to reshape their strategy to make best use of it—a point I’ll return to later.

The game now includes an optional  “deception” rule whereby players start the game with hidden assets, possibly augmenting their actions or scores. I strongly recommend using this, since it makes it much more difficult to know exactly what a player might do next turn, or exactly how close each is to winning.

In our game, Alejandra and I jointly played the Coalition. Our strategy looked much like that of the US since 2001: initially we tried to maintain a light footprint, but when this failed we undertook a major surge of troops in the hopes of shifting the momentum of the war against the Taliban. While our cooperation with the government was good at first, relations soon frayed as they grew to resent our heavy-handed tendency to expect them to meekly follow our campaign and state-building plans. For much of the game (and unlike real life) we had the Taliban struggling under pressure, and we also managed to avoid any significant casualties. However, this came at the cost of letting the Warlords establish militias and criminal networks in much of the country. Ultimately they would narrowly win the game.

Player Reactions

In keeping with the importance of patronage in A Distant Plain, in this playtest I used my control over the supply of Angela’s pizza to force the other players to agree to send in some post-game thoughts for inclusion in this review.

The Afghan Government (Tom) confirmed the problematic nature of its relations with the Coalition:

I was afforded the opportunity to represent the Afghan government in A Distant Plain.  Following my first, utterly enjoyable, GMT COIN experience with Andean Abyss, I was very eager for this game.  It did not disappoint. The game mechanics, much like Andean Abyss, are smooth and simple to understand, but very complex in their effect.

As the government I quite quickly discovered I was tied too closely to the Coalition forces.  I wanted to accrue patronage  and bring the Afghan population under control—whether they supported the government or not.  This differed from the Coalition somewhat, in that they wanted enough government support that there was no longer any need for Coalition forces to remain in Afghanistan.  While these goals are parallel, government  patronage often comes at the cost of legitimacy and good governance.  The Coalition could also determine much of my spending.  While coalition forces are extremely effective at eliminating insurgents, my own ability to attract more aid was partly dependent on doing it by myself. However, my initial strategy of single-handedly assaulting Taliban bases to increase aid was thrown out the window when the Coalition decided it was their solemn duty to eliminate the Taliban with drones.  So I had to play along, and try to build up police strength in outlying provinces to eradicate Warlord bases which, unfortunately for the Coalition, eroded support while providing me with a small boost in aid. Eventually I also started to redeploying (or withholding) my police in such a way as to limit the Coalition’s ability to use “civic action” to build support. This led, of course, to some very interesting negotiations when the Coalition realized what I was doing. If this game set out to illustrate the frustrations and complications of the Afghan government – Coalition alliance, it certainly succeeded!

The government was further hindered by the warlords’ ability to suborn troops and police and the Taliban’s ability to infiltrate (and hence “turn” government units).

The game also captures, in exceptional fashion, the consequences of certain actions or events on the course of the conflict through the event cards.  The cards provide such a fluid, unpredictable dynamic that necessitate rethinking one’s plan.

The Taliban player (June) commented:

I had enjoyed the game mechanics present in Andean Abyss and was especially excited to see them applied in a historical and geographical context that I was more familiar with. A Distant Plain absolutely did not disappoint. All of my favorite aspects from Andean Abyss were present in the new installment along with some new dynamics that arose as a consequence of the actors involved.

During our game of A Distant Plain, I played the Taliban. Immediately, it was clear from the victory conditions that I would need not only to build popular support in provinces with significant populations, but I would also have to get some insurgent bases on the board. Unfortunately, for a great deal of the first quarter of the game, I had to spend my turns “burying” event cards to keep them away from the Coalition. Nevertheless the Coalition soon obtained the Predator drones card, and their inclination to use them led me to spend my available ops rallying in my safe havens across the border in Pakistan instead of marching or rallying a small numbers of guerrillas into a province. I feared that spreading my forces out wouldn’t have much strategic purpose if they would be met with barrage of Hellfire missiles.  The Coalition also snagged several other capabilities over the course of the game, some of them directly limited my actions while others changed how I thought I should play. In the end, I had a huge insurgent build-up in Pakistan but hadn’t managed to do enough terror in populated areas.

One of the most interesting aspects of this series of games is the depiction, through the event cards, of actual historical events. These certainly appeal to history buffs and political science geeks. Many of the events depicted were major junctures in the conflict and the real effects of these changes can demonstrated in the game as well. For me, maintaining my relationship with Pakistan was critical to my ability to rally guerrillas without a high resource cost. Cards like “US-Pakistan talks” thus had the potential to help or hurt the Taliban a great deal.

The only aspect that we did not utilize to its full extent were the Lines of Communication. Although the Government, Taliban, and Warlords could all benefit from using or sabotaging them, it wasn’t clear to us initially how important they could be. I think the next time I play A Distant Plain I will have to be more aware how LoCs affect gameplay. Certainly the Taliban could have interdicted government movement and resources to a much greater extent through sabotage.

Overall, A Distant Plain managed to be fun for everyone while simulating the power dynamics and strategies of the different parties involved in the war in Afghanistan. I think it is a strong installment to the series and a great contribution to the genre of modern warfare board games.

Finally, the Warlords (Sean) enjoyed themselves too, and not just because they won:

I had a great time with A Distant Plain and am glad the game mechanics and card system are being employed in multiple settings. Having studied and lived in Colombia, I had really enjoyed Andean AbyssA Distant Plain really effectively translated that game system into the Afghani context. As the Warlords, it was fascinating to try to contest control of provinces without garnering too much attention from the other players. I initially pushed too hard by building many bases, but quickly learned I had to be more subtle. The game’s balance worked really well. It successfully demonstrated the complexity and difficulty of successful coordination between the Afghani Government and Coalition in the face of constant pressure from the insurgents. Once I discovered the power of the “suborn” special activity, I became a much more effective threat. It allowed me to buy off the opposition in order to relieve military pressure or remove an opponent’s control in a province. It ended up being vital in stopping a wave of government forces from attacking my Northern strongholds. I also thought the cards worked well in terms of pushing strategy in certain directions (e.g. Predator or Reaper drones) while not being overpowered. Overall, I really enjoyed the game and it was great to see firsthand the power-dynamics in that context. I am looking forward to playing Cuba Libre sometime soon.

Final Thoughts

There are a number of minor quibbles I could raise about A Distant Plain. Although I was pleased to see patronage built into the game,  I’m not entirely sure the system fully captures its complex effects. I might have designed the operations and special activities slightly different. It might also be interesting to tweak the win conditions in many of the COIN series games to allow narrow conditions under which two players might win.

These, however, are rather trivial objections, and are really testimony to the degree of interest the game generates than criticisms of how it plays. Let’s face it, this game is fun. I have no idea what play time for the COIN series is supposed to be, but our games (pizza included) easily go on for six hours or more—largely because of the political banter and negotiation the game generates. In the playtest, for example, we Coalition players developed the annoying habit (annoying to the insurgents that is—not to us) of making constant droning noises during periods of critical insurgent decision-making just to remind them of the death circling above. The Taliban seemed to get genuinely Talibanesque in its growing hatred for the foreign presence in Afghanistan (the drone noises didn’t help win any hearts and minds either), and both the Afghan Government and Warlords were even more duplicitous and cunning than usual.

As I noted with Andean Abyss, this isn’t a game well-suited to classroom use, in part because of the length of game play. However it could be used as a facilitated optional activity.

reapersAt the end of the game, I think two things most stood out. One was the difficulty of maintaining a consistent strategy in a dynamic, multi-actor environment. No matter how much one tried to plan several turns out, things would simply happen that altered your calculations. When they did, one was forced with an often difficult decision whether it would be better to stay the course (despite changed circumstances), or revise one’s approach (thereby having possibly wasted a turn or two of preparation). This is a useful antidote to those who see political-military strategy, whether in wargames or real wars, as something akin to a cake recipe. It is far more uncertain than that, at times as much Kenny Rogers as Clausewitz.

The second real take-away from the game was the path-dependency noted earlier, and the ways in which capabilities influenced strategy and tactics. Both of the insurgent players clearly feared the Coalition’s growing ability to use drones and airstrikes, a capability into which we had invested considerable effort through acquiring the relevant event cards. However, in retrospect, I am painfully aware of the ways in which our low-risk counter-insurgency-by-remote-control tactics came at the expense of other actions. We had been slow to push a Coalition presence out into the countryside. We had been slow to train the Afghan military. We had depended too much, perhaps, on UAVs in the sky rather than boots on the ground. We had done too much on behalf of our allies, instead of building their capacity to do more themselves. Cognitively, we had somewhat fallen prey to the “law of the tool”: “if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”— or, in this remotely-piloted case, “if you have a Reaper, every problem looks like a target”. True, we had done well in the game—had we been able to pull our troops out quickly, we might have even won. But could we have done even better if we had been less seduced by new gadgets?

I suppose answering that question will have to await our next game of A Distant Plain.

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Want this review in Russian? Here’s a translation, courtesy of StairsGames.

Simulating Iranian-American nuclear negotiations

PAXsims pleased to present the following guest blog post by Prof. James Devine (Mount Allison University).

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IrannukeThe simulation was intended to model American-Iranian negotiations circa fall 2012. It was conducted in a 3rd year class with approximately forty students. It was not intended for predictive purposes or to actually model the negotiation process. Rather, it was intended as an educational exercise. Its purpose was to highlight the complexities of the issues involved in the dispute and the motivations of the actors involved in the negotiations. It was designed to be carried out over four ninety-minute classes, but a fifth class was eventually required. The first class was for preparation, the next three were for the simulated negotiations and the fifth was for debriefing.


To ensure that each student had an important role, the class was divided into three groups and simulations were run on three parallel tracks. This helped keep the students engaged and made it possible to compare the outcomes of the simulation across groups during the debriefing. Each of the simulation tracks included twelve full time roles. There were four students each in the American and Iranian delegations, two students in the Israeli delegation and one each for Russia and China. The American delegation included the President, which could be played either as a republican or a democrat. It also included the Secretary of State representing a liberal perspective on the negotiations, and the Secretary of Defense who represented a more conservative, hawkish perspective. There was also a chief negotiator who was ideologically neutral but politically beholden to the President. The Iranian delegation included the Supreme Leader, modelled on the current leader, Ali Khamenei. It also included the President, modeled after the hard-line president of the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In addition, there was the Speaker of the Majlis (Parliament) modeled on the mainstream conservative Ali Larinjani. Finally, there was a chief negotiator loyal directly the Supreme Leader. The Israeli delegation was constructed to represent a national unity government and had one member each from the Kadima and Likud parties. The Russian and Chinese delegations were each played by a single student. Several students had to miss class during the simulation. They were given part time roles as journalists covering the negotiations.

Given the complexity of the real-world negotiations, it would not have been possible to replicate all of the actors and institutions involved. The European Union and the IAEA, for example, were dropped from the exercise. The roles that were included were therefore chosen and defined so as to recreate particular political dynamics between the players. Domestic competition was built into the American, Iranian and Israeli delegations by defining actors with different political ideologies and party/factional affiliations. In addition, the three delegations were instructed that they would be facing domestic elections upon the completion of the negotiations. Domestic politics were further integrated into the simulation through the presence of student journalists who could influence public opinion by writing articles covering each day’s events. The press played a second role in that the delegations could use the media to signal the other players about their preferences and intentions. China, Russia and Israel were included because whatever Iran and the US wanted to do they would need the cooperation. These states could therefore use the negotiations to pursue their own interests and/or extract whatever concessions they could from Washington and Tehran. Finally, to replicate some of the complexity and uncertainty involved in any negotiation process, only the chief negotiators of the Iranian and American negotiations were allowed to meet directly. The rest of their respective teams had to learn the other side’s position second hand. They therefore had to trust that their negotiator was capable and their opponent’s negotiator had the authority to follow through on the promises they made.

The roles were assigned based on student interest. A list of potential roles was circulated prior to the start of the simulation and students asked to rank their choices from one to three. Students who wished to write a simulation review for their final term paper were given priority in their choices. However, because there were three versions of the simulation being run, it was not difficult to give most students their first or second choice.

Logistical Issues

The negotiating process would require students have the ability to move about freely and interact –sometimes in relative privacy. This would not have been possible in a regular class room. Therefore a room had to be booked through the university that would provide enough space. The students also needed to access media reports after each day of negotiating. The course web page was used for this purpose. Mount Allison University uses Moodle, but other systems such, as WebCT, could provide the same functionality. Finally, because there were nearly forty students involved in three parallel sets of negotiations, it was also necessary to make up name tags for the students so they could keep track of who was who and which negotiation track they belonged to.


Prior to the simulated negotiations, students were provided with background material covering the nuclear issue and the interests and preferences of all of the parties, and a full class was also devoted to preparation. To appreciate the constraints each actor faced during the negotiation process, it was important that students were restricted to realistic choices. To this end, the American and Iranian delegations were also given a ‘menu’ of choices and concessions that they could potentially make. This menu was based on earlier real world attempts to settle the dispute. In addition to including the key demands made by both the US and Iran, the menu used the uranium-swap formula proposed in both the Russian and the Brazilian-Turkish plans as a framework. The challenge for the students was therefore to construct a uranium-swap based on the options available in the menu that would satisfy all of the parties. The negotiations could end with the two sides reaching a formal agreement, it could end with both sides trying to maintain the status quo without a formal agreement, or the US and/or Israeli could engage in a military strike.

The negotiations were conducted over three classes. During the first class, the Iranian and American delegations were instructed to negotiate amongst themselves to establish their bargaining positions. The Iranian and American delegations were not allowed to meet on this first day. They could, however, talk to the Russians, the Chinese and the press. The Americans could also speak to the Israelis. The Iranians, of course, could not. All of the parties could, of course, use the press to signal the others. At the end of the class, each delegation had to write a press release on the status of the talks and the student journalists had to submit their articles. All reports were posted on the course Moodle page so they could be read before the next session. During the second day, the Americans and Iranians held direct talks through their chief negotiators while the other delegates continued to interact with the third party states and the press. Again, at the end of the day, press releases were submitted. On the last day the original plan was for the negotiations to be concluded by half-way point of the class. However, I allowed the delegates to negotiate for the full class. The delegates therefore announced their final decisions at the beginning of the fifth day and explained all of the deals they had made.

The simulation did not end at this point, however. Once the announcements were made, each group rolled dice to determine the final results of their actions, similar to the way wars are fought in the game ‘Risk’. For example, if a negotiated deal was reached, the dice determined if it would hold up over time, or if one side or the other would defect. The dice also determined the effectiveness of any military strikes and who won the upcoming elections. The rational for the dice was that it would make the students understand that there would be consequences to whatever they did and/or said during the negotiation process and that those consequences could not be determined beforehand with absolute certainty. It was hoped that operating within the shadow of uncertain outcomes would make the students act more judiciously. The dice were weighted on the bases of how I judged the outcome of the negotiations and the way the process was presented to the public in press releases and by journalists.

In addition to weighting the dice, my task during the simulation was to oversee the proceedings and answer technical questions. After each session, I provided feedback for the students by posting fake BBC reports on Moodle, which were based on the day’s press reports and statements. The BBC reports were meant to give the actors a sense of how the public was reacting to events and to provide a check when students acted unrealistically.

Student Assessment

Student assessment involved several instruments. Student participation was worth 5% of each student’s final course grade. The grade was based on individual participation (observed during the simulation and the debriefing session) and group work (based on each delegation’s press releases). In addition, students were given the option of writing a ‘simulation review’ in lieu of a research paper. Reviews were worth 20% of the student’s final course grade and involved an analysis of the simulation based the student’s research into the ‘real-world’ crisis. Finally, students were responsible for the simulations’ background material on the final exam. Overall, student participation during the simulation was very good, the press releases were particularly well done. Many of the simulation reviews were well done as well. However, there was a tendency for some students to describe what they did during the simulation rather than analyze and explain their actions as instructed.

Student Response

All of the students who commented on the simulation in their course evaluations said it was a positive experience. Several students remarked that the “hands-on” aspect of the simulation helped them gain a better understanding of the course material. Nevertheless, several wished there had been more preparation time and several others suggested that not all of their classmates were behaving realistically. A few students thought the reading load associated with the simulation was too heavy. Informally, the student response was positive as well. Most students remarked that the exercise helped them with the course material and that they learned from the experience. A few said rolling the dice was fun, though not realistic.

Observations and Future Modifications

There are numerous aspects of the simulation that could be improved. This was the first time I conducted the simulation, so there were a number of rough edges that can be smoothed out in the future. Because real-world events were developing as the class took place, I was still putting the background material together as the semester progressed. If I run the simulation again in January, the reading list will be available to the students earlier in the semester and allow them more time to prepare. I was also working on the negotiation menu, and the organization of the dice-rolling during the semester and both went through several revisions before they were finalized. This made things more complicated for the students. Even with some modification, both will be ready well in advance the next time the simulation is run.

Overall, the negotiating menu proved a useful addition to the simulation. Not only did it help ‘keep things real’, explaining the rationale behind the various options enhanced the educational value of the simulation. However, there were still instances of students acting unrealistically. The menu was also complex and explaining it was time consuming. By laying out the possible options, the menu probably also made it easier for some students to get through the simulation without doing much research. The menu may have also acted as a constraint on student creativity. The menu did not appear to predetermine the course of the simulation: The negotiations ended with two military strikes and one formal agreement settlement, and the events within each track were quite unique. However, it is possible that students may have come up with novel solutions to the dispute if they had been free to develop their own options. Given sufficient time, it would have been better if students discovered the options available to their characters through their own research.

Although the simulation was run in the second half of the semester, preparation could have started earlier. The research material and the roles were distributed about a week before the simulation began. This may have not given students enough time to research the issues and their character. In the future, I will try to give students more advance time to begin preparing, and perhaps integrate some type of written assignment into the process. For instance, students could be asked to write a brief on their character prior to the start of the simulation.

The dice rolling segment of the simulation also needs to be streamlined. Originally it was intended that the dice would be rolled right after the negotiations ended. However, they were pushed back to the fifth day debriefing session. This created a disconnect between the decisions made by the delegates and their consequences. Moreover, the process itself was too convoluted. For instance, in the cases where a military strike was launched, dice were rolled for the strike’s effectiveness, the Iranian military response, the possibility of escalation and then whether Iran would reconstitute its nuclear program in the aftermath. In addition there would be dice rolled for the elections in Iran, Israel and the US. The problem was not just that rolling the dice took time, but that with each round, the rationale behind the weighting of the dice needed to be explained. With three simulation tracks, this process took up most of the debriefing period. In the future I will likely restrict the dice to the election results and only one roll for the outcome of the negotiations. It may also be useful to post changes in the odds, ‘Las Vegas’ style, on Moodle after each day’s events. This would simplify the explanations at the end and give the students more precise feedback during the simulation.

Finally, time management could also have been better. The simulation could have been compressed into two classes and the deadline should have been kept strictly. As noted above, preparation could have also begun earlier. Unfortunately though, time will always be in short supply. Even if the whole process is restricted to four classes, that is still a large portion of the semester. It would be nice to add more time for preparation and debriefing, but it would compromise the rest of the course.

I was generally happy with the simulation and plan to use it again in the future. The basic structure of the simulation is flexible enough to be adapted for larger or smaller classes by adding or subtracting actors or simulation tracks. The simulation can also be adapted to take into account changes in the American-Iranian relationship or other political dynamics. For instance, instead of modeling the Iranian president on a hard-liner such Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it would be simple enough to have students prepare to play the role as Iran’s new, more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani. Instead of presidential elections, it would also be possible to have the American negotiators face the prospect of a congressional vote on lifting sanctions on Iran. The topic would become dated if the two states do eventually reach an agreement. However, the basic framework of the simulation could be adapted to other examples of international negotiations, whether they were real or imagined.

James Devine

Simulations miscellany, 28 October 2013


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

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Wired UK has an article on “Battling insurgency in war-torn nations with immersive 3D sims”  that suggests an optimistic (and I would say ridiculously optimistic) vision of the predictive utility of computational simulations addressing complex social and political processes:

“Simulation science will transform how humans make decisions for the next 100 years.” If Justin Lyon sounds evangelical, that’s because he is. The Texan-born founder of Simudyne is on a mission to persuade public and private sectors that their reliance on old maths is deeply flawed. That the buzz of big data is no longer a buzz — it’s sitting in his cloud-based simulation software Simudyne, and to not use it to help make decisions, particularly in the context of warfare, should be criminal.

“Humanity’s continued reliance on mathematics the ancient Egyptians understood is the wrong thing for our society,” Lyon tells, exasperated by what he sees as the world’s snail pace attitude toward adopting complex models to analyse a complex world. “The vast majority of consultants still use spreadsheets to make decisions based on that same math.”

The world is, however, ready for a change Lyon believes, as demonstrated by the epic failures of the last decade: ourfailure to predict the danger of an unregulated financial market  has proven catastrophic, as have interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both prove what happens when policy is based on a flawed model. Lyon believes Simudyne — a neat package of system dynamics and agent-based modelling, visualised in 3D virtual realities via algorithms — provides the disillusioned with a new way to fail safely. Policymakers can run simulations with meticulous detail thousands of times to allow for insights and generate statistical distribution.

It took a near total economic collapse for Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, to realise the flaw in his policy. And Lyon argues his mistake was not just to wait for real-world failure to realise that flaw, but to place trust — an inherently human characteristic — in other humans. Greenspan believed in a free-market run by rational people, who would always act to protect shareholders to maintain the status quo. Catastrophe has too often followed the errors of individuals. So why not let the machine do some of the heavy lifting, and point out our mistakes before we make them?

“For every single exceptional human, there are a million David Brents out there,” says Lyon, “we’re trying to equip humans with the ability to interact with computers that allow humans to better understand the consequences of decisions.”

So far it’s been used it to create realtime emergency response solutions (in a trial 98 percent of actors received the correct escape route on their phones when trapped in a tunnel), map the US healthcare system and replicate an entire country of three million people.

But it’s in counterinsurgency operations where the applications get most messy, risky and — if they work — perhaps most revolutionary. Simudyne has worked on defence projects in Afghanistan and Iraq, working with local businesses and elders and using open source intelligence from the World Bank, IMF, UN Agencies, charities and NGOs.

There was a precursor to Simudyne’s work, in the form of the COIN (Counterinsurgency) Dynamics Afghanistan Stability Chart. It’s a mathematical model to describe counterinsurgency, but to the untrained eye the chart’s a mass of neverending circles pointing back at our own failure to comprehend it. General Stanley McChrystal famously said “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war”. Lyon tells us, “I would have said ‘you’re absolutely right sir, if you had understood this, you would have won the war'”. It measured the turning point from civilian to insurgent, taking into account things like accessibility to guns and opportunity. Its says increasing the killing and detaining of insurgents increases the flow of new recruits, but Lyon believes simulation can also help us understand why that happens, and why getting the ratio of things like counterinsurgent troops dedicated to combat or intelligence patrols right can positively affect the outcome.

The point of an all-encompassing system like Simudyne’s is to seek out the “unintended consequences” of our best intentions. And it’s during counterinsurgency these are perhaps greatest. The system provides another point of view, highlighting things policymakers may never have thought of. When mapping the US healthcare system, for instance, it showed people were not using bike paths planners had spent millions on, because not enough was spent on policing — people were wary of crossing dangerous areas to reach those paths. “These obstacles frustrate our best intentions — we have to connect them together and allow decision-makers to play the game.” Like a pilot training for hours in a simulator, they know it will be different in the real world, “but the more training they have, the more likely they are to survive.”

Fortunately, the article goes on to cite some skeptics, who bring as back to earth. “You can have a sophisticated set of simulations and very smart people working on them, but if your assumptions are wrong it’s worthless,”  warns Celeste Ward Gventer. Phil Sabin also nails it:

Philip Sabin, a professor of strategic studies at Kings College London, argues the variables that matter most only occur to us once they’ve happened. This, is why presumptions will drive failure. In Afghanistan and Iraq allied forces instigated the insurgency, in part because they were operating off a bad model and poor assumptions that failed to take one key thing into account.

“In Iraq the invasion went reasonably well, and Bush said mission accomplished — in conventional terms they thought the war was won,” said Sabin. “Then the insurgency came. They hadn’t even considered these people wouldn’t be delighted to be liberated from Saddam Hussein. Their model was totally incorrect because it said it will be like 1945 and once you get rid of the terrible regime — the modern equivalent of Nazi Germany — people will proposer and be happy. The idea they’d fight for the remnants of Saddam’s regime was seen as absurd.” Like 1945, the entire regime was removed, but no one asked what those people would do. “Become insurgents of course,” says Sabin, “because you’ve given them no new way forward.” These are the kinds of factors a model won’t tell you, if you’ve built it from a position of bias. It demonstrates how ineffectual any such simulation can be, if the perceptions and politics at its core are inadvertently in direct conflict with the desired outcome. It’s the human factor that’s the simulation’s undoing.

I like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of books as much as the next science fiction nerd, but let’s face it—we are very far away from having psychohistorical model of human history that allows us the sort of predictive accuracy suggested in the article. Certainly, computation modelling (whether agent-based or otherwise) is really interesting stuff, and it can illuminate some really interesting issues. However, overselling the methodology it is to do it a disservice (unless, of course, you’re trying to sell contractor services to the military).

h/t Crispin J. Burke

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A forthcoming issue of International Studies Perspectives will feature an article by Emre Hatipoglu, Meltem Müftüler-Baç, and Teri Murphy on “Simulation Games in Teaching International Relations: Insights from a Multi-Day, Multi-Stage, Multi-Issue Simulation on Cyprus.” You can access the early-view prepublication version at the link, if you are a subscriber.

This article reviews experiences from a large-scale student simulation, which concluded the Istanbul Conference on Mediation: Enhancing Peace through Mediation that took place in February 2012. We share insights on two unique aspects of the simulation. First, the paper examines a rare case where the simulation crossed paths with real life: a number of the impersonated officials (and offices) including the president of the General Assembly of the UN, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, and the Director of the Policy and Mediation Division of the UN Department of Political Affairs were in the audience and shared their impressions. Second, the setup of the simulation was more complex than its typical in-class counterparts. Our insights from this multi-day, multi-stage, and multi-issue simulation can inform colleagues who plan to run larger scale simulations. Besides sharing experiences on a number of logistical points, we especially draw attention to the constructive role facilitators can play in augmenting the learning benefits accruing to the students from simulations.

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The September 2013 edition of US Department of Defense Modeling and Simulation Coordination Office (M&SCO) M&S Newsletter is now available.

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The Russian government is worried that there aren’t enough patriotic video games, as Michael Peck reports at Forbes.

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Play the Past always has interesting material. However, we particularly enjoyed Peter Christiansen’s piece earlier this month on videogames and scientific revolutions.

As I discussed in a previous post, videogames tend to take a very deterministic view of technological development. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the concept of the “Tech Tree.”  While dedicated players and modders are usually quick to point out other flaws or deficiencies in games (often holding them to an almost absurd standard of historical accuracy), this strong thread of technological determinism is generally left unquestioned.  I attributed this lack of critique to the fact that technological determinism is so deeply ingrained into Western culture, especially the culture of tech industries like videogames.  So while the fact that a spearman has a slim chance of defeating a tank in combat may incite a minor revolt in some online forums, the fact that every culture on the planet, even landlocked ones, will develop sailing, optics, and the compass (and always in that order) never gets a second glance….

Review: Corey Mead, War Play

Corey Mead, War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). 198 pp. Hardcover $25.00.

war-playIn War Play, Corey Mead examines the increasing integration of video games into the training and recruitment efforts of the US military. Based in part on interviews with game developers, project managers, and other key figures, he examines the intersection of education, the military, and video games; the development of the free-to-play video game (and recruitment tool) America’s Army; the use of VBS2 and other simulations in military training; and the use of video games to treat post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues. Attention is devoted to some of the institutions involved, notably the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, the MOVES Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School, and WILL Interactive. His account suggests that while video games seemed to be an appropriate response to the complex training challenges facing the American military in the post-9/11 world, the development of these has often been haphazard. By way of conclusion, he also raises some critical questions about  whether the military has become too involved in civilian classrooms.

This book appears to be primarily directed at a popular audience—and that audience is likely to find it of some interest. War Play is highly readable, with much of Mead’s narrative provided through the words and perspective of his interviewees.

As specialist or technical analysis, War Play is more limited.  The book isn’t really embedded within any of the relevant academic literatures, although the author is clearly aware of these. There is a bibliography and some reference notes, but the latter are really only used to distinguish the author’s interviews from those that have been previously published elsewhere.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the book developed a thorough argument, critique, or analysis—after all, it is intended for a general audience, and most people really don’t want pages of reference notes cluttering up their reading. However, the first seven chapters of the volume are a generally enthusiastic and uncritical sketch of serious games in the military. Despite some accounts of bureaucratic infighting and  failure, these present  a rather more positive account than the one I frequently hear from military wargamers, educators, and modelling and simulation experts. Then, suddenly, the concluding chapter shifts to a more critical tone. Most of this, as noted above, revolves around the possibly negative effects of the military in civilian education, asking whether military recruiters gone too far. Other interesting questions about the limits of educational and training game, the ethical implications of virtual warfighting, the role of defence contractors, the military-entertainment complex, and the cultural and political effects of all this are left largely unasked. Despite its subtitle, the book certainly doesn’t address “video games and the future of armed conflict” at all. Military games outside the US receive less than a page of coverage

If you are looking for a descriptive overview of some of the games used in the US military or for a gift for a video gamer who might enjoy reading about the more serious side of the business, War Play could be a good choice. If you are looking for a more detailed and penetrating account of the topic, however, you will need to do more research and analysis than this book provides.


NHS zombie preparedness

From time to time we at PAXsims get emails from readers who would like some advice on educational or policy simulation design. However, one email that I received during the summer was particularly unusual:

Dear PAXsims:

I’m a child nursing student in the UK, and I have a bit of an odd request. We recently played a game in class on running a hospital ward that I found particularly interesting and useful. I also rather like zombies, and have played a few zombie-themed games.  Is there any way to combine these two interests? After all, the National Health Service—which I hope to join soon as a nurse—needs to be prepared for the zombie apocalypse.

Well, how could I resist a challenge like that? It became even more interesting as we discussed the design requirements. No one could get hurt in the game—after all, the patients are children. Instead, zombies simply cause “regrettable incidents” (which require that appropriate NHS paperwork be filled out). Nurses themselves can attempt to deescalate the shambling undead, and send them to the waiting room downstairs. The various patients in the ward have different, randomly-generated needs related to their general medical conditions. Some of these can be addressed directly by nursing staff, but others require searching the zombie-infested hospital for medication, equipment, or supplies. Part of the game system is inspired by, and helped shape, the system I used for my humanitarian crisis game.

The final result is Zombiton NHS. The game rules, map, and cards are all available for download below. As for my co-designer, she has since graduated and is soon to join the staff of a major children’s hospital–where she’ll no doubt both look after paediatric patients AND, if necessary, keep the undead at bay.


If the rules are unclear, email me for clarification. I’ll post a rules update and/or FAQ if necessary.

Recent papers on political and conflict simulation (October 2013)

Some papers on political and conflict simulation that have been recently added to the Social Science Research Network:

Social simulation models from computational social science are beginning to provide significant advances in terms of implementing more complex social, human, and natural dynamics that are characteristic of how real world countries operate. The MASON RebeLand model presents three innovations: (1) an explicit polity model with politically complete structure and processes; (2) social and natural model components within an integrated socio-natural system; and (3) generative dynamics where insurgency and the state of the polity (stable, unstable, failing, failed, recovering) occur as emergent phenomena under a range of social and environmental conditions. Earlier agent-based models (ABMs) on similar topics have been useful in covering parts of RebeLand’s scope. Three scenarios are demonstrated, showing stable, unstable, and failing polity conditions. The MASON computational system also permits additional experiments and extensions.

  • Voinea, Camelia Florela, Advances in the Simulation-Based Analysis of Attitude Change (September 25, 2012). Voinea, C.F. 2012. “Advances in the Simulation-Based Analysis of Attitude Change”, European Quarterly of Political Attitudes and Mentalities, ISSN 2258-4916 ISSN-L 2258-4916, Volume 1, Issue No.1, pp.iv-xi, September 2012, FSP, University of Bucharest, Romania.

In this paper we provide an overview of the most relevant research work on the simulation of attitudes which evolved in the late 90’s and mainly after the year 2000. The general framework for the modeling, simulation and computational research on attitudes integrates research approaches (both fundamental and applicative) which combine theories from sociology, social psychology, social economics, political science, conflict theories, human-computer interaction areas with complexity theory, computer science, autonomous agents, artificial life, artificial intelligence, machine learning and decision making. One of the main dimensions is that of elaborating agent-based studies and simulations of the attitude dynamics.

The paper lists economic concepts and processes simulated in a real-time computer strategy video game, and examines their treatment and presentation. Economic material found in the game ranges from basic ideas appropriate for elementary students to formal concepts normally taught at the tertiary level. While the literature has not explored these ideas in real-time video games, the paper demonstrates the efficiency and power of learning while playing in an immersive, interactive environment, which makes internalizing economic concepts both intuitive and fun, and thus increase the chances of understanding and retaining the material.




Long before any of us at PAXsims became preoccupied with conflict, development, peacebuilding, or zombies, we loved dinosaurs. Indeed, had you asked me at age six I would have likely told you I wanted to be a palaeontologist (or an astronaut), not a political scientist.

Fortunately, Ezra Sidran—whose background is in military simulation and artificial intelligence—manages to cover both these interests with his current project, Dinosaur Island. The game itself is about, well, dinosaurs:

Dinosaur Island is a 3D computer simulation with herds of sauropods and ceratopsians, flocks of pteranodons, hunting packs of carnivores and authentic plants and trees from over 65 million years ago all controlled by the user. You can think of Dinosaur Island as a digital terrarium in which a balance between the species and their diets must be maintained or the ecosystem will collapse.

It is up to the user to determine how many and what kinds of dinosaurs and plants populate the island. Start off simple with just a few sauropods and some plants; but you better make sure that those big plant-eaters have the right food to eat. Did you know that many of the plants from the Jurassic were poisonous? You also need to make sure that there are some carnivores around to keep those sauropod herds in check; otherwise they will quickly outstrip their food supplies.

However, the development blog makes frequent comparisons with military simulation and modelling, with discussion on such topics as  “creating a combat model for T. rex versus Edmontosaurus regalis,” “new AI enables T. rex to anticipate prey’s future location,” “how a dinosaur is not like a tank,” and “dinosaurs, tanks and line of sight algorithms.”


Simulations miscellany, 11 October 2013


If you missed the last NDU Roundtable on Innovations in Strategic Gaming, the video of the event is now available online via Livestream. The two powerpoint presentations are also available:

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At Foreign Policy magazine, Michael Peck interviews Larry Bond on the late Tom Clancy, and his use of the popular naval wargame Harpoon to help plot his books. You’ll also find discussion of  “Tom Clancy, Gamemaster” by Matthew Kirschenbaum here at PAXsims.

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Also by Michael Peck, have a look at his pieces on Arab-Israeli wargames both at Foreign Policy magazine (“The Guns of October“) and The Forward (“War Games Depict History of Israel and Challenge Players To Win Conflict“).

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The latest issue of Military Training & Simulation 5 (2013) is available via the Halldale Group.

Simulation articles in the latest PS: Political Science & Politics


The latest issue of PS: Political Science & Politics 46, 4 (October 2013) has three articles on classroom use of simulations. Two focus on the use of these in teaching about legal processes:

United States Supreme Court Confirmation Simulation: Learning through the Process of Experience

Arthur H. Auerbach, University of Southern California


The traditional process of educating undergraduates is often relegated to the passive lecturing format. One means of engaging students in active learning is through the use of simulations. Students were asked to take on the roles of United States senators and a Supreme Court nominee during a United States Supreme Court confirmation hearing simulation. Each student participated by researching a sitting senator and the nominee selected and engaged in a question-and-answer session as is done in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Students came away from this valuable experience by not only learning a great deal about the operation of the confirmation hearing as well as the substantive material learned but participating in a process that few people will ever actually experience.

The Settlement Game: A Simulation Teaching Institutional Theories of Public Law

Dave Bridge, Baylor University


Many political science subfields use classroom simulations. Public law, however, suffers from a lack of such activities. Many mock trials exist, but these games focus on jurisprudence and not on the more institutional aspects of the subfield. This article presents the Settlement Game, an original simulation that takes 15 minutes to complete and helps teach important institutional theories such as adversarial legalism, “bargaining in the shadow of the law,” and “haves” versus “have-nots” concepts heretofore overlooked by the simulations literature. I introduce relevant theories and describe how the simulation works, discussing preclass assignments, its operation, and debriefing about its connection to theory. I close with comments about assessment of students and explain why the Settlement Game is useful.

The third looks at the use of simulations in comparative pedagogical perspective, arguing that simulations are not necessarily the best method and that a variety of different teaching techniques may be more appropriate given variation in student learning styles:

Active Learning Strategies for Diverse Learning Styles: Simulations Are Only One Method

Pam Bromley, Pomona College


Although political science instructors increasingly recognize the advantages of incorporating active learning activities into their teaching, simulations remain the discipline’s most commonly used active learning method. While certainly a useful strategy, simulations are not the only way to bring active learning into classrooms. Indeed, because students have diverse learning styles—comprised of their discrete learning preferences—engaging them in a variety of ways is important. This article explores six active learning techniques: simulations, case studies, enhanced lectures, large group discussion, small group work, and in-class writing. Incorporating these activities into an introductory, writing-intensive seminar on globalization and surveying students about their engagement with course activities, I find that different activities appeal to students with different learning preferences and that simulations are not students most preferred activity. Bringing a broader range of active learning strategies into courses can improve teaching for all students, no matter their learning style.

The findings are based on feedback from first year students (n=53) in several sections of a course on globalization. The results show that these students did not rate simulations the most effective learning strategy, ranking it behind large group discussion and only narrowly ahead of case studies (see below). Moreover, the standard deviation for simulations was the largest of the group, indicating a broader spread in student perceptions of this tool.


There are a couple of caveats that might be added to these findings. First, self-reported learning outcomes are not necessarily the same thing as actual impacts of learning. Participants in such a study might well overstate the learning effectiveness of methods they enjoyed (discussions, simulations) and understate the impact of methods they enjoyed less (enhanced lectures, and especially in-class writing—after all, who enjoys that?). Second, and more importantly, the findings might actually be measuring the relative skill of the instructor in these various techniques, the quality of the simulations or case studies used, or the way they were integrated into curriculum, rather than the  general efficacy of any particular method.

That being said, Bromley’s findings are a useful antidote to the notion that serious games and simulations are an educational panacea. They can work. They can work well. They do not necessarily work equally well with everyone, however, and they are not necessarily much more effective than some “traditional” methods (like large group discussions or small group work). The study also points to the value of seeing simulations as part of what I have previously called “intellectual cross-training”—that is, a mix of different approaches designed to both engage students in different ways and liven up the classroom experience.

Tom Clancy, Gamemaster

As many PAXsims readers will already know, Tom Clancy—author and gamer—died on Tuesday at the age of 66. You’ll find his obituary here (New York Times), here (Washington Post),  and here (CNN), among many other places.

Matthew Kirschenbaum (University of Maryland) has kindly contributed the following piece to PAXsims, examining the way in which Clancy used the wargame Harpoon to develop the plot for his book Red Storm Rising.

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Tom Clancy, Gamemaster

Red_storm_risingTom Clancy’s connections to the games industry are well known, especially the signature Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, and Splinter Cell franchises. Long-time wargamers, however, will know that his interest goes back much further than that.

The story starts with Larry Bond’s Harpoon (today also stewarded by Chris Carlson), which first came out in 1981 as a set of tabletop rules published by Dave Arneson’s Adventure Games. Clancy, so the story goes, saw an ad in the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine and purchased it on a whim; when the game arrived he realized that he had a trove of data that it would have cost thousands of dollars to duplicate through the usual library of reference works. This material became instrumental to writing The Hunt for Red October, Clancy’s first novel and breakthrough best-seller.

Clancy’s hallmark, of course, is his realism, particularly his attention to detail in weapons and technical systems; and here we find tell-tale indicators of Harpoon’s influence. For example, when the V. K. Knovalov fires off a pair of “Mark C 533-millimeter wire-guided torpedoes” in the climactic underwater confrontation at the end of the novel, the weapon type and characteristics are taken directly from the data annex in the Harpoon rules; as Larry Bond has told me, the game system’s “Mark C” wire-guided torpedo was simply a generic extrapolation from assumed real-world capabilities since there was no public data for this weapons system at the time. (An examination of later editions of Harpoon published after the collapse of the Soviet Union reveals that these generic listings have been replaced by their correct identifications.) At some point in this process, Clancy struck up a correspondence with Bond over some of the ship data, and the two met in person at a convention not long after.

harpoon-1This meeting was to be the basis for one of the more interesting literary collaborations of the era. Despite enormous pressure from his publishers for the next Jack Ryan book after Red October’s success, Clancy instead pursued an idea he had hit upon with Bond: to write a lightly fictionalized account of a full-scale conventional war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact using Harpoon as an integral part of their creative arsenal to “game” the scenarios and situations in the book. Bond, at the time, was still a naval consultant and not the best-selling author he is today. Understandably, people were nervous. In correspondence to his New York City editor, Clancy declared that the outcomes of the game sessions would furnish “a matrix of detail within which our characters will operate” (the book, meanwhile, had just been given a million-dollar advance). Red Storm Rising, whose working title was “Sunset,” thus became a best-selling work of fiction some of whose key sections—notably the “dance of the vampires” carrier battle and the Soviet airborne seizure of Iceland—were gamed using a tabletop wargames system. (Bond, for his part, was not just the gamemaster, but took an active part in the writing as well, as Clancy’s author’s note at the beginning of the novel makes clear.)

But while Harpoon was integral to the plot, it was not deterministic. For example, the gaming sessions suggested the Soviet bombers might not get through a carrier battle group’s outer air defenses, but Clancy and Bond knew that the “bad guys” needed to win a big one early on for the book’s dramatic arc; Clancy thus independently arrived at the Soviet drone tactics, which is one of the most dramatic (and prescient) episodes in the book. The games did allow Clancy and Bond to maintain consistency as regards the complex interplay of ships and systems and sensors that make up a modern naval battle. The game sessions (dubbed “Vampire I, II, and III” in Bond’s notes) thus quite literally plotted the book in the sense that they offered precisely the temporal and spatial “matrix of detail” that Clancy had promised to anchor the detail-driven narrative prose (I describe the integration of the game sessions with the novel’s plotting in more detail here based on access to Larry Bond’s personal papers).

Red Storm Rising was published in 1985 and immediately shot to the top of the best-seller lists. If portions of it read like what grognards would call an After Action Report, that’s because that’s exactly what they were. For an English professor like me the novel represents a unique example of how games can influence fiction. (Interestingly, the Dragonlance novels, derived from an AD&D campaign, were being published at about the same time.) Moreover, eventually board game versions of both The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising were released, so we arrive at a situation where games have influenced novels that have then had games produced from them!


A Red Storm Rising computer game was produced by Microprose in 1988. A year later, Harpoon itself got the first of what would become many subsequent computer implementations based on Don Gilman’s work for Three-Sixty. Clancy contributed the forward to the rules manual (this was when computer games still came with rules manuals, as well as floppy disks . . .) There he wrote, “Harpoon is a tool for understanding things that happen in the real world.” This very much reflects the grognard’s view, one where games are analytical tools to be used alongside of conventional histories, primary source documents, field data, oral testimonies, and everything else in a good researcher’s toolbox.

Clancy (and Bond) were both too good as storytellers for anyone to suggest their success was the end-product of a game. But their work in the 1980s took us much deeper into the potential for rich interaction between fiction writing and games than today’s marketplace, driven by tie-ins to triple-A titles, typically allows. Wargamers could do worse than to look (again) towards fiction writing and storytelling as vehicles for communicating lessons and outcomes (Clancy would later swear that NATO doctrine had indeed changed in response to the Iceland scenario in Red Storm). And novelists could perhaps do worse than to think of games as merely something to pass the time when they’re stuck with writer’s block.

Matthew Kirschenbaum
University of Maryland

JDMS: verification, validation, and accreditation in modelling and simulation

JDMS header

The latest issue of the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology 10, 4 (October 2013)  is devoted to the important topic of “verification, validation, and accreditation in modelling and simulation.”



Original Article

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