Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: December 2014

PAXsims 2014 in review


Another year comes to an end here at PAXsims. What did we get up to in 2014?

The website had over 80,000 page views this past year, a significant increase over the 65,000 or so we had in 2013. We have now totalled some 284,000 views since the website was established in January 2009. Our busiest month this year was November (9,440 views).

Viewers came from 187 countries and territories this past year. The top ten visitor countries were:

  1. United States (42%)
  2. Canada (12%)
  3. United Kingdom (8%)
  4. Germany (3%)
  5. Netherlands (3%)
  6. France (3%)
  7. Poland (3%)
  8. Australia (2%)
  9. Spain (2%)
  10. Italy (2%)


We have 206 regular subscribers via email or WordPress subscriptions. If you are a regular reader, you might consider joining them. Our top two contributors of blog comments in 2014 were Brian Train and John Curry, each of whom therefore wins a coveted Golden PAXsim. That’s Brian’s second win in a row, for those who might be counting.

Our most popular items posted in 2014 were:

  1. Gaming the crisis in the Ukraine
  2. Review: This War of Mine
  3. Review: Fire in the Lake
  4. ISIL matrix game AAR
  5. Teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations (Part 1)

Although it didn’t make the list, my personal favourite of the year was probably our symposium discussion on Women and (professional) wargaming.

The most popular items ever posted on the website are:

  1. Are video games “precision weapons in the Pentagon’s propaganda wars” ?
  2. COIN in Afghanistan: A Distant Plain
  3. Review: Rulers of Nations
  4. Review: Masters of the World
  5. Gaming the crisis in the Ukraine
  6. Invading America (the boardgame edition)
  7. Research Bibliography
  8. Review: A Distant Plain
  9. Do wargames glorify war?
  10. Online sustainable development games

Last but certainly not least, Gary and I welcomed two new associate editors to PAXsims: Ellie Bartels and Devin Ellis.

Our plans for 2015? Even more discussion, news, and debates on conflict simulation and serious gaming. Happy new year!

2015: A busy year ahead!


It looks like 2015 is already shaping up to be a very busy year of simulation-related activities both for PAXsims and for me personally at McGill University.

  • In January I’ll be at the University of Exeter, running a classroom simulation with Prof. Mick Dumper on the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon for his POL2046 course on The Refugee Crisis in the Modern World. I’ll also be running a version of this same simulation at McGill the following month for some of the students in Prof. Megan Bradley‘s POLI 359 (002) course on the international refugee regime.
  • Also in February I’ll be running several games on AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game for students in my own Peacebuilding (POLI450/650) course. I also hope to run sessions of both the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction Game and Jill Wallman’s Barwick Green peacekeeping game during the term.
  • In February, I’ll be getting together with colleagues from Defence Research and Development Canada, other government departments, and the University of Ottawa to explore the analytical application of “matrix games.” This follows an earlier playtest of the approach in the UK back in August.
  • From March 25 to April 1, McGill students will—for the 15th year—be struggling with the immense challenge of bringing peace to war-torn Brynania. During that week I’ll be sifting through some 15,000 emails, and otherwise suffering from extreme sleep-deprivation.
  • In April and again in May, we’ll be delivering several simultaneous games of AFTERSHOCK for students and professionals taking part in the Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program, organized by the McGill Humanitarian Studies Initiative and the Canadian Consortium for Humanitarian Training. By this time we hope to have a final version of the game in limited production, so that others will be able to purchase and use it.
  • Later in May, Gary Milante and I should be attending the 12th International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM 2015) where we’ll be running a tutorial on tutorial on serious gaming for peacebuilding, development, humanitarian crisis, and disaster relief. UPDATE: No, it looks like we won’t be going after all.
  • In June, I’ll be attending the 83rd annual symposium of the Military Operations Research Society. There I hope to be presenting a paper with Dr. Ben Taylor (Defence Research and Development Canada) on “Assessing the analytical utility of matrix games.”
  • The Connections 2015 interdisciplinary wargaming conference will be held at National Defense University in July (final confirmation pending), and Connections UK will be at King’s College London on 8-10 September. I’ll be at both.

In addition, as of September I will be on sabbatical for the 2015-16 academic year. During that time I will be involved in a number of other activities related to conflict simulation and serious gaming. Do you have a forthcoming serious gaming project that I might find of interest? Drop me a line!

Happy holidays from PAXsims

Gary, Ellie, Devin, and myself would like to wish a very happy holiday season to all of our PAXsims readers.

Connections UK 2015 confirmed for 8-10 September 2015


The 2015 edition of the now annual Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference have been announced for 8-10 September 2015, at King’s College London. Day 1 is likely to involve a full or half day of introductory and possible advanced classes in wargaming, while days 2 and 3 will be devoted to plenary discussions, panels, a breakout session, and a hands-on games fair.

Further details will be announced as they become available on the Connections UK website. For information on the conference in 2013 and 2014, see our earlier PAXsims reports. I’ll be there again in 2015!

Rubel: Wargaming for Innovation

innovationmindset-paulhsuAt the Information Dissemination blog, Captain Robert C. “Barney” Rubel—former Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College—addresses how to reinvigorated wargaming so as to better support innovation within the US defence establishment.

In a recent department-wide memo announcing the Defense Innovation Initiative, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel calls for accelerating innovation throughout DoD.  Among other elements of the program, “A reinvigorated wargaming effort will develop and test alternative ways of achieving our strategic objectives and help us think more clearly about the future security environment.” The Secretary’s use of the word “reinvigorated” implies that some aspects of the current wargaming program, whether in DoD proper or throughout the Services, requires improvement.  Since each of the Services has in place a robust program of wargaming, the Secretary either is calling for additional effort in the joint and OSD arenas or is leery of the objectivity of Service gaming and wants more oversight of the process.  Whatever the Secretary’s true intent, an effort to improve wargaming support to innovation will face any number of pitfalls.  Just throwing money at the problem almost guarantees failure.  If this initiative is to bear fruit, wargames must be conducted under the proper circumstances by the right people using correct techniques. Although not specifically called for by the memo, the implied task for the Secretary and his staff will be to establish a DoD-wide policy and strategy on wargaming. This article will set forth some considerations and principles for doing so.

Read the rest of his thoughts here.

UNICEF: Our video game idea caused a walkout

An interesting video game pitch was recently made at a Washington DC gaming convention. Or was it?

In an effort to raise awareness of the situation of children in South Sudan, UNICEF embarked on an unusual kind of campaign.

We sent an actor, a film crew and two South Sudanese youth to a major video game convention in Washington, D.C., and we were given a keynote address slot to pitch an exciting new video game to an audience of gaming enthusiasts

The gamers in the room were real, as were their reactions and the footage that we captured for this short film.

In 2014, disasters and crises have affected children in many parts of the world.

In South Sudan, which only a few years ago celebrated its independence, food crisis and conflict during the past year have had deadly consequences for children.

Raising awareness is just one step toward helping the children of South Sudan, who are living every day in a life-or-death situation, and it is not a game.

You can watch the video below, and find out more about the situation of children in South Sudan here.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 12 December 2014


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

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Looking for that little something to make your next military exercise or tactical drill more realistic? Tom Mouat recently shared a picture from the I/ITSEC military modelling, training, and simulation conference that showed products from SensoryCo, a company that specializes in visual, tactile, and olfactory effects for both serious and entertainment purposes. After all, what game is complete with the odour of vomit?

You’ll find a full list of their odours (which include “bad breath,” “Middle East cooking,” and sarin, among many others)  here.

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g59-LibertyDeath-P500-1The sixth game in the GMT Games COIN series—Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection—is now available for pre-order on their P500 list. You’ll find PAXsims reviews of previous instalments here.

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The US Navy has announced that it will be constructing a number of “small surface combatants,” based on the less-than-successful hull of the littoral combat ship. Back in October, Kyle Mizokami used the PC game Command: Modern Naval/Air Operations to examine how the LCS would fare against a Chinese destroyer and corvette. Bottom line up front: the US vessels don’t survive the (simulated) encounter. You can read all about it at War is Boring.


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guardianboardgamesThe Guardian has run a series a of articles celebrating that “board games are back.”

Tell most people that you’re a “gamer” nowadays and they’ll subconsciously add the prefix “video”. But while digital games are grudgingly acknowledged as part of the entertainment mainstream, the past decade has also seen unexpected growth in an industry that many assumed would become redundant in the era of screens: tabletop board games.

Sales are still dwarfed by the latest PC and console blockbusters, but the past four years have seen board game purchases rise by between 25% and 40% annually. Thousands of new titles are released each year, and the top games sell millions of copies.

To successive generations raised on the Mega Drive, PlayStation and iPhone, the concept of sitting around a table rolling dice and moving pieces may seem positively archaic. But beyond mass-market titles like Monopoly and Guess Who, a community of independent designers and publishers has been steadily producing innovative, exciting and beautiful games offering experiences beyond even those of the most sophisticated gaming hardware.

Owen Duffy argues that this is “Board games’ golden age: sociable, brilliant and driven by the internet.” In the Observer (via the Guardian website) also Will Freeman examines “why board games are making a comeback.” The Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast discusses if the”board-game revival [is] down to computer games’ popularity?” Games writer Ellie Gibbons notes that “board games don’t just bring us together – they remind us how to play.” Alex Hern shows “how the boundary between board and video games is blurring.” There is also a profile of “12 board games to make you a better person,” and Guardian writers pick their favourites with advice on how to start your own collection.

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On a similar note, back in June the sports and popular culture blog Grantland featured an article on Diplomacy, “The Board Game of the Alpha Nerds.” We didn’t notice it at the time so we’re posting it now.


Military Operations Research Society 83rd annual symposium (June 2015)


The 83rd annual symposium of the Military Operations Research Society will be held in Alexandria, VA on 22-25 June 2015. As usual, there will be a considerable number of panels on wargaming, modelling and simulation, and related topics.

Submission of abstracts opened on 1 December (until 15 March). Symposium registration will open on 7 January. As usual, some sessions will be classified, and either NOFORNed (restricted to US citizens) or open to pre-cleared FVEY participants too.

Further information is available at the MORS website. For a summary of the 82nd symposium, see the following PAXsims reports:

Thomas Schelling on POLMIL wargames

schellingNobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling—who played an important role in the early development of political-military (POLMIL) wargames during the late 1950s and early 1960s, while at RAND—delivered the keynote address at the Connections 2014 conference in July 2014. The audio of his presentation is now available as a podcast here (the audio quality is uneven for the first 20s, but then improves).

After you’ve listened to his presentation, it is well worth reading Crisis Games 27 Years Later: Plus c’est déjà vu, a RAND reproduction of a lengthy 1964 exchange of internal communications between Robert Levine, Thomas Schelling, and William Jones on the strengths and weaknesses of crisis games as an experiential and analytical tool. Levine is skeptical and cautious, while Schelling (as in his talk) argues they have considerable value when used properly.

h/t Yuna Wong

Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 4

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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What a ride it’s been! I started this semester knowing almost nothing about game design, and now I think about games –other peoples’ games, Road to Damascus, and ideas for new political science problems to simulate– all the time. Making Road to Damascus has been an amazing experience, in many ways the highlight of my four years at McGill. I’d like to thank Professor Brynen for the opportunity to work on this project, as well as endless guidance and enthusiasm. I’d also like to thank all of the playtesters (Tom, June, Eric, Ecem, Jason, Vanessa, and others) who volunteered their time and energy to work through this game with me.

With term coming to an end this will be my final post about my game. I will go through our second playtest, discussing some of the tweaked game mechanics and what still needs to be perfected. Then, I will talk about how my game ‘fits’ the Syrian conflict as a simulation and possibly as a learning tool.

The Second Playtest

We held another playtest last Friday, which went well. The rule changes from last time had been implemented, and a new map made things much easier to see. While due to my own errors the player aid cards were distinctly unhelpful, the game still ran fairly smoothly.

Early in the game. Kurdish nationalist (white) are building up in strength al-Hasakah, the nucleus of what they hope will be their future autonomous area or independent state. The FSA and Islamic Front focus on Aleppo and Hama.

Early in the game. Kurdish nationalists (white) are building up in strength al-Hasakah, the nucleus of what they hope will be their future autonomous area or independent state. Later they will forge very close relations with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, allowing them to recruit from among refugees there. The FSA and Islamic Front initially focus on Aleppo, Idlib, and Hama.

The game started with a regime offensive, supported by airstrikes, which cleared out the city of Aleppo and degraded rebel capacity in the surrounding province. In the face of a major government buildup, rebel players withdrew or were wiped out. Heavy fighting there and in Idlib province, combined with harsh winter weather, cause immense damage and forced tens of thousands of Syrians across the border into Turkey. This was represented by Refugee counters, which now appear in neighbouring countries when Death and Destruction occurs are placed in border provinces. These countries become ‘playable’ spaces for Rebel factions with Supporting relations, enabling rebel commanders to slip across the border and recruit an army among the refugees, as each Refugee counter counts as an independent rebel unit.

Unlike in our first playtest, the rebel players –particularly the Kurdish Nationalists- made an effort to court international and domestic actors for support; this was made easier by the reduced threshold necessary to change opinion. Mobilization of Syria’s Kurds against the regime caused the quiet emergence of a large rebel force in Aleppo, which had major impacts later in the game. By contrast, repeated regime attempts to court Sunnis failed; had they succeeded, the opposition would have rapidly begun to run out of forces.

Initially, it appeared as though the regime was headed for victory: rebel forces controlled a number of provinces, particularly in the northeast, but remained weak in the most populated and important areas near Damascus and Aleppo. A new Revolution! card, “Geneva Conference”, allowed the government to manipulate peace talks (which prevented fighting without paying a price in international support) to steady itself, then mount an air campaign to reduce rebel forces in Hama.

Eventually though, as an alliance between the FSA and Islamic Front was struck, the tide began to turn. Syrian forces lost control over Idlib, then Homs province. Indoctrinated and heavily armed FSA forces advanced south into Rif Damascus, while Islamist guerrillas cut the main highway in Homs province. This prevented the capital from being reinforced by troops from Aleppo, leaving Damascus to fend for itself. As the regime lost control over the capital city itself, the desperate Government player unleashed chemical weapons, slaughtering rebel forces but depopulating the country’s most valuable city. Islamist forces soon arrived in Rif Damascus, reinforcing the rebel offensive.

The Syrian Army (red) and National Defence Force militias (orange, yellow) have regained control of Damascus—but at the cost of considerable collateral damage (grey rubble).

The Syrian Army (red), led by the elite Presidential Guard (star) and supported by National Defence Force militias (orange, yellow) have regained control of Damascus—but at the cost of considerable collateral damage (grey rubble).

As the game drew to a close though, the most dramatic events were about to occur. The FSA and Islamic Front, quiet in the country’s south until now, marched in and seized control, recruiting independent rebel forces to consolidate their power. Rebel forces marched over the mountains into the Alawi-dominated coastal strip, taking advantage of weak government preparation. In the north, Kurdish forces, planning for months and recruiting Kurdish refugees from Iraqi Kurdistan, mounted a lighting assault into the city of Aleppo. There, they recruited independent rebel brigades and seized control of the country’s now-largest city, raising the Kurdish Rising Sun banner from the captured city hall. With this final move, the Kurdish Nationalists –due to their bonuses for controlling territories with Kurdish populations and a victory points card for ‘Kurdish Self-Rule’, won the game.

Famed Kurdish commander Vanessa Sunahara leads her forces into Aleppo to challenge the regime garrison there. A growing number of refugees can be seen over the border in Turkey.

Famed commander Vanessa leads Kurdish forces and local allies in Aleppo to challenge the regime garrison there. A growing number of refugees can be seen over the border in Turkey.

Conclusions: Modeling the Syrian Civil War

I believe that Road to Damascus, while stylized and simplified, fits the dynamics of the Syrian Civil War quite well. It captures the messiness, grinding attrition and sudden bursts of activity that characterize the war. Combat tends to take the form of harassment and ambushes from rebels, with the government relying on airstrikes and shifting their capable combat units from province to province to mop up rebel fighters. Combat also realistically produces immense destruction: multiple players over both playtests referenced the much-mocked Vietnam War saying, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” The tragic nature of the Syrian Civil War, with regime and rebel forces fighting over a devastated, broken and partially depopulated land, was sadly (but accurately) reproduced by the game.

Road to Damascus also effectively simulates the struggles that both sides in the war face. Diplomacy, both with the Syrian people and the international community, is difficult. In both playtests, rebel players struggled to mobilize the population against the regime, while the regime struggled to convince Sunnis to side with the Ba’ath Party and Assad family. The FSA twice gained the momentary support of the Western Powers in the second playtest, before the West lost interest in its cause due to atrocities by rebel fighters or the beginning of a crisis in Ukraine. The frustration with these events was palpable from the FSA player. All rebel players grew to fear airstrikes, dreading the government turn. Meanwhile, the government player appeared beleaguered and complained of feeling under siege. While putting someone in the place of Bashar al-Assad or Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi may have ethical consequences, the psychological dynamics of the game, with its grinding warfare and constant shortage of military resources on all sides, seemed to work well.

While Road to Damascus works well as a simulation of the conflict, there are likely some issues of its use as a learning tool. First are the ethical ramifications of simulating an ongoing conflict. While I have enjoyed this project, I recognize that playing a ‘game’ of a war people are currently dying in and suffering through may be seen as in poor taste or unethical. Additionally, while the game simulates the war well, it is built as a simulation and fun wargame first and a learning tool second: there is not a ton of informational content in the game. While it might be useful for people already learning about the war, it is probably not ideal as a tool on its own.

In conclusion, Road to Damascus has been a great learning experience, and something I plan to continue working on and perfecting. I hope you have all enjoyed following my journey in gaming the Syrian Civil War.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 1 December 2014

kriegsspielSome recent conflict simulation and serious gaming items that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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Maydan is a tactical board game project based on the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests in the Ukraine that is currently seeking to raise development and production funds on Kickstarter. In the four player game each player assumes the role of a group of activists seeking to overthrow the “Tyrant” and their “Berkut” (Ukrainian special police) fighters. Players must cooperate to seize buildings in Kiev, and ultimately take control of the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council of the Ukraine). If government forces overrun their camp, or if the level of government alarm because so great as to provoke a military clampdown.

You’ll find more on the game at War is Boring.

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iran_071514In an article at Foreign Policy magazine, Nancy Gallagher examines the willingness of the Iranian and US publics to accept a compromise deal on Iran’s nuclear capacity. In the case of Iran, this flexibility was explored through a public opinion survey. In the case of the American public, the article draws upon the results of a decision-making simulation:

In July, the Center for International and Security Studies and the Program for Public Consultation ran a decision-making simulation in which 748 randomly selected Americans were given a carefully vetted background briefing about the negotiations with Iran. They were then handed arguments drawn from congressional debates presenting them with two options: Respondents could decide to continue seeking a deal that places partial limits on Iran’s nuclear program and increases transparency in return for some sanctions relief, or they could decide to end negotiations and impose more sanctions in a renewed effort to stop Iranian enrichment altogether.

Large majorities of participants found all arguments for and against both options to be at least somewhat persuasive. But when asked which option they would recommend, 61 percent (including 62 percent of the Republicans) chose the compromise deal, while only 35 percent wanted to end negotiations and impose new sanctions by pressuring other countries to cut their economic relations with Iran, in hope of finally persuading Tehran to completely stop all uranium enrichment.

You will find a fuller report by on “Steven Kull, Nancy Gallagher, Clay Ramsay, and Evan Lewis on “Americans on Negotiations with Iran: A Policymaking Simulation” at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland website. The simulation was not interactive,  nor did it involve group interaction—rather, participants were separately given briefing materials, and then asked to indicate their policy preferences.

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At IGN, Richard Wordsworth reflects on “the changing face of [digital] war games.” He examines the way in which traditional first person shooters are now being complimented by games that give a grittier portrayal of the brutality of war, focusing on Spec Ops: The Line and This War of Mine (previously reviewed at PAXsims):

This War of Mine and Spec Ops are perhaps as much products of their times as Modern Warfare was back in 2007. In the seven years since CoD 4 changed the direction of shooters on PS3 and Xbox 360, we’re more critical of war and more aware of its costs. From a multiplayer standpoint, the big franchises are still unassailable. But when it comes to the stories shooters tell, the worldviews they ask us to adopt and the linear, unquestioning paths they ask us to tread, the lone Western soldier defending the motherland against nebulous foreign baddies is, happily, looking more and more last-gen. 

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The New York Times had an article by Chris Suellentrop on November 23 that discussed advances and developments in interactive digital story-telling, focusing in particular on the recent release of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

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Back in June, the blog of the Italian Political Science Association featured a short article on “learning through simulation games” by  

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Today is the last day for discounted registration for the American Political Science Association’s annual Teaching & Learning Conference, to be held in Washington, DC on 16-18 December 2015.

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