Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: March 2015

Brynania 2015


In a couple of hours, the 15th annual edition of the week-long Brynania civil war simulation starts at McGill University. I’ll be neck-deep processing around 15,000 student communications during that period, so don’t expect any PAXsims updates from me for the duration!

The Brynania simulation involves 100 undergraduate students from my undergraduate POLI 450 course on peacebuilding, plus a smaller number of graduate students from my POLI 650 seminar. In addition, a small group from Prof. Megan Bradley’s course on refugees is taking part as a UNHCR policy unit, while students from Prof. Lisa Lynch’s journalism class have established the World News Service to cover events in war-torn equatorial Cyberia. Various other people play the role of “public opinion” and private donors to aid organizations.

For further information see the simulation resource website, this article from PS: Political Science & Politics on the SIM, video coverage by TV McGill and McGill University, and a blogpost by Lisa on how her journalism students participate.

Reconstructing Afghanistan!


Recently, students from my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) class played a modified version of the Afghan Provincial Reconstruction game. The game itself is quite abstract, and shouldn’t be seen as modelling Afghanistan with any granularity or fidelity—as you’ll see below, simulated Afghanistan (unlike the real version) turned out to be a glowing success story, almost a Singapore of Central Asia. In this regard, the whole thing was a bit of an idyllic COIN clear-hold-build fantasy, and I need to tweak the game more to make it harder.

However, the real point of the exercise was to examine the challenge of coordination across multiple actors (Afghan government, NATO, international NGOs)., and for that purpose it served very well. In the original version, the impact of the Taliban is depicted purely through random event cards; in the modified version they are represented by an active team.

The account below (and several of the photographs) are provided by one of the students involved, Isabelle Dufresne-Lienert.

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Eighteen McGill students met up in the Interuniversity Consortium for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (ICAMES) building on Saturday, 14th of March, to reconstruct Afghan—in the simulated form of a boardgame.

The reconstruction process had a very rough start. With a lack of investment in key sectors like agriculture and health, we saw a cholera outbreak in Kandahar and famines in Khost and Kunar, setting the stability in the country to an all-time low.

2015-03-14 12.19.08

After a brutal winter, the Afghan president announced a “Spring of Hope” and launched a major (although costly) anti-corruption campaign. Some actors at first were wary of such a large investment, arguing that they had a more immediate need for resources. However, local critics decided to focus on their more pressing problems rather than to start a dispute with Kabul. The Taliban shook the hearts and minds of the population with the major bombing of an NGO development project, using a video of the events as propaganda which garnered extra local support for them. With resources from drug smuggling and high opium prices, the Taliban were also able in these months to establish a major base of operations in Kandahar, destabilizing the province. Overall, weak rule of law and a growing resentment of the large foreign presence in the provinces kept the Afghan situation in a situation of grave instability during this disappointing spring.


With Kandahar so badly affected, a major surge of resources was planned for the Summer. This helped the province to invest in building up the local governance capacity. A major investment was also made by NATO and Afghanistan into establishing security in the province. This prevented several major Taliban attacks. Still, the “fighting season” was filled with heated combat: the Afghan Army successfully defeated a coordinated attack in Kunar and NATO protected a local shura from intimidation. On the other hand, bombs went off damaging a local sanitation project and a Taliban suicide bomber destroyed a CIA outpost, an attack funded by diverting aid.


While the resilience of the projects was being built up, stability slowly increased throughout the Fall thanks to effective security services. With local governance continuously being reinforced, a number of potentially disastrous events were avoided, such as the diffusion of tensions between local leaders in Khost and the foiling of an attempted terrorist attack on security forces. However, many events brought the reconstruction process back a step; a local warlord pledged support to the Taliban, allowing them to establish a post in Kunar; local projects were attacked twice, devastating the work of the NGOs. Overall, however, aid efforts continued to have a positive outcome, contributing to the stability of the state.

Throughout the second year, strengthened security services in the country countered attack after attack from the Taliban. After only a few drawbacks caused by foreign mishaps and attacks, all projects had been completed. Thanks to successful project development and strong local governance, things were looking bright; stability in Afghanistan was at an all-time high and reconstruction was successful.

IMG_2704What lessons are learned from what happened in this particular simulation?

  1. The anti-corruption campaign proved very important. The government was at first hesitant to invest in this, but in the end it averted three major possible corruption events which might have been devastating for the effectiveness of local reconstruction efforts.
  2. A concentration of resources into building up security forces at the beginning of the reconstruction efforts proved to be essential for effective work. Security has to be established for anything else to be developed.
  3. Legitimacy was essential. Without the support of the local community, you couldn’t ensure the sustainability of the project. If there is too much heavy-handed foreign intervention and no capacity building for local governance, it can alienate locals and undermine the stability of the country, because you are not building a sustainable system that will ensure rule of law and local ownership.
  4. It was important to build reliance into projects, so that they weren’t easily undermined by insurgent attacks or unforeseen events.

In the end, we can happily say that Afghanistan was successfully rebuilt with all projects developed thanks to a great strategy for reconstruction… and to the fact that the Talibans were really bad at rock, paper, scissors (the system used to resolve attacks and combat).

Isabelle Dufresne-Lienert 

Armstrong: The Navy Needs a Wider Look at Wargaming


In an op ed today in the US Naval Institute News, Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Armstrong calls upon the US Navy to reexamine and reinvigorate its wargaming practices:

Today, wargaming is absent from the core curriculum at the Naval War College. The games which occur in Newport are conducted only by special small groups of select students. This isn’t enough. A reinvigorated program should look to expand this experience across more of the student body in Newport, as well as National Security Studies students at the Naval Postgraduate School, and even look at including the Fleet Seminar programs.

The Navy should also develop ways to introduce wargaming at fleet concentration areas at the Type Command level and below. Modern technology can be used to create gaming systems which offer more elaborate, and even sometimes exciting, versions of old school “table top” games or wardroom workshops. For example, crews from a Destroyer Squadron could use a computer based system to fight crews from an opposing Destroyer Squadron, testing some of the foundational ideas of the new “Distributed Lethality” concept. Rather than scripted training evolutions built on doctrinal and procedural compliance, the Navy should give its innovative junior leaders an opportunity for what gamers call “free play” to explore new ideas and tactical concepts.

Work’s call to reinvigorate wargaming is vital to addressing the numerous threats and developments of the 21st century. However, it does not go far enough. The Navy must look to its history to chart an even more effective course forward. By developing our wargaming at all levels, both for the senior leaders and analysts in the Pentagon but also for our creative junior leaders across the fleet and in our education system, we will continue to lead the world in understanding the future character of war and evolving our position as the world’s leading maritime power.

Warfare Masterclasses 2015


The Journal of Military Operations and Infinity Journal have announced their Masterclass programme for 2015. Both will be held in Cambridge, UK.

On 17-19 July 2015 they will hold a Graduate Warfare Class, aimed primarily at participants who have not previously attended an event in this series:

The Graduate Warfare Class will be an authoritative programme of classes designed to expand and broaden participants’ knowledge and understanding of the conduct of war on land. It will consist of a series of linked sessions and exercises, each analysing a key aspect of contemporary warfare.The syllabus will cover both regular and irregular warfare. It focuses on developing an in-depth understanding of the conduct of war on land across the spectrum of conflict. Participant numbers will be strictly limited to ensure a participatory, interactive event.

These sessions will be followed by two short group exercises aimed at exploring the realities of time,space and distance in warfighting and COIN operations. In this way the Graduate Warfare Class will consider how land forces actually operate. It will not ‘discuss the discourse’ of how academics think, or write about, how land forces operate.

We’ll forgive them for their snippy comments about academics.

On 14 to 16 August 2015 they will conduct a hands-on  Seminar Wargame:

The Seminar Wargame will walk through the planning and conduct of a major land operation through the perspectives of both opposing forces. Working in ad- hoc teams, participants will consider some of the problems, realities and dilemmas faced by land force commanders and staffs.

The Wargame will expose both the consequences of planning decisions and the realities of a live, responsive enemy which will fight for its own objectives and according to its own plans. The scenario will be set at the higher tactical and theatre levels.

The Wargame will revolve around an imagined scenario of conventional land warfare. It will include aspects of irregular warfare and consideration of influence operations. It will avoid high-technology, computer-based simulation and instead focus on consideration and discussion of the dynamics of land warfare.

The Wargame will not be tied to any one nation’s military doctrine.It will therefore present an opportunity for practitioners to think beyond their own national approaches. It is expressly intended to widen horizons and encourage open thinking. As with the Graduate Warfare Class, numbers will be strictly limited.

The Masterclasses will take place at St John’s College, Cambridge. Each Masterclass costs £380, including dinner in College on both evenings, lunch, coffee and afternoon tea. Single en-suite accommodation in College costs £80 per night.

Further information is available at the link above.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 14 March 2015


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

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russia-series1Stratfor has made available some of their findings from their recent “wargaming” of a possible larger-scale Russian military intervention in Ukraine.

To answer this question, Stratfor examined six basic military options that Russia might consider in addressing its security concerns in Ukraine, ranging from small harassment operations to an all-out invasion of eastern Ukraine up to the Dnieper River. We then assessed the likely time and forces required to conduct these operations in order to determine the overall effort and costs required, and the Russian military’s ability to execute each operation. In order to get a baseline assessment for operations under current conditions, we initially assumed in looking at these scenarios that the only opponent would be Ukrainian forces already involved in the conflict.

Part 1 looks at the forces and time required for each of the scenarios.

Part 2 looks at a possible NATO response—although the analysis is really about how long it would take US airpower to deploy to Europe. It contains virtually no assessment of NATO ground and naval assets, or even European air assets.

Part 3 looks at the geopolitical imperatives that would shape Russian strategy.

In fact, their analysis does not seem to be a proper adversarial wargame at all—something we suspected earlier this month, when the series was announced. It doesn’t seem to have been a true simulation either.  Rather it appears to have been a desk assessment, likely based on some fairly standardized assumptions regarding necessary force levels, densities and rates of advance through terrain. Without more information on methodology, it is rather difficult to know how much weight to place on it, although it does highlight some of the limits of both Russian military power and a possible NATO response.

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New downloadable graphics content is available for the digital game This War of Mine. Proceeds from the sale of this benefit the charity War Child. You can read more about this at Boingboing, and check out James Sterrett’s earlier review of the game at PAXsims.

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Law of the Jungle is a “free game that combines the open-ended adventure of a role-playing game with rigorous content drawn from the social science research literature.” It is produced by the Social Rules Project:

The Social Rules Project is the result of efforts by over 100 students from the Claremont Colleges and the California Institute of the Arts.  Artists, computer programmers, environmental studies majors, musicians, and many others contributed countless hours to make these materials available.  The goal of the project is to raise awareness about the institutional underpinnings of environmental problems and what it will take to solve them.  This is accomplished by using innovative multi-media approaches to translate insights from the social science literature and make them accessible to a broad public.

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The dates have been confirmed for this year’s third annual Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London:

On September 8th we will hold introductory sessions as we did last year, with the focus this year being on wargame design techniques.  Then on September 9th and 10th will come the main conference, with an increased focus on hands-on participation in the many games on offer in the Games fair.  Please put the dates in your diaries, and visit the Connections UK website for the latest info and registration details.

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The Military Operations Research Society is planning to hold a Professional Gaming Workshop from 28 September to 1 October 2015, in Alexandria, VA. Further details will follow when available.

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The World Peace Game Foundation will be holding “Master Classes and Camps” in Emmersdorf, Austria (April 7-11), Boston, MA (April 20-22), Charlottesville, VA (June 22-26), Corvallis, OR (August 10-14). For more details, see their listing of forthcoming events.

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The Strategy Page has a recent article on wargaming in the Chinese military (h/y Rory Aylward ).

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Prof. Phil Sabin of King’s College London is BoardGameGeek’s game designer of the month!

This month’s BGG Wargame Designer of the Month is Philip Sabin.

Mr. Sabin has been a wargamer for over 40 years, and became Professor of Strategic Studies at King’s College London’s War Studies Department. Over the past 20 years, he has published several board games on ancient warfare through the Society of Ancients. In 2007, his book ‘Lost Battles’ was published, reconstructing three dozen different ancient battles using a common rules system. A deluxe board game edition was published by Fifth Column Games in 2011. In 2012, his book ‘Simulating War’ was published, containing eight different simple wargames which he has used in his military history classes. One of these (Hell’s Gate) was published in a deluxe edition by Victory Point Games in 2013, and VPG has just published a second game from the book (Angels One Five).

Besides using wargames to help his BA students to understand conflict dynamics, since 2003 Mr. Sabin has been teaching a very innovative MA option module in which students design their own simple board games of past conflicts of their choice. Many of these are available for free download (Google ‘Sabin consim’). He also writes regularly for ‘Battles’ magazine, and works closely with defense wargamers in the UK and overseas.

Find out more about his philosophy and experiences of game design here.

Updated ISIS Crisis materials

Syrian refugees in Lebanon simulation — the video

Abigail Grace has produced an excellent video of January’s refugee simulation at the University of Exeter. You’ll find it below.

ISIS Crisis at McGill

The Interuniversity Consortium for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at McGill University was the latest location for an ISIS Crisis matrix game. The roles and rules were the same as for our recent game at the University of Ottawa. The players this time were largely drawn from graduate and undergraduate students with an interest in the Middle East.


Once again, our primary interest was one of examining this particular game approach as an analytical methodology. Replaying exactly the same game with a different group gave us an opportunity to further map out the strategic decision space—that is, get a fuller sense of player options and responses. It also offered some insight to how idiosyncratic factors, such as player knowledge, personality, and game style, might affect game dynamics and outcomes.

The War in Iraq

At the uOttawa game, the Iraqi government had fallen back on sectarian appeals to mobilize Shiite domestic support for military operations against ISIS and its Sunni allies, hoping to destroy the former and force the latter to negotiate on Baghdad’s terms. In this game, however, the Iraqi government started with a strategy of reaching out to the Sunni opposition, hoping to draw them away from ISIS and into a more inclusive government. They also hoped to recruit predominately Sunni “National Guard” units, and use these to help the largely Shiite Iraqi Army (and the extremist Shiite militias allied with it) to recapture ISIS-controlled areas.

This proved easier to say than to do, however. Iraqi Sunnis were deeply suspicious of Baghdad’s overtures, and worried about the risk of being drawn into a confrontation with ISIS. A reconciliation meeting —held in Oman, because the Sunni opposition was nervous of meeting in Baghdad—collapsed amid acrimony. It didn’t help when Prime Minister Haider al-Abidi promised a relaxation of the de-Bathification laws (a Sunni demand), only to prove unable to muster the necessary parliamentary majority.

ISIS sought to assuage growing Sunni tribal concerns by holding a shura meeting with tribal leaders. That also didn’t go well.

Both the US and Iran were broadly supportive of Baghdad’s strategy. Iran provided significant support for a planned Iraqi offensive to seize Takrit and consolidate control of Highway 1 linking the city with Baghdad via Samarra and Taji. When this offensive was first launched, however, it stalled amid fierce resistance. A second effort some months later was a little more successful.

President Obama finally secured Congressional authorization to use military force (AUMF), and conducted airstrikes against ISIS mobile oil refineries in Syria. (ISIS responded by stepping up its destruction and looting of antiquities.) In Syria, a government offensive pushed opposition forces back from Aleppo, further increasing the pressure on ISIS.

At this point, a local dispute in Ramadi between ISIS gunmen and local tribal militias escalated into open warfare, and the latter were successful in pushing ISIS fighters out of the area altogether. Seeing an opportunity, the US and Iraqi government offered to make Ramadi the nucleus of the new National Guard, with Baghdad also expressing a willingness to discuss some degree of regional autonomy for Sunni areas.

The Kurds spent considerable time trying to secure shipments of heavy weapons from the US or Iran, but neither was willing to provoke Iraqi and Turkish displeasure by doing so. Iran, however, did provide substantial quantities of light and medium weapons for the Peshmerga and for allied Assyrian Christian and Yazidi militias. Armed with these, Kurdish forces launched an offensive towards Mosul. This made some headway, bringing the Kurds to with a few kilometres of the city. However, the Kurds were reluctant to press on alone into the city itself, fearing that its capture could come at a very heavy cost. Sunni opposition leaders also urged them not to.

As tensions between ISIS and its former Sunni allies grew, a tug-of-war developed for the support of the Mosul population. ISIS sent reinforcements to the city, only to have them spotted en route by an Iranian drone and—after this information was urgently relayed via the Iraqi Army—destroyed in a heavy US airstrike. Led by a charismatic local sheikh(a), the Sunni opposition and tribes rallied and finally forced ISIS fighters from the city. Not long after, ISIS forces retaliated in al-Qa’im, driving out other Sunni groups.


At this point, urgent information reached the Iraqi government that serious cracks had begun to appear in Mosul Dam, threatening a catastrophic release of water that would inundate Mosul and flood the Tigris River valley as far as Baghdad. Fortunately, Iraqi engineers were able to stabilize the situation.

The first (Sunni) National Guard unit is formed in Ramadi.

The first (Sunni) National Guard unit is formed in Ramadi.

The game ended with ISIS force having lost its momentum, but still in control of substantial areas of Syria and a diminished portion of Iraq. Trained by American advisors, the first National Guard unit graduated in Ramadi. (ISIS had, however, already made arrangements to infiltrate this unit, hoping to conduct a future green-on-blue attack against US trainers.)  Despite ISIS’s departure from Mosul, there was still no agreement between the central government and Sunni leaders on new governance arrangements, nor had any Iraqi forces been able to enter the city. Washington was pleased with the attrition and degradation that ISIS had suffered, but concerned both by evidence of growing Iranian influence in Iraq as well as a string of victories by the Asad regime against the opposition in Syria.

Methodological Comments

This version of the ISIS Crisis unfolded pretty much in keeping with current coalition strategy. Interestingly, everyone felt very constrained: ISIS was frustrated it could not recapture the sense of momentum it had enjoyed in 2014; the Sunni opposition was fearful of ISIS and dubious about Iraqi central government; the Kurds were unwilling to take risks or casualties in capturing non-Kurdish territories; both the Iranians and US were unwilling to get sucked too deeply into a ground combat role in Iraq, simultaneously suspicious of and in need of each other, and well aware that if they were too heavy-handed their actions could easily backfire. The Baghdad government itself found itself constantly distracted by crisis after crisis, and hampered by corruption and inefficiencies.

The fact that all the players knew the situation in Iraq well certainly helped keep the game on a relatively realistic track. There is always the risk in matrix games that players will, deliberately or through ignorance, act in ways that would be highly unlikely in real life, thereby distorting the evolution of the game narrative. We’ll need to run some tests with players with less knowledge of the situation to see how those effects can best be managed. Most of the players ended up internalizing their roles to some extent, which made their interactions and antagonisms all the more genuine. Once again, I had socially engineered the role assignments to some degree—it wasn’t a coincidence, for example, that the Iraqi Sunni player was of Iraqi Sunni origin, or that the Iranian player was originally from Tehran.

Player feedback was positive. Quite apart from everyone enjoying themselves (and the pizza), many said they thought the process had illuminated a number of key issues and dynamics.

Why wargame the Ukraine?

stratforThe private sector intelligence and analysis firm Strafor recently posted a video discussion extolling its forthcoming wargame series on Russian intervention in the Ukraine. In it, founder and company chairman George Friedman describes the value of wargaming in the following terms (emphasis added):

George Friedman: Well wargaming goes the gamut from extremely computerized automated models down to desktop gaming. But the purpose of it is something as fundamental to any military analysis. It goes back to Napoleon, to anticipate the issues that you might face as a general or as a politician by taking a look at the what ifs, examining the military capabilities of each side, looking at terrain at which they’re going to fight, understanding the political reasons that they might decide to fight. And then try and understand how likely various strategies are and how likely they are to succeed in them.

David: I mean in this case we took apart of the maybe six options that Russia might have and the way that western NATO forces might respond. It’s interesting to me as a tool of empathetic analysis. Is that a fair characterization that it is a way to get into the mind of Russian military planners?

George: It is partly to try to understand what’s in their mind. But actually Wargaming is less interested in the intentions of the generals or politicians as to their capabilities. So what you’re really trying to do when you try to model a conflict is to identify those things that are impossible. Casual conversation you may imagine that the Russians have the military to charge all the way to Romania or Poland and so on. In fact, they probably don’t have that capability or anything close to it. Similarly you may assume that the United States has the ability to rapidly deploy multiple divisions to block them in Ukraine. The United States probably doesn’t have that. So the most important thing that comes out of military modeling is eliminating the impossible. Because until you get down into the details, until you consider how much fuel is required to move so many tanks so far, until you’ve really examined that, you seem to have these infinite numbers of options and all sorts of capabilities. And when you look at it carefully you find out well there are really very few options on all sides.

David: Right. So we do a lot of this constraint analysis at Stratfor. In some sense it’s a check on political rhetoric. In another sense it’s a way to perhaps pre-empt even the bluffing that either side participates in. Is that?

George: Well, politicians, generals, businessmen, constantly make statements. The question is not what these people say in that they may be very honest in what they want. But to go to a very simple and unpleasant place: What’s possible? And one of the things that Stratfor does is it does not focus on the intentions simply. But it really focuses on what can be done and what can’t be done. And in the case of military modeling, where this goes back well before Clausewitz, this is essential. You’ve got to really understand what can’t happen.

David: While not being a forecast in the sense that we publish forecasts, it’s nonetheless predictive, in that it takes off the table those scenarios that are not possible and allowing us to examine a more limited number of scenarios that are realistic indeed.

George: Our name is strategic forecasting.

David: Right.

George: And in strategic forecasting what we do is forecast. This is a step in the forecasting process. It doesn’t say that any of these things will happen. It examines, however, which of them would happen, what the consequences would be from a military standpoint and so on. So what it does is eliminates a whole bunch of options and allows you to really focus down on what might happen. This doesn’t even assume that the Russians are going to take any military action. It doesn’t assume that the Americans would respond. It makes no assumption on what political decisions may be made. What it does ask is what political solutions can be made.

This emphasis on wargaming as primarily an exercise in constraint analysis seems a bit strange. Certainly, analytical games can highlight constraints. However, as a method it potentially offers a lot more than simply narrowing down options on the grounds of (physical/resource/capability) viability. A wargame generates some sense of possible adversarial dynamics and interaction. It encourages participants to think about challenges in new ways—a sort of intellectual cross-training of sorts. It may, far from narrowing options, actually enlarge them by generating new ideas. Finally, it can help assess information gaps, critical junctures, and other things that are important.

In any case, it will be interesting to see what Stratfor does—and does not do—with this game series.

h/t Rory Alward 

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