Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: January 2014

Review: BCT Command Kandahar

BCT Command Kandahar. MCS Group, 2013. Game designer:  Joseph Miranda. $69.95.


BCTKBCT (Brigade Combat Team) Command Kandahar is nearly a very good game, and I’m somewhat conflicted writing this review of it. While our playtest was a bit of a disappointment, with some tweaking it could be a very engaging and insightful representation of contemporary counterinsurgency operations.

The game includes a 17×22″ mounted area map of Kandahar province, Afghanistan, 102 unit markers, 140 other game markers, and 98 (staff, objective, and chaos) cards. The unit markers represent battalion-sized tactical formations, headquarters, or attached assets. The turn length is undefined.

What I liked most about BCT Command Kandahar were the staff cards that are at the heart of the game system. Each turn, players pick the joint military staff cards (J2 to J-9 in the US military staff system—J1 isn’t represented) for the next turn. Each card enables a number of certain functions, so that a J-2 (Intelligence) card can be used to identify covert enemy units or gain tactical advantage on the battlefield, a J-3 (Operations) card is necessary to undertake combat operations, and a J-9 card (Civil-Military Cooperation) card can allow you to develop local social infrastructure and build local networks of support. The number of cards in a player’s hand depends on their current command and control (C2) level, although this may be temporarily modified by planning (via a J-5 Planning card).

This means that, as in the real world, major military operations take some time to prepare, need to be based on a clear sense of operational and strategic purpose, and often take place in episodic bursts. This stands in contrast to many wargames, in which pretty much everything fights all the time, and where the game system gives little sense of operations planning.


The Taliban player also uses staff cards. Although these often have different potential actions, they are similarly numbered using the US system. It would have been interesting had these been more  different. In many insurgent organizations, for example, bomb-making is a specialist staff function, as is the organization of high-profile terror attacks.

All of the Coalition tactical units depicted in the game are either generically Coalition or Afghan. This was perhaps another lost opportunity, in this case to depict the political and coordination dynamics of coalition warfare, especially given the sizeable Canadian contingent in Kandahar in 2005-10.

The game does a satisfactory job of depicting  non-kinetic operations, represented by the establishment of “SWET/NET” (sewage, water, electricity, trash + social networks)  across the Kandahar area of responsibility. In the game this is entirely done through military (CIMIC) actions, however. In real life, of course, the military is only a secondary or tertiary actor  in such efforts, which are largely undertaken by the local government, international organizations, NGOs, and local communities.

The objectives being pursued by the players are determined by objective cards, which change from turn to turn. While players have some control over which objective they are pursuing each turn, the system also provides a very real sense of shifting priorities set by higher command—in other words, the world as experienced by real brigade-level commanders.

“Chaos cards” introduce a random event each turn, although these tend to be rather generic. I might have preferred more detailed events that fully conveyed the “strategic corporal” effect of local actions having broader effect (or, conversely, national developments affecting local operations). However, this is largely a matter of taste, and it certainly doesn’t adversely affect game play.


In our play-through of the “Intervention” scenario, the Taliban player initially placed covert guerrillas, recruiters, and logistics in Kandahar city itself, and then took advantage of having the  first turn to recruit large numbers of militia there (with seven such units recruited in the first turn alone). This immediately made any Coalition operations there very dangerous indeed, as well as creating a potential human-shield of low value units. Eventually the Coalition gave up on regaining control, and focused instead on the outlying rural districts.

This, of course, was a highly ahistorical outcome. At no point have the Taliban ever come anywhere near controlling Kandahar city. Instead, their activities there have largely consisted of symbolic attacks: even the so-called “Battle of Kandahar” in 2011 involved only a few score active Taliban attackers. In the real world, losing effective control of a city of half a million people would be a devastating blow. In the game, however, it is only marginally more important than other areas, and the Coalition can certainly win without it. A useful modification to the game would be to make the city both more important and a less hospitable environment for the Taliban.

Overall, I felt that the balance of forces in each district should probably have more effect on game play. Afghan insurgency and counterinsurgency has in large part been a dynamic of trying to influence fence-sitters who themselves are trying to best gauge which way the political and military winds are blowing. Guerrilla recruitment, training, and the building of training camps should be constrained by the degree of Coalition presence. Similarly, certain Coalition activities should become more difficult in areas with a substantial Taliban presence.

In combat, Taliban units always shoot first, unless the Coalition player has gained “tactical advantage” by playing J-2 (intelligence) cards. I’m not convinced, however, that in an era of UAVs and other persistent ISR assets that the balance of initiative always falls to the insurgents, especially in large-scale Taliban operations (most of which proved extremely costly to the attacker, and hence which were largely abandoned by 2006). This could easily be revised in the game by giving default initiative to the defender, or even introducing a level of uncertainty.

As might be expected, Coalition units in the game are significantly more effective in combat than are the Taliban. However, they are equally fragile, vulnerable to both suppression and even “destruction” (which, as the rules make clear, isn’t actual elimination, but rather a level of casualties that renders them temporarily combat ineffective). In Afghanistan, however, no battalion-sized US or NATO unit has ever been rendered combat ineffective for any length of time by Taliban attacks. A variant, therefore, might be to make NATO (but not Afghan) units largely invulnerable, but to somewhat increase the victory points earned from hitting them to reflect the political effects of US military casualties.

The combat system penalizes the Coalition player for using excess firepower, by counting excess hits against the enemy in urban or rural areas as collateral damage that earn the Taliban victory point. This is a clever mechanism, although it is perhaps too difficult to correctly judge how much force to use. It also makes it extremely difficult for the Coalition to combat Taliban units in Kandahar city, and renders it an effective Taliban base of operations—again, contrary to historical experience.

The rules are well-laid out, but in a few places could be clearer. It would also be useful if they were made available, in an updated edition, online. An FAQ/errata is available.

The game is relatively easy to learn, and relatively easy to modify. It could thus be a quite useful as a classroom or optional exercise, with students asked to play it, critique it, and suggest modifications.

Simulation miscellany, 28 January 2014


Some recent news on conflict simulations and serious games (and, occasionally, other stuff) that may be of interest.

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They’re as busy as ever at GrogHeads. First, there is still time to vote in the 2014 “Readers’ Choice” awards for the best games of the year. Also, they are always on the lookout for academic and analytical contributions on wargames and related subjects. Go check it out.

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The Chronicle of Higher Education this week features an article by Anastasia Salter on “Alternate Reality Games in the Classroom“:

It can be hard to get a clear picture of ARGs without participating in one directly. Alternate Reality Games typically start with a rabbit hole: a website URL for a fictional company embedded in a movie ad campaign, a strange interruption in a video clip on YouTube, a series of street art images with a Twitter hashtag, or some other method of alerting potential players that a story is starting. From there, players typically follow a trail of clues presented by the game’s puppetmasters. You can find out more about games going on now through the Alternate Reality Gaming Networkand the Unfiction ForumsBrooke Thompson has a great quickstart guideon how to play ARGs that can help you get started. Most of the games are marketing promotions, but they still often include great examples of using mysterious websites, codes, social media, geocaching and flash mob events to play a story. These same techniques can be scaled up or down to a classroom or conference….

h/t Brian Train

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The proceedings for last year’s History of Games conference are now online. There is also a special issue of Game Studies with papers from that conference

h/t TAG

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Kotaku has an interesting discussion by Paolo Pedercini of the forthcoming game Prison Architect:

Is it possible to create a prison management game without trivializing or misrepresenting the issue of mass incarceration? As video games mature and tackle more serious topics, players and developers should be aware of the values embedded in their systems.

Prison Architect is an upcoming game by Introversion Software, a British independent company. Dubbing themselves “the last of the bedroom programmers,” Introversion played a key role in the renaissance of independent game development, producing a string of critically acclaimed titles and paving the way for digital distribution of third-party games on Steam.

Among their previous releases is one of my favorite games ever: Defcon, a spine-chilling, eerily beautiful multiplayer real-time strategy game in which players engage in a Cold-war era nuclear conflict. Each Defcon game culminates in a slow-motion Mutually Assured Destruction scenario. Whoever suffers the least amount of megadeaths is the winner.

Prison Architect is also tackling a dark subject, a subject that deserves special attention and defies any ‘it’s just a game’ kind of dismissal.

As the name suggests, the player is in charge of designing (but also managing) a private penitentiary. The gameplay is reminiscent of sim games from the ’90s, most notably Bullfrog’sTheme Park and Theme Hospital: a mix of construction, zoning, research, resource and staff management….

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Do you have a lot of ill-gotten gains you need to turn into safe, useable cash? The blog Criminal Genius is featuring the “Keno Laundromat,” a weekly money launder challenge/tutorial simulation.

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The deadline to submit abstracts for consideration at the 82nd Military Operations Research Society Symposium is Thursday, 14 February 2014. Registration is now open.

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Red-Team-This-RTJThe Red Team Journal continues to add to its list of “The Laws of Red Teaming.” Check out the current list.

Compensation for Palestinian refugees: a gaming-influenced workshop


Last month I coorganized a workshop in the UK on Palestinian refugee compensation with Chatham House as part of their long-standing “Minster Lovell” meetings on the refugee issue. Although the workshop wasn’t a game or simulation, we did use some gaming and simulation techniques to drive the discussions, including rival teams, scoring, and assigned tasks. Mick Dumper of the University of Exeter—who is both a refugee expert and a frequent user of simulations—has offered some thoughts below on how it all went.


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Recently I took part in a gaming-based workshop which was not exactly a lot of “fun”.  It was designed to explore the options available in constructing a compensation package for Palestinian refugees, in the event of some success resulting from the US Secretary of State’s current efforts in the Middle East peace process. While the workshop comprised some gaming elements (eg. competing teams and scoring) it was, ultimately, pretty hard work!  Nonetheless, as an exercise to extract good ideas, to fly kites, to test-case controversial initiatives, it worked, and provided much food for thought and action.

Palestinian_refugeesThe exercise was sponsored by Chatham House and the UK Foreign Office and run by Rex Brynen with the assistance of Roula el-Rifai from International Development Research Center (Ottawa), former Canadian diplomat Mike Molloy, Norbert Wuhler (formerly of the International Organisation for Migration) and Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House.  Approximately 20 participants were divided into 3 teams who were all set the same task of designing a delivery framework for compensation following a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis.  We were given a day and a half, and most of the time was spent in breakout rooms with 3 opportunities to meet in plenary: an introductory session at the beginning and a second session, about one-third of the way through, in which our preliminary findings were aired and shared.  In the final session the three teams presented their reports as powerpoints which the rest of the participants were asked to score. Overall, the task was quite daunting as the detail required was very demanding.

One of the key features of the workshop was that all the participants were very knowledgeable either on the peace process, or had specific expertise on the Palestinian refugee issue or of compensation mechanisms.  Many had acted as advisors to some of the actors in previous rounds of negotiations or had experience in designing and implementing compensation packages in other post-conflict situations. In addition, considerable thought had gone into the preparation of the powerpoints the teams were to present.  We were all given templates with sections, detailed prompts and examples of issues.  These ranged from the delineation of which elements of the package were to be included in an agreement and which were to dealt with by the agency established, eligibility issues, categories of claims, varieties of valuations and payment schemes etc.  On both accounts, this meant that the teams were able to hit the ground running and despite the ambitious objectives of the organisers, they were able to cover between half and two-thirds of the issues outlined.

datafiles_cache_tempimgs_2010_1_images_news_2010_04_22_palestine-key_300_0The teams were not randomly selected, but I was not able to detect the underlying logic of any social engineering, apart from the fact that Palestinian and Israeli participants were spread fairly equally.  Some teams clearly worked better as a group than others and it was interesting to see how disagreements within the teams as well between them did not necessarily follow national or political affiliations. The timing was very tight and it did mean that for some teams, disagreements were not resolved and therefore the differing positions were included in the final presentation.  In addition, it also meant that not all the sections were covered in the same way by the teams.  This meant that the scoring in the final session did not really work as it was difficult to give marks to the teams in the same way.

The team format of the workshop did provide opportunities to explore the implications of particular scenarios through to the end which was very revealing.  One of the most important outcomes of the workshop was the realisation that placing a monetary value on refugee hood and upon what that calculation was to be based was politically explosive and hugely divisive. For example, one scenario was to divide the sum likely to be raised from the donor community and from Israel by the number of refugees (in itself subject to many different estimates). This produced a pitiful sum deemed by some as offensive (“less than you would receive if your cat was run over by a car”) and would be totally unacceptable. Another scenario was to take a compensation for refugee hood sum that might be acceptable to the vast majority of refugees and then multiply this by the number of refugees. This led to astronomical totals which would be left unmet by the donor community and Israel.

Clearly finance alone was not going to solve this problem and the broader context of reparation, of which compensation is just one part but also includes restitution, restorative justice and apology, requires addressing and may offer more fruitful ways of pulling an agreement together. The team format was perhaps not essential in getting to this important stage, but it certainly made it more interesting, more collegial and I am sure helped motivate a talented group of experts who were all engaged in this on a pro-bono basis and may not otherwise have committed themselves to the hard work involved.

Mick Dumper 
University of Exeter 

D&D historian Jon Peterson on Reddit today

On this, the 40th anniversary of D&D, you can ask D&D historian Jon Peterson anything on Reddit—courtesy, appropriately enough, of Gygax Magazine:


Gaming the “Arab Spring”, Part 1


Corinne Goldberger, an Honours student in political science at McGill University, has taken on the challenge this term of designing an educational board game that explores the “Arab Spring,”—that is, the wave of protests and uprising that swept the Arab world in 2011, and which continue to have profound ramifications for the region. I will be supervising her work. As part of the project, she has offered to post some periodic reflections to PAXsims on her conceptual ideas for the game, design choices, and revisions. You’ll find her first contribution below.

In our discussion of game mechanics, one of the issues that came through was the need to keep it simple so that the game was accessible to players without much board gaming experience. As you’ll see in future posts, she is leaning in the direction of using  a card-driven game design to address this. In an educational setting, CDGs have the advantage that you can place the relevant rules on each card, so that a player can immediately determine their game options without having to pour through a long, complicated rule book. The cards themselves can also contain some contextual information of educational value, and this can then be expanded upon in additional reference materials.

If this game is to be played in an educational setting, it should ideally not take too long to play either. That will be a consideration she will need to address in future, as she develops her game system.

Game design is about modelling the world by identifying key variables and relationships, and refining that model so that it is simple enough to be represented in playable form. As you’ll see below, the first choice Corinne had to make concerned who would be represented in the game.

In the case of the regimes, she chose to include the monarchies and republics as different players, reflecting a broader debate within the political science literature as to whether monarchical regime type was, or was not, an important factor in shaping the resilience of Arab authoritarian regimes. She opted to include the monarchies as a single player in this case because of the extent to which the royals have stuck together in recent political crises, whether by providing aid or (in the case of Bahrain) even sending military forces to buttress fellow monarchies under threat. The republics, on the other hand, are a more diverse group, a characteristic she hopes to represent in their somewhat victory conditions.

In the case of the opposition, she chose to include both Islamist and secular/liberal players. It would be dangerous to see this as an absolute dichotomy (or, as Egypt has recently shown, to believe that the “liberals” are always all that liberal). However, it is also clear that in both Egypt and Tunisia that differences between the two have deeply affected transitional politics. In game terms, she’ll need to come up with a design that pushes that elicits both cooperative and competitive behaviour from them.


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Post #1: Some initial thoughts

Corinne Goldberger, McGill University

e01_08967231Over the past few years I have had the pleasure of being introduced to the world of gaming, wargaming, and simulations by Professor Brynen. From the hour-long class simulation of class struggle in colonial times, to the infamous week-long Brynania peacebuilding simulation, to play-testing games for fun in my barely existent spare time, it would be fair to say I’ve gotten pretty hooked. Throughout our many game debriefs, we always discuss the difficulty of creating these games in a way that is fun, playable, and yet analytically and historically accurate. Intrigued, I approached Professor Brynen with the idea of creating a board game myself as an independent study course.

My name is Corinne Goldberger, and I am a fourth-year student at McGill University. I am in my last semester of an Honours degree in Political Science, with a strong focus on contemporary Middle East politics. I am also minoring in Middle East Languages, studying both Arabic and Hebrew. I have had an extremely interesting lens into the Middle East the past few years as a university student studying the region; I have written nearly a dozen undergraduate (and some graduate) papers on the Arab Spring and the literature surrounding it. The subject of the game I wanted to create was therefore clear and very exciting.


The board game will attempt to simulate the events of the Arab Spring. I know that this is a huge task, with countless explanations having been posited for every aspect of the revolutions – or lack thereof, and I anticipate many design changes to my current thoughts in the future. Nonetheless, I hope to be able to create a game that is playable for fun, yet also useable in an educational setting. The game is targeted primarily at university students and will hopefully take approximately three hours to play.


Bahrain-protest_1905376bThe first big game-design challenge I have faced was in picking how many players my game would have, and who the players would represent. In my conversations with Professor Brynen we went through a number of possible options: a two-player game in which one player was the monarchical regimes and the other was the republican regimes, to be played against systemic opposition (in a Pandemic-esque way). Another idea was a four-player game in which different opposition groups struggled against the system of authoritarianism. The idea here would be to model that even with the same goal of “overthrowing regimes” priorities and methods varied and cooperation is to some extent necessary but extremely difficult. We briefly forayed into the idea of a five-player game, combining elements of the above two and adding the idea of a third group of “fence-sitters,” or a business-class, that has undetermined allegiance at the beginning of the game.

Ultimately, we decided on a four-player game in which one player is the monarchical regimes, one player is the republican regimes, one player is the secular/liberal opposition, and the final player is the Islamist opposition. With this formulation I hope to be able to show the greatest amount of analytically different factors and how they affect different actors. It differentiates between some opposition ideologies and also distinguishes different goals and methods of the two dominant regime types in the Middle East prior to 2011. The precise ways in which these differences will be played out have yet to be determined. This set-up builds in some necessity for cooperation in order to succeed, but also integrates competition between cooperating players. The game could be easily expanded to include eight students, with each player being played by a team of two-students.

Aspects of the Game

Thus far very few game mechanics have been fleshed out, but there are a number of real-life aspects that I hope to be able to simulate in some way in the game. Each of these aspects will be elaborated upon as I begin to figure out how to represent them, but for now, here is a partial list of elements of the dynamics of the Arab Spring I hope to capture:

  1. Repression
  2. Domino-effects
  3. Challenges of cooperation
  4. Need for activists to mobilize the population based on popular grievances
  5. Need for critical mass of protesters
  6. Ideological differences
  7. Regime policy responses to opposition
  8. Small-scale combat
  9. Role of military
  10. Money/oil
  11. Role of the media
  12. Role of business class
  13. Role of regional actors
  14. Role of external actors
  15. NGOs

Future Plans

The next step will be broadly figuring out the game mechanics and how to include as many of the above elements as possible, while still keeping the game simple enough for students who enter with little knowledge of the Middle East or the Arab Spring.

Corinne Goldberger 

Happy Birthday, D&D!

Expy-birthdayAccording to Jon Peterson—author of the seminal history of Dungeons & Dragons, Playing at the World—the best guess as to the birthdate of the role-playing game is tomorrow:

Many sources, including Playing at the World, assign to Dungeons & Dragons an initial release in January 1974. Our best evidence comes from contemporary notices like the one above, a letter written by Gary Gygax late in 1973 that foretells the imminent release of the game. Now, with the fortieth anniversary nearly upon us, a burning question arises: when exactly should we celebrate? While there is no shortage of anecdotal accounts describing when, and to whom, the first copy of the game was sold, there is little concrete evidence to indicate any particular birthday….

Jon being Jon, he of course then goes on to provide a detailed chronology of the genesis and publication of the game, concluding:

For all the reasons listed above, it’s probably impossible to narrow in on one date and say with any certainty that this is when the game was released. But if we need to celebrate somewhere in the neighborhood of late January, then the last Sunday of the month (this year, the 26th) seems like the best candidate. As the El Conquistador advertisement above notes, Sunday was the day when Gary invited the world to drop by his house, at 1:30 PM, to have a first experience of Dungeons & Dragons. Since it’s a weekend, many of us can clear our schedules to revisit some classic tabletop. So this coming January 26th, 2014, do take the time to celebrate the birth of Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games.

I was a serious wargamer before I was a D&D player, refighting World War II before I ever first fought Orcs or a relieved a nobleman of a heavy coin purse. However, I can also claim to have been a fairly early convert—we in the “Lymington & District Wargames Club” started playing around 1977 or so, using the original three booklet “white box” edition of the game. I have played every edition since (and a great many other RPGs as well).

While my overriding reason for playing D&D has always been the sheer fun of it, the game has also had implications for my professional career. It probably contributed to my self-confidence in groups, and a certain degree of organizational skill. It absolutely contributed to my professional work on serious games and simulations in far too many ways for me to count. My Brynania conflict simulation is, in many ways, a giant, week-long 120-player game of D&D set in the context of a country emerging from civil wars—but with UN agencies, NGOs, insurgents, and governments instead of wizards, fighters, and rogues. I have also borrowed from D&D game techniques to help organize a workshop for Libyan rebels, facilitate my civilian role-play contribution to a special forces irregular warfare exercise,  run a planning exercise for a UN humanitarian agency, and do a great many other things that lacked both dungeons and dragons. Playing D&D, and even more so, organizing and running a campaign, tells you a great deal about the importance of narrative, engagement, immersion, and group dynamics in a successful serious game or simulation. One of my current gaming group, who designs money-laundering and corruption simulations for the World Bank and anti-corruption agencies, similarly got his start in professional simulation design as a player and dungeon-master.

For more on the 40th anniversary of the game, see also articles in The Guardian and SalonAnd, in the meantime, a very happy birthday to D&D  from a trio of famed halfling rogues—Arnold Schaeffer, Arnold Wurzel, and Arnold Brandyken—as well as  Finius T. Stormfroth, the pirate warlord!


h/t Excellent image above by AvatarArt, via Dungeon Mastering blog.


Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament 2014

htmlimport_trophyI will be running a mini-tournament of the AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game for some of my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) students this term. I have posted the tournament rules below, both for my class and for those who might be considering how to integrate this or a similar type of game into a large course.

  • Participation in the tournament is  optional.
  • Teams may consist of a minimum of five and a maximum of eight players, who will be divided among the four roles: Carana, United Nations, NGOs, and the HADR Task Force. To form a team, simply announce it in the appropriate online (myCourses) discussion forum. Up to three teams may compete.
  • Each tournament game will consist of 15 minutes of instruction in game mechanics, followed by 2.5 hours of play. Student are welcome to read the rules in advance, and an optional orientation will take place in advance of the tournament games. All games will be held immediately after class on a Monday or Wednesday.
  • If the players complete the emergency phase of the game (Day 14) before 1.5 hours have passed, they gain three additional Relief Points. They also gain 3 RP if they complete the recovery phase of the game (Week 12) before the game ends.
  • The game ends as soon as 2.5 hours have passed, and is immediately scored.
  • All participants gain class participation credits. In addition:
    • All members of the team with the highest number of Relief Points will gain additional participation credits.
    • The player(s) with the highest number of Operations Points in each of the four roles (Carana, UN, NGOs, HADR-TF) will also gain additional participation credits.
    • In the event of a tie, both OP and RP will be considered.

In this particular case, 10% of the POLI 450 course grade is based on class participation. While this usually takes the form of online discussion, I do sometimes credit other activities—including both this and my modified version of the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game which I will be running again this year.

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Update: Having posted the announcement to our class website at around 8pm on a Saturday night, the first fully formed team was announced 8:25pm, with the second team at 9:17pm, and the third at 11:38pm. There was also a request for a fourth team–all told, 28 volunteers, or one quarter of the class, all within a few hours on a weekend.

I can’t schedule a fourth group, but I have added a new opportunity for participation:

  • One or two students may assume the role of journalists for each game session, responsible for writing up a report of what happened for the course website.
  • Journalists will also receive the same participation credit as do the players. Moreover, the journalist(s) responsible for the best game report (judged by the course instructor) will also receive an additional participation bonus.

simulations miscellany, 14 January 2014


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

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Kris Wheaton wants you to play Hnefatafl—especially if you are an aspiring intelligence analyst. Robert Beckhusen takes up the story at War is Boring:

You Have to Play This 1,600-Year-Old Viking War Game

Especially if you’re a diplomat, soldier or spy, says one ex-spook

Viking warriors storm into the torch-lit camp of a rival clan. Outnumbered, the ambushed Norsemen are far from their boats. Their one goal: flee to a nearby castle while keeping their king alive.

At first glance, Hnefatafl (prounounced “nef-ah-tah-fel”) might just look like a knock-off version of chess with Norse helms and impressive beards, but the game is at least 600 years older—already well-known by 400 A.D.—and is perhaps a lot more relevant to the conflicts of the 21st century.

“I love the asymmetry in this game. To win in this game, you absolutely have to think like your opponent,” emails Kristan Wheaton, a former Army foreign area officer and ex-analyst at U.S. European Command’s Intelligence Directorate. “Geography, force structure, force size and objectives are different for the two sides. If you can’t think like your opponent, you can’t win. I don’t know of a better analogy for post-Cold War conflict.”

For another “simple” game that also highlights the intellectual challenges of asymmetric conflict, check out Brian Train’s Guerrilla Checkers.

There’s even a Vassal module for it.

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The  European Meetings on Cybernetics and Systems Research (EMCSR) will be holding its annual meeting in Vienna on  22-25 April 2014. In conjunction with that meeting a workshop will be held on “Game-based learning in systems thinking.”

Game-based learning is one of the current buzzwords almost everywhere, even if the successful examples are few and far between. The worldwide systems movement could greatly benefit from a critical survey of research and insight in this field, furthering the application of game based learning principles to various fields within the scope of the conference.

This workshop invites authors to submit extended abstracts demonstrating research, design or practice in topics like but not limited to:

  • games & systems
  • games as fail-safe spaces
  • systems, modelling & abstraction
  • games as simulations
  • exploration of cause/effect
  • transformational learning/transfer
  • gameful design
  • gamification
  • serious board games
  • social impact games
  • game-based learning

Prospective authors are invited to submit extended abstracts (not exceeding 800 words) in any of the topics listed above, not including personal information about the authors. Accepted papers will be allocated 30 minutes for oral presentation (including discussion).

Extended abstracts should describe either (1) thought-provoking ideas with the potential for interesting discussions at the conference, (2) the academic reflection of practical work in the space of game-based learning and social impact games or (3) mainly theoretical papers addressing one or more of the above areas.

Further details are available at the link above.

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The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming (December 2013) is now available, devoted to “the development of a Finnish community of game scholars”:


  • Simulation/Gaming in Finland
  • Subjective Experience and Sociability in a Collaborative Serious Game
    • Kimmo Oksanen
  • Social Network Games: Players’ Perspectives
    • Janne Paavilainen, Juho Hamari, Jaakko Stenros, and Jani Kinnunen

  • Hypercontextualized Learning Games: Fantasy, Motivation, and Engagement in Reality
    • Carolina Islas Sedano, Verona Leendertz, Mikko Vinni, Erkki Sutinen, and Suria Ellis

  • Formation of Novice Business Students’ Mental Models Through Simulation Gaming
    • Lauri-Matti Palmunen, Elina Pelto, Anni Paalumäki, and Timo Lainema

Guest Editorial

  • Development of a Finnish Community of Game Scholars
    • J. Tuomas Harviainen, Timo Lainema, Jaakko Suominen, and Erno Soinila


  • Immersive Technology Strategies
    • David Wortley 

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The latest (February 2014) edition of the Journal of Simulation is out, with articles on discrete-event simulation, dispatching and loitering policies for unmanned aerial vehicles, product and process patterns for agent-based modelling and simulation, simulating a crowd, and many other things beside.

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The Red Team Journal offers Five Reasons Why You Should Red Team Your Red Team.

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The new blog Powder Keg Politics gives a shout-out to PAXsims. Thanks!

Volko Ruhnke profile in Washington Post

Well, here’s a first (so far as I know)—a commercial wargame designer treated to a full-length profile article in the Washington Post:

In the world of war games, Volko Ruhnke has become a hero

War game designer Volko Ruhnke plays the board game Angola at the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, Pa., in August.War game designer Volko Ruhnke plays the board game Angola at the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, Pa., in August. (Al Tielemans/For The Washington Post)

WRITTEN BY Jason Albert


At the last stop on a wooded cul-de-sac 15 miles outside of Washington, four middle-age men huddle around a table to decide the fate of Afghanistan. A map is spread before them. Colored wooden cubes and discs denote military installations, troops and insurgents. A subtle movement — pieces slid from Nuristan province to Kabul — is met with tensed shoulders and exhaled expletives. In the north, the Warlords prep an opium harvest while threatening a terrorist attack. Elsewhere, everywhere, the Taliban is filthy with car bombs, roadside IEDs and suicide bombers.

The fifth man in the room, a CIA national security analyst named Volko Ruhnke, called us here. The palpable discomfort among us brings him joy. It means he has done his job.

When not ensconced at HQ in Langley, Ruhnke, 51, designs commercial wargames. He has invited us to his home in Vienna to playtest his most recent, A Distant Plain. Along with Cuba Libre, they’ll be his fourth and fifth published board games, and the latest in his series simulating insurgencies throughout history: Colombia, Afghanistan and Cuba, with Vietnam, Ireland and the Philippines to follow.

“Jason, you’re letting our country go to s—,” comes a voice from my left, a Virginia drawl. One of my rivals, a 20-year Marine, now retired, and veteran of three Afghanistan deployments, is manning the Afghan government. He’s peeved because I, as the Coalition, am unconcerned with the Warlord threat. He’s right: I don’t care. I find his policies equally irksome, as he spent all of our shared aid securing popular support — support I know he’ll soon undo and dole out as political patronage.

In the game as in real life, the Afghan government and Coalition are ostensibly allies. And in the game as in real life, “ally” has loose meaning. I ignore him and drag his troops to the south to make a move against the Taliban. He scowls as Ruhnke beams. Ruhnke wants us to undermine each other. This is how he designed the game. This is how we learn.

Ruhnke is obviously enjoying his roles as party host, rules expert and teacher. He leans in. He speaks only when needed or pressed, and his explanations arrive with cheerful excitement but also a hint of gravitas, like that of a father patiently conveying hard facts to his children.

“So you’re telling me terror is always effective for the Taliban?” the Afghanistan vet squawks. “It shouldn’t always work; it has to have the possibility to backfire.”

Ruhnke answers without hesitation: “It always works. But remember, I’m not going for a high-fidelity model of district-level counterinsurgency operations.” He adjusts his frameless glasses. “That particular instance of terror is what happened in Nuristan over months of time … I’m most concerned about delivering the inter-factional pressures and politics.”

Later, when I need the long-gone aid money, I fire back at the vet. “What are you doing over there, Karzai? Remember, this is our cash. Share.”

Ruhnke jumps in again, building bridges. “Tell Jason it’s not corruption. It’s just your traditional way of running things. You have to live here; he’ll eventually leave.” The Taliban leader across the table makes no attempt to stifle a giggle as he reaches for pretzels.

Ruhnke thinks of a day, however remote, when his games might sit on store shelves next to the classics. He sees people just like us having epiphanies through gamed agitation, quick bonds such as ours forged within an intense, inhabitable narrative. But mostly his goal is as unique as it is stark: to educate by providing tabletop insurgencies for any board gamer who would like one.

Although wargames always have been a niche within the board gaming market, there was a time when they held a level of pop culture legitimacy. According to James Dunnigan in “Wargames Handbook” — Dunnigan being one of wargaming’s founding fathers at the now-defunct Simulations Publications Inc. — more than 2 million were sold in 1980.

Wargamers have nearly as many definitions for what qualifies as a wargame as there are conflicts throughout history to simulate. Some say highly abstracted games such as chess fit; others include big sellers such as Axis & Allies and Risk. But, on the whole, hobby wargames are the literary fiction of the gaming universe: dense and respected but often existing in the margins.

Between the release of what most consider the first commercial wargame in 1954, Tactics, and the hobby’s high-water mark in early ’80s, wargames became increasingly complex, often packaged with byzantine rule books and playtimes measured in days, not hours. Fewer than 20 years after the peak, both of the largest wargame publishers ceased to exist for factors including business missteps and the rise of electronic and computer gaming. But there’s been a renaissance, in large part because of the Internet’s ability to facilitate global democratic conversations among like-minded wargame zealots.

Beginning as a 10-year-old more than three decades ago, I spent innumerable hours hunched over wargames playing commander. My parents didn’t understand. My friends who saw the sun regularly didn’t either. But I wasn’t alone. Even though I left wargaming behind, I never forgot the games’ ability to evoke a sense of time, place and history. After stumbling on them again a few years ago, I found a rabid subculture both familiar and unknown. There were hundreds of new games holding echoes of the era I’d cut my teeth on, but with new mechanics and streamlined gameplay that created stories more nuanced than I’d ever experienced.

Ruhnke’s games stood out. He was tackling recent and still-raging conflicts, such as the amorphous war against terrorism in his game Labyrinth. It seemed as if he was attempting to span the divide between the kitchen-table gamer and the grizzled hard cases from wargaming’s first golden age….

It is an excellent piece, both on the designer and the modern evolution of the hobby. You’ll find PAXsims reviews of some of Volko’s games here, here, here, and here.

Robert Gates on war

51Nt5Sz4HzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Today the American press has been full of excerpts from former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ forthcoming book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. This one strikes me as  something all professional wargamers would be wise to keep in mind (emphasis added):

Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.

This is particularly worth remembering as technology changes the face of war. A button is pushed in Nevada, and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Mosul. A bomb destroys the targeted house on the right and leaves the one on the left intact. For too many people—including defense “experts,” members of Congress, executive branch officials and ordinary citizens—war has become a kind of videogame or action movie: bloodless, painless and odorless. But my years at the Pentagon left me even more skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories or doctrines that suggest that war is anything other than tragic, inefficient and uncertain.

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