Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 25/01/2014

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.


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