Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: February 2014

Serious Games at Work interview with Phil Sabin


In his latest Serious Games at Work podcast, Tom Grant interviews Prof. Philip Sabin (King’s College London) about the use of wargaming as a tool for both analysis and teaching.

Our guest is Philip Sabin, Professor Of Strategic Studies at King’s College, London, and author of Lost Battles and Simulating War. Professor Sabin talks about how to use wargames as a tool of historical inquiry, in the classroom, and in other contexts. He also talks about the games he designed for these purposes, including Lost Battles, which simulates ancient warfare. Stay tuned during the podcast for a fascinating description of a recent serious game at Windsor Castle.

Gaming political science


Playing the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction Game in POLI 450/650.

Earlier today, students from my undergraduate POLI 450 and graduate POLI 650 (Peacebuilding) courses successfully reconstructed Afghanistan, playing a modified version of the Afghan provincial reconstruction game. The game proved rather easier than the real thing, with the Taliban suffering from bad weather and poor combat performance throughout the first year of the game, and finding it difficult to recover thereafter.


Players allocate resources to key projects.

The Coalition players did very well in allocating resources and cooperating too, which was a major reason for their victory. The Afghan President—who showed a particular fondness for using state resources for patronage purposes— was certainly pleased by the outcome.


The Afghan President announces basks in the approval of his people (and/or the international community). To his right, a local NGO representative hopes everyone has forgotten her decision to prioritize good relations with village elders over promoting greater gender equity.

This same group of very bright McGill University students did encounter some difficulty, however, in mastering the complex stochastic process we used to model combat interactions—namely, rock-paper-scissors.

The game itself was an optional course activity, and fifteen of them showed up on a Sunday morning to play. Most had been up early anyway to watch the Canadian men’s hockey team win Olympic gold—one even showed up in her pyjamas.


Tim Horton’s (McGill).

Tim Horton’s muffins provided an additional incentive. As is well-known, Tim Horton’s has become an essential part of Canadian stabilization operations.

TIM HORTONS INC. - Tim Hortons' Kandahar deployment ends

Tim Horton’s (Kandahar).

This game was one of several that I run in this class. Earlier in the term, another twenty seven students had formed three teams to take part in our first ever Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament, attempting to provide emergency relief to the fictional earthquake-stricken country of Carana.


Players race to save lives in Carana’s capital city of Galasi. Note the heavy investment in logistics (black disks) at the port and airport, as well as the teams assigned to humanitarian cluster coordination as well as emergency field operations. Also note the large volume of food supplies the players have brought with them to the game.

In that case, while all teams earned participation credits for playing, the winning team also received additional bonus points, as did the best team in each category.

Stockpiled water (blue) and medical (red) supplies at Galasi international airport.

Stockpiled water (blue) and medical (red) supplies at Galasi International Airport. Water and shelter (white) supplies can be seen in the distance in the government warehouse at the port.

It is much simpler and less time-consuming to earn participation grades in POLI 450 by taking part in the online discussions for the course, but I don’t seem to have any problems finding gaming volunteers. Indeed, there is usually more demand than there are slots available to play. Certainly the feedback on the Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament was very positive, with students reporting that they found it enjoyable (7%) or very enjoyable (93%), that the game did well (47%) or very well (53%) in illustrating course material, and that it should (100%) be used again in future classes.


A UN player draws the dreaded “clusterf**k” coordination card. Nonetheless, this team would go on to win the tournament.

In addition to these optional games, POLI 450 involves four in-class simulations/games (two quick mini-games to illustrate negotiation theories and approaches, a role-play exercise on the challenges of stakeholder assessment in conflict-affected countries, and an aid project evaluation exercise), one online digital game as a reading assignment, plus the week-long Brynania civil war simulation. They also have the option of writing an interactive online simulation instead of a team research paper for the course.

There are a lot of games and simulations in POLI 450 because the subject matter of the course lends itself particularly well to examination in this way. As I have argued elsewhere:

…despite the proliferation of scholarly and policy materials on peacebuilding, there is often a problematic gap between the theoretical focus of readings and the practical challenges of undertaking such operations in an environment characterized by voluminous and yet limited and often conflicting information, competing national priorities, differing professional and institutional perspectives, bureaucratic politics, and coordination challenges—not to mention the political ambitions and machinations of local actors.

A classroom simulation offers one way of addressing this gap. Simulations can help to illustrate and explore complex policy processes in the classroom, especially those regarding negotiations and international relations.

Similarly, Gary Milante and I have suggested:

Through serious games, participants can gain a better sense of the dynamic relationships at work in complex environments, explore good fits and practical solutions, and understand how mistakes occur (often, by making them themselves). These are real skills needed in the real world: In recent decades, policy makers working on peacekeeping and peacebuilding have certainly been faced with the prospects of failure and have been forced to choose between “reinforcing success and salvaging failure.” When games engage multiple participants, the games reproduce some of the political, coordination, communication, and coalition building challenges that often accompany peace and stabilization operations, especially if a simulation is designed to reproduce some of the organizational silos and bureaucratic politics that exist in the real world.

Thus, games can show how rational (and even altruistic) actors can, when faced with limited information, time pressure, differing organizational or political incentives, act in ways that might have dysfunctional effects.

That being said, however, I use such games much less in my other courses.

In POLI 340—a large enrolment (300 student) intermediate-level undergraduate course on contemporary Middle East politics—I don’t use them at all. Part of the reason for this is the large class size. Part of the reason is that I have a great deal to cover, and I can cover more of it using a lecture format. Finally, there isn’t really part of the course that I think needs illustration or exploration through a game mechanism. I also don’t use games in my POLI 640 graduate seminar on the Middle East (although I have been known to run the seminar a bit like a debating contest at times).

In POLI 227—a very large (600 student) introductory undergraduate course in the politics of developing areas—class size again presented challenges to game-based learning. In this case, however, I do use a game-show format to highlight certain aspects of colonialism and of rural political economy. I have also, on a few occasions, assigned digital games as “book review”-type assignments, or assigned some online serious games as part of the class readings.. I might do this more often if I could find more suitable games to assign, but the number that are playable, intuitive, and address issues of political and economic development in an interesting way is rather limited.

I have also directed some independent study courses that have addressed simulations in humanitarian training, as well as gaming the “Arab Spring.” One current graduate student is considering looking at US “Title X” wargames for her MA thesis.

It needs to be remembered that games while games can be useful, they are not an educational panacea, and they are not automatically more effective than other forms of teaching (a point made here and here, among other many places). Educational outcomes are almost entirely dependent on the quality of the game design, how well it addresses educational needs, how effectively it is integrated with other course material, how well gameplay is moderated, and how effectively the exercise is debriefed. (You’ll also find some discussion of these issues at the Active Learning in Political Science blog, and the issue often comes up the American Political Science Association’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference).

I have an anticipated sabbatical coming up in the 2015-16 academic year. After that I am considering launching a course at McGill on “politics and games,” to explore a broad range of issues from basic game theory and agent-based modelling, to the fundamentals of game design, to the connections between games, politics, and popular culture. At some point I’ll probably invite some crowd-sourced suggestions on what should be covered in such a course, and how—so keep watching PAXsims for a future post on the topic.

Graduate Warfare Course + Seminar Wargame 2014


The folks at the Journal of Military Operations and the Infinity Journal will be conducting a Graduate Warfare Course at St. John’s College, Cambridge (UK) on 25-27 July 2014, and a Seminar Wargame on 15-17 August:

The Graduate Warfare Class will be an authoritative programme of classes designed to expand and broaden participants’ knowledge and understanding of the conduct of war on land. It will consist of twelve linked sessions, each analysing a key aspect of contemporary warfare. The syllabus will cover both regular and irregular warfare. It focuses on developing an in-depth understanding of the conduct of war on land across the spectrum of conflict. Participant numbers will be strictly limited to ensure a participatory, interactive event.

The Graduate Warfare Class will consider how land forces actually operate. It will not ‘discuss the discourse’ of how academics think, or write about, how land forces operate.


The Seminar Wargame will walk through the planning and conduct of a major land operation through the perspectives of both opposing forces. Working in ad- hoc teams, participants will consider some of the problems, realities and dilemmas faced by land force commanders and staffs.

The Wargame will expose both the consequences of planning decisions and the realities of a live, responsive enemy which will fight for its own objectives and according to its own plans. The scenario will be set at the higher tactical and theatre levels.

The Wargame will revolve around an imagined scenario of conventional land warfare. It will include aspects of irregular warfare and consideration of influence operations. It will avoid high-technology, computer-based simulation and instead focus on consideration and discussion of the dynamics of land warfare.

The Wargame will not be tied to any one nation’s military doctrine. It will therefore present an opportunity for practitioners to think beyond their own national approaches. It is expressly intended to widen horizons and encourage open thinking. As with the Graduate Warfare Class, numbers will be strictly limited.

Further information can be found in the brochure here (or click the image below).



Student simulation enthusiasm: An accidental field experiment

OK, this wasn’t really a proper experiment. However, it does suggest how enthusiastic students can be about the opportunity to take part in a political science simulation.

Every year I run the Brynanian peacebuilding simulation in my POLI 450 class. Usually I  announce in class that students are now able to sign up for their simulation roles. This has the unfortunate effect of causing virtually the entire class to ignore my lectures for the next 15 minutes as they pull out their laptops and email me their SIM role preferences.

This year I thought I would get clever: SIM sign-ups would start at 7am on a non-class day—an hour alien to many students. In this way, I hoped, the small minority of super-keen students would wake up early to get first choice of simulation roles, while their sleepier colleagues would slowly email me their preferences during the rest of the day (or week). After all, they’ve got until the end of the month in which to choose.


I failed to allow for two things. The first was their technical skill—several simply set their email clients to mail me at 7am, while they might have been still snug in bed. Second, I clearly failed to account for their ruthless efficiency and almost fanatical devotion to simulated peacebuilding (or war-fighting). Some 45 students—almost half the class—emailed me between 7:00am and 7:01am. Two-thirds had emailed me before 8am.

So much for my cunning plan.


Gaming the “Arab Spring”, Part 2

Thousands of Egyptian supportersBelow you will find the second instalment of Corinne Goldberger’s  developer diary for he current “Arab Spring” game project. You’ll find an explanation of the project and the first instalment here.

* * *

I recently posted my initial thoughts on an Arab Spring board game, a game that aims to simulate some of the dynamics, actions and outcomes of recent events in the Middle East. Many hours of thinking, discussing and planning later, I give you my updated notes on the main elements of the game and mechanics of gameplay.

But first, I just wanted to extend my sincere thanks for the very positive feedback I have received thus far. I greatly appreciate the support, and am so excited to have the opportunity to continue sharing my work on this project as it develops.

Main Game Elements 

After deciding who the players would be, the next challenge was identifying the main tools each player would have to work with. Generally there will be two sets of tools: the regime players will work with money pieces and repressive forces, while the opposition players will work with “grievances” and activists.

For the regime players, money will enable them to pursue certain regime policies but not others and provide a mechanism for co-optation of people, sectors and/or groups. Repressive force pieces will be able to be placed in countries in order to represent the extent of the presence of the regime in a given place. Of course, the monarchical regimes player will only be able to place its forces in monarchical countries, and the republican regimes player will only be able to place its forces in republican countries.

The opposition tools are a bit more varied and reliant upon each other. “Grievance” tokens will be placed to represent issues that arise in a given country that have not been responded to or mitigated yet with a regime policy. Grievance tokens will exist in several colours in order to represent different categories of grievances, such as youth grievances, workers’ grievances, and rural grievances. There is no distinction between a grievance placed by the secular opposition player versus the Islamist opposition player.

In contrast, the secular opposition player may only place “secular activist” pieces while the Islamist opposition player can only place “Islamist activist” pieces. Activists are needed to operationalize the grievance tokens – lots of grievances does very little without a critical mass of activists. There will be situations in which secular and Islamist opposition interests align and alliances will occur, but that coordination will need to happen between the actual players of the game as opposed to it being a given of the game.

Basic Gameplay

As mentioned in the previous post, this game will be a card-driven game. The advantage of this is: (1) it simplifies the game rules by having the cards contain what actions they can/must take and what the impacts of those actions are; and (2) that it allows me to include a wide array of events and personalities without adding too many game elements that would complicate and slow down the game, to the detriment of its educational value.

Each player will hold five cards in their hands, and will be able to play up to two cards each turn under regular circumstances. Some cards will allow players to do alternative things, such as immediate-play cards that can be played on a different player’s turn to some effect, or cards that allow you to play an additional card on your turn. Each card will contain some flavour text, explaining what the card does and why, as well as the game effects of said card. Some cards will be regular gameplay cards and will come up relatively frequently, such as cards that allow the regime to repress opposition (place one repressive force token on a country of choice). Other cards will be one-off events or actions, such as a fatwa card that allows the Islamist player to place one Islamist activist in any two countries where there is a majority of Islamist activists.

The regime’s goal in the game is to maintain control over its countries, through repression, patronage, and a variety of policies or actions. Repression and patronage cards will be frequent cards, while other regime policies may come up infrequently and/or only be possible under certain conditions. Rebel players are attempting to overthrow regimes. To do so they must generate and utilize grievances, placed as a result of opposition and regime actions, and mobilize activists. Opposition players overthrow regimes by playing an “Occupy the Square” card successfully, and on the following turn playing an “Overthrow regime” card successfully. Success is affected by the number of activists, grievances, and repressive forces are in play, and determined by rolling some number of dice. Detailed rules and interactions will be coming in my next post.

One other game element I’ll be including is violence levels. Violence levels can increase in a particular country at a given time, due either to particularly ineffective attempts at repression (determined by rolling two 1s when playing a repression card) or to specific cards and actions. Certain cards may not be played in times of violence, such as the Civil Society Building card, while other cards may only be played in times of high violence, like the NATO Intervention card. Violence levels are denoted by violence markers, and at three markers the country has devolved into civil war. When a country is in a civil war, a card is placed on said country to clearly mark it as such, and each turn there is a civil war phase before regular play that involves some direct fighting with a high likelihood of heavy casualties on both sides. Civil wars generally can end if one side concedes or if a side loses all of their activists or repressive forces. Again, more detailed explanations are forthcoming.

Future Plans

My next steps involve finalizing the win/loss conditions for each player, as well as determining the method(s) of scoring points. Another big question to answer is what happens to a country once it is overthrown. I have some ideas, but I am concerned it will add too much time to the length of the game, so they’re still a work-in-progress at the moment.

I am also generating the cards that will be used, and the full (first draft) of the rules. Hopefully I will be able to post those shortly, and our first play-test can occur soon after.

Corinne Goldberger 

Serious Games at Work interview with Rex Brynen


Earlier this week I was interviewed by Tom Grant for his occasional Serious Games at Work podcast. You’ll find the result—in which we discuss peace and conflict simulation, game design, counterinsurgency doctrine, the humanitarian crisis game, and other things too—here.

Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program (May 2014)


Location:  McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, CANADA

Full Course:  5th to 18th May  –  $2,400

Introductory Course: 5th to 9th May  –  $1,400

Advanced Course: 12th to 14th May –  $800 (Advanced course may only be taken if you have taken the introductory course or are an experienced field practitioner)

Simulation Exercise: 15th to 18th May –  $900

For more details, see the Humanitarian Training Initiative website here. See also this CBC News report on the 2013 simulation exercise, and this PAXsims review of last year’s course.

McGill University students in political science or international development studies Major or Honours programmes may take the full course for credit. Email me for details.

The Impact of Colonial Incorporation into the Global Capitalist System on Pre-Colonial Subsistence Agriculture (The Game)

Since arriving at McGill University in 1989, one of the courses I have taught each year has been POLI 227, a large (600 student) introductory course in the politics of developing areas. Obviously, in a course that size there are particular challenges in using games and simulations. I have, at times, assigned a few serious games as “readings” for the course (notably Inside the Haiti Earthquake and IN/ISDR’s Stop Disasters). I have also, on a couple of occasions, assigned a review of the computer game Tropico—a rather humorous, and very clever, portrayal of a stereotypical “banana republic” political system—as a sort of book review assignment, challenging students to identify the ways in which the game reflects, and diverges from, the political economy of a real developing country.


Every year, however, I do run one game in class: The Impact of Colonial Incorporation into the Global Capitalist System on Pre-Colonial Subsistence Agriculture. This is essentially a tongue-in-cheek game show using six student volunteers, conducted on the large stage at the front of the class in front of the large “studio audience” provided by the rest of the class, all during one 50 minute class period. In it, students assume the roles of peasants or an artisan in a small pre-colonial village in distant “Leacocklandia,” responding to the challenges and opportunities presented first by commercial contact with Europe, and later with the imposition of British colonial rule. The rules are simple, essentially revolving around agricultural production decisions. Key parts of the game are accompanied by musical clips from the TV game shows Jeopardy and The Price is Right.

Year One sees the operation of a stable, if very poor, subsistence village economy. The three small peasants are able to grow 6 grain on the land, of which they must eat 5 to survive. The middle peasant is able to grow 12 grain, and must eat at least 5 of these. The artisan produces household goods (pots), which s/he must then trade for surplus grain which they then consume. It is all very simple.

traderYear Two sees the arrival of a Portuguese trader (usually one of my teaching assistants). They offer the locals the possibility of selling or buying grain for $3, and buying European household goods (pots) for $2. At this point, most of peasants in the village start selling surplus grain and buying European manufactures, thus forcing the artisan into poverty. The artisan is then assumed to head off to the newly-expanded port city in search of employment, and is eliminated from the game.

Year Three sees the arrival of a British colonial explorer (another TA). They simply introduce themselves, then spend the next few minutes exploring the classroom. Moreover, the Portuguese trader introduces another economic opportunity, namely the cash crop of cotton, needed by the hungry textile mills of Europe. This sells for $4 per unit, slightly more than grain.

At this point, the richer medium peasant almost always shifts to cash crop production. One or two of the other peasants might dabble a little, while the rest usually stick with grain production.

britanniaAt the start of Year Four, the British colonial officers announces that—in order to save the classroom from “the French”— it will be made into a British colony. Some medical care and education is offered, at a cost. Farmers with enough money can invest in irrigation and mechanization, which improves crop yields—but in practice, only the middle peasant is rich enough to do so. A local magistrate (again, the middle peasant) is appointed as the representative of British authority, as was often the case with British indirect colonial rule. The locals are asked to register their land holdings. In keeping with Victorian attitudes towards gender roles, only men are recognized as farmers and landowners, and much hilarity ensues when I force the female peasants to go out into the classroom to find husbands. Finally, a small tax is introduced to finance the colonial administration.

The colonial officer also has the entire class of several hundred students stand, and—as the appropriate music plays—sing God Save the Queen as loud as they can.

Typically, at this point, peasants are finding it difficult to survive unless they shift into cash crop production—indeed, colonial policy (through the tax system) encourages them to do so. One or two may either find themselves in debt to the middle peasant, or even have their lands seized for non-payment of taxes by the magistrate (the middle peasant), and auctioned to the highest bidder (the middle peasant). Indeed, the middle peasant is doing quite well at this time, well on the way to becoming a large land owner.

Often a peasant will choose to access medical care to care for a sick family member. They survive, but result in one more mouth to feed—the beginning of a demographic transition, in which birth rates exceed death rates and lead to overall population expansion.

In Year 5, the price of cotton drops—it is, after all, a globalized commodity, and subject to price fluctuations. Several of the peasants are typically forced into debt, must sell some of their land, migrate to the growing port city, or die. The large land owner is doing quite well, however.

In Year 6, cotton prices boom. Surviving peasants do well. But overall, the rural village has transformed: instead of  relatively egalitarian subsistence economy, there is now a highly unequal allocation of wealth and power. Overall GDP for the village has almost doubled because of the shift to cotton, high prices, and the large landowner’s investment in irrigation and mechanization. However, usually most of the small peasants and the artisan are worse off—highlighting the extent to which the benefits of “development” may be very unevenly distributed.

At this point the game ends, and the class applauds the volunteers for their willingness to stand up in front of six hundred people. I also make the point that the game simplifies a great deal. The shift from subsistence to cash crop productions was not necessarily linked to colonial rule—in some places it (Egypt) it occurred prior, elsewhere (notably sub-Saharan Africa) it is still occurring. However, colonial policy did tend to favour the production of the sort of goods required by European industry. Not everywhere did the shift to cash crops hurt small peasants—much depends on agricultural conditions and markets, and in a great many cases (including some of the peasants in the game) they might have benefited from greater returns. However, the production of cash crops intended for a global market does leave producers more vulnerable to changes in commodity prices, and tends to favour larger producers who both have larger financial reserves and who can benefit from improvements and economies of scale. Finally, demographic transitions did not always start under colonial rule, and indeed were more common after.

In addition, the game allows me to examine:

  • The destruction of traditional handicrafts industries.
  • Rural-urban migration.
  • Concentration of land holdings.
  • Money-lending and rural indebtedness.
  • Indirect colonial rule.
  • The imposition of colonial gender attitudes.
  • The impact of declining death rates.
  • Colonial taxation policy.
  • Indirect colonial rule.
  • Rural anti-colonial grievances.

All of these, and a number of other themes, are then expanded upon in subsequent classes.

I haven’t posted the details of the game to PAXsims before, since I use it from year to year. However, I won’t be teaching POLI 227 for the next couple of years, so it seems safe to do it now.

This “game on a stage” is a technique that, I think, can be very effective in large classes. To work well, the game itself must be clear, so that the audience recognizes what is going on. Powerpoint can be helpful in walking everyone through the game rules and decisions as they unfold. Music, sound effects, and banter liven up the process. Careful debriefing is important, to make sure that students learn the right lessons from the game, and not the wrong ones. Finally, it breaks up the monotony of sage-on-the-stage type lectures, and can even be something of a bonding processes for the class.

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