Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 06/11/2015

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 6 November 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers. Nikola Adamus and Ryan Kuhns contributed material to this latest report.



War on the Rocks features a piece by Micah Zenko on the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 wargame, excerpted from his new book Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy. It makes for very interesting reading:

Since the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC ’02) concept-development exercise, run by the now-defunct U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), was leaked in the press 13 years ago, strong opinions have been expressed about its failure and lessons. When it was conducted, this exercise was the most ambitious and costly military simulation in American history. It pitted the U.S. military (with capabilities projected five years into the future) against a nameless potential adversary, with outcome intended to inform future strategy and procurement decisions. Controversy immediately arose when the opposition force, or red team, learned that the results were scripted to assure that the U.S. forces would win. Writing in September 2002, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof warned that it “should teach us one clear lesson relating to Iraq: Hubris kills.” (In that same column, Kristof admitted “I’m a wimp on Iraq: I’m in favor of invading, but only if we can win easily.”) MC ’02 was later popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, where the leader of the red team opposition force (OPFOR), retired Marine Corps three-star Paul Van Riper was praised for having “created the conditions for successful spontaneity” with a decision-making style that “enables rapid cognition.” More recently, a Marine Corps Gazette essay proclaimed that “JFCOM controllers changed the scenario” of MC ’02 and that the command “failed to understand the utility of the exercise and the feedback it provided.”

These perspectives are misleading, and generally told from one person’s view: Van Riper’s. Moreover, they lack important historical context and alternative perspectives about why the shortcomings of MC ’02 were inevitable, given congressionally required demands, misunderstandings of objectives, and unclear (and shifting) lines of authority. Furthermore, a more comprehensive account provides insights for how the military should think about, design, and conduct red team simulations. This article, adapted from my book, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, provides this more complete account as it is based upon interviews with most of the relevant senior officials, as well as the MC ’02 after-action report, which was only made public in 2010.

I’m reading the book at the moment, and will soon publish a review at PAXsims. I have to say, however, that I was a little disappointed that Zenko didn’t delve more deeply into MC ’02. Despite the introduction above, the account he gives is pretty much the standard one:

At the start of MC ’02, to fulfill the forced-entry requirement, blue issued red an eight-point ultimatum, of which the final point was surrender. Red team leader Van Riper knew his country’s political leadership could not accept this, which he believed would lead the blue forces to directly intervene. Since the George W. Bush administration had recently announced the “preemption doctrine,” Van Riper decided that as soon as a U.S. Navy carrier battle group steamed into the Gulf, he would “preempt the preemptors” and strike first. Once U.S. forces were within range, Van Riper’s forces unleashed a barrage of missiles from ground-based launchers, commercial ships, and planes flying low and without radio communications to reduce their radar signature. Simultaneously, swarms of speedboats loaded with explosives launched kamikaze attacks. The carrier battle group’s Aegis radar system — which tracks and attempts to intercept incoming missiles — was quickly overwhelmed, and 19 U.S. ships were sunk, including the carrier, several cruisers, and five amphibious ships. “The whole thing was over in five, maybe ten minutes,” Van Riper said.

The red team had struck a devastating blow against the blue team. The impact of the OPFOR’s ability to render a U.S. carrier battle group — the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy — militarily worthless stunned most of the MC ’02 participants. Van Riper described the mood as “an eerie silence. Like people didn’t really know what to do next.” Blue team leader Bell admitted that the OPFOR had “sunk my damn navy,” and had inflicted “an extremely high rate of attrition, and a disaster, from which we all learned a great lesson.”

Meanwhile, Kernan received an urgent phone call from Luck: “Sir, Van Riper just slimed all of the ships.” Kernan recognized that this was bad news because it placed at risk JFCOM’s ability to fulfill the remaining live-fire, forced-entry component of the exercise — a central component of MC ’02. The actual forces were awaiting orders at Fort Bragg, off the coast of San Diego, and at the Fort Irwin National Training Center. Kernan recalled, “I didn’t have a lot of choice. I had to do the forcible entry piece.” He directed the white cell to simply refloat the virtual ships to the surface. Bell and his blue team — now including the live-fire forces operating under his direction — applied the lessons from the initial attack and fended off subsequent engagements from the red team.

That’s true, but it also seems to miss part of what happened. Some of the things Van Riper did were beyond the capabilities of any US adversary, and probably should have been disallowed by the umpires. I have also been told by multiple participants that the overloaded White Cell failed to properly adjudicate defensive fires during the attack on the fleet—thus artificially amplifying its success. Finally, the point of the game was not to model a particular campaign or identify possible courses of action by Red, but rather to stress-test a number of ideas, approaches , and concepts—a process that would be derailed by an early catastrophic defeat of Blue.

None of this is to claim that MC ’02 was anything else but a poorly run game, which by all accounts it was. Indeed, similar criticism can be made of a great many DoD and service wargames, including many of the other high-profile Title X events. However, improving the analytical value of such games requires a not only a critical perspective, but also a nuanced understanding of all of the factors and constraints at work.


War on the Rocks also features a piece by Jonathan Altman on “What Texas Hold’em Can Teach About Geopolitics.”

Poker doesn’t immediately make you think of geopolitics. However, the game itself, specifically No-Limit Texas Hold ’em, is a remarkable analog for the international system as viewed through a realist lens. Not only is the construct of the game eerily similar to the geopolitical environment of today, but many of the strategies and choices in the game mirror those available to powers within the international system. Accordingly a more detailed examination of the game yields valuable insights into the affairs of nations in an anarchic world order. It’s time for future leaders to play poker instead of chess.



In recent weeks Graham Longley-Brown has posted a couple of interesting items on manual simulation and wargaming to his LBS blog:


Motherboard discusses a recent conflict simulation exploring the impact of drones on warfare, with a particular focus on their potential use by weaker powers and non-state armed groups:

The “Game of Drones” was designed to explore the different ways that drones could be used for tactical and strategic effect in a conflict.

The summit sought to address whether shooting down a drone might escalate tensions between countries or whether drones changed the character of a conflict by giving actors capabilities they didn’t have before. As more and more state and non-state actors acquire drones, the war game illustrated how drones could be used in creative ways to further political or military objectives.

“One of the things that we see with new technologies like drones, is that the marginal utility for that platform is much higher for weaker actors than strong actors,” Ben Fitzgerald, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and one of the organizers of the war game, said afterward. “For non-state actors, they get much more value in relative terms, because all of sudden they have airpower.”

The game was organized by the  Center for a New American Security.



The Center for International Maritime Security has introduced a new podcast entitled “Real Time Strategy,” which explores “the lessons and non-lessons of the simulations we use to both learn and entertain in the realm of military strategy, tactics, and history.” The first episode examines EVE Online, Civilization, Call of Duty, and other topics too.


The latest issue of the British Journal of Military History 2, 1 (2015) has an interesting article by Jorit Wintjes on “Europe’s Earliest Kriegsspiel? Book Seven of Reinhard Graf zu Solms’ Kriegsregierung and the ‘Prehistory’ of Professional War Gaming.”

The history of professional war gaming is usually understood to have begun around the turn of the 18th to the 19th century and mainly associated with the Prussian Kriegsspiel, with chess-based predecessors traceable down to a game published in 1664 by Christoph Weickmann. Yet already a century before Weickmann and more than two centuries before the invention of the Prussian Kriegsspiel a Hessian nobleman published a game of cards that was intended to be used both for preparing young noblemen for military decision-making and for supporting command and control in the field. It thus may well have been the earliest professional war game of the post-medieval period.


UPSEThe latest issue of the Journal of Political Science Education 11, 3 (July-September 2015) features an article by Michelle Hale Williams on “Using Simulations in Linked Courses to Foster Student Understanding of Complex Political Institutions.”

Political institutions provide basic building blocks for understanding and comparing political systems. Yet, students often struggle to understand the implications of institutional choice, such as electoral system rules, especially when the formulas and calculations used to determine seat allocation can be multilevel and complex. This study brings together an upper level Political Parties and Interest Groups course with an introductory Comparative Politics course through two-types of interaction: discussion board and a face-to-face election simulation. We administer a pretest and posttest to gauge student learning as a result of the simulation. We hypothesize that, by bringing together two courses with different levels (upper division and lower division) and emphases in bases of knowledge, we are able to enhance the experience of the election simulation to stimulate higher degrees of learning across both courses.

I have had quite a lot of success with simulations than span multiple classes: the annual Brynania civil war simulation at McGill involves students from POLI 450 (a senior undergraduate course on peacebuilding), POLI 650 (the graduate seminar version of the course), some students from POLI 227 (an introductory course in the comparative politics of developing countries), and on a few occasions an international journalism class at Concordia University.



McGill University’s Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning will be holding the Simnovate 2016 International Summit in Montreal on 6-7 May 2017 to “bring together simulation, education and innovation in the healthcare arena.”

With a focus on four domain areas (patient safety, pervasive learning, medical technologies, and global health), we are undertaking a broad review of current strengths and areas of focus, determination of future directions and zones of importance, and prescription of defined approaches to improve health care.

The summit is intended to be dynamic, interactive, engaging, and above all, an opportunity for the global community to come together with the common aim to improve the health of people across the world.

The official launch of Simnovate took place on 25 May 2015, at the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning. An academic symposium, followed by an innovation showcase, was well attended by the local McGill community.

The event also publicly launched the four domain groups, and the two co-chairs for each group. Since May 2015, the domain groups have each engaged seven to ten renowned individuals, who have passion, drive and enthusiasm for this process.

Each group is tasked with undertaking four teleconference calls, to be completed by January 2016. During each call, topics of the current status, future perspectives, and paths to achieve prospective gains, are discussed. The culmination of the teleconference discussions is first, for each group to produce a white paper, which summarizes the dialogue, thoughts and considerations of each groups’ conversations.

I certainly plan to attend.

The Different Games Conference will be held in New York on 8-9 April 2016, the organizers have issued a call for papers, presentations, and participants:

Over three years of presenting New York City’s first conference on diversity and inclusivity in games culture, Different Games has drawn more than 700 attendees to NYU’s Downtown Brooklyn campus, in addition to more than 100 arcade games and 150 presenters and speakers! We are thrilled to invite submissions for our fourth annual event which welcomes proposals from all members of the games community — whether designers, students, activists, researchers, journalists and others — to present as part of our two-day program.

yellow_logoSubmission Formats

Paper Presentations and Talks
We invite designers, academics and other creative minds to share recent projects as speakers on our conference panels. Possible submission topics may include, but are not limited to: post mortems, design methodology, reflections on playtesting, analysis/commentary on games content (theme, gender, sexuality, etc.), game reception, and game culture/communities.

Workshop or Breakout Groups
We invite topic-specific or exploratory discussions on challenges and solutions for promoting diversity and inclusion in the broader game community/communities and other pertinent subjects. Hands-on workshop sessions geared towards learning design, development or other creative and professional skills are also invited.

Arcade Games
We welcome submissions from designers interested in showcasing their game in the Different Games arcade, including pieces that will be in (beta) or playtesting phase as well as those further along in the development process. Analog games, non screen-based digital games and other types of media such as short films, installations or interactive art related to the themes of the conference are welcome as well.

You’ll find more details at their website. The deadline for most submissions is 15 December.


Rock, Paper, Shotgun reports on Top Secret, a forthcoming game inspired by the Snowden leaks and played by email. According to the game’s Kickstarter page:

Inspired by the incredible true story of the biggest leak in US history, Top Secret is a branching non-linear interactive fiction game, played in real time, by email.

A fresh recruit to the National Security Agency (NSA), you have a new mission: find out who’s leaking TOP SECRET documents to the press. Stop them by whatever means necessary.

A single selector (phone number, email address, name) is all it takes for your team to surveil a target. It’s your job to decipher the intel, and follow the trail to its source.

But surveillance has a price…

In the paranoid world of the NSA, anyone can become a target, and soon your friends are in the firing line.

Everyone has something to hide, will you reveal it?

The game’s webpage also has a link to a demo.


At Unicorn Booty (yes, there’s such a place), Matt Keeley discusses the 1965 card game Nuclear War, and the broader issue of playing the apocalypse.



In The New Yorker, Jon Michaud discusses “The Tangled Cultural Roots of Dungeons & Dragons” through the lens of Michael Witwer’s new biography of D&D inventor Gary Gygax, Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons.

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