Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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.

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