Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: January 2015

LBS: RCAT does the Falklands War

As part of the ongoing verification and validation process for the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset a simulation of the 1982 Falklands War was recently conducted on 13-14 January. RCT is intended “to enable the rapid testing (validation) of all phases of a campaign plan to identify areas of risk at the military strategic level.” It is being developed by Dstl (UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) and and Cranfield University, in conjunction with a team of top UK wargamers.

According to the LBS blog:

RCAT-OCT-set-up-complete1The aim was ‘to compare an RCAT simulation of the 1982 Falklands War to the historical outcomes and command experience, identify variances and examine the reasons for these in order to improve the validity of the RCAT system.’ The operational commanders present were Gen Julian Thompson and Cdre Michael Clapp, respectively Comd 3 Cdo Bde and Comd Amphibious Task Group during the Falklands War. As such, they had perhaps the most immediate and detailed view of events at the level simulated at the OCT and were ideally placed to validate RCAT in accordance with the aim.

The two days delivered numerous insights and observations.

Phil-Julian-and-Mike1Perhaps the most telling quote was a joint statement from the two commanders: “We liked [the manual simulation] very much and wish we had had such a system in Ascension with Fieldhouse, Moore, Trant, Curtiss, Woodward, Comd 5 Bde and us sitting around the map table thrashing through possible courses of action and, hopefully, agreeing a thoroughly well-considered plan.”

And that, of course, is the point. Wargames, supported by both manual and/or computer simulations, deliver more than merely interesting events. The aim of the current RCAT V&V programme is to develop a system that is fit for the purpose of helping commanders make decisions. These might range from force development to operational situations. If Gen Thompson and Cdre Clapp recognised the utility of such a system in planning the Falklands campaign then I hope we are going in the right direction.

Indeed, Commodore Clapp’s closing comment was: “I feel that I’ve been properly de-briefed for the first time in 33 years.”

You’ll find the full LBS report here.

Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program (May 2015)

The Canadian Consortium for Humanitarian Training (CCHT) will again be offering the Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program in Montréal on 1-17 May 2015. This multi-disciplinary training program includes in class learning and a 3-day field simulation, providing students and mid-career professionals with the core humanitarian competencies that are essential for anyone involved in disaster response and/or humanitarian assistance.

CCHT General Flyer 2015_13_avril hk

PAXsims will be contributing to the course, running an instructional game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game to help students explore the challenges of interagency coordination during a humanitarian crisis.

You’ll find June McCabe’s 2013 PAXsims review of the Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program here.

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

Although we’ve mentioned it before at PAXsims, this seems a good time to remind everyone that Georgetown University will be hosting a very promising conference on exercises, gaming and simulations for intelligence and national security on 24-25 March 2015.


Reviewing Third World Farmer as a class assignment

twf-ss4Simulations need not to be complicated, sophisticated, or even accurate to provide teachable moments. In my own classes, for example, I have had students review and critique the “banana republic” simulator Tropico as a way of encouraging them to think about how game play does—and does not— reflect real world processes of politics and economic development.

Prof. Sarah-Myriam Martin-Brûlé at Bishop’s University sends on another example—a simulation review assignment from her second year course on international affairs:

 The course presented an overview of the main political, economic and social issues in the developing world.  Throughout the course, various simulations were used to illustrate the themes covered in class. Students were asked to pick one of the simulations proposed in the course outline and provide a debriefing on how the game reflected /diverged from the political, economic, and social dynamics at play in a real developing country/area.

On of her students, Danielle Keating, chose to compare the game Third World Farmer to rural life in Sub-Saharan Africa. In her debrief Danielle argues:

Online games and simulations have become increasingly popular with teachers and professors in the undergraduate classroom. Many find that they are an excellent way of illustrating complex and challenging materials in an alternative way (Wainwright, 2014). 3rd World Farmer (TWF) is an online game that hopes to simulate what it is like to be a farmer in the third world. Its goal is to generate an emotional reaction from player in industrialized countries when they realize the plights those living in the rural third world might face (3rd World Farmer Team, 2014). The game is set in Africa, however, the issues explored in the game are common in many developing countries. The purpose of this paper will be to explore how well 3rd World Farmer simulates the reality of farm life in the developing world. I will argue that although TWF does an excellent job of showing the volatility in external factors and the impacts these factors can have on farmers in the third world, the game fails to demonstrate the often permanent effects of external, uncontrollable factors, and further ignores many impacts of family based issues on the lives of these people. In order to accomplish this, I will compare TWF to rural life in Sub- Saharan Africa (SSA). Three major themes will be explored; farmland and factors that can increase or decrease its size and ability to yield crops, the impacts of illness on family life, and fertility rates in SSA.

You’ll find—with Danielle’s permission—her full (4,000 word) review here.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 27 January 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulation and gaming that might be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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In the wake of North Korea’s apparent cyberattack on Sony, the US and UK announced joint cyber wargames. The BBC discusses what these might involve.

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Students at Georgetown University – School of Foreign Service in Qatar recent held a crisis simulation involving “a fictional maritime claim conflict in the South China Sea.” You’ll find some details here.

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Battlefront’s Combat Mission: Black Sea has been added to our PAXsims list of Ukraine crisis wargames.

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Also related to the crisis in the Ukraine, a tongue-in-cheek game about repelling a Russian invasion (“Comrade Puu’s Russian Invasion”) is now for sale in Estonia.

Russia Today (ironically enough) has a report on the game here.

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At Grogheads, Robert Mosher has written an excellent piece on the 19th century American wargame Strategos (1880):

strategos-front-sIn 1880 D. Appleton and Company of New York and then-First Lieutenant Charles A. Totten, (Fourth Artillery, United States Army), published STRATEGOS: A Series of American Games of War Based Upon Military Principles and Designed for the Assistance Both of Beginners and Advanced Students in Prosecuting the Whole Study of Tactics, Grand Tactics, Strategy, Military History, and The Various Operations of WarStrategos presented a layered set of games that addressed tactics, grand tactics, and strategy, supplemented by material for the study of military history, with an appendix that included statistical studies relating to the conduct of war.

In Strategos Totten designed a system that used the same apparatus and related study material in examining several aspects of war and warfare:

  • The Minor Tactical Game
  • The Grand Tactical Game
  • The Battle Game
  • The Advanced Game

Strategos: The Advanced Game represents Totten’s contribution to the family of “kriegsspiel” level war games relevant to this study. Totten’s game was identified as a useful training tool by a specially convened board of Regular and National Guard officers at San Francisco in 1879 to examine his war game and its apparatus. The Board cited several attributes of Totten’s work for particular praise:

  • The rules were described as having greater fullness and being more explicit as guidance for the Referee; and
  • A “more minute analysis” of actual conflict and greater accuracy in the system tables used to resolve conflicts in the game.

Their conclusion recommended acquisition of Strategos and its apparatus for the army, although it is not clear whether it was ever actually acquired on any large scale….

The rules can be found for free on Google Books.

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The FiveThirtyEight data blog has another couple of recent articles on boardgaming, based upon quantitative analysis of BoardGameGeek. One identifies “The Worst Board Games Ever Invented.” Monopoly and The Game of Life—both of which I enjoyed as a child, and which have been major commercial successes—make the list. The other article suggests that “Stop Playing Monopoly With Your Kids (And Play These Games Instead).”

Inadvertently, however, the articles may highlight the numericaldata-exists-therefore-I’ll-crunch-it problem with big data, whereby inadequate thought is given to adequately contextualizing and interpreting data analysis. BGG doesn’t rate how much children enjoy games, or what the average game player enjoys in a game. Rather, it represents what a very small minority of ubergeeky game players (myself included, since I rate games there too) like—which is not entirely the same thing. Heck, as a teen I enjoyed multi-week games of SPI’s War in Europe (3600 counters, four rule books—BGG rating 6.96) and The Next War (2400 counters—BGG rating 7.36), but I suspect those aren’t to everyone’s taste.

Another possible data point is that Monopoly (BGG rating 4.41) has sold 275 million copies since 1935, and been played by over half a billion people. So feel to continue to play it, enjoy it, and introduce your kids to it.

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The Fifteenth Annual Institute of the Reacting to the Past Consortium will be held on June 11-15, 2015 at Barnard College:

…this year’s Annual Institute promises a stellar program, including a keynote address from Sam Wineburg, author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, who has challenged instructors to go beyond mindless memorization, and from the team of J. Robert Gillette and Lynn G. Gillette, who recently energized the Lilly Conference on College Teaching with a lively presentation on embracing active learning. These will be added to a rich engagement with games and sessions as detailed below, and a keynote from our own Mark Carnes.

The institute will feature twelve games, including the revised, Norton-published editions of The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C.;Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791Charles Darwin, the Copley Medal and the Rise of Naturalism, 1861-64Patriots, Loyalists and Revolution in New York City, 1775-76; and Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman; along with a number of unpublished games: Frederick Douglass, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Constitution: 1845; and Mexico in Revolution, 1911-1920The Second Crusade: The War Council of Acre, 1148The Collapse of Apartheid and the Dawn of Democracy in South Africa, 1993Challenging the USDA Food PyramidConstantine and the Council of Nicaea: Defining Orthodoxy and Heresy in Christianity, 325 CE; and Title IX and the American University.

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The Third International Competition on Educational [digital] Games at the European Conference on Game-Based Learning (ECGBL), which is being held in Steinkjer, Norway on 8 -9 October 2015:

The aims of this competition are:

  • To provide an opportunity for educational game designers and creators to participate in the conference and demonstrate their game design and development skills in an international competition.
  • To provide an opportunity for GBL creators to peer-assess and peer-evaluate their games.
  • To provide ECGBL 2015 attendees with engaging and best-practice games that showcase exemplary applications of GBL.

Games submitted to the competition are expected to accomplish an educational goal. We welcome contributions relevant to all levels of learning (primary, secondary, tertiary or professional. Both digital and non-digital games are encouraged. Competitors should be prepared to explain their design and evaluation process, why it is innovative (the game itself or its educational setting) and how they achieved (will achieve) the impact they seek. The game should be in a development state that engages the player for at least 10 minutes. The closing date for submissions is the 16th of June.

You’ll find further detail on ECGBL 2015 here.

PAXsims thoughts on Ducharme on COA analysis gaming

Earlier this week, Devin and ! both listened to a great talk by Naval War College’s Dr. Doug Ducharme for the MORS Wargaming Community of Practice on best practices for wargaming in support of Course of Action (COA) analysis. This is second of three posts: the first summarized Doug’s talk, and the third will have some thoughts from Devin.

I found Doug’s presentation, as well as the discussion that followed his talk, to be very insightful and thought provoking. It was particularly useful that Doug offered concrete guidance for game designers to improve their practice. The suggested best practices mirror well with my own experiences, and serves as a useful set of guidelines for new gamers. However, there were two points that I want to explore more: Doug’s distinction between educational and analytical gaming, and his distinction between free and rigid adjudication.

Doug argued that all games are experiential. What differentiates educational and analytical games is whether the goal of the game is to change the participants, or to change our base of knowledge. This definition is related, but somewhat different from what I’ve used in my own work. In past work, I’ve defined the types of game purposes using the 2×2 below:


As a result, I tend to think of analytical games as seeking to gain a better understanding of a problem, while education games seek to make people better able to solve similar problems in the future. I need to think more about how the distinction Doug points to fits into this model.

Doug’s definition also suggests to me a somewhat troubling fact: the majority of events that are run to improve US strategy today are actually focused on improving decision makers’ future capacity. On one hand, I think gaming can provide excellent educational value and professional development. On the other, I don’t want that to come at the expense of thinking though strategy and plans to make them as robust as possible. I left Doug’s talk hoping that the comment made by another participant that “all games are both educational and analytical” is right!

The second point I want to tease out a bit more is Doug’s definition of adjudication methods. The talk, and the discussion after, clarified for me something that has been bothering me about how gamers talk about adjudication for a long time. A lot of discussion around gaming for analysis argues that the more rigid the system of game is, the more analytical it is. As a qualitative/mixed methods person, this rush to quantification always rubs me the wrong way, and I think this talk gave me a new way to frame why it bothers me.

I think that most of the time when gamers talk about free or rigid methods, we are actually conflating two different ideas. The first concept is a decision made by the game designer about how structured a technique to use to capture and analyze data about adjudication. Here, we can think about a spectrum that ranges from very loose adjudication, where rulings are made with few restrictions (and likely little documentation), to a very rigid system with detailed protocols for documentation and adjudication. The second concept deals with how specified of a model is used to generate the outcomes of player decision. Unless a game designer misses something in their research, this factor is limited by the state of knowledge on the issue being gamed. In some cases, we may have a very concrete and detailed theory of what should happen, but other times our models of cause and effect are less well developed, and we are left to deal with some pretty underspecified models.

While I do think that it is easier to establish structured adjudication rules when we have a well specified theory behind our adjudication, I don’t think the two concepts are necessarily the same. For example, one participant on the call referenced matrix gaming, which can provide a great deal of structure to game adjudication, even when causal models behind adjudication are fairly nebulous.

Treating the two design criteria like they are connected, or even the same, lets us get away with under-designing games when we are dealing with complicated poorly defined issues. For example, often “free” method games relay on expert judgment for adjudication, who make determinations about the effects of player action without providing much more justification then their credentials. However, by having less structure in the adjudication, game designers often give themselves a pass from looking carefully at what mental models experts are using to determine outcomes. As a result, we end up not ever really knowing how specified the model that drove the action of the game actually was, producing enviably nebulous and unsatisfying post-game analysis.

I’d argue that game designers should treat structured approaches to adjudication as critical to good game design. Then, even when the underlying models are underspecified, games can contribute to clarifying the models that do exist, and over time, to increasing model specificity. This is a concept that has been discussed with regard to wargaming emerging issues, but I think it needs to be applied much more broadly.

This is a topic that a lot of my recent work has focused on, and I’m due to speak to the MORS COP on the topic next month. I’m hoping to be able to share some of my thoughts here in advance of that presentation. As a result, even more than usual, I’d love folks’ feedback on these ideas!

Ducharme on COA analysis wargaming

Earlier this week, Devin and Ellie both listened to a great talk by Naval War College’s Dr. Doug Ducharme for the MORS Wargaming Community of Practice on best practices for wargaming in support of Course of Action (COA) analysis. This is the first of three posts: the first summarizes Doug’s talk, and the second and third provide some thoughts from Ellie and Devin.

Wargaming is the recommended technique in military doctrine for analyzing COAs during the joint operations planning process’s 4th step. In actual practice, restrictions on staff time, skills, and commander involvement can all critically compromise the ability of the military to actually follow through on this. Doug states that he has seen an increase in the attention paid to these games in the last few years. However, he stated that there is not enough work done to document what gaming methods do and do not lead to successful COA analysis.

To set up his discussion of COA analysis gaming best practices, Doug started by defining gaming (using Peter Perla’s often-cited definition), and discussing how games differ from one another. He established that games can be defined along two axes: 1) whether the game has an educational or analytical purpose, and 2) whether the game examines concepts or capabilities. In this model, COA analysis is defined as being educational and conceptual.

Doug noted that with increased interest in COA analysis games, there has also been interest in incorporating other analytical techniques to support COA analysis. In particular, leveraging campaign analysis techniques has become more popular. Doug used his two-by-two to show why this can be an uncomfortable melding. In Doug’s model, campaign planning is an analytical technique, focused on capabilities. This places it in the opposing quadrant to the educational, concept-focused purposes of COA analysis gaming.

He then moved on to lay out five best practices for COA analysis gaming:

  1. While doctrine suggests several methods for COA analysis, it does not offer strong guidance about how to select techniques. Given that games, by definition, are focused on decision making, Doug recommends defaulting to the critical events method which focus analysis on decisions and their potential impact.
  2. Doug argued that the use of an active red cell is critical to COA wargaming. He specified that the cell’s objective should be to improve the COA, not to “win” the game, and that there should be a facilitator in the cell who can remind participants of this goal if they go off track. He also has found it helpful to keep the red cell to a roughly equal size with blue, and staff it with both intelligence officers and planners. These strategies create an active, but not overly competitive, red that can provide a strong critique of the COA.
  3. Doug argued that rather than defaulting to a format of sequential moves with alternating action by red and blue, COA wargaming moves should ideally be made simultaneously to better mirror reality. If turns must be sequenced, game designers should determine who ought to have initiative based on the scenario in play, rather than defaulting to a blue first move.
  4. Doug described adjudication options as a plane, with one axis running from move-step to running time, and the other axis from a free to a rigid method of adjudication. He argued that even when using relatively free methods of adjudication, having a structured process to evaluate player decisions is important. He also argued that most COA Analysis games have “open adjudication” with fairly move-step time, and fairly free adjudication methods. He also tied this point back to his earlier discussion of the difference between COA Analysis and campaign analyses, which have much more rigid adjudication rules.
  5. Finally, Doug stressed the importance of providing clear criteria for evaluating COAs in advance. Doing so is critical to determining how to assess the COA’s strengths and weaknesses. This then naturally leads into the next step of JOPP, COA comparison, where pros and cons are discussed.

Doug ended his talk by arguing that if we are looking to add rigor to the COA analysis process, it would be better to focus on approaching games with an analytic mindset rather than trying to incorporate campaign planning tools that may not be the right fit. He provided a few examples the use of Analysis of Competing Hypothesis, and Analytic Hierarchy Process as tools to strengthen COA analysis games to show how post game analysis can also strengthen findings.

Boardgames and the indirect surveillance state


Big Brother is watching–for boardgamers buying suspicious game titles, that is.

A current thread on BoardGameGeek describes PayPal investigations triggered when gamers have used the service to buy games with certain words in the title. The PayPal query looks like this (with personal details redacted):

Dear [X],

As part of our security measures, we regularly screen activity in the PayPal system. During a recent screening, we noticed an issue regarding your account.

PayPal’s Compliance Department has reviewed your account and identified activity that may be in violation of United States regulations administered by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

PayPal is committed to complying with and meeting its global regulatory obligations. One obligation is to ensure that our customers, merchants, and partners are also in compliance with applicable laws and regulations, including those set forth by OFAC, in their use of PayPal.

To ensure that activity and transactions comply with current regulations, PayPal is requesting that you provide the following information via email to

1. Purpose of payment [XXXXXXXXXXX] attempted on [DATE] in the amount of $[XX] including a complete and detailed explanation of the goods or services you intended to purchase.
2. Explanation of [WORD] in the above transaction.

Please go to our Resolution Center to provide this information. To find the Resolution Center, log in to your account and click the Resolution Center subtab. Click Resolve under the Action column and follow the instructions.

If we don’t hear from you by [DATE], we will limit what you can do with your account until the issue is resolved.

We thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. We apologize for any

Thus far, games that have triggered a PayPal investigation include:

  • Cuba Libre!
  • Drive on Damascus 
  • Cuba: The Splendid Little War 
  • Santiago de Cuba 
  • Shining Path: The Struggle for Peru
  • Tupamaro 
  • Kandahar
  • Target: Iran

You can guess which keywords are popping via their internal transaction-monitoring algorithms!

All of this is an example of the powerful indirect effect of Treasury Department rules—and the consequent fear of financial institutions that failure to adequately monitor transactions might not only violate US law but also leave them open to civil lawsuits.

h/t Rory Aylward and Brian Train

UPDATE (22/01/15):

Jon Compton at One Small Step Games recounts his own experience with this issue:

We recently released the game Shining Path. Every time someone purchases the game via PayPal, the transaction is held pending investigation. Takes about a day, and then the money shows up in the account. On the flip side, the map artist for the game lives in Europe. When we paid her via PayPal, the transaction was held up almost a week, and we had to write a lengthy explanation for why we were paying a foriegn national for something that contained “Shining Path” in the title.

First Battle (1979)

FirstBattleThe simulation folks at the US Army Command and General Staff College, together with the Combined Arms Research Library, have been doing some searching in the archives and have come up with some treasures. One of the most recent finds is a set of manual tabletop wargaming rules, First Battle (1979):

The FIRST BATTLE simulation system is designed to exercise division commanders and staffs in the control and coordination of combined arms operations. The system is a flexible training tool that can ultimately be applied to any scenario, level of control, or mode of play FIRST BATTLE has undergone extensive field evaluation and incorporates a variety of supplemental and optional features for user adaptation. The three modes of play are conducive to a progressive training program so that once the Open Mode is mastered along with the Basic Rules, optional rules and supplements may be applied to the more sophisticated modes of play — the Closed Mode and the Command Post Exercise.

As James Sterrett noted when he passed on the link, there’s “not a lot of pax in this sim,” but readers will find it interesting nonetheless.

(h/t James Sterrett)

Humanitarian Crisis Game Tournament 2015

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

  • Participation in the tournament is  optional.
  • Teams must consist of eight players. These will be divided among the four roles: Carana, United Nations, NGOs, and the HADR Task Force.
  • To form a team, simply announce it in the appropriate online (myCourses) discussion forum. Up to three teams may compete.
  • Each tournament game will consist of 30 minutes of instruction in game mechanics, followed by 2 hours of play. Student are welcome to read the rules in advance.
  • The three games will be held at 16h30 on February 6th, 9th, and 11th at ICAMES (3465 Peel). Each team will be assigned a date.
  • All participants gain class participation credits. In addition:
    • All members of the team with the highest number of Relief Points will gain additional participation credits.
    • The player(s) with the highest number of Operations Points in each of the four roles (Carana, UN, NGOs, HADR-TF) will also gain additional participation credits.
    • In the event of a tie, both OP and RP will be considered.

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

Diplomacy in the Classroom… Full of Political Scientists

I attended the first day of the American Political Science Association (APSA) Teaching and Learning Conference today.

The Simulations track this year was put together by the inimitable Victor Asal, and features some very interesting papers, about which I will report after the conference (and when the official rapporteurs notes are available). However, never one to be idle at a conference, Victor also organized a workshop this afternoon, along with Amanda Rosen on the use of the classic game Diplomacy in the classroom.

Victor and Amanda prepared materials to explain how they teach and use the game in class, but given the time constraints, we actually skipped the presentations and jumped right into playing. There were about 17 of us, which made for mostly teams of two and a couple teams of three (I was half of Team Germany). Somewhat surprisingly, only about five of us had ever played the game before – but that proved to be a bonus when it came to the Q&A about using it as a teaching tool, since several people honed in on how to create time and space in a course to effectively teach students to play the game, and how to balance between students who were naturally good at/inclined to the game and those who struggled more with it.

After two full turns (four rounds of orders) it was almost time to head to the conference reception. Needless to say Austria-Hungary had been basically obliterated, but we had also given a lot of thought to the applicability of this hoary standard of the gaming repertoire to the modern IR or comparative politics classroom. Victor and Amanda interrupted us throughout play with “pedagogical moments” and we had a lively debrief. Some of the takeaways:

  • Formats: Victor and Amanda run it quite differently. Victor uses the game mostly in large classes and runs it during class periods, usually either four full 1:15 classes, or one long intro and then 15-20 minutes at the beginning of each class for the rest of the semester. Amanda does the intro, and sometimes demo rounds in class, but then has students do all the negotiating and decision making outside of class time. Orders are submitted to her at set intervals and she adjudicates using the online version of the game, with a single board where all the students can see the state of play.
  • The nitty gritty: the nastiness of betrayal, double-dealing, and backstabbing in the game is, of course, highlighted as a window into a) realism; b) the deplorable realities out there.
  • Using teams with their own internal roles and decision making rules was discussed as a way to make the game feasible in larger class sizes (e.g. a team of five playing Germany has a Kaiser and a bunch of ministers who get to make recommendations).
  • As mentioned above, balancing for skill and interest level was much discussed. Victor actively participates as a strategic advisor to those teams he feels would otherwise loose interest or be side-lined in his classes – since he can observe dynamics in the room. Amanda adopts several approaches, including offering “Pro Tips” as part of her adjudication roundup after each turn, in which she highlights areas where poor understanding of rules or strategy might have gotten the better of different teams.
  • A variety of grading and assignment strategies were discussed, from reports after each round to assessments of how the overall themes of the game mirrored core theory being taught in the class.
  • The issue came up of what to do with a team that goes out earlier in the game? Those who had used it agreed that re-assigning those students to other teams generally worked well.

The core takeaway though was… it’s fun. If there hadn’t been the prospect of an open bar, I’m not sure some of us wouldn’t have stayed for another turn (I was anxious to see how our conflict with Russia over Warsaw would turn out). It was a good reminder that as we explore the limits and complexities of gaming methodology in many directions, there is still a lot of value to the classics when well applied.

Simulations miscellany, 16 January 2015

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

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On January 31, Strategic Crisis Simulations at George Washington University will be  holding a crisis simulation of “Sino-African Relations in the Heart of Africa“:

Since the late 1990’s, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been entangled in a harsh civil war which has claimed millions of lives, displaced hundreds of thousands, and led to the formation of the “United Nations Peacekeeping Brigade”, the first UN mission authorized to use proactive force. Many prominent scholars have called this conflict “the worst conflict since World War II”, and is fueled by over $24 trillion US worth of untapped natural resources, including cobalt, copper, and diamonds. International aid to the heart of Africa has increased at an exponential rate in recent years in an effort to quell the conflict and gain access to its resources, with both western companies and Chinese firms taking a strong interest in promoting welfare in the region.

This simulation will look at the long-term steps policymakers must take to facilitate social, economic, military, and political development in the region, and to negotiate the complex diplomatic challenges posed by Sino-African interactions. Participants will work with all state and non-state regional actors to develop a comprehensive and multilateral government response to issues as disparate as internally displaced persons, civil war, humanitarian aid, government reform and elections, natural resource conflict, corruption, and war crimes. They will grapple with serious questions of United States national interest, develop policies to pursue based upon their decided objectives, and attempt to determine optimal responses to a variety of crisis situations. Other participants may find themselves planning and potentially implementing humanitarian assistance and development programs, or executing complex military operations.

Participants will represent policy actors and practitioners from the United States government, including the Departments of State and Defense, United States Embassies, the United States Agency of International Development, and the Intelligence Community. Over the course of the simulation, participants will work together in order to develop policy solutions for the complex and challenging issues which face the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Register to participate on a team here.

Those interested in observing the simulation or serving as a mentor to a team, please contact Scott Chambers at

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Red Team Journal is now available in a handy monthly digest format. You’ll find the first issue here.

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The latest issue of the international studies journal Millennium 43, 2 (January 2015) contains an article by Nick Robinson entitled “Have You Won the War on Terror? Military Videogames and the State of American Exceptionalism.”

Videogames matter and they matter for international politics. With popular culture increasingly acknowledged as a valuable site for opening up new ways of interrogating theory, this article argues that important insights for the critical understanding of American exceptionalism can be developed through the study of military videogames. At one level, military videogames illustrate a number of prominent themes within American exceptionalism: they offer the perception that a threatening and hostile environment confronts the USA, thus situating America as an innocent victim, justified in using force in response; they allow exploration of the link between American exceptionalism and debates on the competence of political leadership, and they open up space to analyse the temporal dimension of international relations. Yet videogames also help expose the foundations (what Weber terms ‘the myths’) upon which American exceptionalism is based, here shown to be centred on the importance of the military industrial complex as a source of exceptionalism.

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pic361592At the data and analysis blog FiveThirtyEight, Oliver Roeder examines “Designing The Best Board Game on the Planet“—namely Twilight Struggle, which continues to hold #1 position in the rankings at BoardGameGeek:

We may now find ourselves in the middle of a golden age of serious board gaming. The number of titles, and their average ratings by players, increase each year. Impressively, amid this renaissance, Twilight Struggle maintains its No. 1 spot despite having been published in 2005.4

So, how do you design the world’s best board game? The first lesson is persistence.

Twilight Struggle traces its roots to the early 2000s and a board gaming club at George Washington University. That’s where Gupta and co-designer Jason Matthews met. Not GW students themselves, they were friends with some, and would go to the school to play and also to bemoan the increasing complexity of historical games — a genre especially dear to them. The rulebooks were overlong, the game mechanics baroque.

Simplification, to Gupta and Matthews, was the name of their design philosophy. Rather than overwhelm players with a fat rulebook at the start, the designers spread the information required throughout the gameplay, on cards. A typical Twilight Struggle card reads, “Truman Doctrine: Remove all USSR Influence from a single uncontrolled country in Europe.” The Twilight Struggle rulebook is a relatively slender 24 pages.

They originally intended to do a game about the Spanish Civil War but realized they’d been scooped by a guy in Spain. “We’re probably not going to do a better job than he is,” Gupta joked. They eventually settled on the Cold War. Most games on the topic had focused on when the Cold War got hot. But thermonuclear war is depressing. Gupta and Matthews instead designed a game about the geopolitics, rather than a hypothetical military conflict.

Matthews, of Alexandria, Virginia, is an American history expert and was the legislative director for Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Gupta, a history buff, was doing policy work at a think tank, then was in school for computer science, before dropping out after he landed his first job in the video-game industry. The two would discuss key aspects of the Cold War — the domino theory, the arms race, the space race — and these would make their way into the game.

But publishers balked. “The Cold War? Why would anyone want to play a game about the Cold War?” Gupta recalled being asked.

Salvation came in the form of the company GMT Games, and its Project 500— a kind of Kickstarter before Kickstarter was cool. Interested gamers would pledge money, and GMT would print the game if enough capital was raised. Even then, it took a grinding 18 months for Twilight Struggle to generate enough pledges to warrant a printing.

That first printing sold out in 20 minutes. It has gone on to amass 17,781 ratings on BoardGameGeek, as I write, with an average rating of 8.33.

Being FiveThirtyEight, the author crunches some BoardGameGeek numbers to try to identify the characteristics of a successful and popular game.

Gupta has a few theories about why his game has done so well. For one, it’s a two-player game — the Americans vs. the Soviets. Two-player games are attractive for a couple of reasons. First, by definition, half the players win. People like winning, and are likely to replay and rate highly a game they think they have a chance to win. Also, with just one opponent, there is little downtime. You don’t have to wait while the turn gets passed around the table to three, four or five other players. That’s boring.

Here are games’ average ratings by the number of players a game supports.


The data offers some evidence for Gupta’s hypothesis. Games that support three players rate highest, with an average of 6.58. But two-player games are a close second, with an average rating of 6.55. Next closest are five-player games, which average 6.39.

Another element working in Twilight Struggle’s favor is its length. BoardGameGeek lists its playing time at three hours, but Gupta said it’s more like two and a half. (When designing, he was aiming for two.) Games’ lengths need to strike a balance.

“You have to feel like something meaningful has been done in the game. You have to feel like the game had a beginning and had a middle and had an end, and that you were engaged,” Gupta said. You don’t, however, want to get burned out.


Again, Gupta’s suspicion seems borne out, empirically. The shortest games are the lowest rated, on average. But players don’t favor length without bounds. Three hours seems to be right around the point of diminishing marginal returns.

See the article for further analysis of why Twilight Struggle is considered such a good game.

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For more analysis of what makes a game successful, see the May 2014 paper of Christian Jensen, Emil Jacobsen, Martin Marcher and Rasmus Greve on “Data Mining Board Game Geek.”

Board game data fetched from the website is presented, described and summarized. Two questions; “What constitutes the perfect board game?” and “Can we predict Spiel des Jahres nominees?” are presented and attempted answered using classication and frequent pattern mining techniques. The rst is achieved with a decent result by J48 decision tree classication and rules for popular board games are extracted. For Spiel des Jahres several techniques are tried, but the class imbalance between nominees and the remaining severely complicates the results. With some dimensionality reduction, based on frequent patterns in the nominees, SVM generates a much better classication than an Artificial Neural-Network with backpropagation

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Marco Arnaudo—well known for his video reviews of wargames—has issued his list of the top ten wargames of 2014:

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Apparently the Green Bay Packers have become fanatical off-field players of Settlers of Catan:

The weekly schedule of an NFL player is jam-packed and controlled to the millisecond. There are appointments that cannot be missed. There’s practice, film study and time in the cold tub. In the case of the Green Bay Packers, there’s also board-game night.

You can read the full article at the Wall Street Journal.

Simulation & Gaming (August 2014)


The latest (double) issue of Simulation & Gaming 45, 4-5 (August 2014) is now available. It is a special symposium edition devoted to the topic of “engagement and simulation/gaming.”


Engaging (in) Gameplay and (in) Debriefing

  • David Crookall

Guest Editorial

Engagement in Simulation/Gaming: Symposium Overview

  • Alex Moseley and Nicola Whitton

Symposium Articles

Deconstructing Engagement: Rethinking Involvement in Learning

  • Nicola Whitton and Alex Moseley

Engagement as a Volitional Construct: A Framework for Evidence-Based Research on Educational Games

  • Michael Filsecker and Michael Kerres

Engagement Through Praxis in Educational Game Design: Common Threads

  • Dana Ruggiero and William R. Watson

Defining Engagement and Characterizing Engaged-Behaviors in Digital Gaming

  • Patrice Bouvier, Elise Lavoué, and Karim Sehaba

Stimulating Psychological Attachments in Narrative Games: Engaging Players With Game Characters

  • Bride Mallon and Ronan Lynch

Measuring Game Engagement: Multiple Methods and Construct Complexity

  • Rosa Mikeal Martey, Kate Kenski, James Folkestad, Laurie Feldman, Elana Gordis, Adrienne Shaw, Jennifer Stromer-Galley, Ben Clegg, Hui Zhang, Nissim Kaufman, Ari N. Rabkin, Samira Shaikh, and Tomek Strzalkowski

Engagement and Games for Learning: Expanding Definitions and Methodologies

  • Rachel S. Phillips, Theresa Horstman, Nancy Vye, and John Bransford

Measuring Video Game Engagement Through the Cognitive and Affective Dimensions

  • David Sharek and Eric Wiebe

Measuring Video Game Engagement Through Gameplay Reviews

  • David Kirschner and J. Patrick Williams

The Gaming Involvement and Informal Learning Framework

  • Ioanna Iacovides, Patrick McAndrew, Eileen Scanlon, and James Aczel


Influence of Context on Player Behavior: Experimental Assessment

  • Stefano Farolfi, Mathieu Désolé, and Patrick Rio

Reflective Redo From the Point of Error: Implications for After Action Review

  • Jon Scoresby and Brett E. Shelton



MMOWGLI, the massive multiplayer online simulation experience developed by the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), begins its next interactive program on January 20. This iteration is based on the impact of black swan events. Below, the write-up from the team. If you are interested in signing up to participate, go here. For PAXsims coverage of the previous 2011 and 2012 MMOWGLI Piracy games, check out Rex’s previous posts

The future is here – today’s trends and uncertainties are laying a foundation for tomorrow’s events. Innovation is at the forefront of the Department of Defense’s new technology strategy, as outlined in Better Buying Power 3.0. The blackswan Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI) is a tool designed to foster innovation, and challenges individuals to adopt a new way of thinking about the future global landscape. blackswan MMOWGLI wants to explore this “futurescape” and determine how best to ensure our success.

Black Swan refers to events that are unexpected and have the potential for major impact, but with the benefit of hindsight, post-analysis can often lead to an “it was bound to happen” moment. The blackswan MMOWGLI is a massive multiplayer online wargame aimed at identifying potential black swans and technology ideas and/or concepts to mitigate them, should they become a reality. Over the next 30 years, we will experience new challenges on frontiers that exceed our current understanding and imagination of the world in which we live. The exploration and adaptation of new “mental models” will be essential to envisioning this space and devising strategies that help us prepare for the future.

We would like YOUR IDEAS: from your professional knowledge to your wildest imaginings. All of these could help us anticipate the next black swan event, challenge our core assumptions and beliefs, and examine transformative technologies that will shape our future.

What if you could…
…collaborate across borders?
…explore the potential of game-changing innovations?
…play the idea that sparks a hundred more?
Participation in blackswan MMOWGLI will be limited.
Join us now at to sign up to play. Also follow us on Twitter @MMOWGLI to stay updated.
Every idea counts. We hope you’ll join us. How will you play the game, change the game?
— The blackswan MMOWGLI team

Lost in Translation?

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
– George Orwell, 1984

Ellie Kicked off the New Year with some great thoughts about the need to explore qualitative assessment of games, and I’m going to jump on the bandwagon with another methodology post. In fact, I’m going to inaugurate what I hope will become a regular series for the blog:

On Methods

The holiday season is behind us now, but if you celebrated Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, Festivus, or THE DAY OF THE TOILING MASSES OF POLI 340, chances are there were texts, songs, or other traditional accompaniments in multiple languages. I’ll use that as a tenuous hook to transition into the substance of today’s post: the issue of languages – and native speakers.

I do a lot of bilateral and trilateral Track-II work, and so my projects often involve participants who are speakers of several languages. Naturally, we always discuss whether to allow participants to conduct their intra-team deliberations in their native tongues, or request that they do so in English so all members of control can follow the whole progress of the simulation without interpretation. Any game designer or director who has worked in a multi-lingual setting has encountered this dilemma. I’ve found that if all your participants have working proficiency in a shared language, it is treated as a logistical and resource management issue: do you have the funding/space/time to allow for translation? Do you have in-house language capability in the game staff or control team? Will language issues slow down the rounds too much? Etc. If the answers to one or more of these questions is ‘no,’ then we usually ask everyone to work in the common language.

But it’s possible this approach does not go far enough to understanding the impact of language on the results of a game. Albert Costa, and Boaz Keysar, psychologists at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and University of Chicago, respectively, have both studied the differences in how people make moral decisions in native versus non-native languages. Recently, the two joined forces, along with a number of co-authors, on a study published this past April in Plosone. Subjects were asked to make decisions in classic morality problems, such as the trolley dilemma (Thomson J (1985) The trolley problem. Yale Law J 94: 1395–1415), with treatment groups working in their native language and in another langauge in which they were profficient.

The study found that, to a significant extent, subjects’ decisions differed when the problem was presented in their native language versus the other.

“We have shown that people’s moral judgments and decisions depend on the native-ness of the language in which a dilemma is presented, becoming more utilitarian in a foreign language. These results are important for models of moral decision making because they show that identical dilemmas may elicit different moral judgements depending on a seemingly irrelevant aspect such as the native-ness of the language. Most likely, a foreign language reduces emotional reactivity, promoting cost-benefit considerations, leading to an increase in utilitarian judgments.”

The experiment was well constructed – if you want all the details, read the paper, but I will say here that they controlled for things like cultural differences, degree of fluency, etc. And the findings are compelling. If, indeed, decision making becomes more utilitarian and abstract with a psychological distance created by language, it could have real meaning for those of us trying to analyze and interperet behavior. Whether traditional wargame, crisis response exercise, or policy planning simulation, these projects often involve complex and high-stakes decision making. The research focused on moral judgements, but the findings suggest that the removal of emotion and a greater degree of abstract rationalization evident in those speaking a non-native langauge could impact all manner of decision making.

The silver lining? As one would expect logically, the greater the subject’s fluency in the second langauge, the smaller the difference in decision making. So there’s a practical take-away for the game director: if you are working in a lingua franca, get your participants’ TOEFL scores before you start to interperet the decisions they made during the course of play…

Food for thought.

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