Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 27/09/2015

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 27 September 2015


In a few hours I’ll be headed to Fairfax, VA for the Military Operations Research Society (MORS) Professional Gaming Workshop. Several other PAXsims contributors will be there too, and I’ll be running a demonstration game or two of AFTERSHOCK as well (email me for details).

Before I leave, however, here are a few recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers. Corinne Goldberger contributed to this latest edition.


According to a piece by Julia Ioffe in Foreign Policy magazine, a series of Pentagon wargames has highlighted the serious military challenge that NATO and the United States would face in confronting any Russian attack on the Baltic states:

In June 2014, a month after he had left his force-planning job at the Pentagon, the Air Force asked [then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for force development] Ochmanek for advice on Russia’s neighborhood ahead of Obama’s September visit to Tallinn, Estonia. At the same time, the Army had approached another of Ochmanek’s colleagues at Rand, and the two teamed up to run a thought exercise called a “table top,” a sort of war game between two teams: the red team (Russia) and the blue team (NATO). The scenario was similar to the one that played out in Crimea and eastern Ukraine: increasing Russian political pressure on Estonia and Latvia (two NATO countries that share borders with Russia and have sizable Russian-speaking minorities), followed by the appearance of provocateurs, demonstrations, and the seizure of government buildings. “Our question was: Would NATO be able to defend those countries?” Ochmanek recalls.

The results were dispiriting. Given the recent reductions in the defense budgets of NATO member countries and American pullback from the region, Ochmanek says the blue team was outnumbered 2-to-1 in terms of manpower, even if all the U.S. and NATO troops stationed in Europe were dispatched to the Baltics — including the 82nd Airborne, which is supposed to be ready to go on 24 hours’ notice and is based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

“We just don’t have those forces in Europe,” Ochmanek explains. Then there’s the fact that the Russians have the world’s best surface-to-air missiles and are not afraid to use heavy artillery.

After eight hours of gaming out various scenarios, the blue team went home depressed. “The conclusion,” Ochmanek says, “was that we are unable to defend the Baltics.”

Ochmanek decided to run the game on a second day. The teams played the game again, this time working on the assumption that the United States and NATO had already started making positive changes to their force posture in Europe. Would anything be different? The conclusion was slightly more upbeat, but not by much. “We can defend the capitals, we can present Russia with problems, and we can take away the prospect of a coup de main,” Ochmanek says. “But the dynamic remains the same.” Even without taking into account the recent U.S. defense cuts, due to sequestration, and the Pentagon’s plan to downsize the Army by 40,000 troops, the logistics of distance were still daunting. U.S. battalions would still take anywhere from one to two months to mobilize and make it across the Atlantic, and the Russians, Ochmanek notes, “can do a lot of damage in that time.”

Ochmanek has run the two-day table-top exercise eight times now, including at the Pentagon and at Ramstein Air Base, in Germany, with active-duty military officers. “We played it 16 different times with eight different teams,” Ochmanek says, “always with the same conclusion.”

The Defense Department has factored the results of the exercise into its planning, says the senior defense official, “to better understand a situation that few of us have thought about in detail for a number of years.” When asked about Ochmanek’s conclusions, the official expressed confidence that, eventually, NATO would claw the territory back. “In the end, I have no doubt that NATO will prevail and that we will restore the territorial integrity of any NATO member,” the official said. “I cannot guarantee that it will be easy or without great risk. My job is to ensure that we can reduce that risk.”


RCAT-Falklands-at-Connections-UK-2015-Games-Fair-compressedAt the LBS blog, Graham Longley-Brown offers an analysis of two recent wargames of the Falklands campaign fought using RCAT (the Rapid Campaign Analysis Toolset):

This is not a story about HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes; rather it’s a tale of a carrier being sunk in one RCAT wargame and staying afloat in another. This, and other less obvious variances arising from two separate plays of RCAT: Falklands, highlight a number of interesting observations and insights.

Unusually, we ran two back-to-back RCAT: Falklands wargames with different players at Connections UK 2015, simulating the period between the landings at San Carlos on 21 May 1982 and (broadly) the attack on Goose Green. Although the tactics adopted by both sets of Argentinian players were almost identical, the outcomes, while credible in both cases, were dramatically different.

The two games briefly described above (many details have been omitted) might be considered approximate ‘best case’ and ‘worst case’ outcomes. The key decision was to move the CVBG nearer the Islands, but the ensuing outcome was the result of dice rolls.

Imagine if the games had been played at Ascension Island in April 1982. As Julian Thompson and Michael Clapp said at the end of the RCAT OCT: “We liked [the manual simulation] very much and wish we had such a system in Ascension with Fieldhouse, Moore, Trant, Curtiss, Woodward, Comd 5 Bde and us sitting around the map table thrashing through possible courses of action and, hopefully, agreeing a thoroughly well-considered plan.”

One obvious dilemma/trade-off dramatically illustrated was whether to keep the CVBG well off to the east or move it closer to the Falklands to increase CAP coverage over the AOA. Sandy Woodward said that he “was the only man who could have lost the war in an afternoon” (by losing a carrier), and protecting the carriers was paramount. Why, then, were Thompson and Clapp assured that air superiority would be established and maintained over the Islands?

A few of the ‘so what’ questions that should have arisen from such a back-to-back (or more) playing at Ascension, as occurred at Connections UK, are:

  • What will be the effect of losing a carrier? Shades of Midway!
  • Are Exocet targets randomly determined?
  • Will air superiority over the islands be assured? If not, so what?
  • How effective is the ‘picket ship’ tactic (could the T42/22 combo have been envisaged before the shooting war started)?
  • Will the Argentine pilots have time to target specific ships or will attacks be random?
  • How many ships are we likely to lose, best case, worst case and most likely?
  • How can Argentine Special Forces attacks against the AOA, and logistic supplies in particular, be prevented?
  • Can the Argentine land forces launch an immediate counter-attack against the AOA?
  • Do we need to defeat the Argentine positions at Goose Green? If so, what forces will be required? See the OCT blog for the modelling of Goose Green and the operational commanders’ reaction to that.

It’s rare that a course of action can be played through back-to-back like this. The fact that two very different, but still credible, outcomes resulted from facing similar Argentine tactics reinforces the utility of rapid manual simulation. These wargames took 2 ½ hours each and concentrated on a critical aspect of the campaign; a full play through of the entire campaign takes a day. ‘So what’ questions arising can be examined in detail after the wargame, using reach-back to SMEs if necessary. Ideally, the answers would then become inputs to another series of rapid wargames.

Finally, and on another tack, it’s worth reiterating Cdre Clapp’s comment at the end of the RCAT OCT: “I feel that I’ve been properly de-briefed for the first time in 33 years.”

All these potentially significant outcomes can be achieved in just a few hours by rapid manual simulations.


Lancaster County, PA recently used a simulation to help prepare personnel for dealing with refugees:

“I think when people have a real idea of what someone has been through, it helps them respond better,” said Mary LeVasseur, Lancaster General Health manager of community health.

That’s why about 35 employees of Community Services Group spent Monday pretending to be refugees, working their way through an informative simulation.

“Our services are being called upon to respond to people with language barriers that are a challenge to our established practices,” said Susan Blue, president and CEO of Mountville-based Community Services Group. “ And the need continues to grow. Many of our staff are inspired to try to help CSG expand our definition of community to meet the many needs of these new people.”

So the employees visualized being persecuted. They were assigned to crowded “refugee camps.” They carried rice on their heads. And they ran into reams of red tape.

Jessica Knapp of Lutheran Refugee Services, who ran the simulation in collaboration with staff and volunteers from Franklin & Marshall College, Church World Service and Lancaster County Refugee Coalition, said the simulation was “frustrating on purpose.”

It worked; at the end, participants described the experience as overwhelming, eye-opening, uncomfortable. They said it helped them understand why refugees might be reluctant to divulge problems, scared to send their children to school or slow to trust people.



In Denmark, a mock game trailer has been used to satirize (or provoke discussion) about the current migrant crisis in Europe:

The Danish late night talk show “Natholdet” (“The Night Shift”) has posted a suggested trailer of a new board game entitled the “Refugee Game”, which has at least one hard copy. It challenges the players to block migrants as they attempt to enter “happy little Denmark”; and left the audience at a loss: how do you respond to such a teaser?

The trailer features a family of four, two adults and two children, playing the game, trying to block what apparently look like Middle Eastern refugees from entering into their country

The game has a playground with a map of Denmark and its neighboring countries, a set of cards, blocking fences, a boat with refuges, the figures of refugees (also mostly families with children), and the figures of four Danish politicians.

The politicians are Inger Støjberg, Danish Minister of Integration; Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the leader of the center-right liberal party Venstre, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, the leader of the Danish People’s Party and his fellow party member Martin Henriksen.

It, however, remains unclear whether the idea behind the game is sarcasm or criticism of the government in its policy towards the refugee crisis.

You’ll find the video here.



As of late, Adam Elkus has been musing even more than usual about the challenges of computational exploration of strategy. Since he keeps offering new thoughts on the subject, I’ll just direct you to his columns here.



The Active Learning in Political Science blog is always worth reading. Recent contributions include the sad news that the excellent Inside the Haiti Earthquake simulation (which I’ve often used in courses myself) is no longer online; a very critical review of the political science boardgame Agenda; and a discussion of simulations: what are they good for?


The Red Team Journal discusses the value of adversarial interaction—and hence wargaming–in effective red teaming:

Since 1997 I’ve called for more and better red teaming. I’ll continue to do so, but I also believe we must red team the practice itself. In this spirit, I offer a cautionary argument in three parts:

  1. Reciprocal action is the essence of conflict and competition.
  2. Much if not most red teaming inadequately addresses reciprocal action.
  3. Wargaming better exercises the dialogue of reciprocal action.

“But,” you protest, “red teaming is the practice of introducing reciprocal action into decision making!” And I agree, at least in theory. When the client uses the output from the red team to enhance the dialogue, they are to some degree accounting for reciprocal action, certainly more than when they fail to consider the adversary at all.

Risk-and-Opportunity-450Too often, however, clients view the vulnerabilities red teams identify as the penultimate phase of the game. All the clients need to do then is fix the vulnerabilities, and they win, right?—game over! (If only the adversary would agree to play by these artificial rules.) This kind of thinking perpetuates a static, defensive, and short-term mindset, which, as we know, can set a client up for a long-term fall.

In the security domain, you might call the blue team the client’s trusted fixer, someone who collaboratively works with the client to address the red team’s recommendations. From a wargamer’s perspective, however, this is all somewhat counterintuitive. Yes, the blue team should defend its position against risks generated by the adversary (represented by the red team), but it should also reciprocate against the adversary and generate risks for them as well. By definition, however, security blue teams perform only the first function, and in so doing help perpetuate a defensive mindset.

In reality, an organization should address both risks and opportunities, and this is precisely what a blue team typically does during a wargame. In fact, a blue team that seeks only to address risks will fail, as will the real-world organization that does the same. In this sense, then, a wargame blue team is much more expansive and realistic than a security blue team….

You can read the whole thing here.


David Vallat (University of Lyon 1) recently pointed me towards a paper he and several colleagues wrote on using serious games to leverage knowledge management. You’ll find it here. See also his blog post on fun learning.


At VICE earlier this month, Giaco Furino discussed how Dungeons & Dragons went mainstream.

Such is my geekiness, it comes as a shock that anyone ever considered it anything but normal….



If you’ve recently had trouble ordering AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game, it is now available again via The Game Crafter. (The publisher had run short of 10mm supply cubes, so we’ve swapped them for a slightly smaller 8mm version.)

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