Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: February 2015

ISIS Crisis at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst

The following summary of the game has been provided by Tom Mouat (Defence Academy of the UK). For other games, see here and here. (Note: the game scenario is intended to familiarize players with the methodology, not as any sort of official examination of the conflict with ISIS.)

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We had another go at running the ISIS Crisis Game on 25 February, courtesy of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) Wargames Club, and taking place in the wonderfully atmospheric surrounding of one of the historic rooms. We had 11 participants, most of whom were academics and a few military.


The game followed a briefing on “Wargaming Effects”, including the research showing that role-play can be a more accurate predictor of outcomes (on average) than individual experts or Game Theory. They were provided with updated briefings provided by Professor Rex Brynen (which also included “starting conditions” which were already “established facts” in the game, such as the endemic inefficiency of the Iraqi Army) and were ready to go after a few minutes to read into their roles.

The thing I found particularly interesting in this game is that the players immediately starting doing off-table deals with each other. It could be that the academics were more comfortable with the idea of role-play or it might have been that I had unconsciously emphasised that aspect of play during the briefing – but normally it takes a while before players think out of the box like that.

  • Turn 1: The USA pressure the Iraqis to attack Fallujah (to dismay of the Prime Minister!), Iran trains Shia militia in the south, ISIL captures a few soldiers and terrorises the Iraqi forces opposite Fallujah with propaganda videos, The Prime Minister halts the offensive and tells troops to dig in, the Sunni Opposition joins in with ISIL in Fallujah, and the Kurds move up to outskirts of Mosul.
  • Turn 2: USA deploys SF in support of the Kurds around Mosul, Iran trains more Shia militia, ISIL increase recruiting (which becomes a standing argument), the Prime Minister withdraws forces from Fallujah, the Sunni Opposition recruit in Fallujah (in the face of the obvious threat), and the Kurds reinforce the units around Mosul with Peshmerga.
  • Turn 3: USA deploys B52s to Kuwait ready to support attacks on Mosul with precision weapons, Iran sends military advisers to Baghdad to support Iraqi units (with the support of the Iraqi Prime Minister), ISIL attempts to capture Kurd troops for a propaganda video and fail spectacularly in the attempt (and are captured themselves), the Prime Minister cuts a local deal with Sunni Opposition and withdraws troops from Ramadi, the Sunni Opposition recruit local “self-protection forces” in Ramadi, and the Kurds finally launch their offensive on Mosul (supported by large numbers of US Special Forces and B52s with precision weapons).
  • Turn 4: In this game I allowed ISIL to change the turn order during the game to represent their ability to shake things up a bit. They chose to exercise this on this turn and they launch a spectacular in France (using suicide bombers on a Paris landmark) and increased foreign recruiting and support, the USA sends aid in cash and humanitarian aid to Sunni groups, Iran pumps money into the Iraqi government using cheap loans, the Prime Minister authorises aid distribution centres and “camps” in Sunni areas in an effort to placate the Sunnis, the Sunni Opposition come to agreement with UK SF patrols to ensure they are not targeted, and the Kurds are winning in Mosul and take the opportunity to reinforce Kirkuk.
  • Turn 5: The USA puts pressure on the UK to intervene in Jordan in support of the Jordanian Government (with a mix of bribery to do with the Joint Strike Fighter and threats) (so the UK deploys a liaison team to Amman), Iranian advisers and Iraqi troops move into Falluja, this time with the support of the Prime Minister, ISIS capture Dair Az-Zaur in Syria, the Sunni Opposition join ISIL to defend Falluja, and the Kurds drive ISIL out of Mosul but don’t follow up and remain in Kurdish areas.
  • At the game end, Falluja looks messy and the Iraqi offensive isn’t going anywhere. The Kurds are happy but ISIL finish the game with more forces than when they started – and they have come to the conclusion that if they leave the Kurds alone the Kurds will leave them alone. Iran has managed to comprehensively penetrate the Iraqi Government and Armed Forces, the Iraqi Prime Minister has lots of money and feels more comfortable about the situation since the game start, the Sunni Opposition are conflicted and the USA doesn’t really know what is going on…

In the end I was very pleased. We had generated a credible narrative about the future situation unfolding and I was reasonably happy that the players had stuck to their briefing objectives. I had excellent help from a couple of my MSc students (which is why I can give a report). I felt the game ran smoothly, helped a lot by previous experience and the insights provided by some of the contributions by Professor Rex Brynen and the essays on Matrix Games kindly provided by previous players, such as Ben Taylor’s excellent “Towards Serious Matrix Games” and Paul Vebber’s presentation on “Narrative Games and Story Arcs“.


I feel that there is a now a need for some sort of “Matrix Game” companion book, making those essays accessible, as well as a few other insights from other events (such as how to run a 50-player Cyber Defence Matrix Game!).

Tom Mouat 

Not just bits and pieces: Culture, praxis, and aesthetic in game design


My boxes of gaming bits and pieces.

Like more than a few PAXsims readers, I have a large supply of markers, pawns, chips, meeples, and various other miscellaneous things that might be useful when designing a game. Recently I’ve been giving some thought to the ways in which the tactile and visual aspects of a game interact with player expectations and game mechanics to produce a ludic experience. Some of this, of course, is quite obvious: a map or board needs to be laid out in a clear and functional way. Game pieces need to be practical. Attractive components can enhance player immersion and engagement.

Some of it is more complicated, however—especially when it relates not to clarity or ergonomics but rather to player preconceptions. That issue has come up in several ways at McGill in recent months, as we have worked on games ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to refugees, the Syrian civil war, and the Arab Spring.

origOne aspect of this is the treatment of probability and chance. As Nicholas Edwards (King’s College London) noted in his excellent MA thesis on the topic, not all audiences and players are equally comfortable with the various different ways of incorporating this into a game. Hobby gamers are perfectly willing to accept dice as a mechanism for determining probabilistic outcomes. Military officers, however, are often notoriously hostile to their appearance in serious games since they tend to associate dice with much more juvenile pastimes. Ironically, those same officers are perfectly willing to accept random number generation tied to such things as a Pk (probability of kill) when buried unseen in the software of a digital simulator. In AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game we decided to use random event cards and other card-draw mechanisms to introduce uncertainty into game play because we were also concerned that some audiences (for example, professionals in the military, humanitarian assistance, or development communities) would see dice as too “random” or “childish.” Cards, on the other hand, have a deep cultural resonance in the West, and some other cultures as well, as bearers of fate and fortune. Players thus treat a shuffled deck of cards as a hidden-future-yet-to-be-revealed, while a series of functionally-similar dice rolls might be seen as little more than snakes-and-ladders.

9619ab0234d7068480971f964bfe252798c3abfdAnother way this came up in recent months was in the design of Alex Langer’s Syrian civil war game Road to Damascus. The student playtesters—all of whom enjoy hobby games, but none of whom are traditional hex-and-counter wargamers—were adamant that they did not want cardboard chits in the game. These, they argued, were fiddly and difficult to manipulate, even if they are cheap and easy to produce, and can easily be marked with unit types and attributes. Instead, wooden disks and avatars were used to depict units and warlords respectively. This had the advantage that it was quick and easy to see the contents of a stack. Moreover—and equally important—wooden game pieces are firmly established in both conflict simulation and eurogaming traditions as a frequent component of many quality games. They are, after all, so woody.

The stacks, however, did have a tendency to tip over if incautiously manipulated. There were two obvious solutions to this problem.

95ccfcee07d20f0bca065e4fb57315a3306a328bOne was to use poker chips instead of wooden disks. The colour of these can still be “read” from the side, yet their grooves allow them to stack much better.

A second possibility was to use either stackable plastic peg-pawns or a joystick pawn-and-rings system. From a technical point of view these too would have very nicely fitted with the game mechanics.

b3d9be56f8a3c8e88741ec6d1808fbd38879cab1Everyone, however, rejected these out of hand—myself included. Poker chips looked, well, too “poker-y.” They would have taken away from the conflict simulation gravitas of the game, and would have reminded everyone of gambling. The plastic peg-pawn or pawn-and-ring systems looked too childish. Once again, they were not anything anyone associated with serious conflict simulation.

In other words, what worked in the game was not solely a function of practicality, but culturally-embedded aesthetics and the associations that objects create in the minds of players. (Conversely, everyone agreed that little plastic planes were great as airstrike indicators.)

90bf9c1c3f0b7657516927fba4ecbe16690f1eafAnother issue that came up in the design of Road to Damascus was how to track resources. The obvious way—frequently used in many commercial wargame designs—was to use a resource track, with a marker to indicate current values.

One day, however, we forgot the display sheet where resources were tracked, and I suggested that we use instead some of the fictional currency that I had in my office for another game. I thought that players holding bundles of fake cash would work nicely—after all, this is a conflict where various countries and intelligence services really do transfer briefcases full of cash to opposition commanders and weapons smugglers, so it recreated something characteristic of the real world. Almost everyone else felt that this was too akin to “Monopoly money,” and would be too game-y. In this case, the two options—track and currency—function equally well in a practical sense. Indeed, I think currency is a little easier to play with, especially in a game where players are allowed to transfer it to others. However, associated memories of currency as a component of “less serious” games won out.

80373e1fe5b81080b58827f9e6d27a60c2f55fedConversely, in our recent simulation of the refugee dimension of that very same conflict, there was no question that currency notes were the way to go. Using them allowed us to recreate experience of refugees carefully managing their scarce financial resources, as well as the necessary but sometimes degrading experience of lining up for cash handouts from aid agencies. A record card or something similar might have allowed us to more carefully track who spent what where for the debrief, but it just wouldn’t have contributed to the ambiance of the game in the same way.


The design of serious games is both art and science. As Peter Perla and Ed McGrady argue, wargaming in particular works in part by virtue of “its ability to enable individual participants to transform themselves by making them more open to internalizing their experiences in a game.” A element of that, they suggest, are the “kinesthetic cues” that players derive from moving through and playing with the game and its tangible elements. My observation here is that such cues are shaped to a significant degree by the prior experiences and preconceptions that players bring to the table. For some, dice are tools for adjudicating probabilistic outcomes, for others they are children’s toys that substitute blind luck for serious skill. Poker chip may be carefully engineered to stay stacked when manipulated, but players may imbue them with other meanings. When a player’s perception of game components differs from their perception of the game’s purpose and subject matter, it may jar them away from the intended immersive experience.

In short, game components aren’t simply mechanistic components of play, the value of which is solely determined by how well they enable game mechanics to be played. Rather, they can also deeply shape the ludic experience itself.

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

Jan Goldman has passed on an update regarding the forthcoming International Conference on Exercises, Gaming, and Simulations for Intelligence and National Security, to be held at Georgetown University on 24-25 March 2015. This includes a list of some of the topics that will be addressed:

  • Strengthening Intelligence in Times of Crisis, Elena Sanchez Blanco
  • Synthesizing Theory into Game Design, Roger Mason
  • Games as Experiential Learning Platforms, Peter Perla,
  • Modeling Systems and Effects, Joseph Miranda
  • Developing The Spy Immersive Experience, Amanda Ohlke and Jacqueline Eyl
  • Developing the Cuban Missile Crisis Simulation, Jacqueline Eyl
  • Global Positioning System (GPS) -based Spy Games in the City, Amanda
  • Ohlke
  • Technology for Intelligence Simulation and Gaming
  • Computational Simulation in Intelligence Analysis, Edward Waltz.
  • Composite Signatures Analyst Learning Tool: Supporting the Analyst with
  • Scenario-Based Methodology Training, Benjamin Bell
  • Panel: Gaming and Modeling Before a Crisis to Prevent Harried Thought
  • During a Crisis, Kenneth Kligge (moderator)
  • Use of Gaming and Exercise as Part of an Engagement Strategy, Hyong Lee
  • Understanding Post-Transition Political Trajectories through Modeling
  • Pre-Transition Regime and Opposition Interaction, Katrina Dusek
  • Gaming the Nexus between Intelligence and Policy, Timothy Wilkie
  • Challenges of Demonstrating Cyber Attacks for Health Care Training, Ramon Balut and Jean Stanford
  • Timeless Lessons Learned from Historic Innovations in Exercises, Gaming, and Simulations – and their Applicability to Contemporary Challenges, Paul Byron Pattak
  • Cyber-Attack and Ethics Simulations, Pablo G. Molina
  • Intelligence Analysis Capstone Projects, Stephan Marrin
  • Panel: Only for the kids’ eyes: bringing institutions out from the shadows or the need for a simulation/gaming program in Spain
  • Looking at Primary and Secondary Education Through the Lenses of Intelligence Culture Fernando Velasco
  • Experiencing the Tradecraft: Designing the Iintelligence Learning
  • Experience with Simulations and Games, Rubén Arcos
  • Learning Devices and Interactive Multimedia Communications, Manuel Gértrudix and Sergio Álvarez
  • Teaching Structured Analytic Techniques for Cyber Security through Role Playing Exercises, Jim Jones, Jr.
  • Induction Game and Intelligence Education, William F. Lawhead
  • Virtual Training Systems and Survival Humanistic Factors, Randall Murphy and Darrell Rosse Comparing the Utility of On-line Learning Technologies, Randy Pherson
  • Induction Game and Intelligence Education, William F. Lawhead
  • Educating Competitive Intelligence clients and consumers, Nan Bulger
  • Simulations for intelligence and security education and training: serious gaming and how to create visionary practitioners and policy makers, Cristina Ivan
  • Potential in Nonrepresentational Concrete Tabletop Exercises for Analysts, Noel Hendrickson
  • PANEL: Linking Analysis with Reporting Through Games
  • “The Body in the Bag”: A scenario-based approach for developing the links between analysis, assessment and reporting, Julian Richards
  • Predicting Migratory Patterns Through Gamification and Simulation, Melonie K. Richey
  • Simulating Stress and Crisis within an Intelligence Driven Scenario, Omid Townsend

The conference looks outstanding, and while I can’t make it—I’ll be running my own simulation at McGill that week—others from the PAXsims crew will be there to report on the discussions.

Simulating the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon


Last month I had the pleasure of running a classroom simulation on the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon at the University of Exeter with Prof. Mick Dumper for his POL 2046 course on The Refugee Crisis in the Modern World. Gamers extraordinaire Tom Mouat and Jim Wallman came down for the day to assist, along with graduate student Abigail Grace. Today I ran the same simulation at McGill University for some of the students in Prof. Megan Bradley‘s POLI 359 course on the international refugee regime, together with a few from my own POLI 450 course on peacebuilding. This time ICAMES graduate research fellow (and teaching assistant) Ecem Oskay was there to help.


The Exeter Control team, complete with empty sack of goat food.

Both simulations involved around two dozen students. Both simulations went very well, I thought.

A variety of roles were represented in the simulation:

  • The Lebanese Prime Minister, plus various cabinet ministers (from the Future Movement, Phalange, Hizbullah, Free Patriotic Movement, Progressive Socialist Party) and the Lebanese Armed Forces. This gave some differentiation in terms of portfolios and responsibilities, and also recreated some of the political and sectarian tensions between the “March 8” and “March 14” coalitions within the Lebanese government.
  • Various UN agencies (UNHCR, UNRWA, UNICEF, and World Food Programme)
  • A (fictional) local charitable association.
  • Human Rights Watch.
  • The European Union ambassador (representing the donor community more broadly).
  • The refugees themselves. Each of these had a different back story in terms of geographic origin, occupation/social class, family needs and situation, sectarian affiliation, and political views. One was a female-headed household.  Two of the refugees were secretly opposition organizers, for the Free Syrian Army and ISIS. Some were Palestinian refugees from Syria, rather than Syrian citizens.

The Lebanese cabinet makes a joint announcement, hoping to dampen down sectarian tensions. (Exeter)

In designing the simulation I wanted to avoid a simple seminar-type negotiation exercise in which the stakeholders all sit down around a table and try to achieve an agreement on something. For a start, such an approach wouldn’t generate the sense of overbearing crisis that Lebanon feels, a small country hosting some 1.2 million refugees from the bloody and dangerous civil war in neighbouring Syria. In addition, it would also misrepresent the dynamics whereby refugee policy emerges. Refugees do not, as a rule, play any sort of direct role in policy formulation. Instead, their actions and coping strategies provide the context.

Consequently, this simulation was really two linked simulations in one.


The Lebanese Armed Forces questions refugees, looking for evidence of militants and paramilitary activities. (McGill)

At one level, refugees were tasked with simply trying to survive. Each hour they would have to make choices about how to try to earn money (beg? work illegally in Lebanon? try to cross back into Syria?), where to live (a squatter camp? a squalid flat? a middle class apartment?), and what additional goods did they want to buy (basic durables? medicine? forged papers?) Choices had consequences–they might be arrested, deported, or shot crossing the border, or their children might get ill from poor accommodations.

The refugees sit in their make-shift shelters while aid workers undertake a needs assessment. (Exeter)

The refugees sit in their make-shift shelters while aid workers undertake a needs assessment. (Exeter)

The refugees were also given tarps, ropes, cardboard, old carpets, and other materials and were required to construct their own makeshift shelters in the classroom—which at one point were then torn down by angry Lebanese farmers seeking to reclaim their fields. They were required to undertake manual labour, representing the sort of unskilled jobs refugees typically take: in Exeter this consisted of endlessly moving furniture from one end of the classroom to the other and back again, while at McGill they had to carry heavy bags up and down four flights of steps. In their spare time they might beg, or protest, or even smuggle weapons.


Refugees build shelters near the United Nations compound as a member of the Control team looks on. (McGill)

Each hour a random event card would be drawn. Some of these were good: relatives in Europe might send money, or a refugee might reconnect with old friends. Many others were negative: agonizing moral choices, sexual assault, sickness. Refugee resiliency was tracked with tokens. If refugees ran out of these their coping skills were sharply diminished, or they were instructed to just sit and sob in their shelters until someone offered them some help. Throughout, all of the refugees kept handwritten diaries of their experiences.


The Lebanese Army arrests a refugee. (Exeter)

Everyone in the simulation was provided with lunch—except the refugees, who were expected to “buy” it with their meagre simulation income. Depending on their luck and decisions, some didn’t eat for hours, and others not at all. Refugees were also prohibited from sitting in chairs or accessing their telephones or laptops unless they “paid” to use these too. Their rooms were often plunged into darkness, unless they illegally connected to the Lebanese power grid. In Exeter we opened the windows on what was a cold and damp day to increase the refugee discomfort level (it was -18C in Montreal, which didn’t really make that a viable option).

This unfortunate refugee didn't make it—shot by Syrian border guards. (McGill)

This unfortunate refugee didn’t make it—shot by Syrian border guards. (McGill)

The aid actors had some resources (cash, food, other items), but not enough. The UN in particular had to register the refugees and undertake a needs assessment to make sure that the most vulnerable received priority.


Angry refugees protest their treatment. (McGill)

At another level, this was a more traditional policy simulation. The UN team was tasked with drawing up a comprehensive refugee strategy to which the Lebanese government might agree. The Lebanese government was concerned not only with this, but also with a number of other challenges that cropped up (a bomb attack, jihadist suspects hiding in a Palestinian refugee camp, complaints that the Syrians were pushing Lebanese workers out of jobs, crime, illegal electrical connections, a measles outbreak among the refugees—among others). The EU sought to promote a more effective response to the refugee crisis, and had some funds to support this. Human Rights Watch tried to raise human rights issues with Lebanese policymakers and the international community. The refugees were largely absent in any direct sense from these discussions and negotiations, although their choices or even protests fundamentally shaped the policy environment.

All of the policy actors were expected to take notes and minutes, and prepare formal presentations or reports that were submitted during the simulation.


Officials listen to a presentation by Human Rights Watch. (Exeter)

In both the Exeter and McGill simulation runs, the Lebanese grew increasingly concerned at the economic, political, and security challenges presented by the refugees. The UN proposed an integrated refugee strategy after several hours of consultation, but in both cases the Lebanese government rejected the proposal and called for further discussions.


The Lebanese cabinet poses for a photograph, shortly after rejecting UN proposals and calling for further discussions. (McGill)

In both simulations, despite significant local and international aid, the refugees felt they largely had to fend for themselves, and grew resentful that more wasn’t done to help them. In the debrief, many of the well-meaning internationals were rather surprised to hear this.

In the debrief session we were careful to identify the artificial aspects of the simulation—for example, more simulated than real refugees were involved in paramilitary skullduggery, and real refugees would be less likely to organize protests for fear of arrest or deportation. But there were also many, many realistic outcomes that we could point to and discuss. The refugees in particular got a sense of marginalization and vulnerability, but also how refugee communities could organize to help each other in sometimes small but important ways.

This was not a simple simulation—it was 6-7 hours of intense activity, involving a 3-4 person control team. However, those who participated seem to find it well worth the time spent.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 20 February 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulations and serious (or not-so-serious) games that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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UPSEA recent issue of the Journal of Political Science Education 10, 4 (December 2014) has an article by Mary McCarthy on  “The Role of Games and Simulations to Teach Abstract Concepts of Anarchy, Cooperation, and Conflict in World Politics“:

Games and simulations are increasingly used in courses on international politics. This study explores the hypothesis that games are better than simulations (as well as only reading and lectures) in introducing students to abstract concepts integral to an understanding of world politics. The study compares a two-level Prisoner’s Dilemma game created by Joseph K. Young with a role-play simulation of India-Pakistan negotiations over nuclear disarmament in the 1990s. The study subjects are 149 undergraduate students. The findings suggest that, although an active-learning activity (game or simulation) promotes greater student learning than reading and lecture alone, whether the activity is a game or a simulation generally does not make a statistically significant difference with regard to knowledge gained. This is with the exception of the importance of regime type, which was understood better by those who played the game, and the effect of anarchy, which was better understood by those who were part of the simulation. Student perceptions of learning also tended to be higher among those who played the game.

I’m not at all convinced, however, that it is possible with this sort of research design to evaluate the question of abstract games versus immersive simulations—the findings simply show the relative impact of this game, and this simulation, embedded in this particular curriculum with this particular player group. there are good games and bad ones, as well as effective and ineffective course integration.

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In PS: Political Science & Politics 48, 1 (January 2015), Richard Arnold examines “Where’s the Diplomacy in Diplomacy? Using a Classic Board Game in ‘Introduction to International Relations’“:

One of the challenges of teaching American undergraduates in an “Introduction to International Relations” course is finding a way to make topics and themes seem relevant to students. This article recounts the author’s experiences using the board game “Diplomacy” in his course. The game places students in the role of decision makers in the international arena and simulates the international politics of pre-World War I Europe. In addition to being a powerful simulation of the difficulties of international relations, the game teaches students about one of the most debated wars in the history of the discipline.

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TUHH2015On 26 March 2015 a one-day conference on “Simulation in der Ausbildung erfolgreich anwenden”[Successfully applying simulation in education] will be held in Hamburg, coorganized by the Technische Universität Hamburg-Harburg and the General Staff College of the German armed forces. With apologies for the Google translation:

Managers must often make decisions in a very short time. In addition, a networked environment ensures that not all the consequences of a decision are immediately visible. Experience proves to be a decisive advantage in such situations, sometimes is even necessary for a successful action. An increasingly important opportunity to build this wealth of experience to provide simulations. These teach, in a virtual environment, the contexts and consequences of decisions – risk for decision-makers and their environment, buth with no impact on real processes. This method is increasingly recognized as a key technology in education.

While training with simulations have become indispensable in aviation or medicine, there is still a lot of potential in the economy. This event offers the opportunity to experience simulation as a training method in various fields of application and experience as well as to share expertise in successful application.

You’ll find additional details here.

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763px-Lucas_van_Leyden_-_The_Game_of_Chess_-_WGA12919Following on from Connections, Connections UK, and Connections Australia, a Connections Netherlands is in the work—possibly to be held in October 2015. PAXsims will bring you additional details when they are available.

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The second issue of YAAH! magazine (from Flying Pig Games) will feature tow Brian Train abstract game designs, Army of Shadows and Uprising. Read more about it at Brian’s blog.

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Brian has also posted his impressions of the Connections 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference, held at Quantico in July. You’ll also find that at his blog.

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Matt Kirschenbaum (University of Maryland) is interested in learning a lot more about sandtables: their origins and history, design and construction, and current usage in both recreational and professional gaming. If you have anecdotes of insights to share with him, email him.

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Settlers of Catan as a Hollywood movie? Apparently that’s exactly what could be happening. According to Time magazine:

Producer Gail Katz has acquired the movie and television rights

The popular board game The Settlers of Catan could actually hit the big screen.

Gail Katz, a producer known for Air Force One and The Perfect Storm, has acquired the movie and television rights to adapt the strategy game, according to Deadline. In the game, players are tasked with developing strong communities and outwitting competitors for natural resources on the make-believe island of Catan.

Katz said in a statement that she was introduced to the game by her college-aged kids and called Catan “a vivid, visual, exciting and timeless world with classic themes that resonate today.” More than 22 million versions of Settlers have been sold, and downloads have topped 1.6 billion.

* * *


In Quebec, board games meet the politics of language:

The Game of Life is usually fairly simple — unless, it seems, you’re the owner of a store specializing in board games that does business in the province in Quebec.

The owner of Chez Geeks on St. Denis St. received a letter from Quebec’s language authorities about the way he does business.

Giancarlo Caltabiano says the OQLF is faulting his store on several points, including for speaking to his customers in English.

Caltabiano also says the OQLF has a problem with what he’s selling, and how he’s selling it. He was told that any board game he sells must have a French equivalent — otherwise it can’t be sold. And, it seems, he also isn’t able to keep versions of an English board game in stock if the French versions are all sold out.

“Some of my board games come from the United States, so they don’t have a French equivalent. I have flyers up explaining the game. Apparently, that’s not allowed.”

You’ll find more on the story here and here.

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Some more red teaming wisdom from the folks at Red Team Journal:


Ellie Bartels on Research Design for Gaming


I’ll be giving a talk later today on how I use social science case methodology to think about game design. For those who are not able to attend, I wanted to post both my slides and a brief summary of my talk. This is part of an ongoing research effort, so feedback and thoughts are very much appreciated!

MORS Gaming COP Game Design from Social Science

There has been quite a lot of recent interest in expanding the use of gaming while ensuring that games are rigorous so they have a positive impact.  Traditional instruction on game design, such as NWC War Gaming Handbook or Peter Perla’s Art of Wargaming, stresses the need to make design choices in a thoughtful way in order to achieve game objectives, but does not provide much specific help translating objectives into choices about game roles, rules, and environments. More tools to help gamers think through design choices and communicate the potential impact of these choices on findings can help bridge this gap.

Recent work by other wargamers has discussed tools to apply more rigorous techniques to analyzing game results (see work by Wong and Cobb, Vebber, and Ducharme). However, as I discussed in an earlier post, some recent work conflates how structured the problem examined by the game is with how structured an approach is used to guide game design and analysis. Gaming is well-suited to examining unstructured problems, but to be done rigorously, it needs to be done in a structured way.

The goal then should be to find techniques for structured study of unstructured problems. Vebber and Wong and Cobb both use types of narrative analysis as one such approach, but there is also a role for a more generalized approach that might be useful for more types of games.

To that end, I propose a revision to the traditional design process based on case study methods from the social sciences.  While gaming and social science have been in dialog in national security analysis circles for the past several years, there is still not a well-developed collection of work connecting the two fields. However, because social scientists work on similar types of problems, it is worth considering what we gamers might be able to learn about structuring research and analysis.

Case study methodology is a particularly promising area of social science research design to tap into for gamers. Like gaming, case studies are used to study fairly unspecified problems, so are useful for theory creation and variable identification, as well as theory testing. Case study methods are also designed to focus on the mechanism that connects causes and effects, and are able to document complex causal relationships. As a result, case study methods are easier to apply to the type of unstructured problems we game than more quantitative techniques are.

I argue that we can often think of games as analogous to single case studies that look at variation over time or in comparison to a counterfactual in order to identify the mechanisms that link potential causes to outcomes of interest. While the findings of these approaches are not considered as strong as paired case studies (which are more commonly used in social science research as a result), they have a robust history of producing insights that advance our understanding of complex political, military, and social problems.


Applying the logic of case study research design then allows us to apply best practices from case study design to the development of games’ purpose and objectives; concepts; selection of scenario setting; definition of scenario, rules, and roles; and data collection.  I review some initial thoughts in this presentation, including the need to:

  • Identify common game objectives, such as pattern analysis and variable identification, which can provide ways to categorize games. This can allow us to develop best practices for tackling similar design problems even when games address different problems for different clients.
  • Require designers to explicitly state their understanding of the problem being gamed and how that hypothesis shapes what issues are highlighted or ignored in game design.
  • Encourage designers to clearly define input and outcome variables of interest, particularly the role of player decisions. Designers should also think through what confounding variables may appear in a game design, and how they might shape what can be concluded from the game.
  • More carefully select the scenario setting for games based on what type of analysis is being performed.
  • Consider how inevitable logistical limitations shape the testing environment of games, and how these limits should scope the applicability of game findings.
  • Better tailor data collection to strengthen analysis.

Each of these areas offers potential avenues for further development of more detailed best practices and techniques.

simulation and gaming miscellany, 10 February 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulation, and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers…

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GMT Games has added Labyrinth II—an expansion set by Trevor Bender for Volko Ruhnke’s very successful game of global counterterrorism—to its P500 preorder list:

On December 17, 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi committed an act of self-immolation to protest harsh treatment by local authorities.  His sacrifice brought down the Tunisian government a month later and sparked a popular movement to be known as the Arab Spring that spread across the Muslim world, toppling 6 governments and igniting 3 Civil Wars.  The Western world struggled with how to influence these disparate struggles for good while Jihadists and other reactionary elements deftly maneuvered to fill the power vacuums created.

LABYRINTH II: The Awakening, 2010 – ? expands on LABYRINTH: The War on Terror, 2001 – ?, a 1-2 player card-driven boardgame simulating at the strategic level the ongoing bid by Islamic extremists to impose their brand of religious rule on the Muslim world.  The expansion continues where LABYRINTH left off adding new rules and cards to cover the last five years of history.  Included are new mechanics to simulate the grass roots political movements of the Arab Spring and the resulting Civil Wars.  LABYRINTH II provides 90 all new event cards, additional markers, cubes and cylinders, and 7 new scenarios, including 2 that are playable to conclusion in 7 turns or less.

I’ve already preordered my copy. You’ll find a PAXsims review of the original game here.

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Syllabus is a peer-reviewed publication of course syllabi and other teaching materials. The latest issue is devoted to “Teaching With and About Games,” and while heavily geared towards video games, nonetheless includes a number of very useful articles and syllabi.

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The latest (February 2015) issue of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association  newsletter SIMAGES has been published.

  • Note from the Chair by Melissa Peterson
  • Conference Report by Anastasia Salter
  • NASAGA Awards for 2014 by Linda Slack
  • Getting Wild with Goose Chase by Brent Darnell
  • The Gamer Society:  An Alternate Reality Game by Anastasia Salter
  • The Long Game: An Approach to Game Design by Veronica Brown
  • Interview with Mohamed Bahgat, First Impressions of NASAGA  by Linda Keller
  • Taking Storytelling to the Next Level by Thiagi
  • A Special note about volunteering with NASAGA

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At a recent model UN event at Harvard university, real Chinese politics seems to have spilled over into the simulated version:

During the first HMUN2015 meeting, which took place at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston on the evening of Jan. 29 , the head of the Chinese delegation discovered that the conference handbook contained the word Taiwan in its list of “international participants by country” (some of the participants were from the Taipei American School). Immediately, the Chinese side requested that the “error” be corrected. Taiwan, they said, is not a country and it isn’t a UN member. As such, the handbook should be modified to read “country or region.” The Secretariat refused, however, and the dispute continued the next day, with the Chinese side accusing the organizers of having a “poor understanding” of international relations. The situation continued to deteriorate until the organizers asked security personnel at the hotel to remove some members of the Chinese delegation and threatened to call the police. “Your presence makes us uncomfortable,” they said.

You’ll find more details (from a website sympathetic to the Taiwanese position) here. The responses to the blogpost are also revealing of what a sensitive issue this is.

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At the New Republic, Jen Doll reviews Mary Pilon’s recent book The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game. The game was first invented by a woman, Lizze Magie, who had progressive intentions:

In March of 1903, a single woman in her late thirties walked into the U.S. Patent Office to secure her claim to a board game she had been diligently designing in the hours she stole from her day job as a stenographer. Lizzie Magie was an exception to the female norms of the time, not just because she had remained unmarried well beyond the conventional marry-by date, but also because she was an avid supporter of the teachings of progressive politician and economist Henry George, an outspoken and influential tax reformer who advocated policies that would keep more money in the hands of the poor and working class.

The invention Magie wanted to patent, was, in fact, a kind of tribute to George: The Landlord’s Game was “a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” Magie explained in The Single Tax Review in 1902. She included two sets of rules: one in which the aim was to crush opponents through monopolies, and one in which the creation of wealth rewarded all. The moral was not exactly hidden. The Landlord’s Game, Magie believed, would help make the world a better place.

However, it didn’t work out that way:

The man who ultimately received the credit for creating Monopoly is a Pennsylvanian named Charles Darrow, not an inventor, but an opportunist. An unemployed family man with an ailing child who was trying to survive in the midst of the Depression, Darrow was given a copy of the game by a friend, sneakily enlisted another pal to illustrate it (for free), and sold the reinvented product to a sinking Parker Brothers as his own (for $7,000 plus residuals), subsequently amassing a fortune. By 1936, the game had earned millions, saving not only Darrow, but also the company, from financial ruin. Darrow was given a place in history; his descendants continued to profit from the game for years after his death.

One of the great ironies of Monopoly, of course, is that it was originally intended to be exactly the opposite of what it has become. And then there is another irony, as well: Monopoly came to be controlled by a company that fought tooth and nail to maintain its own monopoly over it. But part of the Monopoly story is surprisingly straightforward: Its path from progressive teaching tool to capitalist iconwith a mythology to spur it along as a money-making brandmakes it something of an American archetype of its own.

The original rules and game board can be found here.

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At Lifehacker, Patrick Allan discusses “The Surprising Benefits of Role-Playing Games (and How to Get Started)

When you hear about role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, you probably picture a dimly-lit basement filled with people in silly robes rolling dice, but there’s much more to it than that. Not only are role-playing games incredibly fun, but they can actually teach you skills you’ll use in the real world.

When I first heard about role-playing games, I immediately thought it was something that was just for the nerdiest of nerds out there. I could only imagine how ridiculous it would feel to sit around a table with other people and act like someone—or something—else, pretending to fight goblins and dragons. The entire premise just sounded way “too geeky” for me—even as someone who was way into video games and other “nerdy” things.

Fast forward a couple years, and I found that I was completely wrong. As soon as I took a moment to strip away the facade of monsters and swords, role-playing games revealed themselves to be something far more interesting than other traditional games. Behind the fantasy adventures was a fun social gathering that required you to think on your toes, solve problems, be creative, and ultimately learn how to become a team player. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s because it’s like every job out there. It turned out that it really wasn’t about the dungeons or the dragons at all—it’s about thinking critically and working like a team.

Now I indulge in role-playing games as often as I can. It’s nice to have an escape from the toils and troubles of the real world, but with every game session I play, I find that I actually learn something as well. Maybe it’s about myself and the way I think, maybe it’s something about one of my friends that brings us closer together, or maybe I just find a new way to look at something that I hadn’t thought of. I’ve learned that role-playing games are about more than playing a game, and more importantly, that they are for everybody.

I couldn’t agree more. An awful lot of my professional game design and facilitation skills are rooted in many years spent playing D&D and other role-playing games.

Revisiting the “ISIS Crisis”


Last week a group of us assembled at the University of Ottawa to matrix-game the current conflict concerning the self-styled “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria. For practical reasons and to limit the number of players/teams, the game largely focused on Iraq. The purpose, as with an earlier game held at the UK Defence Academy, was to explore the value and limits of matrix games as an analytical method.

Six actors were represented:

  • Iraqi government
  • ISIS (aka ISIL, Da’ish, or the Islamic State)
  • non-ISIS Sunni opposition
  • Kurds
  • Iran
  • US

ISIScrisismapMatrix games are not rules- and capabilities-based wargames, but rather a series of structured sequential arguments and debates. They can be conducted in several ways, but in this case outcomes were resolved as follows:

  1. The phasing player announces an intended action and the desired effect if successful (“The Iraqi Army will attack city X, defeating ISIS forces there and recapturing it.”). A base score of 7 or more on two six-sided dice is needed for success.
  2. The phasing player then identifies reasons why their action would be successful (“I have substantially greater forces available in this area than the defender. My forces are better armed. Iranian advisors are deployed with my forces. I enjoy US air support. In addition, my forces have been bolstered by Shiite irregulars rallying to the call-to-arms issued by Ayatollah Sistani.”) Each plausible argument gains a +1 to the dice roll.
  3. Other players may contribute arguments for or against the success of the proposed action. (“You will fail because your army is corrupt and your troops poorly led. In addition, the Sunni inhabitants of the city have been alienated by Shiite rhetoric and the excesses of Shiite militias, and will resist you. The morale of the ISIS defenders is high. The lack of forward air controllers means that US close air support is largely ineffectual.”) Each positive argument contributes +1, each negative argument -1.
  4. The dice are rolled, adjusted for arguments pro and con, and an outcome determined. The facilitator has some leeway both in accepting the validity of arguments, and in specifying results based on the dice: a very high score would mean a very successful result (“the enemy is destroyed and your morale bolstered”), while a very low score would mean a disastrous failure (“you suffer a catastrophic defeat, and will suffer a penalty to your next combat operation”).

The map and the various units and other markers on it are largely used to represent and help illustrate the unfolding narrative, rather than being an essential and central part of game play.

In this game (as it our previous experiment) players were assigned various initial characteristics. The Iraqi government suffered a -1 penalty to all dice rolls to reflect corruption and inefficiency, and an additional -1 when conducting combat operations outside Baghdad or Shiite-majority areas. The Kurds similarly suffered a -1 to all military operations outside Kurdish areas. ISIS gained a +1 bonus in Sunni areas, and a -1 outside. The Sunni opposition also gained a +1 bonus in Sunni areas, but suffered a -2 penalty acting against ISIL. The US suffered a -1 penalty to military actions, reflecting Washington’s unwillingness to get too deeply involved. Iran, should it take an unsuccessful action against ISIL or the Sunni opposition, provided that actor with a +1 to their next roll to reflect an anti-Iranian backlash among Iraqi Sunnis. Finally, the”Curse of Unforeseen Consequences and Second and Third Order Effects” mandated that any time a double was rolled ISIS would get an immediate free counter-action.

These initial conditions worked well in tilting players towards realistic behaviours without over-determining actions and outcomes. As we had done before, a seventh unaffiliated subject matter expert was able to take one action per turn so as to highlight the consequences of player actions, introduce actions by other unrepresented actors, or nudge the game back towards more realistic outcomes—again, without over-determing the course of events.

Our players and teams were well qualified: wargamers and operations research analysts from Defence Research and Development Canada, game designers, political scientists, and current or former Middle East intelligence analysts. How did it all work out?

The Game as Narrative

As one possible future narrative of the “ISIS crisis” it all went very well.

IMG_2634ISIS made initial efforts to expand its territorial control southwards closer to Baghdad, but was unable to do so. Consequently it embarked on a series of terrorist bombings in the capital, hoping thereby to pin down government troops. In the north the Kurds focused on building up their military strength, both to defend themselves from the ISIS threat and to bolster any future efforts to assert independence. Neither the US nor Iran would provide them with the heavy weapons they sought, such as tanks or tube artillery. The Kurds skirmished with ISIS forces around Mosul, but were reluctant to undertake a major offensive. Indeed, their one effort to infiltrate the outskirts of the city went badly.

Iran undertook a major build-up of troops along the Iraqi border, and sent additional military advisors to assit Iraqi and Kurdish forces. It coupled this, however, with extensive outreach to the United States. Over time, the two sides were increasingly successful in deconflicting their operations and actions.

IMG_2628The Iraqi Army launched a major offensive to clear ISIL and allied militias from Diyala province, as well as to secure Taji and Samarra and even push on towards Tikrit. They faced stiff resistance, however. Progress was slow, and even when areas were captured the Iraqi security forces were still subject to numerous IED and sniper attacks.

A second offensive was then launched to secure Falluja and press on towards Ramadi. Again, progress was slow. Efforts to reform the Iraqi Army and improve its  combat effectiveness were unsuccessful.

All this fighting created a growing humanitarian crisis as populations fled areas of combat. The US increased its contributions to the UN and other humanitarian agencies to help address the problem.

The US launched a high-risk special forces operation to rescue an American hostage held by ISIS in Raqqa, Syria. This was unsuccessful. ISIS retaliated by executing the hostage. Unable to capture additional terrain in Iraq, ISIS undertook a surprise raid against Jordanian border positions in an effort to project a sense of political momentum. This was initially more successful than anyone anticipated, but was soon driven back by Jordanian and American troops.

IMG_2633Throughout the game, both the US and Iran urged Baghdad to reach out to dissatisfied Sunnis and lure them away from the ISIS orbit. In practice, little of this happened. On the contrary, the Iraqi government increasingly relied on Shiite militias to bolster its strength, and offered little in the way of compromise or inclusion. The Sunni opposition—whose extensive demands were likely too much for the government in any case—only grew angrier. As Iran’s role grew, the Sunni opposition exploited this to secure some modest financial support from Saudi Arabia.

Finally, Tehran decided enough was enough, and pressed hard on Baghdad to open formal reconciliation talks with credible Sunni opposition leaders. The Iraqi government balked, then agreed provided the talks were held in Baghdad. The Sunni opposition insisted on a more neutral location. Tehran proposed Oman—and, when the Iraqi Prime Minister initially declined, made it clear that rejection was NOT an option. Prime Minister al-Abidi reluctantly agreed.

IMG_2636When the game ended, the talks were about to take place. ISIS, however, had begun to issue threats against the family or tribe of any Sunni leaders who attended…

The Game as Analysis

There two major ways in which the game functioned as an alternative analytical technique:

  • Players were required to develop strategies in a dynamic adversarial context. While we did not heavily instrument the playtest (two participants were tasked with taking notes), it would be quite simple to require players to record their actions and rationale as part of game play.
  • Game play generated long lists of factors that might enable or undermine particular actions. It also generated debates among players around the nature and importance of those factors.

To some extent game play is distorted by the limited number of teams (6-7 seemed a practical limit if a lively discussion was also to be maintained) and the consequence simplification of Iraqi and regional politics. Then again, players are not limited to arguments pertaining to their own actors, but can invoke those not represented in the game. The “seventh” player/subject matter expert also helped to assure that unrepresented issues, actors, and consequences could be brought into the game.

As suggested above, the trajectory of the game is certainly shaped by both the actors represented and any special rules or initial conditions assigned to them. However, this session also highlighted how important the social engineering of team assignments and roles can be. Players who were calm and calculating tended to play their roles in this way; others who were more likely to be confrontational tended to play their roles that way too. I suspect that, even with everything else held constant, the game outcome would have been quite different with different people in different roles.

One of the participants—a former senior intelligence analyst and manager, renowned for his skill at facilitating very productive conventional BOGSAT (“bunch of guys/gals sitting at a table”) discussions—offered these observations:

I found the Iraq simulation an interesting exercise. The methodology might be adaptable for the purposes of thinking about analytical issues related to Iraq. It is a good way to induce analysts to think about aspects of the situation that they might not consider otherwise or look at differently.

However, I wouldn’t see it an alternative to an analytical discussion session, but rather as a preliminary step. The model I would see is a two-part session, starting with 2-3 hours for the simulation and then continuing with another couple of hours of discussion revolving around lessons and insights inspired by the game.

The game by itself has limited analytical usefulness. Inevitably, players get caught up in the competitive game aspect of the simulation and take whatever steps they can think of to “win,” quibbling about the game mechanics, making unrealistic moves, etc. Some players might get too personally invested in the game and lose sight of the fact that the purpose is to get a deeper understanding of the situation and to think differently than they normally would about it. For example, the reasons put forward for the success or failure of a move are not necessarily well thought-out in the heat of the fray. One possible way around this would be to require the players to list in writing their arguments for and against a move: this would slow things down just a bit and hopefully inspire better arguments. It would also have the advantage of providing a record of the arguments for the later discussion.

The true value of the game would be to provide the basis for a structured discussion afterwards. This could include discussion of several things, including:

  • Insights from players on aspects of the simulation that surprised them: do they now have a different impression of the strategic situation of one or more sides, of the tactical options available to them (and the restraints they are under), a different understanding of the overall balance of forces, etc.
  • A more considered discussion of the pros and cons for each of the (major) moves during the simulation: were all of the relevant factors considered, were they given proper weighting, etc. This is where a written record of the arguments would be useful, recorded either by the players at the time and given to the umpire, or compiled by neutral observers.
  • Thoughts from the players on the goals being pursued by their side; their goals may well have shifted as the game progressed. The introductory notes outlining the situation for each side logically contain general guidance on what that side should be seeking to accomplish, but I must say that in my case I did not pay much attention to the notes and leaped in with my own views on what I wanted to achieve. I think a subsequent discussion of actual and game goals would have been useful.

Overall, a very interesting exercise, and one that has forced me to rethink my previous (rather negative) views of the potential usefulness of simulations in intelligence analysis.

Materials for an earlier version of the ISIS Crisis matrix game (including the map and counters seen above) can be found at Tom Mouat’s matrix game download page. The briefings used for the game described above can be found here. For more information on matrix games see also Matrix Games for Modern Wargaming, published by the History of Wargaming Project.

PAXsims Goes to Carlisle

Barracks-e1376937377369I will be attending the upcoming China Futures Wargame at the USArmy War College Feb. 18-19. The game is unclassified and will focus on a strategic look at the US-China relationship outside the traditional Asia Pacific AOR (i.e. Africa and latin America). The event should be interesting, and there will be high quality attendees including some of my China expert colleagues Michael Swaine from the Carnegie Endowment and Will Norris from Texas A&M, as well as NIC wargame master Dan Flynn. I will plan to report as appropriate.


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