Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: November 2014

Review: This War of Mine

PAXsims asked Dr. James Sterrett, Deputy Chief of the Digital Leader Development Center’s Simulations Division at the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College, to review the recent digital game This War of Mine. The review reflects his personal views only, not those of CGSC, the Army, or the United States government.

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Hungry, tired, and depressed, Pavle reloads the rat traps in the hopes of catching a meal.

Perhaps we should have expected this game from 11 Bit Studios, a Polish game company previously best known for inverting the conventions of the tower defense genre in Anomaly: Warzone Earth. In This War of Mine, 11 Bit again turns convention on its head. Instead of controlling combatants, This War of Mine puts you in control of a small group of civilians trying to survive in the besieged city of Pogoren. In place of pretty explosions and adrenaline, This War of Mine delivers a bleak, somber that game may not be fun in the traditional sense, nor is it perfect; but it is an outstanding effort at using a game to make players experience and reflect on a (hopefully) unfamiliar situation.

Your task is to survive the siege, assigning each person in your group various tasks – generally maintenance and preparation by day, and sleeping, guarding your shelter, or scavenging by night. Survival demands maintaining a teetering balance between the need to eat, the need to stay warm, the need to stay safe, the need to stay sane – and the need to gather more materials to enable the other tasks. Whomever is scavenging or guarding at night will be tired the next day, but if you don’t scavenge you won’t be able to get food. Hungry, tired, cold people get sick more easily. Sick, tired, hungry, cold, and/or depressed people are less effective at their tasks – and if left too long, the sickness, hunger, cold, or depression will lead to death. Food, medicine, fuel, and comfort items such as books or cigarettes, are difficult to come by. In This War of Mine, gaining the ability to trap rats for food can mean the difference between survival and death, and you may come to deeply resent your caffeine and nicotine addicts as they consume valuable trade items to slake their chemical dependencies.

No one is feeling very well, but someone has to go out and scavenge more supplies tonight...

No one is feeling very well, but someone has to go out and scavenge for more supplies tonight…

The daylight hours spent in the shelter are generally slow and contemplative, interspersed by occasional events as people come to your door. Some seek to trade, some want to join your group, some want help with their problems – asking for you to give some of your tiny store of food or medicine to help them survive. At night, you control the one scavenger, in the place you chose to go. Depending on the location and its inhabitants, you may be able to scavenge freely, trade, or you may wind up in a fight. Combat is simple, fast-paced, and unforgiving, yet understated enough that even victories feel like survival, not empowerment. You may choose to initiate combat, trying to beat or murder your way through the other civilians or even the soldiers, bandits, and militiamen. However, not only is death sudden and final, it also costs you whatever stuff that person was carrying, including their extraordinarily scarce weaponry. In addition, while successful violence will get you access to more stuff and thus enable your survival, most characters become depressed by murder, especially of other civilians. Depressed, they are less effective, and may eventually commit suicide. Moreover, the game appears to react to your actions. Your violence seems to make the nighttime raids on your shelter (played offscreen) more violent, and can render vital peaceful people, such as the traders in the Central Square, hostile. Likewise, those dilemmas during the daytime can come back to you as well; people whom you helped with food or medicine are likely to return the favor, randomly, when they have a surplus. In This War of Mine, violence is an answer, but it has its costs.


The house has been raided by looters!

I am not an expert on societies in cities under siege (including the game’s clear inspirations, Sarajevo and Warsaw), but This War of Mine seems initially to imply a complete societal breakdown, with bandits everywhere and the player potentially joining their ranks as people comb the city for resources. However, in a long game, scavenging meets its limits, when all the sites have either been picked over or are too heavily defended to attack. At that point, continued survival depends on a social network, fragile though it may be. Neighbors you helped may still help you. People whom you have established trading relations with will still be there, and the time I succeeded in surviving the game, it was trading that got me through. In this subtle way, This War of Mine reinforces the importance of cooperation with groups outside your own, and mingles a slight note of hope into its overall tone of desperation.

Some are kids at the door, asking for help. Can you spare some precious medical supplies for them?

Kids at the door, asking for help. Would you spare some precious medical supplies for them?

Even its apparent flaws seem deliberate and work to its advantage. The daytime ticks by too slowly, yet that reinforces the boredom of being cooped up, hiding from snipers. The game has no tutorial, yet the player’s initial confusion reflects the confusion most of us would feel if we were suddenly plunged into such a situation.

Overall, This War of Mine is remarkably successful at being an engrossing game that involves violence yet avoids making the situation seem remotely appealing.

This War of Mine is my current pick for the best game of 2014.

I doubt I will be able to forget the games I’ve played in it.

I don’t know if I will ever want to play it again after finishing this review.

That paradoxical combination is 11 Bit Studios’ triumph.

Trading moonshine and jewelry for much-needed supplies.

Trading moonshine and jewelry for much-needed supplies.

Classroom Use

Turning away from playing the game as a game, could it be useful in a classroom? Leaving specific questions of its fidelity to real sieges to others more versed in the topic….

Yes: This War of Mine could certainly serve as a spark for political science or history discussions on the experience of civilians in wartime; it has done so with both my wife and my son. Having students compare their decisions could also help drive discussions in ethics, leadership, and the laws of war. Students are unlikely to forget the game or the subsequent discussion.

Maybe: While it would be a powerful concrete experience, This War of Mine is not a fast game to play. Surviving a 42-day siege took me around 6 hours. Some of the subtleties in the interactions between player’s choices and the game won’t necessarily come out in a single playthrough, not least because I suspect most people’s first playthrough ends in disaster before those interactions can fully come to light. As a result, This War of Mine is not a game that could be used during class time. Whether the time spent in homework creates sufficient overall benefit, through driving discussion, will depend on the specific learning objectives of the program of instruction.

James Sterrett

Devin Ellis joins PAXsims

image001PAXsims is pleased to announce the appointment of Devin Ellis as an associate editor of the website. Devin is a faculty research associate in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, and the Policy & Research Program Director for the ICONS Project – a simulation research and training program in the University’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management. He is an Affiliate Researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), and a member of the CSIS Pacific Forum Young Leaders program. Ellis is a policy analyst by training, specializing in East Asian security issues and crisis management. He has designed or consulted on simulation and gaming projects for USAID, the World Bank, DHS, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Brookings Institution, CSIS, the Office of Personnel Management, NDU, START, the Kennedy School of Government, the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, several Fortune 100 corporations, and various parts of DOD including the Joint Staff, OSD, and PACOM. He has previously contributed to PAXsims.

Simulation articles in International Studies Perspectives (November 2014)


The latest issue of International Studies Perspectives 15, 4 (November 2014) has a large number of articles on simulation and serious gaming in international relations and political science. Several of these have previously been noted on PAXsims when they first appeared in “early view”.

Simulation Games in Teaching International Relations: Insights from a Multi-Day, Multi-Stage, Multi-Issue Simulation on Cyprus
  • Emre Hatipoglu, Meltem Müftüler-Baç and Teri Murphy

Simulating the European Union: Reflections on Module Design

  • Anwen Elias

Teaching Diplomacy by Other Means: Using an Outside-of-Class Simulation to Teach International Relations Theory

  • Dave Bridge and Simon Radford

National Security Council: Simulating Decision-making Dilemmas in Real Time

  • Jonathan M. DiCicco

The Drama of International Relations: A South China Sea Simulation

  • Tanya Kempston and Nicholas Thomas

The Dalig and Vadan Exercise: Teaching Students about Strategy and the Challenges of Friction and Fog

  • Victor Asal, Lewis Griffith and Marcus Schulzke

Assessing the Impact of Role Play Simulations on Learning in Canadian and US Classrooms

  • Mary Pettenger, Douglas West and Niki Young

Learning about Conflict and Negotiations through Computer Simulations: The Case of PeaceMaker

  • Esra Cuhadar and Ronit Kampf

Stimulating Learning by Simulating Politics: Teaching Simulation Design in the Undergraduate Context

  • Sara M. Glasgow

Virtual Worlds Can Be Dangerous: Using Ready-Made Computer Simulations for Teaching International Relations

  • Gustavo Carvalho

Misusing Virtual Worlds Can Be Dangerous: A Response to Carvalho

  • Jonathan W. Keller

Rejoinder to “Misusing Virtual Worlds Can Be Dangerous: A Response to Carvalho”

  • Gustavo Carvalho

Ellie Bartels joins PAXsims

bartelsPAXsims is pleased to announce the appointment of Elizabeth “Ellie” Bartels as an associate editor of the website. Ellie is Senior Associate at Caerus Associates focused on leveraging social science methodologies to improve wargaming and national security analysis. Prior to joining Caerus, Ellie led teams to design educational and analytical strategic wargames at the National Defense University. She specializes in games to improve participants’ understanding of strategy in irregular and asymmetric warfare environments, and their effects on populations. She has previously contributed to PAXsims.

Ellie can be followed on Twitter at @elliebartels.

Brynania in the news


The McGill Tribune recently published an article by Caity Hui on innovative teaching techniques at McGill University. Among the examples profiled is my own peacebuilding simulation in POLI 450/650:

…New developments impacting departments and faculties at McGill continue to push the boundaries of teaching and learning. From peace negotiation simulations to crowdsourcing science, these initiatives are not only enhancing students’ learning experiences, but also generating a host of novel ideas and involvement outside the classroom.

Political science Professor Rex Brynen, for instance, has been pioneering a unique approach to teaching peace-building in his course POLI 450. Popularly known as “Sim Week,” the students within the course are exposed to a weeklong civil war simulation within the fictitious land of Brynania. The students take on various roles to explore issues from the civil war associated with peace building.

“The challenge of the simulation is to negotiate and implement a peace agreement without it all falling apart,” Brynen explained. “It’s very intense, in semi-real time, taking place both face-to-face and electronically—by email, chat, or Skype.”

Initially designed for a class of 25 students, Brynen’s simulation has expanded over the years to encompass around 100 undergraduates. While other courses at McGill run simulation negotiations, this weeklong event takes on a significantly larger scale than any other class at the university.

“The class generates up to 15,000 emails during the simulation—all of which I have to read,” said Brynen. “Most students become very engaged with it.”

Beyond breaking up the monotony of a lecture-based course, the purpose of Sim Week is to provide students with the opportunity to apply their skills acquired in the class to a real-life situation. Brynen explained that for students working in areas like international development or conflict resolution, it is particularly important to have an experiential component integrated into students’ education, whether in the form of internships, field study, or—in the case of POLI 450—simulations.

“One of the challenges in teaching this topic is that it is very easy to read stuff on how you are supposed to negotiate peace agreements,” Brynen said. “In practice, however, it is highly complex and dynamic, characterized by mixed motives, imperfect information, and many second and third order effects.”

Brynen emphasized that while lectures provide students with the knowledge and foundations to develop peace-building policies, these more passive learning styles do not recreate the complexities that occur in a realistic experience.

“Lectures and text are great and wonderful things,” Brynen said, “But the simulation is really designed to bring home the stuff that lectures don’t bring home well.”

The majority of comments each year following Sim Week echo Brynen’s observations.

“You do so much theorizing and writing [in the course],” said Jake Heller to Tv McGill, a participant in the 2010 rendition of the simulation. “It was really refreshing to sit down at the table with someone and negotiate and apply a lot of the things that I have learned in some of the classes.”

Despite the advantages of this new resource as a teaching tool, Brynen cautions that simulation-based learning is not a one-size-fits-all paradigm. Depending on the course, lectures provide opportunities for professors to quickly cover large volumes of information in a logical fashion.

“It would be challenging to run a simulation for a class of 600 students,” Brynen said. “[POLI 450] has a lot of games because the course focuses on a lot of operational issues, and games give an experiential sense of those. Conversely, my Middle East politics class has no games in it and I don’t plan on introducing them because the lectures serve better at covering the material.”

While POLI 450’s simulation stands as a novel learning tool within the McGill community, teaching styles across faculties are paralleling this cross training through various other avenues….

You’ll find the full article here.

Girls Got Game game design contest


Ares Magazine and One Small Step Games have extended the deadline for their current competition for female science fiction and fantasy boardgame designers to 31 January 2015:

The Ares team hopes to publish a game from the contest in the fourth issue of the magazine. “Our plan is to highlight a number of science fiction and fantasy fiction stories written by women in the fiction line up for that issue,” says Executive Editor Carmen Andres. “Wrapping the magazine around a challenging and exciting game designed by a woman would strengthen the package.”

Designers receive $1000 if a game is chosen for publication.

Designers are free to use any format and components they choose, but Anderson notes that the purpose of the contests is to find games to publish in Ares.  Extra credit will be given to designs that use the components of games that run in the magazine.

The contest runs until midnight January 31, 2015. If more than eight designs are received, a runner up will be selected to receive $25. Entrants are limited to women.

Contest information, component guidelines, and the online entry form are on the website of Ares Magazine.

h/t Brant Guillory

CounterFact magazine


The first issue of CounterFact magazine is now available, published by One Small Step Games.

CounterFact magazine is a journal of professional and commercial wargaming. It is published approximately four times per year on an “as ready” basis. Each issue contains articles on professional and commercial wargaming to include game analysis, commentary, polemology, and provocative pieces on conflict and design theory. Also included in each issue is a manual wargame, usually consisting of a tabloid map-sheet, a sheet of playing pieces, and a rules booklet.

The first issue includes a critical analysis by Jon Compton of Breaking the Chains (Compass Games, 2014), in which he assesses the insight the game offers into future Sino-American conflict in the South China Sea. Game designer John Gorkowski then offers a rebuttal.

Cover01The issue also contains a very nitpicky, negative review of At Nueve Chapelle (White Dog Games, 2012) by the game’s own graphic artist. There’s a piece on “Wargaming by the Rules of War,” that offers a satirical take on the Red Cross movement’s efforts to have video games more accurately reflect the role of international humanitarian law in modern warfare. (Personally, I didn’t find it that funny or on-target, given what the ICRC and American Red Cross are actually trying to do. However, I’m a bit of an IHL nerd.)

A preview is offered of the forthcoming American Civil War game Huzzah! (One Small Step 2014). Finally, the issue contains a  game (120 counter, 11″x17″ map) of the fighting at the Mule Shoe Salient during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse (1864) during the American Civil War. This uses also Huzzah’s “Rebel Yell Light” rules. Since I haven’t played it yet, I can’t really comment on the game or rules.

Overall, I thought CounterFact was a worthy initiative, but one with uneven content that is still very much in search of its niche, voice, and identity. I very much like the idea of well-informed debates over game design and game philosophy that draw on both game reviews and informed assessment of historical or future conflict. Despite its title, there is no consistent focus on games as a rigorous method of counterfactual analysis in CounterFact, other than in the very general sense that all historical conflict simulations embody this to a greater or lesser degree.

Big Board Gaming had somewhat similar impressions of the first issue—for that review, see below.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, Albanian Alphabet Day edition 2014

Albanian_Alphabet_from_Manastir_CongressSince today is the 106th anniversary of the unification of the Albanian alphabet, it seemed appropriate to mark that happy occasion with some tidbits of simulation and serious gaming news that might be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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This War of Mine, a digital game by Eleven Bit Studios in which the goal of the player is to simply survive as a civilian caught up in the horrors of war, is now available from Games Republic, Humble Bundle, or Steam. More than one PAXsims contributor has already spent more time playing it than they should given the work they ought to be doing, and a review will be forthcoming once one of us can go a month of game time without starving, dying of disease, being killed by soldiers/looters/other survivors, or suffering from fatal depression.

twom_screen_pax_06* * *

The online journal/resource centre e-International Relations has featured several recent articles that address the depiction of conflict in contemporary videogames:

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The Charnel House blog features a short piece last month by Ross Wolfe on Soviet boardgames from 1920 to 1938—all replete with socialist realism in both artwork and theme.

Chemical Warfare (1925)

Chemical Warfare (1925)

Electrification (1928)

Electrification (1928)

See his blog for more examples.

USIP/FP PeaceGame: Peacemaking in an era of violent extremism (5 December 2014)

peace-games-banner-no-logosThe United States Institute of Peace and Foreign Policy magazine will be convening their third “peacegame” on the subject of Peacemaking in an era of violent extremism at USIP in Washington DC on 5 December 2014, from 8:00am to 5:30pm ET:

This third biannual PeaceGame will examine peace keeping and peace making issues as they relate to the rise in global violent extremism. All attendees are invited to contribute to the conversation throughout the day with live, interactive polling and open mic questioning.

Employing PeaceGame’s innovative, scenario-based, multi-media model, the event is built around two scenarios that explore both the economic and political causes of radicalization and support for violent extremism in the context of the current situation in Nigeria.

Please join us for an in-depth look at several vital and little understood dimensions of extremism and an exploration of ideas for coping and defusing extremism worldwide. Participate on Twitter with #PeaceGame.


Framing Panel I: The Economic Roots of Extremism

The morning panel will feature two experts on the economic roots of extremism and two experts on Nigeria. The Nigeria experts will discuss the rise of extremism and Boko Haram and the economic roots of extremism in Nigeria, including poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality. Drawing from the example of Nigeria, the extremism panelists will discuss how economic drivers of support for Boko Haram are similar (or different) to those that gave rise to radicalized groups in other countries (e.g. Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia). The economic issues identified in the panel will be the centerpieces of the scenario to follow.

Scenario I: Exploring the Economic Drivers of Radicalization and Extremism in Nigeria

The first scenario will focus on the economic roots of extremism in northern Nigeria. It will bring together experts playing the role of Nigerian and international actors who can play an active role in quelling the rise of Boko Haram via programs that focus on economic issues, such as job creation, entrepreneurship, or engaging the international and local private sector.

Framing Panel II: The second panel will be a discussion on how political factors, including political marginalization, ethnic and tribal dynamics, or human rights abuses by the security forces are fueling the rise of extremism.

Scenario II: Exploring Political Drivers of Extremism and Radicalization in Nigeria

The afternoon scenario will explore the political discord underlying the situation in Nigeria, examining issues around inclusion, marginalization, and security in the context of the 2015 election. At play is the tension between the democratic process and Boko Haram’s basic premise that democracy is a tool of western oppression and that an Islamic caliphate is the only system that will genuinely address their grievances.

Closing Panel: “Lessons for the World: Opening New Fronts for Peacemakers”

In this last session, the Nigerian and extremism expert observers will identify the most important lessons of both scenarios, not just for Nigeria but for other specific situations in which they may be expert, including but not limited to, elsewhere in Africa, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

During the PeaceGame, participants will assume the roles of various actors party to the Nigerian conflict. Their statements should not be construed as representing their own personal views or the views of their respective organizations.

The event will be followed by a reception.


ISAGA2015The Japan Association of Simulation and Gaming will host the 46th annual conference of the International Simulation and Gaming Association on 17-21 July 2015 in Kyoto, Japan. The theme of the conference will be “hybridizing simulation and gaming in the network society.”

While the conference website seems incomplete at the moment, you’ll find some additional details here.

International Conference on Exercises, Gaming, and Simulations for Intelligence and National Security

intelconflogoRegistration has opened for the International Conference on Exercises, Gaming, and Simulations for Intelligence and National Security to be held at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. on 24-25 March 2015: 

The goal of this international conference, between the Center for Intelligence Services and Democratic Systems at Rey Juan Carlos University and the School of  Continuing Studies at Georgetown University is to enhance the role of experiential learning methods and techniques showcasing original simulations, exercises, and games applied to national security intelligence, competitive intelligence, and foreign affairs. The conference will bring together ideas, concepts and demonstrations that can further train and educate military, law enforcement and national security professionals.

A sample of conference topics include:

  • Scenario-based approach for developing the links between analysis and reporting
  • Computational Simulation In Intelligence Analysis
  • The Induction Game and Intelligence Education
  • Gaming and Modeling Before a Crisis
  • Use of Gaming and Exercise as Part of an Engagement Strategy
  • Gaming the Nexus between Intelligence and Policy
  • Concrete Tabletop Exercises for Cognitive Skill Development in Analysts
  • Serious gaming & how to create visionary practitioners and policy makers
  • Balancing Realism and Playability in the Intelligence Classroom
  • Structured Analytic Techniques for Cyber Security through Role Playing
  • Cyber-Attack and Ethics Simulations
  • Virtual Training Systems and Survival Humanistic Factors

Further details and online registration can be found at the link above. Any questions should be directed to Dr. Jan Goldman or Dr. Ruben Arcos  Martin  (outside North America).

Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend, since the dates clash with my own annual Brynania civil war simulation. However we hope to have someone there to report on the conference.

Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 3

Alex Langer is a McGill University political science undergraduate student who designing a wargame of the current Syrian civil war as a course project. He’ll be posting his ideas on PAXsims from time to time as a sort of “developer diary.” You can access all of the parts of the series here.

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Last Thursday, we held the first playtest of my game, provisionally titled Road To Damascus. While the game needs changes, the core game system seems to work well, and it was a ton of fun to play. Some rules needed major tweaks, and the diplomacy system needs an overhaul. As well, a new map would make gameplay much easier. However, the combat system worked nearly perfectly.

The Board

For the board, I used a standard roadmap of Syria, with lines drawn onto it to demarcate provincial boundaries in black and Lines of Communication (LoCs) highlighted in red. Units are placed in ‘stacks’, with the government, each rebel player and the independent rebels each having their own stack. LoCs were separate map spaces, with only one unit total allowed there.

Using a modified commercial map for the initial game board. The large red disks are Syrian airfields and divisional bases; the smaller red risks are regular Syrian army units (elite units denoted by a star); the red aircraft indicate airstrikes; and the orange disks denote shabiha, National Defence Force, and other pro-regime militias. The black, green and white disks denote FSA, Islamist, and Kurdish militias, while the avatars represent key opposition commanders. The remaining disks (yellow, blue) represent unaffiliated guerillas. Each province is a separate zone for movement and combat, with each of the major cities (Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo) also comprising a zone unto itself. The red lines mark key lines of communication, and the Syrian desert is a separate zone with restrictions on movement.

Using a modified commercial map for the initial game board. The large red disks are Syrian airfields and divisional bases; the smaller red risks are regular Syrian army units (elite units denoted by a star); the red aircraft indicate airstrikes; and the orange disks denote shabiha, National Defence Force, and other pro-regime militias. The black, green and white disks denote FSA, Islamist, and Kurdish militias, while the avatars represent key opposition commanders. The remaining disks (yellow, blue) represent unaffiliated guerillas. Each province is a separate zone for movement and combat, with each of the major cities (Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo) also comprising a zone unto itself. The red lines mark key lines of communication, and the Syrian desert is a separate zone with restrictions on movement.

The board made the game somewhat confusing: (LoCs) were sometimes difficult to distinguish from the surrounding provinces, and it was difficult to fit all of the necessary units into the smaller southern provinces of Daraa and As-Suwayda. For future playtests, we will be using a different game board.

Provinces/zones and lines of communication on the new map.

Provinces/zones and lines of communication on the new map.

The Setup

The game was set up to follow a historical scenario beginning in May 2012, with the collapse of a limited ceasefire between the Assad regime and rebels. Government forces are concentrated in Damascus, Aleppo and the cities of southern and central Syria, where they maintain relatively firm control. Meanwhile, rebels increasingly control rural areas and northeastern Syria, with regime forces restricted to protecting their military base infrastructure. The three rebel players represent the FSA (Military Defectors), the Islamic Front (Islamists) and the PYD (Kurdish Nationalists).

The Gameplay

Generally, the game went well. While there was some rules confusion on the first turn, people picked up the basic structure –as described in previous posts– pretty quickly. Players’ actions began to mirror the dynamics of the Syrian Civil War: the rebel players consistently failed to cooperate with each other, while the government player rapidly began to abandon eastern Syria to the rebels in favour of holding onto major population centers. After an early rule change drastically increased the effectiveness of airstrike operations, rebel players –particularly the FSA player– openly began to voice dread at the government player’s placement of airstrike markers.

Revolution! Cards, the game’s way of generating new independent rebels and representing historical events, needed some changes. After some discussion, we decided that in future games, the number of rebels generated by each card would be decreased. However, rather than the government player drawing one card per game turn, each player would draw a card at the beginning of their player turn. A lot of card tweaking happened over the course of the game as well. Notably, a reserve-play card meant to simulate rebel fighters hiding among the population was miswritten to allow all players to use its effects, allowing a large regime garrison in Aleppo to hide amongst the city’s Christian population to avoid a rebel assault. When FSA units arrived, they were apparently unable to find the Syrian military among crowds of nuns and ringing church bells.

Another feature that needs work was the diplomacy system. While the Islamists courted foreign actors for income, eventually managing to build a broad coalition of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Salafist donor networks, other players neglected foreign actors and ignored Syria’s domestic communities. The expensive tradeoff (an operations point), uncertainty (a 5+ die roll to shift opinion) and the lack of short-term rewards of diplomatic action were cited as reasons for why the diplomatic track was largely overlooked. The next version of the rules will make Influence operations easier.

However, some recent additions to the game worked out well. IDPs and the steady disintegration of Syria are represented in a simple way, through Death and Destruction markers. These appear both through card play and when triples are rolled during Assault operations, to represent the effects of heavy fighting. Death and Destruction markers reduce the population value of a province, including for recruitment, taxation and victory points. While I am considering adding a Refugee marker, I am worried that this could be a finicky mechanism. Meanwhile, income is now gained through a Tax operation, which proved quite effective.

Victory Conditions

The win/loss system was the last part of my game I needed to develop. Victory points are calculated based on the population value of the provinces under player Control or Influence, as well as through some reserve-play cards and captured Government Bases. The Government player only wins if their victory point score is greater than the three rebel players combined. Otherwise, the rebel player with the highest score wins the game. There are no overriding conditions for victory, although some players, particularly Kurdish Nationalists, receive substantial bonuses for holding certain territories.

Plans for the Future

I am currently modifying cards and the rules as well as constructing a better game board for the next playtest. After that, testing, testing and more testing will be necessary, something which I’m looking forward to!

Alex Langer

* * *

Having played the game as the Kurdish player, let me add a few thoughts of my own.

As a first playtest of a rough design, Road to Damascus was excellent. A similar view expressed by all of the other playtesters too. Indeed, it is shaping up to be my favourite insurgency/counter-insurgency games of all time—no small accomplishment, given how many COIN games I’ve played.

In our own game, a joint rebel offensive succeeded in largely pushing the regime out of city of Aleppo. A sustained fight then erupted for control of the rest of the province, with the opposition seeking to sever north-south lines of communication. My own Kurdish troops were generally active only in the north and east of the country, seizing control of al-Hasakah province. This led to a short-lived conflict with the Islamists, who had lured several unaffiliated guerrilla units there to their jihadist banner. In al-Haskah, Dar-az-Zawr, Raqqa, and Aleppo major government military installations were overrun. From time to time there was also fighting in Hama and Rif Damascus, although the regime was able to keep the capital generally rebel-free. Dar’a was relatively quiet until near the end of the game. The game ended with a narrow regime victory.

The change to the airstrikes rule involved an interesting trade-off. On the one hand, the revised rules make them somewhat ore powerful and predictable than in the real world. On the other hand, it does generate exactly the right sort of psychological tension in the game, with the rebels soon becoming desperate for MANPADS or a no-fly zone. On balance, the latter effect is worth the minor distortion of operational effectiveness.

The game very much captures the fluid nature of rebel cohesion, alliances, and organization. Many of the rebel units in the game are unaffiliated, and effort must be made to bring them under your command–and keep them there. Local commanders are essential to both military and political activities. Guerrilla players only partially cooperate, making a coherent opposition strategy difficult.

Because a rebel player usually only plays one card per turn, and because most opposition units are incapable of anything beyond harassment operations unless stiffened with veteran troops, much of the conflict consists of grinding war of slow attrition. However it is possible to bank certain cards and play them later, leading to episodic (but short-lived) campaigns. This too is very much in keeping with the nature of the fighting.

Aleppo. There's a serious educational purpose to this game design--but it is worth also remembering the real death and destruction in Syria.

Aleppo. There’s a serious educational purpose to this game design–but it is worth also remembering the real death and destruction in Syria.


Paul Vebber on analytical narrative gaming


Slide01As part of its regular “brown bag” discussion sessions, the MORS (Military Operations Research Society) Wargame Community of Practice hosted a talk today by Paul Vebber (US Naval Undersea Warfare Centre) on “analytic narrative gaming.” In it he focused on long term “story arc” development as an extension/application of the Engle matrix game technique to supplement COA development and analysis in the deliberate planning process. For those who couldn’t attend in person in Alexandra VA a phone-in facility was available for remote participation.

You’ll find Paul’s slides from the presentation here. In the presentation he argued that matrix games are increasingly being examined as a serious analytic tool (an issue we’ve discussed before at PAXsims, notably here, here and here). Such games had the advantage, he suggested, that they were relatively easy to organize and play—thus allowing for repeated play (potentially by the same group of players to enable learned strategy) in a way that helped to map out a problem space and identify frequent or convergent issues. His presentation also very much stressed the importance of narrative analysis in a way that allowed us to identify alternative trajectories, the reasons why choices were made (and not made), and why particular plots and paths emerged from game play.


His discussion included identification of some of the frequent problems of both narrative and analytical gaming, and they ways in which these might be addressed. Particular emphasis was placed on a “story arc” metaphor to help tease out key elements, actions, and interactions. Interestingly, he suggested players could be primed as to what aspects of an issue or problem were of particular interest, so as to encourage them to focus on these. While this approach advantages (by reducing the risk of distractions), it did seem to me it risked distorting game play in a variety of ways too.


It was a very rich discussion—hopefully MORS will consider archiving audio recordings of some future brown bag sessions to further increase their accessibility to the professional gaming community.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 9 November 2014


Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious games that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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A newly-released video game, Liberation of Palestine, challenges players to organize political and military resistance to Israel. Game play includes establishing refugee camps, building homes, buying weapons, preparing camp residents, forming alliances, scoring attacks, and conducting prisoners swaps. It is clearly designed to emphasize the greater value of paramilitary action over diplomatic negotiation.

As Ha’aretz notes:

A new computer game developed in Gaza, “The Liberation of Palestine,” invites players to liberate Palestine by all means at their disposal, including force.

In a promotional Arabic-language video trailer that was translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, the game is depicted as teaching players that force is preferable to negotiations. Players are also required, however, to forge diplomatic alliances within the region and arrange prisoner swaps.

The game’s broader aim, the developers say, is to develop “a spirit of resistance among Palestinian children.”

Games dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have aroused a great deal of controversy. During last summer’s fighting between Israel and Hamas and its allies in Gaza, Google removed from its Play Store several downloadable computer games featuring the bombing of the Gaza Strip. Among them were “Bomb Gaza” and “Gaza Assault: Code Red.”

The controversy over these games initially surfaced in the late 1980s. In one intifada game, players had to disperse demonstrations in the West Bank or Gaza Strip without killing any protesters, so that an overly left-wing government would not be elected in Israel. The game prompted objections in Israel and abroad.

In the 1990s game “Conflict: Middle East Political Similator,” participants played the role of Israeli prime minister and had to stay the course until all the surrounding countries collapsed.

A number of other games followed, some taking a more serious approach than others. “Peacemaker,” for example, in which participants were also placed in the shoes of the Israeli prime minister (or the head of the Palestinian Authority), was more oriented toward achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Games reflecting the Palestinian or Arab point of view have also made headlines. Among them were “Under Ash,” a shooting game that opens in Syria in which the player is a Palestinian fighting the Israel Defense Forces; and “Special Force,” which was developed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shi’ite militia.

The website for the game is here, although at the time of writing requires log-in credentials.

For additional discussion on “video game wars,” see my 2012 report for World Politics Review (via CNN).

h/t Julie Norman

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The Guardian has a sympathetic profile of, and interview with with Call of Duty game designer Dave Anthony, whose appointment to Atlantic Council to explore the future of war has been previously discussed at PAXsims and elsewhere.

To some, a writer of video game fictions may seem an unlikely candidate for a role that exists to “help to provide ideas to protect the United States from future attack.” Anthony, who has been writing and programming games for twenty years, deals in the realm of jingoistic military fiction, which, in the case of the Call of Duty series, features a protagonist who single-handedly conquers unending waves of anonymous terrorist enemies. In this way it has as much in common with the rhythm and spectacle of a Rambo movie as it does with the docudrama verisimilitude of a Zero Dark Thirty.

But push aside Call of Duty’s bluster and the appointment isn’t so incongruous. Modern combat games compete on authenticity; their creators must gather props and detail from the realm of fact and arrange them into believable fiction.

During his recent talk Anthony showed videos depicting a US drone that had been hacked by Iran to attack Americans, an idea that first featured in Black Ops 2’s storyline. “In Washington, there is a tangible fear of suggesting controversial ideas, rocking the boat or moving outside of the established system,” he says. The fear is perhaps understandable for the career-minded Washington-ite. In the business of military prophecy, one doesn’t want to be marked out as an eccentric.

But Anthony believes that his entertainment background frees him from the incentive to limit his imagination. “As a director and writer, my job is to break expectations and established thinking without fear of failure in order to create new and fresh ideas,” he says. “It’s timely as the threats we face today don’t play by established rules. Our enemies are starting to use our own technologies and systems faster and more efficiently than we are.”

There are similarities to the stultifying rhetoric of the Cold War era: the race to master technology before the other guy, the fear of the unheralded catastrophe, a disaster from an unknown source, foes under our noses. But one thing is different this time: in video games the military is able to try out its theories, to simulate its strategies, to set a devastating domino run in motion and see where the pieces land, without consequence. Anthony believes that, for all their historical ties, perhaps games and war aren’t close enough after all. “I would like to see more collaboration with the military and game developers,” he says.

War is Boring also feature an interview with Anthony, in which again emphasizes his role as an outsider challenging comfortable Washington orthodoxies:

Anthony was not well-received. Critics took to Twitter to chastise the game director. Blogs pointed out the creepy implications of his ideas about proactive defense.

But Anthony wasn’t fazed. He knew that Beltway types would be loathe to listen to “a video-game guy.”

“When you’re working on something like Call of Duty, you’re at the top of your field,” he admits. “Everybody wants to bring you down.”

The criticism of his talk didn’t bother him. He’s heard far worse from gamers.

Anthony’s hope is that people will openly discuss his ideas—no matter how wild they may seem at first. He says fear and media spin are the main obstacles to the free exchange of ideas.

“All [the media and politicians] are looking for is sensationalism,” he says. “You can see that with the Ebola thing right now. Yes, we have to be cautious, but the way it’s presented is fear-based. It’s extremely frustrating.”

“Everything in the media is 90-percent fear-based,” he continues. “The government needs to find a better way to communicate with people, to try and educate people to the nature of threats and even consider ways in which people can help overcome those threats.”

However, among those that I’ve discussed the issue with criticism of Anthony hasn’t been that he’s a “video-game guy” at all, but that he doesn’t have a very good grasp of modern conflict and warfare and that he himself tends to focus on the sensationalist. I also think the notion of a Beltway community unwilling to address new security challenges is somewhat misleading. On the contrary, security punditry is full of (and probably oversupplied with) those who emphasize all manner of emerging threats, from drones to EMP, transnational terrorism, WMD proliferation, access denial weapons, cyberattacks, and robot swarms—not to mention buzz phrases like asymmetric conflict, hybrid threats, and 3rd/4th/5th/whatever generation warfare. Finally, strategy is about balancing costs, risks, and benefits—something that so far has been absent from Anthony’s presentations and interviews.

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The Active Learning in Political Science blog has a piece by Simon Usherwood exploring cultural specificities in simulations:

The question that occurred to me was what impact does [cultural experience] have on one’s general understanding of the kind of simulations we run, re-creating political interactions?

Precisely because participants are bringing their personal experiences to a simulation, it can sometimes be hard for them to bring the experiences of the roles that they are playing. This can cause any number of problems when trying to recreate a real-world scenario.

To that just one example, when I ran a game that asked students to play different agencies of the US federal government in putting together a foreign-policy document for an in-coming president, they all worked on the basis that all Americans want the same things, and so didn’t really get into the differences that obviously (to us) exist.

A couple of solutions to this present themselves, one inward-facing, the other outward.

When we want to make sure that participants are representing external cultures within our games, then we need to ensure that they have sufficient opportunity to internalise that culture. This is easy in larger games, where you can ask them to produce essays/papers or negotiating briefs that reflect the real-world actor’s dispositions, on which you can provide feedback. In smaller exercises, it’s more difficult, but you could either provide some key points on attitude (rather than policy per se), or else mark out red lines that effectively require a particular approach.

At the other end of the process, we can work with participants to draw out their personal reflection on the impact of their culture on their approach to a simulation. The obvious place to do this is in the debrief and feedback after the game, where we can build on their comments to strengthen their self-reflection.

Again, cultural elements are always going to be part of simulations, both because our participants have culture and because we want them to recreate cultural objects: the key thing is to be alive to this and to help them see how this works.

In by own comment at the blog, I noted the need to understand “culture” in a broad way:

The question of (war)gaming cultures was the primary focus of the Connections conference this year. In my own presentation I argued against the danger of seeing “culture” as a homogenous thing based on ethnic or religious identity–there is substantial evidence to show, for example, that the differences between (say) military officers and students or economists and everyone else are at least as substantial as those between (for example) Turks and Americans. In other words, Turkish and American military officers may behave more like each other than they do Turkish and American diplomats.

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Zombie-Apocalypse1We’ve discussed zombies quite a lot at PAXsims, both because of our commitment to preparing the world for the impending apocalypse, and because the zombie genre has increasingly been used in disaster simulations and classroom teaching. In a forthcoming article in Politics, however, Erin Hannah and Rorden Wilkinson warn of the possible pitfalls of such an approach:

The zombie genre is quickly becoming a feature of International Relations (IR) classrooms and pedagogical toolkits as scholars enthusiastically embrace the undead as a vehicle for teaching the discipline. This article offers a cautionary note on a generally positive move to embrace the use of zombieism in IR. It shows how an uncritical use of a zombie apocalypse as a vehicle for teaching IR can reinforce existing divisions in the field, essentialise country positions, crowd out heterodox approaches, reinforce gender stereotypes and dehumanise people. To guard against these problems, the article shows how Zombie IR can be better used to think critically and normatively about world politics.

Specifically, they raise several sets of concerns:

Our worry is that zombies are being used merely as a means of teaching students about existing theories of IR rather than as a vehicle for developing critical and normative thinking. If this is the case, not only are we letting slip an engaging way of teaching students about the contours and problems of world politics, we risk underscoring existing divergences in the IR canon that obfuscate our capacity to engage with each other. A second, and related problem, is that by limiting our use of zombies to teaching students how existing approaches would respond to an outbreak of the undead we avoid getting them to push forward thinking about how to solve the most pressing global problems and to come up with alternative ways of organising the world. We see a third danger in the use of an IR of the undead that essentialises country positions, reinforces gender stereotypes and dehumanises people in ways that limit the possibilities for cooperation and legitimises certain forms of violence and attitudes towards adversaries in conflict. Ultimately, we believe that zombieism – particularly if engaged with ‘actively’ (i.e. through role-play, scenario and problem-solving exercises) – is an important tool in our pedagogical armoury. Yet, it is not one that we are utilising fully. Thus, we explain why we believe the answers to the questions we set out above are currently insufficient, present the potential dangers of this insufficiency and offer a way forward that may be more fruitful in making better use of this popular cultural resource.

A few of these concerns were also raised by David Romano in a recent piece at PAXsims.

While their focus is on zombies, some of what Hannah and Wilkinson have to say applies to other scenario-based teaching too. It is a thoughtful article, and very much worth reading.

Returning from the Contested Crescent

Tim Wilkie as President for the Contested Crescent Sim.

It only took me a Metro Ride and about four hours of observation to visit the US Embassy in Iraq and get a first hand look at the US response to the ISIL threat, courtesy of the nice folks over at Strategic Crisis Simulations / Insight Simulation Services LLC. On a beautiful Autumn Saturday they were running a simulation for 77 student participants at George Washington University modeling how the US National Security Council might develop a containment and response strategy for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). They invited me to act as a mentor/observer for the humanitarian/ development/ diplomacy actors along with 16 other subject matter experts to act as mentors and observers for other offices. Though I have visited the Embassy and various Ministry offices in Baghdad, I was hardly qualified to mentor on diplomacy or statecraft in the region, but was happy nonetheless to comment on the actions within the simulation and the simulation itself and will continue my pontificating with some further reflections on the simulation experience and the simulation engine here.

If you haven’t seen it in action yet, the Insight Simulation Engine is an intriguing and powerful piece of software that could be a very useful engine for running professional simulations for large groups. Basic functionality is what you might expect for running a sim: it includes messaging between participants and control, submitting actions to control and automating information releases and injects (to all or some participants), as well as a nice map interface with various views depending on security clearance and the fog of war. Actors have drop down list of actions, depending on their office and role and Control can quickly review submitted actions and approve them – determining what the effects are from that action, impacts on the map, responses from “non-player” actors, etc. With a lot of the built in functionality that a game master needs, preloaded documents, files and multimedia, controls on who can interact with whom, pre-programmed injects and scripted actions and reactions, the engine can deliver the realism and complexity needed for a truly immersive world. Another nice feature was the built in analytics, some results are shown in the figures that follow below, showing activity over the course of the four+ hour sim (representing the month of November in simulation time).

It should be acknowledged, though, that pulling off a sim of this scale comes with a price beyond the engine – the school kindly allowed Strategic Crisis Simulations to use more than a dozen classrooms and halls and the team running the thing was 14 hard-working and dedicated folks, “writers” who had clearly put a lot of work into developing the sim and delivering it, serving as control as well as playing the parts of various red and green party actors (Iraqi government, Iran, Kurdish regional government, ISIL). Watching them in action was not unlike watching a play from backstage, sure, there were actors playing out scenes in person and online, but there were also stage managers running around and making sure things were proceeding according to plan and on schedule, even one of the directors delivering rationed cookies purchased on a thin budget to people too engaged in the sim to take a break for food. Also, they had asked along 17 mentors and observers, all more qualified than me, who donated their time to advising the students in role and out.

And the simulation didn’t go off without a hitch. There were a couple misunderstandings within Control that led to vagaries or odd results from the 350 actions attempted and 728 messages sent during that day that confounded the players and were, unfortunately, distracting, including Iran kind of accidentally capturing a town near the Syrian border in an effort to save an operative and ISIL trying to make a small feint to distract joint forces command and create unrest, but instead somehow creating a foothold in Shia dominated area of Iraq.

But these were minor glitches in an otherwise very successful simulation. What was truly amazing about the simulation is that it was well-written and challenging enough that all of the 77 participants were really, really engaged, whether they were acting at the most tactical level in theatre in the Embassy or the Joint Forces Command or at the most strategic level putting together the national security council plan for the president. I observed a number of rooms and there wasn’t a single one where any of the participants were not actively engaged with their own challenge (whether it was sending drones out on strikes, negotiating where a refugee camp would be located or unpacking the semantics of what “boots on the ground” in the President’s speech really means). Some of this was selection bias – people that signed up for the sim weren’t getting course credit that I know of, they chose to dress up in their suits and roleplay government policymaking indoors on a rare cool, crisp October day in DC, but the design of the sim engaged those participants for the entire day and they stayed actively engaged through the debrief.

One side note on role play. In observing the official visits from the Ministry of Interior and Sunni Imams to the Embassy, I appreciated that the simulation organizers had set up independent actors to play these roles. Though I have to say that I think the actors playing these roles may have been a bit overwhelmed by their responsibilities in the sim to actually deliver the nuances of political economy demanded for their roles – there was absolute trust from the government and Imam actor of the US Embassy and pretty high (and rather unlikely) willingness to cooperate and share information, despite a number of alternative incentives that might prevail, from personal interests to distrust of the foreign hegemon to simple fear for their own safety for meeting with the US. Still, as Tim Wilkie (mentor/observer playing the President for the sim) and I observed on reflection during debrief, this best case scenario for the sim demonstrates how hard all this work is even when everyone is cooperating and one doesn’t have to worry about corruption and ulterior motives – this is as easy as it gets and it is still really damn hard.

In the end, the NSC developed and delivered a plan by their 5 pm deadline (end of fictional November), but there was still huge divergence between the Defense and State vision of “best response” and the intelligence vision. I have to say, I was much more swayed by the players from the intelligence community’s interpretation of both the situation on the ground and their assessment of the likely outcomes of any of the US interventions leading to sustainable peace in the region. True to real life, all three actors, State, Defense and Intelligence (if I can lump all of the various parts of these actors together) were using the hammers they had at their disposal and picking the nails they could do something about, often neglecting the nails (or screws or hinges or Johnson rods or whatever hardware metaphor works best) that were really necessary to reach a workable solution vis-à-vis ISIL and/or a sustainable peace in Iraq and Syria. As an American who worked at the World Bank for a decade and now works for a Swedish think tank, it was culture shock to see what a Washington conversation this was – the UN and the rest of the world as actors were little more than an afterthought to the development of the plan by the actors (and seemingly in the simulation) – but perhaps that is more realistic than my worldview?

Lastly, I should note that you can get a glimpse of the Insight engine on the website linked above, but you can only really see it in action at one of the sims. The developers have made it proprietary and I wonder how this will play out – I don’t know the business model they have in mind or the market they envision for their engine, but this run of the simulation demonstrates that the value in the engine is as much in the context and knowledge of those running it as it is in the programming. The folks behind Insight will need to figure out how they package subject matter expertise, knowledge of the way the world works and wisdom about actors and effects that complement the engine during a sim to be successfully packaged for export to other trainings and analytical exercises. But there are a bunch of smart people working on this and they definitely have the energy – looking forward to seeing where this engine goes.

If you’d like more information about Insight or the Strategic Crisis Simulations Group at GWU or if you would like to attend future events as a participant, observer or mentor, you can contact Scott Chambers.

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