Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: July 2015

Connections 2015: Day 4 AAR

lyWwqCGy_400x400-1The final (half) day of Connections 2015 started off with a keynote address by Peter Perla (CNA). He welcomed the renewed interest in wargaming generated by the recent memos by the SECDEF, DEPSECDEF, and Secretary of the Navy. He warned that wargaming had often been much abused in the past, and that we stood at a critical juncture in terms of the development and application of the discipline.

Peter argued for a more inclusive definition, one that broadened the much-cited definition he had advanced in his seminal book The Art of Wargaming. The expanded definition would read:

A model or simulation of conflict set in an abstract representation of the real world, in which players make decisions and respond to the changes caused by their decisions.

Wargaming is a discipline embodying the creation, use, synthesis, and analysis of wargames, whether to entertain, educate, or analyze. Operations research is scientific and quantitative; wargaming is about decisions and players. The natural alliance between the two is separated by “players,” a messy category that OR would often prefer not to deal with.

He looked back at wargaming at the NWC from the 19th century and into the interwar period, with their heavy emphasis on learning about decision-making in the face of an active adversary. In his PhD thesis, John Lillard described the learning process as one of “cyclical osmosis” whereby officers would learn through wargaming at the NWC, deploy to the fleet, and later return to the NWC as instructors. Wargames thus became the navy’s research laboratory, in conjunction with the “fleet problems” (exercises) {book link} that the Navy undertook in the 1920s and 1930s.

Why does wargaming work? Experience makes risk tangible, it links perception and understanding to acting, it forces players to act, and players take ownership of the “between worlds.” Wargaming stirs imaginations, challenges, and creates synthetic experience. He noted that von Reiswitz himself stressed that kriegsspiel was intended to be enjoyable and “fascinating”—otherwise it would simply be a chore.

In the military, wargaming saves lives too. In the context of DoD’s recent emphasis on reinvigorating wargaming as a spur to innovation, Peter stressed, the professional wargaming community needs to step up to the challenge.

Next, Marc Gacy (Alion Science and Technology) offered a review of this year’s game lab. Many players liked the way A2ADventure modeled the planning process. There were concerns that Blue’s strategic choices were too limited; the game was unbalanced (although I thought it was fairly even); confusion as to scale and unit representation (not a concern I had); too much depended on dice (also not a concern I had); the board/map was confusing and/or ugly (I agree, and would have preferred a straight grid or hex); and some specific concerns about game components (again, not a major concern for me). I also found that the ISR/ rules needed further work. In the game I played, there was far too much reconnaissance by fire and not enough scouting. (In fairness to Paul Vebber, though, I had been among those who had urged him to simplify the ISR rules before the conference!)

Brief-backs from the three working groups followed. (The briefing that Tim Smith and I pulled together on using educational wargaming to develop innovators can be viewed by clicking the image below.)

Click image to download pdf of slides.

Click image to download pdf of slides.

Our key points were:

  • Wargaming should be used to promote critical analysis and experimentation among students.
  • Wargaming should be used to promote “systems thinking.”
  • Wargaming can be used to strengthen personal attributes associated with effective innovators.
  • Use wargaming to build the capacity of students to recognize, promote, and nurture innovation.
  • Game design matters.
  • Instructors and instruction matter.
  • Catch them early!

Shawn Burns presented the findings of Working Group 2 on reinvigorating wargaming through education, identifying key skills, topics, audiences, and delivery. Phillip Pournelle and Tim Moenich summarized discussions in Working Group 3 on increasing effectiveness and breadth of wargaming. They advocated that OSD promulgate elements of a wargame definition and sponsor a wargame series to explore the future security environment. They also expressed concern about the development of a central wargaming repository. They recommended that DoD increase their focus on the future; build wargame advocacy within the chain of command; leaders should highlight success and reward ideas (even if they lead to failure); use wargames to link to other disparate organizations; and that games engage diverse participants (including those from outside the traditional wargaming/national security community). Their recommendations to organizations included greater use of a small team approach; inform players that their performance is important and noticed; outsource games to stifle hidden agendas. They also had some suggestions for designers, and for ourselves as the professional wargaming community.

The conference ended with some concluding comments by Matt Caffrey and a hotwash of what had worked well, and not so well, at this year’s Connections conference. Matt presented an excellent “pre mortem” with suggestions/warnings from Yuna Wong and Ed McGrady on how the current DoD effort to reinvigorate wargaming might die a premature death. He also highlighted a cautionary tale: A previous effort in the late 1990s in the US Marine Corps to increase wargaming failed to sustain itself more than a few years due to change in leadership and personnel. By contrast, Germany managed to sustain wargaming from the 1870s through to WWI and the interwar period, despite the dramatic shrinkage of the Germany army under the Treaty of Versailles. They did this by training wargaming widely and retaining those with wargame experience. Indeed, wargaming endured despite Hitler’s rise to power and his hostility to POL-MIL gaming. These were absolutely key points, and perhaps among my major take-aways from this conference: the need to wargame widely, early in career trajectories; and the need to teaching how to wargaming as a methodology of analysis and learning.

Overall, this was an excellent Connections conference, the largest and very possibly the very best ever. Once again, National Defence University proved to be an outstanding host.

Connections 2016 will be held at the Air Force Wargaming Institute at Maxwell AFB. MaxwellAFB

Connections 2015: Day 3 AAR

lyWwqCGy_400x400-1Appropriately enough, Day 3 of the Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference started off with an excellent keynote address by Robert “Barney” Rubel, the former Dean of the Naval War College. The NWC has been hugely influential in the development of American wargaming since the interwar period. He strongly underscored the value of wargaming. Gaming, he noted, can generate ideas, support analysis, and support decisions—acting as a sensor (for example, detecting flaws in plans), a sandbox (for experimentation), as a catalyst, and/or a substrate. The identified three strata to gaming:

  • first, the epistemology of the game design;
  • next that of game itself;
  • and, finally, the game’s influence.

He admitted, however, that he was a bit of skeptic with regard to current DoD efforts to generate innovation through reinvigorated wargaming, in part due to several embedded barriers to innovations: tribes, cults, and baronies within the military; infrastructures and sunk costs; risk aversion; and “jargon-based metaphysics.” He talked at length about various organizational pathologies that inhibited good wagaming (such as throwing money but not thought at a problem; game distortions caused by the motivation of the sponsor; having a game because one always has a game); game design and execution problems (agenda-driven purpose; excessive desire to accommodate stakeholders; design/play/umpire by unqualified people; the “trap of simulation;” “fairy dusting” technology; straight-lining the future); and problems of analysis (questionable assertions of game outcomes; no assessment of player/umpire qualifications; no critique of game artifacts or identification of flaws; no identification of “whispers” or understated significant findings). He also bemoaned the over-used words such as disruptive, transformational, innovative, and dominant.

He also identified some “good things” that contributed to the more effective use of wargaming. These included commitment to objective enquiry; dedicated gaming organizations that were not profit centres; a cadre of individuals trained in research methods and an ethos of scientific method; people who knows math; an organization empowered to say no, and immune from blowback; an organizational culture based on the technique of wargaming (running good games), rather than substance (a particular doctrine or orientation to warfighting);  collegial and open dialogue; leadership; opportunities for debate; minimum internal hierarchy; avoiding “not invented here” responses; a commitment to publish (to invite feedback and criticism), and most fundamentally a common understanding and commitment to organizational goals:

  • Goal 1: provide good games
  • Goal 2: remember who’s your Daddy (don’t be a marginalized loose cannon)
  • Goal 3: advance the state of the art

All in all, it was an excellent presentation, and well worth reading in full when the slides are eventually uploaded to the Connections website.

After a short break I chaired a panel on using educational wargaming to develop innovators. Tim Smith (ONI, and also my session cochair) and James Sterrett (US Army Command and General Staff College) made presentations. Tim offered insight into how he has used wargames at ONI for analyst training, and also a quick overview of his work introducing wargaming to middle school kids. James made a number of important points about wargames in the classroom, noting that good instructors of the right type were very important to the adoption and effective use of educational gaming.

Blue reaches the LZ, only to be crushed by waves of Red strike aircraft.

Blue reaches the LZ, only to be crushed by waves of Red strike aircraft.

Lunch and a short talk by Robert McCreight (George Mason University) followed. Thereafter, we returned to the game lab that we had started yesterday, with a dozen or more simultaneous games of A2ADventure underway. I took on the role of the Blue force commander, trying to deliver and amphibious assault force to a coastal area well defended by Red admiral Tom Mouat and an array of anti-ship cruise missiles, surface vessels, subs, and aircraft. I managed to punch may way through the line of Red defenders, sinking two light surface action groups and a couple of enemy subs, and degrading several enemy shore batteries. This came at considerable cost, as I lost both a light and heavy surface group. Supported by decoys and cyber attacks, I managed to bring the amphibious task force to the designated area—only to see it wiped out in a massive wave of Red air attacks. I had lost!

The point of the game was, of course, to discuss game design and possible tweaks and revisions,  and we certainly did plenty of that.

Finally, the conference broke into three working groups:

  • Methods and applications of educational wargaming to develop innovators.
  • Reinvigorating wargaming through education.
  • Increasing the effectiveness and breadth of the use of wargaming as a catalyst for innovation.

I cochaired the first of these with Tim Smith, and we’ll present our summary and report for plenary discussion tomorrow.

Connections 2015: Day 2 AAR


Major General Frederick Padilla welcomes Connections to NDU.

The second day of the Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference—and the first day of the main programme—opened with a welcome by Major General Frederick Padilla, President of National Defense University.

That was followed by an important keynote address by Zachary Mears, Chief of Staff to US Deputy Secretary of Defence Robert Work. In February, a memo by the DEPSECDEF stressed the need to “reinvigorate, institutionalize, and systematize wargaming” across the Department of Defense. This has resulted in renewed interest in wargaming, and that interest has already been evident at Connections, which has set new attendance records this year.

Mears started by pointing to an earlier golden age of US wargaming in the period between WWI and WWII, when wargames were used to address changing technology, develop and evaluate doctrine, and advise senior leaders on responding to potential military challenges. He then went on to identify several problems with US wargaming in the more recent past. Central among them, wargaming has become untethered from US national security planning needs, and instead is too often used to justify existing programmes or support claims for a bigger allocation of scarce budgetary resources. In the future, US wargaming needs to think more thoroughly about the long term trends that shape the future, US military competitors, and how is the US positioned in this changing landscape. It should undertake more comparative analysis of projected military power, including the strengths and weaknesses of potential adversaries—and how will this be shaped by capital and technology given budgetary limits.

What are key decision points that can be offered up to Secretary and senior leadership? Games can provide a sort of hypothesis testing. How do we open up space for more innovative wargaming that moves away from a status quo bias and protection of current service programmes? The culture of DoD gaming needs to stress senior leaders and put them adversarial positions as a way of preparing them for decisions they might face. At the O4/5/6 gaming should help to prepare future operational leaders.

In doing all this, Mears—as in Work’s earlier memo—envisioned three major timeframes for wargames:

  1. Out to 5 years with current forces and structures, “road testing” current concepts and campaign plans and exploring alternatives.
  2. Out to 15 years: more-or-less same forces, but introduction of some technology change
  3. Out to 30 years: long-term trends that will shape the relative position of the US and its military power, and the implications of that for current policy, planning, and procurement.

To date the DoD has not been doing a good job linking the diagnoses that emerge from games to current decisions and trade-offs, Mears suggested. He expressed interest in what Connections participants had to say about how they assessed current wargaming challenges, whether they felt that DoD wargaming was indeed changing (or further impetus from above was needed), and what should be the priorities moving ahead.

Several important issues were raised during the Q&A. One concerned the difficult of defining “victory” or desired end states for US strategic policy in a complex and dynamic world. Another suggested that the current emphasis on wargaming was not necessarily fully penetrating across the military establishment. Mears that replied that current efforts by OSD CAPE to assemble a wargaming repository within DoD would enable the Department to better assess needs and shortcomings. One participant suggested that setting dates for objectives and deliverables would help to focus time and resources on gaming.

Yuna Wong warned that the current emphasis on wargaming was leading the military to relabel many things as “wargaming” in order to access resources or appear to be in step with DoD wishes, although they were not necessarily really wargames with a true iterative, adversarial component. Peter Perla followed up by asking whether campaign analysis (with attention to Red and Blue, but no true Red play) was being treated as a “wargame”.

One questioner asked whether game findings that generated negative findings would really be used, or be buried.

Should the war colleges be required to teach how to wargaming, and not simply use gaming for educational and training purposes? Mears suggested the Secretary hadn’t fully decided on how wargaming skills should be taught and developed. A related question asked about whether DoD would make available multiyear resources to support university research to address national security gaming. Here Mears suggested that greater receptivity in DoD would make it easier to demonstrate utility of gaming and develop partnerships, although there were no dedicated funds in place to support this.

What were expectations for the next DoD “wargaming summit”? Mears outlined some of these, such as OSD CAPE’s development of a wargaming repository. Similarly, ONA was expected to assess how games had (and had not) informed senior leader decisions, and how that connection might be strengthened.

Phil Pournelle expressed some concern—clearly shared by other—regarding the word “systematize” in the Work memo. There is, of course, a potential tension between promoting innovation and being too systematic, since the latter can potentially constrain creativity.   Another questioner expressed a fear that an approved DoD format might emerge, and that clients would all then demand that sort of gaming approach. Mears replied that “systematization” had more to do with greater clarity on what was a wargame, and how it could be used more routinely as an input into decision-making. He also argued that there would still be space for a variety of gaming approaches, although I’m not sure he entirely reassured everyone.

After a short break we returned for a panel discussion on wargaming and innovation across the defence community. This featured COL John Price (USAF), COL Burton Catledge (DoD), Elbridge Colby (CNAS), and Paul Works (US Army TRADOC). These highlighted the conditions for, and barriers to, innovation; debunked the notion that technical competence was the sole source of innovation; explored case studies of innovation within DoD.

Lunch was followed by several simultaneous game demonstrations—including several turns of AFTERSHOCK. Unfortunately I was too busy explaining the game to circulate and see what else was on offer. Among the games was Road to Damascus, Alex Langer’s prototype game of the Syrian civil war which was featured on PAXsims last year.

Playing AFTERSHOCK at NDU (with Volko Ruhnke, picture by Matt Kirschenbaum).

Playing AFTERSHOCK at NDU (with Volko Ruhnke,  Stacie Pettyjohn, and others—picture by Matt Kirschenbaum).

Next there was a large panel on wargaming organizations, highlighting the many groups and organizations engaged in national security gaming, featuring Walter Ward (USAF), Adam Frost (J8/SAGD), Ed McGrady (CNA), Major Tom Mouat (British Army), Ronald Sanders (Booz Allen Hamilton), and Stacie Pettyjohn (RAND). Unfortunately I much most of this discussion, distracted by a depressing post-game conversation with Volko Ruhnke and others about Da’ish/ISIS/ISIL, political reform, and the future of the Middle East.

Again this year Connections features a “game lab” in which participants examine how one might game a particular issue, puzzle, or challenge. This year the topic is A2D (ant-access/area denial). Paul Vebber (Naval Undersea Warfare Center) has developed a basic game—A2ADventure—exploring this. An initial orientation session today provided an overview of the game concepts and rules. Our challenge will be to break into smaller groups tomorrow and playtest the game, and suggest how it might be revised. It is easy, of course, to think of extra game rules or features—but at the risk of making a game too complicated. What would be an optimal set of game innovations that would offer the greatest added value while maintaining an appropriate degree of playability and parsimony? Issues of technology and command and control will figure prominently.

The final panel of the day addressed increasing the use of wargaming as a tool to address national security challenges. Three panelists—Shawn Burns (NWC), Jon Compton (OSD CAPE and One Small Step) offered thoughts on three questions:

  1. Why are wargames not producing innovative solutions to future strategic security problems?
  2. How educational techniques do you propose to address these obstacles?
  3. Why and how do you believe these solutions would generate better wargames that would help provide innovative solutions to national security problems?

Stephen Downes-Martin (NWC) and Peter Perla (CAN) then challenged these presentations and presenters.

Shawn suggested that many of the problems are not only difficult, “wicked” problems, or black swans, but also that we often define problems poorly. Conventional wisdoms and unquestioned assumptions can also be an obstacle. Losing in wargames can be considered as a negative professional experience, and there may be a negative perception of the utility of a “game.” Resource limitations (time/decision-making horizon, funding) present challenges too. Addressing these obstacles requires senior leader buy-in, developing an organizational culture more open to change, reflective practice, and experiential learning.

Jon pointed to the “self-licking ice-cream cone” problem—namely that clients want games to confirm what they already believe to be true. He argued that pressure to verify and validate wargames is often misplaced. Wargame approaches should be linked to the questions being answered. Wargames are fundamentally about abductive (imaginative) reasoning and hypothesis generation, rather than point solutions, and are enhanced by diverse participants. He finally argued that innovation depends on whether there is a receptive culture, a cycle of research that supports it, and a will to implement.

Ed McGrady argued that current DoD interest in innovation was really about dealing with problems we would rather not deal with (on the cheap), namely peer competitors with significant resources. Gaming, he suggested, needed to be cut loose from the traditional planning and acquisitions process. He suggested game design is a liberal art best learned by mentorship and practice. He placed heavy emphasis on the narrative experience of the game. Sponsors need to be encouraged to move away from comfortable, well-worn scenarios.

In his response, Stephen noted that game sponsors didn’t always have an opportunity to more fully understand game design. He asked how those suspicious of wargaming could be relied on to promote greater education about wargaming—to which Shawn responded that, in the military at least, they could be ordered to do so. Ed McGrady suggested the problem could sometimes be staff , rather than leaders. Stephen also asked how treating wargames as performance art, as Ed suggested, was helpful—to which Ed responded by reemphasizing the value of player engagement in the narratives. It was difficult, he noted, to find people who both understood the military and were also good story-tellers. Jon Compton suggested wargamers needed to be more ambitious in their organizations, and take on positions of authority where they can make a real difference. There was considerable agreement that games needed to be designed so that Red can, and sometimes does, win.

After the conference ended for the day, many of us retired back to the hotel for more gaming. I ran a full game of AFTERSHOCK, and am happy to report that multilateral relief efforts were a resounding success (despite HADR-Tasf Force commander “General” Tim Wilkie’s tendency to offend the local population and cluster coordination members alike with his bombastic rhetoric).

Connections 2015: Day 1 AAR


The Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference began today at National Defense University with a series of sessions introducing wargame methodology. While these were primarily aimed at those who might be relatively new to the craft, their content also proved to be of interest to veteran wargamers too.

Matt Caffrey (USAF) started us off the day with an excellent lecture on the  history of wargaming. Immediately after this, Philip Pournelle (USN) introduced key wargame terminology and concepts. After lunch, two simultaneous sessions were offered: one by Matt that offered an overview of wargaming applications, and another by Shawn Burns (US Naval War College) on implementing a war game. These were then followed by two more simultaneous sessions, one by Matt with insights into how leaders can receive more value from wargaming and another by Phil on improving wargaming at the Department of Defense.

One issue that arose in several of these talks might be termed “mislearning,” or the learning of wrong lessons from games. This might happen either because a game was designed poorly, or simply because any game—as a simplified model of a possibly poorly-understood reality—can never render complex processes with perfect fidelity. On the other hand, I would suggest, a weak game can still generate valuable learning or analytical outcomes if critical assessment of the game design is included as a key part of the debrief and analysis process.

Next, Steven Downes-Martin (US NWC) addressed wargaming as a catalyst for innovation. Not surprisingly, since he is provocation personified, Stephen’s presentation delivered plenty of food for thought. He suggested that wargaming has failed to provide innovative insight to DoD for years—at times, a problem of the-blind-leading-the blind. Sponsors and senior players tend to believe they know about wargaming than wargaming experts, or are unwilling to entertain game designs or outcomes that question favoured concepts. Players may also be unwilling to take decisions that will embarrass their (professional) community. Now, in an era when DoD is placing new emphasis on gaming as a way of generating innovation, how can that best be achieved?

Stephen argued that while senior military and political leaders tend to be selected on risk adversity and willingness to play by the bureaucratic rules, high functioning borderline “psychotics” are often the best innovators. “Cheaters” were an asset too, since they challenged players and game designers alike. He noted that there was little point innovating merely for the purposes of innovative process, but rather one innovative results: why use a novel, complex process to generate mundane insights? He suggested that more strategic-level top-down games were needed, since the integration of policy elements couldn’t adequately be explored from the bottom-up. It was useful to stress players and to link career development to effective wargame performance.

In the subsequent Q&A, I offered a series of questions. In honour of Stephen’s seminal 2014 article on “The Three Witches of War Gaming,” I termed all these the “Yes, but how do you know she’s a witch?” challenge.

  • First, how do we balance efforts to promote innovation with the need to generate useful innovation, and therefore filter out other novel, but unproductive, ideas? After all,not all innovation is good: the Edsel, the Apple Newton, and New Coke were all “innovations.” They were also failures. The F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship are innovative too, but will they turn out to be the right sort of innovation?
  • Rule-breaking psychotics, I suggested, are sometimes just rule-breaking psychotics. How can one separate those bright, atypical innovative personalities who add unique value to games from those who might adversely disrupt game play?
  • Similarly, when are “cheaters” useful challengers to the status quo, and when are they simply lost in win-at-all-costs “gamer mode” and actually undermining game objectives?

In response, Stephen stressed that this is why post-game analysis was important: not all novel ideas generated in-game will necessarily stand up to subsequent reflection and scrutiny. (Update: Stephen has incorporated his responses into a revised version of the paper, which you’ll find here.)

Finally, the day ended with a panel on learning wargaming that featured Ed McGrady (CNA), Peter Perla (CNA), and Yuna Wong (RAND). They largely discussed efforts to put together a Master’s-level programme in game design to be offered at George Mason University. Emphasis would very much on design issues, with a strong element of practice and professional training. Such a program needs to be well-rooted in interdisciplinary academic research, linking especially to the broader literature on ludic studies. The discussion raised the broader question of what skillsets one would want to professional wargamers to have—and how they might acquire them, especially if they hadn’t already allocated their youth to hobby gaming. There was also discussion with the audience on whether there was a sufficient market for graduates of such a programme, although panel members suggested it would be sufficiently interdisciplinary to have wider applicability beyond national security gaming.

All-in-all an auspicious start to the week (despite the torrential downpour and flash flood warnings received in the early afternoon). I’m certainly looking forward to the rest of Connections 2015.

AFTERSHOCK: conference discount for Connections 2015


To mark this week’s Connections 2015 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at National Defense University, we’ll be offering a discount on the sale of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. Buy it now at The Game Crafter for $89.99 (MRSP $99.99)—but hurry, the sale ends on July 31!

AFTERSHOCK has its early origins in the 2012 Connections “game lab,” which explored humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations during the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 25 July 2015


Here are some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) games that may be of interest to PAXsims readers.

miscellanyrulerlyWwqCGy_400x400-1It’s almost here! The 2015 Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference starts on Monday (July 27) at National Defense University in Washington DC—and most of the PAXsims crew will be there, providing a summary of the discussions. You can also follow Connections on Twitter.

The first day largely consists of lectures for those new to professional wargaming, while the main conference takes up days two, three, and four (July 28-30).  I’ll be running a  demonstration game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game at Connections on Tuesday evening—email me if you wish to reserve a place.



A recent study by The study by Dr. Michael Kasumovic (University of New South Wales) and Dr. Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff (Miami University) in “Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behavior” suggests that online game players who harass women are—well, losers. Literally.

Gender inequality and sexist behaviour is prevalent in almost all workplaces and rampant in online environments. Although there is much research dedicated to understanding sexist behaviour, we have almost no insight into what triggers this behaviour and the individuals that initiate it. Although social constructionist theory argues that sexism is a response towards women entering a male dominated arena, this perspective doesn’t explain why only a subset of males behave in this way. We argue that a clearer understanding of sexist behaviour can be gained through an evolutionary perspective that considers evolved differences in intra-sexual competition. We hypothesised that female-initiated disruption of a male hierarchy incites hostile behaviour from poor performing males who stand to lose the most status. To test this hypothesis, we used an online first-person shooter video game that removes signals of dominance but provides information on gender, individual performance, and skill. We show that lower-skilled players were more hostile towards a female-voiced teammate, especially when performing poorly. In contrast, lower-skilled players behaved submissively towards a male-voiced player in the identical scenario. This difference in gender-directed behaviour became more extreme with poorer focal-player performance. We suggest that low-status males increase female-directed hostility to minimize the loss of status as a consequence of hierarchical reconfiguration resulting from the entrance of a woman into the competitive arena. Higher-skilled players, in contrast, were more positive towards a female relative to a male teammate. As higher-skilled players have less to fear from hierarchical reorganization, we argue that these males behave more positively in an attempt to support and garner a female player’s attention. Our results provide the clearest picture of inter-sexual competition to date, highlighting the importance of considering an evolutionary perspective when exploring the factors that affect male hostility towards women. (emphasis added)

I’m sure this will come as no surprise to many women gamers. You’ll find further discussion at the Washington Post, Wired, Ars Technica, and elsewhere.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II multirole fighter/strike aircraft has been the subject of considerable controversy on the grounds of both its very high development costs and continued questions about its performance. The controversy grew still further when the results of one set of air maneuver tests were published by David Axe in an article at War is Boring. The tests seemed to show markedly inferior dogfighting performance. Supporters of the program responded that the F-35 is not intended as a dog-fighter, that the tests were largely intended to examine flight control limits not to evaluate or develop air-to-air tactics, and that in combat the F-35 would largely depend on stealth, superior sensors, and beyond visual range (BVR) kills. Still others responded it was too early to tell, or that the F-16 vs F-35 comparisons being made from a single set of test results meant very little.


What does this have to do with simulations? Well, amid all the controversy, Tom Robinson of the Royal Aeronautical Society used the high-fidelity simulation Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations to examine the question of “Does the F-35 really suck in air combat?” His answer: no, it doesn’t.

First. The F-35 certainly does not suck at air combat, providing it keeps within its own realm. As this testing demonstrated, the challenge for any future ‘Red Air’ pilot will be detecting the F-35 and then getting close enough to nullify its LO features in the merge. Though CMANO simulation is extremely powerful in modelling kinematics, sensors and is a huge leap from the earlier Harpoon, it does not model a 3D ACM encounter in high-fidelity like say Falcon 4 or DCS. Post merge, like real-life, it then becomes more matter of chance. However a third playthrough, ironically, did see a F-35 close to guns range and destroy a Su-35 leaving the score at 3 Flankers to nil F-35Bs lost. In around 15 runthroughs, the F-35 came out ahead each time, with the worst result being 3 x Su35s lost to one F-35 shot down. As noted above, professional air warfare tactics experts would undoubtedly be able to do better. In only one of these runthroughs did the fight enter the merge – long and medium range shots being the norm.

Two. A LO [low observability] fighter, with high-end sensors to detect (and importantly classify) targets at range when paired with the Meteor BVRAAM [beyond visual range air-to-air missile] is extremely potent. While the F-35 was able to classify the Flankers at extreme range, the Su35’s sensors were still only able to classify the F-35 as a ‘multi-role’ – even when it was nearly within weapon range. This may be fine in a simulation without other hostiles, friendlies and civilians air contacts to sort and track, but undoubtedly would be more complex in real life.

One can debate, of course, whether the simulation accurately models the performance of highly-classified weapons systems. However, there’s little doubt that the experiment is an excellent example of the sophistication of some modern commercial/hobby conflict simulations, and Robinson’s finding suggests that if the F-35 were to fight as it is intended to fight it could do much better than current critics are suggesting.

jfq-78In the latest issue of Joint Forces Quarterly 78 (July 2015), Dale C. Eikmeier uses the analogy of waffles and pancakes to examine the differences between operational- and tactical-level wargaming:

Ask people what the difference is between pancake batter and waffle batter,1 and some will quizzically return the question, asking if there is a difference; after all, the batter looks the same. A few might acknowledge some differences but not know exactly what they are. Experienced chefs, however, will tell you the difference is the amount of eggs and oil in the batter. You can put pancake batter in a waffle iron and waffle batter on a griddle and both will cook, but the products will disappoint, especially if you were expecting crispy waffles or fluffy pancakes.

Wargaming at the operational and tactical levels is a lot like waffle and pancake batter: it might look the same and share many of the same ingredients, but it has important and subtle differences. Ask military planners what the difference is between operational-level and tactical-level wargaming methodologies used in course of action (COA) analysis, and you will probably get the same pancake-versus-waffle–type answers, with many telling you that the difference is nonexistent or not important. The truth is the wargaming processes may look the same, but the “ingredients” and outcomes are very different. Using a tactical-level wargaming focus at the operational level can result in the direction of well-planned and synchronized tactical actions at questionable operational tasks and the aiming of mismatched capabilities at ill-defined effects that fail to achieve operational and strategic objectives.



As most of the world applauds (and the US Congress debates) the agreement between Iran and the EU3+3 regarding Tehran’s nuclear program, Iranian software developers have released a game in which a player fires missiles at Israel in retaliation for an Israeli strike. According to the Times of Israel:

Iran has developed a new mobile game that simulates a missile attack on Israel, according to the semi-official news agency Fars News.

The game — “Missile Strike” — was unveiled on Friday in honor of al-Quds Day, during which vast numbers of Iranians marched against Israel and the US and called for the “liberation” of Jerusalem.

As part of the game, users “break into the Zionist regime’s air defense and target Israel” using “Iranian-made missiles,” according to the game’s developer, Mehdi Atash Jaam.

Jaam said the game was produced in response to the US-made video game Battlefield, which includes scenes simulating attacks on Tehran.

You’ll find the original Iranian report by Fars News here. For more discussion of games and Iran at PAXsims, see the various blog posts listed here.



A recent item at the  SCM Globe blog discusses how wargaming can help businesses explore the challenges of maintaining global supply chains:

SCM Globe is a serious supply chain game, and like wargames, it uses real world data, and it uses a map of the world as its game board. This is shown in the screenshots below. These screenshots show the model of an actual supply chain for a company that makes furniture in Indonesia and sells to customers around the world. This model is created by defining four types of supply chain entities (products, facilities, vehicles, and routes) and placing them on a map of the world. They are the game pieces in this supply chain game.

SCM Globe leverages Google Maps (or any other mapping application such as Apple Maps, OpenStreetMap, etc.) to create its game board. Players are able to zoom in and out and place products and facilities in specific locations on the map. The information used to define products and facilities accurately reflects the real world. Vehicles and routes can also be carefully placed on the map, and the information used to define them is realistic as well.

Because people can accurately model real supply chains in SCM Globe, they can be confident that the patterns they see in the simulations, and the chunks of information they learn, are transferable to the real world. This capability makes SCM Globe similar to wargames. In each case the same techniques are used to teach real-world skills.


How better to examine the dilemmas of collective action, cooperation, and the “tragedy of the commons” in a social psychology class than to build one into the final exam? That is exactly what Prof. Dylan Selterman at the University of Maryland has been doing.CI3RVzCWcAUMuocmiscellanyruler


The Active Learning in Political Science blog has moved! It can now be found at Update your links—and if you haven’t been following it, you should.

We’ve posted updated information on the 2015 Connections Netherlands interdisciplinary wargaming conference (14-15 September 2015, near Utrecht) on PAXsims here

Fort Vechten Paint.

AFTERSHOCK in the Pacific

The following report has been contributed by MAJ(P) Scott Cole of the 9th Mission Support Command, US Army Reserve. Photographs by Brian Melanephy.

In 2007 I was forced into wargaming. I was forced kicking and screaming—well, probably more whining and complaining than actual screaming—but forced nonetheless. I am an IT guy by trade, and my proclivity for all things computer extended into my leisure pursuits. I built my own servers, computers and network architecture. Others obsessed over fast cars; my obsession was with fast CPUs and data buses. Nearly the whole of my free time was spent immersed in PC games. Sadly (or perhaps happily), my digital bliss was ended by a training accident that would see my right elbow surgically rebuilt. My right elbow! My mouse hand! It was like a gunfighter having his trigger finger amputated. Yeah, okay, it was really like a computer geek who could no longer spend more than twenty minutes using a mouse without being in excruciating pain, but let me romanticize it a little. It sounds more dramatic and will make my life story more likely to be picked up for development into a major motion picture (with me played by Brad Pitt, of course). With my trigger finger gone, the long, blissful excursions into my own private digital Idaho were over. After suffering through a painful day gripping the mouse at work, the pain associated with computer games was no longer worth the cost. I needed to find something else.

Happily, I almost immediately stumbled on some folks at work who played wargames. They invited me. I played. I was captivated. An addiction that still plagues me today ensued. Well, certainly not an addiction…. I can quit anytime I choose. No, really I can. Stop it. . .you sound like my wife.

One thing that I realized about wargames, straight-away, is the great potential they have for use in training, especially at the operational and tactical levels. At the time, I was assigned to a training brigade that focused on battalion and brigade staff training—mostly digital simulations, but we also taught MDMP. I attempted to get buy-in from the senior officers to try to modify commercial wargames for use in the wargaming step of the MDMP process. Unfortunately, they saw manual wargames as an outmoded vehicle and dismissed the suggestion out of hand. I tried again over my next several assignments and met with similar results. I resigned myself to the fact that digital simulations ruled the Army training environment, and anything utilizing cardboard and paper maps would be seen as archaic and of no training value.

In February of this year, I read the Deputy Secretary of Defense’s memo on reinvigorating wargaming throughout the Department of Defense. I was thrilled…ecstatic…dare I say, reinvigorated? I began searching for ways to get wargames incorporated into training in my current unit. I was pointed to Rex Brynen’s PAXsims blog (thank you Volko Ruhnke!) and found AFTERSHOCK.

I’m currently assigned to the 9th Mission Support Command, at Ft. Shafter, Hawaii. The 9th MSC is a unique command, as it is the most ethnically diverse, geographically dispersed command in the U.S. Army Reserve, crossing seven times zones, two states, two territories, a commonwealth and two foreign countries. What makes the HADR mission so important to those Reservists assigned to the 9th MSC is that the places in the Pacific that have extreme weather events that require a HADR response are the places many of these soldiers call home. We have a professional and personal stake in being ready to respond and do our jobs well.

Training the force on HADR response is a challenge. I briefed our Chief of Staff on AFTERSHOCK and quickly sold him on its training value, since neither of us had seen any HADR-specific training products. I got in contact with Rex and got the game ordered.

In June, I ran AFTERSHOCK for our Commanding General and Staff. I was very keen to see the players’ initial response as they entered the room, since the initiation was sent out as a HADR training exercise with no specific details about the training; only the command group knew that it involved a simulation game. My staff and I had set up the games prior to the participants’ arrival, so when they entered they saw the games set up on the tables.


Here are a few the comments I recorded as participants entered the training room:

“Oh, so were playing Risk today?”

“Nice, we’re getting paid to play games!”

“What is this, Monopoly?”

“Is this a game? I’ve got serious work to do. How long is this going last?”

These comments are significant, as they reflect the ubiquitous attitude toward tabletop games among Army officers. Had I lain down a topographical map, acetate, and grease pencils then told them we were going to practice map symbology, they would have grumbled, but considered it standard training….because that how Army training always used to be.

How do we overcome this? Just from the microcosm of this AFTERSHOCK session, I have two fairly obvious, but oftentimes unattainable, answers:

  • Senior leader buy-in: If the boss is present, participates and advocates the training value of the game, it adds immensely to the reception from the rest of the command.
  • The game needs to be immediately relevant to the subject being trained, and the game needs to be good. Good means exactly the same as what a hobby wargamer expects from a commercially produced product: smooth mechanics, accurate depiction of the subject and loads of meaningful and interesting decisions.


I split our trainees into two teams, one consisting of field grade officers (Major to Colonel) and higher (General Officers); the other was comprised of Captains and junior Majors. My initial belief was that the more junior table would catch on quicker and be more involved in the game, as we often see in the digital training arena. I was absolutely incorrect. The senior table took to the game immediately, absorbed the mechanics and was deep into developing an overall strategy by turn two. The more junior table stumbled about and didn’t formulate an ordered plan until around turn four.

One of AFTERSHOCK’s most effective aspects is its ability to mimic the chaos and uncertainty found during the initial response in a HADR mission. Having the teams get a brief overview of the rules, then tossing them into a moderator-assisted first two turns very successfully creates a sense of confusion, causes hesitance and slightly overwhelms the players, as they cannot fully get their heads around what needs to be done first. As with a real operation, once they get a grasp of the situation and the processes and procedures needed to meet the mission demands, they can start strategizing and better react to the disaster. Without that initial perplexity, I imagine it would be much easier to succeed in AFTERSHOCK, although I do see great value in allowing the teams to play a second time to reinforce their successes and avoid their previous mistakes. I recommend you do not let your players have any knowledge of the game prior to running it. Dealing with the initial confusion has great training value.


Both teams ended up with a win, although the junior group didn’t secure it until late in the game. The competitiveness that arose between the teams was excellent and added very much to the atmosphere in the room. I highly suggest that you foment an atmosphere of competition when you run AFTERSHOCK.

Overall, the teams found the game interesting, fun and most importantly, that it holds significant training value. Prior to us running AFTERSHOCK, Rex Brynen was kind enough to spend a couple of hours with us on Skype to give us some pointers on successfully facilitating a game. Besides giving us all the game play overview and points on running the game, he would interject some of the anecdotes behind the creation of the cards. The Celebrity Visitor event card, for example, was based upon the real life visit of John Travolta during the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He and the Church of Scientology had loaded up his personal Boeing 707 and he flew it into Haiti to bring bags full of donated supplies. While the media swarmed him and he toured the disaster areas, the supplies had to be unloaded by human chain, then sorted and stored. While all of this was going on his plane sat and took up one of only scarce parking spots at the airport, thereby reducing the airport capacity and slowing the delivery of palletized, military relief flights.

That story and the few others we imparted to the players were amazingly effective. They showed how all of the events in the game had actually happened and gave the AFTERSHOCK substantial credibility once players saw how it had been designed using real world events. One of the most frequent feedbacks we received from players was that the history of the event cards really added to the experience and it would be great if every card had the history behind it either printed on the card, as flavor text, or in an appendix that could be read when each event came up.

AFTERSHOCK is an excellent training tool. It focuses players on the criticality of coordination and logistics during a HADR event, and does very well in simulating the initial chaos of a disaster. Our training was a resounding success and our Commanding General has directed me to use the game throughout the 9th MSC to ensure all units involved with our HADR mission get the opportunity to run through it.

I didn’t hear any Monopoly comments after the training. I heard a lot of those happy war stories we get after a good wargame: talk of different strategies and things to be done better next time. I’ve had repeated requests from players to run the game again for them. AFTERSHOCK leaves an impression and has players thinking about it days after they play. That lasting impact is exactly what we want from our training products because it means that what has been taught has been retained, and that which is retained can be applied in the real world

I don’t know that I can say I’m happy about injuring my elbow all those years ago, but I can say that I am very glad it has led me to a most excellent, multi-faceted hobby which has direct and effective application in my chosen profession.

MAJ(P) Scott Cole   

AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game is now available for order!

We are very, very pleased to announced that AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game is now available from The Game Crafter. Click the image below to visit the order page.


Tom Fisher and I would like to thank everyone who assisted with the development AFTERSHOCK. Many of the initial ideas for this game came from participants in the “Game Lab” at the Connections 2012 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at National Defense University, which focused on humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations during the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Special thanks are due to Game Lab co-facilitators David Becker, Brant Guillory, Ty Mayfield, Gary Milante, Joshua Riojas, and Brian Train. The game also drew inspiration from the Crisis Response humanitarian assistance card game developed by Gary Milante and from the Zombiton NHS zombies-in-a-hospital game developed with Jessica Barton.

The design of the game was refined with input from a large group of playtesters. These included attendees at subsequent Connections and Connections UK conferences; Prof. Jeremy Wells and his POSI 3666 (civil-military relations) class at Texas State University; students from POLI 450/650 (peacebuilding) at McGill University; participants in the Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program; and staff at CECOPAC (Centro Conjunto para Operaciones de Paz de Chile). Special thanks are due to David and Chloe Brynen (our earliest playtesters), and to Eric Freeman, June McCabe, Ecem Oskay, Hiba Zerrougui, and others from the McGill Conflict Simulation Group.

We are very grateful to the United Nations Photo Library, the United Nations Development Programme, and most especially the Photography Unit of the World Food Programme for making available most of the images used in the game.

All profits from the sale of AFTERSHOCK are donated to the United Nations World Food Programme and other UN humanitarian agencies.


Cyber Operational Awareness Course matrix game

The following report was contributed by Major Tom Mouat, Directing Staff officer responsible for Modelling and Simulation at the Defence Academy of the UK.

I thought that PaxSims readers might like to hear how running a Matrix Game went down as part of the Cyber Operational Awareness Course at the Defence Academy of the UK.

cybercourseThe course “aims to contextualise Cyber within Defence by raising awareness of wider operational perspectives.” It lasts 3 ½ days and is Rank Ranged OR7-OF4 (Civilian D-C1), (Staff Sergeant to Colonel) which is somewhat unusual, but I think the course benefitted from the wide rank range due to the inclusion of senior NCOs, many of who were specialists in their own right and very interested in the subject. This certainly added to the classroom discussions.

The course is currently only available to UK MOD personnel and, while generally conducted at a low classification, takes place in a restricted area in case questions and discussion stray onto more classified topics.

On previous courses there was a “Planning Estimate” carried out, lasting about a day and featuring a 50 page background briefing about an entirely fictional scenario. This attracted a lot of criticism as it covered many things that had no cyber relevance and the background briefing was coma inducing because it was completely fictitious and was extremely difficult to follow (both for the students and the instructors).

It was decided to replace the Planning Estimate with a Cyber Matrix game. Matrix Games are extremely low overhead, free-form games, built around an evolving narrative through the means of a series of logical “Arguments” proposed by the participants to advance their position in the game. They are useful for rapid assessment of scenarios, as an alternate analytical method and for education. They are particularly suited to subjects where “effects” are more important than weapon system performance.

This represented something of a challenge as previously we had conducted Matrix Games with relatively few players and the course required the game to run with 35 participants. We elected to run the game with teams of about 4 players representing the different actors and use a couple of the more experienced participants to assist in the adjudication of the “Matrix Arguments”.

We conducted a trial with about 10 participants and a completely fictitious scenario which, while it ran adequately, was lacklustre. The scenario suffered from the same difficulty in identifying the different actors in the conflict and being able to present them in a realistically nuanced way. It was quite fun, but failed to bring out the learning points required, so required a significant re-think.

In the end the scenario was completely re-written to involve fictitious states as the primary actors, but within the real geo-political context of the Baltic States. This enabled us to reduce the briefing considerably and promote a better understanding of the scenario through the means of analogies. The teams were allocated as follows:

  • The NATO sympathetic State.
  • Their “cyber supporters”.
  • The Main Protagonist State, massing troops on the border and fomenting rebellion in border cities.
  • Their “cyber supporters”.
  • The USA.
  • An independent third party hacking group based in the Far East.
  • The Press (Global Network News – GNN)
  • Assessors (a couple of experienced students intended to help with adjudication).

In addition a map was constructed showing the military deployments, as well as things like refugee camps and significant infrastructure installations in order to provide player teams things to focus on.

The game was run in an afternoon in a large classroom with 2 projectors – one with the maps and deployments on it and one with a PowerPoint show with the “Press Headlines” from each turn. This served as a record of the results of the Matrix Arguments as well as a summary of international opinion at the end of each turn (each of which represented “about 2 weeks”).

CapabilityCardExample1We also decided to provide the actors at the start of the game with a number of “Capability Cards” representing certain cyber capabilities, to focus their minds but also to bring out specific learning points.

Team briefs included these Capability Cards, the much reduced background briefing (now limited to 4 pages and a map) and a one page briefing specific to the team (including their objectives).

In between turns the players were also asked general “cyber awareness” questions, such as “Who was responsible for the leak of 750,000 confidential US documents to Wikileaks in about 2010?” (Bradley (Chelsea) Manning). The correct answer would provide the team with an opportunity to re-roll the dice if there was chance of failure in an argument, and was intended to represent the “research” element of cyber operations – the better the research / reconnaissance phase, the higher the likelihood of success.

The game went well with good engagement all round. Student quantitative feedback scores were the highest for the Matrix Game session than any of the other sessions in the course and qualitative feedback comments were also good.

Points to note:

  • Adding a “Press” team to record results and present “International Opinion” worked very well and was very useful as part of the game debrief (and was fun).
  • The “Capability Cards” as specific pointers towards educational learning points worked well – they were used (or not used) appropriately, sold to other Teams, patched and made redundant, and generally added to the outcomes. This supports Canadian findings that player perceptions can be heavily influenced by the information provided and physical presentation. In an educational context this can be very useful.
  • There was one criticism in the qualitative feedback that the person running the game “didn’t always listed to the full arguments”. This is an easy trap to fall into when running Matrix Games, in that the person running the game ends up acting as an “Umpire” and occasionally imposing his world view, rather than as “Facilitator” for the event (again supporting the Canadian findings above). The inclusion of the “Assessor” team was intended to mitigate against this, but they weren’t sufficiently briefed.
  • While the game was very successful, the post-game briefing was merely adequate. More effort was needed to provide a structure to the debrief and identify the specific learning outcomes. The Capability Cards helped (especially with those teams who chose NOT to use them), but there is room to provide more obvious team objectives in order to bring out additional points.

Overall the inclusion of a Matrix Game in a cyber-focussed course was a success in promoting discussion and understanding of a subject resistant to conventional teaching methods, so we are likely to use it again in the future. I believe that Matrix Games are particularly suited to education about cyber operations as they avoid getting bogged down in unnecessary technical detail, while promoting insight and understanding.

Tom Mouat 

ISW wargames international responses to ISIS global strategy

Wargame report cover_0The Institute for the Study of War has released a report on two wargames it conducted earlier this year that examined the global expansion of ISIS activities and the possible response of the US, European, and regional actors.

ISW’s simulation focused on possible outcomes of ISIS’s regional activity. The anti-ISIS coalition is currently focused on ISIS only within Iraq and Syria. Therefore the U.S. is vulnerable to strategic surprise resulting from ISIS’s external activity. ISIS has the potential to pressure and divert allies that are critical to the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts, while continuing its own expansion program. Simulating the effects of ISIS’s endeavor in advance revealed insights that will assist in the creation of a coherent counter-ISIS strategy, rather than a piecemeal strategy formulated as crises occur.


  • ISIS likely will expand regionally and project force globally in the medium term
  • Few countries are willing or able to counter ISIS as a global phenomenon. No simulation participants took multi-front action to limit ISIS’s regional expansion, even though most participants opposed ISIS. This was true even of al Qaeda
  • Avoiding or delaying action against ISIS will not necessarily preserve strategic options in the future. Instead, U.S. strategic options may narrow as adversaries grow in strength and potential allies suffer losses and turn to other partners. Participants did not consider that smaller, early action might prevent the need for more drastic steps later on. Simula­tion participants expressed concern about overreach and unwittingly playing into sectarian conflicts. However, partici­pants did not recognize that their inaction might also play into those conflicts
  • The military planners in the simulation perceived that the United States does not have enough armed forces to undertake a multi-theater campaign to degrade and defeat ISIS on its own. The U.S. therefore must choose between increasing its armed forces, relying on coalition partners to achieve the defined mission, or changing the defined mission against ISIS
  • The U.S. must define the global counter-ISIS mission, and then determine the nested objectives for ISIS and each of its affiliates in support of that mission
  • In the absence of an explicit strategy to counter ISIS’s regional expansion, the U.S. and its allies likely will rely on stable and semi-stable states, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. In both simulations the U.S. team’s implicit long-term strategy was to contain regional chaos as best possible through these partners, rather than adopt a campaign against extremist groups directly
  • ISIS has an asymmetric advantage because it can project force from disparate regions, potentially exploiting fissures between multiple international organizations and U.S. combatant commands
  • ISIS’s Near Abroad and Far Abroad campaigns likely will exacerbate cleavages amongst European actors, leading to interstate and intrastate divergences on security approaches and prioritization of threats
  • Turkey, Russia, and Egypt each have a disproportionate ability to spoil or facilitate counter-ISIS strategies devised by the U.S
  • The U.S. risks strategic failure even if ISIS does not attempt coherent action across global fronts. The campaigns of ISIS’s affiliates and supporters across multiple regions may distract and divide the U.S.’s allies and resources, as may other conflicts such as the one in Ukraine
  • ISIS’s global campaign likely will increase policymakers’ tolerance of frequent, high-level, and widespread violent events, creating opportunities for the United States’ adversaries
  • The U.S. and its allies cannot conduct counter-ISIS operations without considering the context of other extremist forces in the region. A strategy focused on ISIS alone likely will allow other radical actors to thrive.

ISW does some very good work on the current conflicts in Iraq and Syria, so the report is well worth a look. As a Middle East specialist who has periodically worked on ISIS issues in an analytical capacity and who has frequently wargamed the “ISIS Crisis,” I was particularly interested in what they had to say, and how they conducted the game. ISW previously conducted a wargame on the civil war in Syria back in 2012. At the time, I was somewhat critical of the way in which that game was conducted and aspects of the final report. Credit where credit is due, however: ISW did accurately point to the dangers of conflict spill-over from Syria into Iraq—exactly the dynamic that has subsequently given rise to ISIS.

In this case, there is a little more information on the game methodology, which is helpful in assessing the findings. Both games were two-move seminar games, in which the teams were given a scenario (+injects), and then proposed actions. These were then partly reflected in turn 2.


As noted in the summary above, a key finding of the wargame was the need for a more coherent global counter-ISIS strategy. I don’t disagree—coherence is a good thing—but it isn’t clear to me whether a “more coherent” strategy would look all that much different from what the US and its allies are doing at present. This is, in large part, because the key stakeholders do not have identical interests. This presents the US with almost insoluble dilemmas—for example, cultivating Egypt as a key counter-jihadist ally is severely complicated by the fact the Egypt’s repression of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood undoubtedly spurs jihadist radicalization. In other words, I think the degree of coherence that can be expected is limited, and at a certain point an effort to achieve unachievable strategic elegance becomes a waste of valuable time and effort. You go to war with the coalitions and constraints you have, not those you might wish for.

Complicating things still further, the efficacy of various policy options against ISIS isn’t clear either—in real life that is, much less in any simulation. Does the US have many military options that would significantly degrade ISIS at reasonable cost and reasonable risk, and also be acceptable to Congress and the American public? I’m not sure that it does.

Finally, I worry that the games conducted by ISW failed to sufficiently incorporate domestic politics in the key affected countries. A key part of some of the scenarios, for example, were developments in Libya. However, exploring this requires that conflicting Libyan actors be represented in the game too—especially given the extent to which ISIS has grown amid the chaos of clashes between the country’s two would-be governments, various “none of the above” Islamist groups, and sundry other armed actors. Indeed, one of the key findings from our own series of ISIS games has been that self-interested locals often stymie efforts by outside actors to support effective action against ISIS.

On the positive side, I do think ISW is absolutely right to represent ISIS as a major global threat to international peace and security. They are very scary people indeed, and the fight to degrade the organization will take many years of difficult effort.

How does the seminar wargame methodology chosen by ISW compared with the “matrix game” approach we’ve used in our ISIL wargames? On the one hand, a seminar game does allow for considered discussion and development of strategy. On the other hand, it allows far less adversarial interaction and adaption, especially when only two weakly-linked moves are involved. In a seminar game, debates over the efficacy of actions are largely confined to the white cell during the adjudication process (and it isn’t clear to what extent player actions really did reshape “move two” in the ISW games). In a matrix game, however, they become a centrepiece of game play, with participants directly involved in identifying and discussing factors that might inhibit or enable a particular course of action. Smaller matrix games may be more strongly affected by personality, gaming style and other idiosyncratic factors than larger seminar games. However, I think a matrix game more fully captures the challenges of policy-making in a dynamic and uncertain world.

* * *

UPDATE: The Atlantic Council has also conducted a couple of ISIS wargames, in September 2014 and February 2015. For some discussion of all of these, see a blog post by Charles Cameron at ZenPundit.



Today we received the first production copy of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game from Game Crafter. As you can see from the video below, it came out very well indeed–all of the components are crisp, clear, and nicely printed on good-quality stock.

The game will be available for order in the next few days. We will, of course, announce that here on PAXsims—then you’ll all be able to buy your own copy!

All net proceeds from the sale of AFTERSHOCK go the the World Food Programme and other UN humanitarian agencies.


AAR from RAND’s Gaming Center Open House

logo-1200Last month, RAND’s new Gaming Methods Center hosted an open house for gamers in the DC area. The event provided an opportunity for an exchange on the current state of gaming. Highlights of the discussion are summarized below. The event was a great chance to see what different folks in the community are thinking about, and I hope that similar events will occur regularly in the future!

The Gaming Methods Center is one of six new internal organizations, intended to “facilitate the development and dissemination of analytic tools and methodologies as well as employ existing ones in a collaborative and synergistic fashion across the entire RAND research and policy domain landscape.” The center’s immediate objectives include:

  • Encourage the development of innovative new tools and techniques and encourage the evolution of existing forms and methods
  • Encourage the use of these methods across the entire RAND research portfolio (cross-disciplinary)
  • Encourage interdisciplinary cooperation on methods

The open house featured presentations from long-time RAND gamers who highlighted the history of gaming at RAND, the important role gaming can play in confronting current security challenges, and current RAND methods for both seminar style and board game/table top design games. A few highlights include:

  • A discussion of past RAND gamers work, which highlighted a favorite RAND paper of mine, Crisis Games 27 Years Later
  • A discussion of the evolution of the “Day After” method for seminar gaming, which I’ve used to good effect in some of my educational games

In the course of the event, there was lively debate from both RAND staff and outside participants about how gaming can best be employed to support national security decision makers. Highlights include:

Benefits of Gaming. Over the course of the day, participants offered a range of thoughts about the benefits gaming offers to the national security community. One participant describe three criteria for problems that are tractable to gaming:

  • Blue or red operational concepts are not decided or not good
  • Human agency is a major determinant of outcomes (adversary behavior in particular)
  • Designer needs to convey a future people haven’t yet experienced

Other participants linked the practice of national security gaming to research on the power of the “urge to play” as a means of education and discovery. Still others noted that games tap into human’s need for narrative by providing an opportunity to build our own narratives in a setting that’s shaped by designers to further the right narrative.

Finally, participants highlighted the benefits that gaming offers to analysts. One individual commented on the tendency of analyst to waste too much time “worshiping the model.” Gaming encourages analyst to get to insights more quickly by forcing the analyst to work in broad strokes and model the truly important without getting tied up by the minutia. Games are also helpful when they disrupt assumptions that are built into the model. By watching what assumptions break down during the game, analysts can then go back to develop a better model.

Is gaming a scientific method or not. The art vs. science debate is an old standard in the field. In addition to a discussion of Peter Perla’s concept of games as part of the cycle of research, highlights of the discussion include the analogy of gaming methods to method acting, discussion of “the cult of spurious precision” that falsely seeks precise quantification rather than broader insight, and the importance of good design.

While this debate was interesting, I found myself agreeing with a participant who said that he was tired of hearing the same debate on the topic over the last several years. He urged the community to move forward to determine the implications of this debate for gaming practice. More work that lays out how the practical process of design and assessment would differ base on this theoretical debate seems more likely to move the field forward.

Game design standards. Some interesting commonalities in the participants’ standards for game design emerged during the discussion. Participants stressed that good game design, like good analysis of any kind, is primarily about caveating the limitations of analysis. However, right now there are not consistent standards about how such caveats are documented and communicated to fellow analysts and sponsors. Instead, there is currently a lot of responsibility on the principle investigator to communicate limitations. Some participants stated that this is best done by telling stories about “dynamics of the campaign” to senior leaders.

Relationship between gaming and other common types of modeling. Participants stressed the differences between gaming and other common types of modeling such as campaign planning. Gaming isn’t a cheap or fast way to do campaign planning and assessment, and should not be used in its place. As a result, it is critical that gamers know other methods well enough to direct sponsors to other methods that are more appropriate to answer the questions at hand.

At the same time, participants also stressed that gaming and modeling can and should work in tandem, not in oppositions. For example, games can be used as a screening tool, in order to determine what topics are worth spending the time to create in-depth, higher-resolution model. Games can also be used to test assumption that will be used to build models to minimize the risks of a faulty foundation to analysis.

Finally, participants stressed that gaming is a broad field that likely includes many related techniques. Being more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of different techniques can make us better able to pick the correct technique for the problems we are asked to analyze.

Challenges of communicating the potential and limitations of games to sponsors. Discussion highlighted the necessity of educating sponsors about what games can and cannot achieve. Many in the group stressed that right now sponsors who are new to gaming don’t understand what types of questions are appropriate to game. Furthermore, because gaming has become the main tool in the box for a number of current issues, the professional community needs to set ground rules and expectations (a point I’ve discussed at length here). Right now, there is not enough guidance available outside of the expertise of senior practitioners to help identify good games and bad games. If the field cannot develop alternative ways to ensure the quality of games, there is a real concern that “bad money will drive out good.” Participants agreed that there is a need to make sure that the interest in gaming doesn’t drive us into bad practices, not only for our own careers, but also for national security.

Additionally, unlike many other approaches to analysis, gaming is an event and a process rather than a group of methods for data analysis. Issues like the inability to replicate games, the need for space and in-person interaction, and other related challenges are hard to communicate to sponsors. In particular, stressing organizations through gaming often stresses process and procedures—space requirements, security, etc. all become major challenge.

Shortcomings of the traditional guide-style gaming education system. The current system for educating new gamers has been challenged by the noticeable generational gap in the field, where an established core of senior gamers is supported by staffs of entry-level folks (of whom there were a number in attendance, a nice change of pace from the more senior crowd that attends many gaming events). Discussion highlighted how the field’s traditional reliance on commercial board wargames may limit mentorship. The group also discussed the ways in which limited formal methods for game design make entering the field challenging.

Balancing the convenience of digital with impact of in-person events. There was a sustained discussion of whether games can be done remotely, using technology to bridge distances and allow for asynchronous games. The hope is not only will this make games cheaper, but also allow more, and more diverse player perspectives. However, the utility of such “virtual” games was contested. In general folk felt that the usefulness of virtual games depends on the purpose of the game, what types of findings are you looking for, what type of events you want to simulate, the audience, and what kind of time and interaction are available. One comment that particularly resonated with me is that games give a simulated experience that can shape behavior in the real world, so they require “intellectual if not physical proximity.” If analysts can created the intellectual proximity required in a virtual environment than these games can be successful, but often interpersonal interaction is still required.

Converting individual discoveries in the game to institutional insights. Participants discussed the necessity, and the challenges, of converting the individual experience of game designers and participants into organizational change.

Participants noted that often the group that learns the most from games in the design team, who may not be in the best position to advocate for change after the game is compete. Participants stressed the importance of game designs building up the ability to communicate game results in compelling (often narrate based) ways.

Likewise individual player experiences during games can be profound, but missed by game designs that focus on documenting group discussion and decision making.   Participants suggested interviews with individual players focused on how individuals framed problems can be helpful. Likewise, focusing on understanding the thinking of individuals who deviate from the group’s “mean” opinion can be particularly valuable. To capture these perspectives, ensuring that research questions and data capture plans include a focus on individuals and small groups as well as the group as a whole is critical.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 9 July 2015

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

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As the BBC reports, he town of Sant’Eufemia a Maiella is transforming its main square into a giant map for the boardgame RISK:

The piazza in Sant’Eufemia a Maiella, located deep within Italy’s central Majella National Park, will be covered with a 650-sq-m (7,000-sq-ft) board as part of the event later this month, the local Il Centro website reports. It’s billed as the biggest game of Risk in the world by the event’s organisers. Artist Liberio Furlini spent 15 days painting the huge political map of the world used in the game. Super-sized playing pieces designed to fit with the gigantic board will be used by those taking part.

Risk is a strategy game where players try to occupy each territory on the board, thereby eliminating their competitors. The rules are being slightly simplified to allow more people to compete, but the tournament’s winner will need to brush up on all the finer details, as they’ll be offered a place at the national Risk championship.

“We have already seen 80 people sign up to take part from all over Italy,” Mayor Francesco Crivelli tells Metro News 24. And while the mayor is partial to a game himself, he might not fancy his chances at the tournament. “Usually I like to play using the green pieces, but I lose, I always lose,” he tells the channel.

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What would happen if Nobel Prize winner Peter Higgs was to answer physics-based Dungeons & Dragons questions? It might look something like this (satire/fiction). I swear I’ve had a couple of these debates myself.

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Brian Train’s new game of the Algerian war of independence, Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62, is now available for pre-order on GMT Games’ P500list. This is a two (or one) player version of GMT’s current COIN game system.

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A final reminder that the Connections 2015 interdisciplinary wargaming conference will be held at National Defense University in Washington DC on July 27-29.

I have no idea if Brant Guillory will be there again this year….

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Finally, an update on  AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. Thanks to the technical and graphic wizardry of Tom Fisher, AFTERSHOCK is now in production. We’re just awaiting an initial copy from Game Crafter, and once we’ve checked that all is in order we’ll open up online orders to the public. If you’re at Connections 2015, you can see a copy there!

MORS 83th Panel AAR: Typologies of Game Standards


Last month, I participated in a panel on treating games as a quasi-experimental method, organized as part of the 83rd annual MORS symposium. The panel’s participants represented a range of approaches to gaming, as shown in some of our recent presentations to the MORS Wargaming Community of Practice this spring.

The dominant view of the panel was that game are not quasi-experiments, but that quasi-experimental design can serve as a useful metaphor to wargame design. Quasi-experimental design refers to experiments that do not have randomized controls. As a result, the method spends a great deal of time and attention considering what conclusions can be drawn given limited control over the conditions.

Since it’s particularly important to consider how much control we can actually exercise over game design and how we articulate the rationale for our choices to sponsor and consumers of post-game analysis, I think the structures and standards laid out in quasi-experiential methods can provide helpful guidance. Some of my fellow panelists were less sold on the utility of this particular set of tools, though most agreed it was a valid approach.

However, the majority of the panel’s time was spent discussing validation. For many on the panel, this is a loaded term that calls to mind statistical validation, which is not possible in wargames. While I find the concepts and practices related to internal and external validity to be useful guides in game design and analysis, this panel did a good job of convincing me that the effort needed to convince folks that internal and external validity need not mean statistical validity is not worth the fight. Audience member and panels offered a range of alternatives from “trustworthiness” to “analytical caveats” that might provoke less resistance while still helping to articulate a shared, flexible standard that design and reporting on games should be held to.

What made the panel particularly useful to my mind is that the conversation (both between panelists and with the audience) was able to move past simply arguing for the need for standards, to laying out broad approaches to design that might require different standards. These included:

Game Purpose: The differences between game design for analysis and training came up (including a short discussion of the two by two I use to describe the differences). It was agreed that we should think about how much each of these types of games must reflect the real problem set they represents differently depending on the goal of the game.

Game Structure: Somewhat related, panelists stressed that structure of the problem being explored in a game is not necessarily directly related to the structure of the adjudication technique in use in that game(a point I’ve stressed before). One conclusion I drew from the discussion is that the problem structure likely has as much, if not more, bearing on how to think about game results then the adjudication structure selected. Designers often focus on the adjudication model as the bases for why game results should be seen as relevant, but if many of our fundamental design decisions are driven by the problem structure, then we might be better off focusing on the problem.

Epistemological approach: One key point of divergence among members of the panel was what epistemological approach is best applied to wargaming. Arguments in favor of positivist, constructivist, and complexity theory where each made, though it was generally agreed that games could be designed and analyze any of the three approaches. Which approach is the most appropriate to gaming has been a frequent debate within the COP over the last year, but this conversation offered a way out: that each may be valid but have different rules of the road (with implications about when each is appropriate to use).

Game design philosophy: Several panelists mentioned Peter Perla’s three styles of game design artists, architects, and analysts (discussed in this lecture), as a key aspect governing game design standards. I fall very strongly into the architect camp, so my style of game design lends itself particularly well to structured approaches from the social sciences. As a result, it was particularly helpful to hear from others on the panel, particularly the “artist” type designers about their preferred metrics of game success. These metrics focused on participant engagement, which I’ve always considered as a less prominent component of game analysis. Thinking more about how to create standards that center in engagement and emotional connectivity will be useful to creating more differentiated standards that better for the full range of game we use.

Finally, for much of the panel, validation of game results happens outside the game itself as part of the broader “cycle of research.” It’s great to see such a strong explicit focus on games as part of broader efforts. Connecting the design choices and resulting standards to aspects of these broader studies will be a key area for future research in game design.

Forthcoming AFTERSHOCK demonstrations

AFTERSHOCKlargeWe currently have the following demonstration games of AFTERSHOCK planned. If you are professional involved in teaching about humanitarian crisis and disaster response and would be interested in participating, email me for further information. Space is limited. I’ll update this list as new demonstration games are planned.


  • Washington DC: 28 July 2015 (National Defense University/Connections)  Washington DC: 30 July 2015 (US State Department)
  • Washington DC: 31 July 2015 (National Defense University)
  • London, UK: 9 September 2015 (King’s College London/Connections UK)
  • Fairfax, VA: 29 September 2015 (MORS professional gaming workshop)
  • Washington DC: 2 October 2015 (USAID)
  • Kingston, ON: 19 October (Royal Military College of Canada)
  • Springfield, MO: 30 October 2015 (Missouri State University)
  • Lennoxville, QC: 13 November 2015 (Bishop’s University)
  • Montreal, QC: 2 December 2015 (McGill University)
  • Melbourne, Australia: 15 December 2015 (University of Melbourne/Connections Australia).
  • Washington DC: 3 February 2015 (National Defense University)
  • Ottawa, ON: 22 February 2016 (Connections North)
  • Ottawa, ON: 20 May 2016 (DRDC)
  • Ottawa, ON: 22 May 2016 (CANGAMES)
  • Portsmouth, UK: 29 June 2016 (Dstl)
  • Carlisle, PA: 27 August 2016 (US Army War College)
  • London, UK: 7 September 2016 (King’s College London/Connections UK)
  • Durham, NC: 20 October 2016 (Duke University)
  • Washington, DC: 24 October 2016 (Foreign Service Institute, US State Department)
  • Montreal, QC: 25 January 2017 (McGill University)
  • Montreal, QC: 1 February 2017 (McGill University)
  • Montreal, QC: 8 February 2017 (McGill University)
  • London, UK: 4 September 2017 (Peace Direct)
  • London, UK: 5 September 2017 (KCL/Connections UK)
  • Alexandra, VA: 17-19 October 2017 (MORS Wargaming Workshop III)
  • Montreal, QC: 26 January 2018 (McGill University)
  • Calgary, AB: 6 February 2018 (University of Calgary)
  • London, UK: 4-6 September 2018 (Connections UK)
  • Montreal, QC: 22-29 February 2019 (McGill University)
  • Norfolk, VA: 4 March 2019 (NATO ACT)
  • Paris, France: 7 March 2019 (Serious Games Network)
  • London, UK: 3-5 September 2019 (Connections UK)
  • Ottawa, ON: 7 October 2019 (Sir Robert Borden High School)
  • Montreal, QC: 20 November 2019 (McGill University)
  • Montreal, QC: February 2020 (McGill University)


  • TBA

If you aren’t in one of these locations but are interested in seeing AFTERSHOCK in action for possible adoption by your organization, contact me—if I’m in the neighbourhood, I would be pleased to oblige.

You can also play AFTERSHOCK at the Draughts boardgame café in London (UK).

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