Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: December 2015

Facilitating AFTERSHOCK


From time to time I get asked what the best way is of teaching new players how to play AFTERSHOCK, and facilitating a game for a class or other participants. There are probably many ways of doing this, but here is the way we’ve typically done it—and it seems to have worked well with audiences ranging from gamers to university students to military folks to humanitarian, development, and diplomatic personnel.

  1. First and foremost, we don’t try to teach the entire rulebook, or even let players see this before or during the game. Even for a low-medium complexity game like AFTERSHOCK, a book of rules or a long “rules lecture” can be daunting, especially for newbie players or non-gamers who feel pressured to remember everything.
  2. Instead we provide a brief 15-minute overview of the game using this powerpoint presentation. As you’ll see, we break the games into three primary elements: assigning teams to tasks; delivering appropriate assistance; and managing supply and logistics. When going through the presentation, the emphasis is on concepts, themes, and how they are represented in the game (avatars for teams, boxes for supplies, disks for infrastructure, the meaning of the various displays, etc.) rather than on detailed rules. We also point out to each team their specific strengths, weaknesses, and goals. These are also summarized on the player hand-outs.
  3. Make sure that throughout the game players follow along phase by phase. The turn sequence is listed in each player briefing, but we usually also project it on a screen or write it on a whiteboard to make it even easier to view. If players can come to understand the tasks and choices in each phase, they’ll understand the game.
  4. Players are asked to assign their initial teams. They’ll be confused, but simply tell them that a major earthquake has just hit, confusion is to be expected, they’ll get a chance to change things later, and there are only a few good choices anyway (relief in a district, rescue in a district, or a cluster meeting). Give them a minute or less to do this, ideally while urging them to hurry.
  5. We then start playing, with the facilitator being clear to the player what their options are in each phase. I talk them through their choices at each point, but also hurry them up if they dawdle. The timed game/clock does a great job of reducing analysis paralysis, and I’m not above making sound effects of desperate survivors if they need a further push to make up their mind and act.
  6. When Event and Coordination cards are drawn, it usually works best to have the player quickly hand them back to the facilitator to read them to the group and explain, rather then the current player trying to read the card and work it the implications while everyone else stares over their shoulder. The cards are also designed to be teachable moments, so I’ll often expand on what the card says or relate it to actual incidents or real-life challenges.
  7. Don’t bother with explaining any of the Special Operations until they become relevant/available to the players, which is often not until the latter half of the game. Indeed, in general our philosophy has been not to introduce a rule or option until the players need to know it.
  8. In most games we offer limited advice—enough to prevent an early disastrous failure, but not enough to ensure victory.  In particular players need to be aware of the importance of opening up the port/airport, as well as the potential value of coordination meetings.

In our experience, 95% of players will more-or-less understand the game mechanics by the the start of the second game turn, and by the fourth turn or so they’ll often correct me if I forget something. It is absolutely key to step through each game phase in a methodical way, however—as understanding and enthusiasm grows, the table will get noisy and there will be players who are eager to skip ahead to do something.

While it wasn’t initially intended as part of the game design, this psychological transition from initial confusion (“What’s happening? How do we play?”) to an increasing sense of initiative, self-confidence, and control very nicely mirrors actual humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations. In the early phase, first responders are overwhelmed and struggling to cope. With prioritization, teamwork, and planning, however (coupled with quite a lot of self-help by the affected population, which is also included in AFTERSHOCK) they can slowly get on top of the situation.

If they do so they’ll win the game—or, in a real HADR situation, save actual lives.

Twas the night before PAXmas…


The PAXsims team of gaming and simulation elves is pleased to present our latest compilation of items on conflict simulation and serious games. Ryan Kuhns and Corinne Goldberger contributed to this latest edition.

Happy holidays!


According to an article in The Independent, China has decided to use gamification to help monitor and encourage political compliance:

As Extra Credits explains on YouTube: “If you post pictures of Tiananmen Square or share a link about the recent stock market collapse, your Sesame Credit goes down.

“Share a link from the state-sponsored news agency about how good the economy is doing and your score goes up.”

Similarly, Sesame Credit can analyse data from online purchases.

“If you’re making purchases the state deems valuable, like work shoes or local agricultural products, your score goes up.

“If you import anime from Japan though, down the score goes.”

Most insidious of all, the app will have real world consequences. According to Extra Credits, high scores will grant users benefits: “Like making it easier to get the paperwork you need to travel or making it easier to get a loan.

Although the ratings are currently optional, the social tool will become mandatory by 2020.

There have even been rumours about implementing penalties for low scores: “Like slower internet speeds, or restricting jobs a low scoring person is allowed to hold.”

The system could also become a powerful tool for social conditioning, as users could lose points for having friends with low obedience scores.

An earlier report by the BBC in October paints a slightly different picture, noting that Sesame Credit is being developed by Alibaba, the Chinese e-Commerce company as both a product linked to their online shopping portals. However, these seems little doubt that Beijing is monitoring such experiments, and hoping to use its own fusion of “big data” from scores of government and other databases as a mechanism of social control.


The latest issue of Infnity Journal 5, 1 (Fall 2015) contains a valuable article by Adam Elkus on “Strategic Logic and the Logical of Computational Modelling:

Computational theories, models, and simulations are revolutionizing countless areas of research.[i] Could they do the same for strategy? Yes, but only if strategic theory’s core concepts and questions can be captured within the logic of computational modeling. This article justifies this argument by exploring why previous attempts at modeling strategy have failed and why different assumptions about modeling could yield more positive results. The article investigates this debate by first examining challenges in strategic theory and why mathematics and models have not been attractive to strategic researchers. Next, it is explained how computational modeling may be of assistance to inquiries in strategic theory. Finally, the theoretical insights of the prior section are practically outlined by a comparative analysis of how research concerns in strategy can be best matched with different styles of computer program design.


Two recent discussions of the GMT COIN wargames have appeared in interesting places: Michael Peck reviews Fire in the Lake (Vietnam) at Small Wars Journal, while on the GrogCast podcast, James Sterret of (Simulations and Exercise Division, Digital Leader Development Center, US Army Command and General Staff College) discusses the COIN system and a number of other wargaming topics.


The folks at Decisive Point have been contracted by the US Army to produce a new game intended to crowdsource the testing and evaluation of future Army combat systems and doctrine:

Decisive-Point was awarded a contract to develop a computer wargame for the U.S. Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC). The purpose of this wargame is to provide an Early Synthetic Prototyping (ESP) environment for the exploration and assessment of future doctrinal concepts and potential organizational and material solutions. While playing the game, users will role-play tactical unit commanders of future combat units at the brigade level and below. They will have the opportunity to explore future operating capabilities as they conduct simulated offensive and defensive operations during a hypothetical future conflict. The potential effects of next generation weapon systems including robotics, electromagnetic rail gun and laser technologies can be explored. The game system will facilitate the collection of combat development data generated by soldiers, analysts, and researchers as they play various user-created scenarios. The game data and player feedback will provide concept developers quick insights into the feasibility, acceptability, and supportability of future combat systems.

h/t Jim Lunsford


JDMS header

An article by Ruibiao Guo and Kevin Sprague on Replication of human operators’ situation assessment and decision making for simulated area reconnaissance in wargames appears in the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology (online first 2015).


At ExPatt (the Patterson School magazine of foreign affairs), Maddie Higdon and Lee Clark and discuss diplomatic strategy according to the videogame Mass Effect.

…Welcome to the world of intergalactic relations. This is just one example of the countless nuanced situations that the Mass Effect games ask players to navigate. It’s challenging, it’s fun, and it has intellectual value for developing diplomatic abilities. Think of Mass Effect as a really creative training simulation for negotiators.

The Mass Effect franchise is made up of widely successful video games, books, and comics. A feature film is rumored for the near future.  The franchise explores an incredible universe in which countless alien species interact, negotiate, and wage war with one another. The Mass Effect universe is based on the premise that as alien and human societies develop and begin to explore space, they eventually discover technology left behind by a long-extinct race of all-knowing beings that allows faster-than-light travel. By using this technology, the various species are able to conduct large-scale economic, social, and military relations with one another.

The series focuses on Commander Shepard, a space captain fighting to save humanity from a myriad of existential threats by negotiating alliances with amenable alien organizations. The video games in the franchise gained widespread popularity in large part due to the freedom of choice offered to players. Players can customize everything about the hero, from appearance, gender, and abilities, to personality and diplomatic approach. By customizing the character, the player creates a unique gaming experience because every decision in the game affects the events that unfold.

Shepard must navigate a nuanced and interconnected world where NGOs, representative bodies, militaries, corporations, and militant groups all compete for conflicting goals. Every species has a representative at an intergalactic Council, tasked with making and enforcing galactic law. But beyond this, every species has splinter groups and diverging interests that make cohesive negotiation difficult. Bioware, the game’s developers, really went for the gold in creating a complex diplomatic world to navigate….


On 3-5 March 2016, the Mellon Foundation Project on Civilian-Military Educational Cooperation and the US Air Force Academy conducted a crisis simulation on implementation of an Iran nuclear deal. You’ll find some details here.


At the blog Stohasmoi: What do we Know about IR?, Konstantinos Travlos discusses the use of the classic game Diplomacy in teaching international relations.


Don’t forget that AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game is on sale until December 31. Order now, and save $10!

Simulation & Gaming, October 2015


The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 46, 5 (October 2015) is now available. Much of the issue is devoted to using games to aid in “understanding complexity.”

Guest Editorial

Understanding Complexity: The Use of Simulation Games for Engineering Systems

  • Geertje Bekebrede, Julia Lo, and Heide Lukosch

Symposium Articles

Designing SNAKES AND LADDERS: An Analogy for Asset Management Strategy Development

  • Melinda Hodkiewicz

Model-Based Concept of Operations Development Using Gaming Simulation: Preliminary Findings

  • Peter Korfiatis, Robert Cloutier, and Teresa Zigh

Gaming and Simulation for Railway Innovation: A Case Study of the Dutch Railway System

  • Jop van den Hoogen and Sebastiaan Meijer

The Power of Sponges: Comparing High-Tech and Low-Tech Gaming for Innovation

  • Sebastiaan Meijer

Understanding Complex Systems Through Mental Models and Shared Experiences: A Case Study

  • Geertje Bekebrede, Julia Lo, and Heide Lukosch


Transportation Modeling as a Didactic Tool: Human Settlement and Transport

  • Timo Ohnmacht, Widar von Arx, Norbert Schick, Philipp Wegelin, and Jonas Frölicher

Ready-to-use simulations

CONFIDENTIAL COMMUNICATION: A Corporate Social Responsibility Game

  • Shlomo Sher

PUZZLED? A Hierarchical-Group, Problem-Solving Simulation

  • Kathleen H. Wall and Sandra Morgan

Connections Australia 2015 AAR


I had the pleasure this past week of attending the Connections Australia 2015 interdisciplinary wargaming conference at the University of Melbourne. Approximately 50 people participated in the event over two days.

Day 1

Monday was devoted to presentations. Following an introduction by Todd Mason, I started with an overview of the development and expansion of Connections wargaming conferences in the US, UK, and elsewhere.


Marcus Tregenza (DST Group) then provided an overview of the recent MORS special meeting on professional gaming. He emphasized the high degree of engagement by the conference sponsors, and the current emphasis of developing wargaming within the US defence community. Marcus also noted that there remain weaknesses in game design skills, and a continuing risk that players can leave wargames with incorrect perceptions. He underscored the point, made at the MORS special meeting, that wargame designers and adjudicators must “do no harm.” He also discussed in detail the rapid game design group he helped facilitate at the MORS meeting, which developed Buying Victory, a game of naval capability investment. Overall he noted that there remained considerable mistrust or misunderstanding of how to successfully apply wargaming tools.

Dereck Chong (University of Melbourne) presented on course of action analysis in emergency management planning. Specifically he discussed the development of PHOENIX RapidFire, which enables the production of projections of fire outbreak and spread.

His comments highlighted the difficulty of modeling non-linear processes, especially in a context of uncertain information.

After a coffee break, Marcus returned to talk about defence experimentation and wargaming at DST Group. He started off by NOT defining wargaming—which I was pleased to see, because I think that issue has attracted far too much attention. His section at DST Group (Land Simulation, Experimentation and Wargaming) examines military problems using modeling and gaming techniques that involve an active and intelligent enemy; a model of physical and political environment and systems; quantitative adjudication; and useful analytical outputs. He identified some of the various tools they use, arrayed on a continuum from those optimized for internal validity (clarity of cause and effect) through to those optimized for external validity (relevance and applicability to real world operations). DST Group wargames at various levels:

  • analytical seminar wargaming (problem identification)
  • human in the loop (plan capture)
  • closed loop (statistical analysis)


He then walked the group through the use of a closed loop model using Combat XXI which pitted various configurations of an Australian light armoured vehicle against various configuration of an OPFOR (BTR90, BRDM2, and BMP3). Lance Holden then continued the discussion by discussing some of the challenges of finding, sharing, and exporting adequate data for closed loop simulations.

Subsequent discussion addressed the challenges of modeling human behaviours (morale, leadership, suppression, etc); validation of models; multimethod analysis; and other issues. Marcus noted that they don’t only wargame Blue victories, but also explore the points at which Blue fails. This provides insight into mission-critical capabilities.

Marcus Carter (University of Melbourne) explored how emerging—and increasingly affordable—virtual and augmented reality technologies might affect wargaming. He discussed both the pros and cons of current VR, as well as the promise (and limits) of emerging AR tools. Subsequent discussion points included the role of tangibility and social interaction in gaming and how digital and VR/AR gaming might affect that, as well as the disorientation and nausea effects of VR goggles. Marcus does some really interesting work on games, virtual reality, user interface, and a host of other issues (even the role of mass dice-rolling in Warhammer 40K), and his website (linked above) is well worth a visit.

Justin Dunlop (Ambulance Victoria) offered an overview of Virtual Paramedic, a digital simulation intended to develop emergency management (triage, incident command) skills.

Traditional exercises have limitations: space requirements, resources, and exposure to a limited number of roles. A computer simulation like Virtual Paramedic can be made widely available using existing IT infrastructure, can allow participants to have exposure to all roles, and removes the need for an instructor. Scenarios were designed based on the most commonly-encountered types of incidents, often using historical cases and actual patient data. While all of the AI “bots” in the simulation behave consistently and predictably (in part because the software models best practice), a future version might include some variability for leadership development. He highlighted the importance of an engagement plan to encourage voluntary use of the simulation, as well as the various forms of feedback that are provided to players.

A study comparing Virtual Paramedic and the Emergo Train System (a manual command post exercise) indicated that the former dramatically increased the number of participants and triage training decisions. In the future, using the simulation will be a required part of paramedic training.


Later that same day we had another presentation by Jon Byrne (Ambulance Victoria) on Emergo Train itself. The system uses whiteboards and magnetic markers representing patients, staff, and resources. Patient profiles are based on real cases. Player engagement is high. Since 2005 they have run 78 exercises in Victoria in cooperation with 35 health networks/facilities, and there are now around 50 trained instructors in the state. He made an interesting series of points about “ambos” (paramedics) being trained under normal circumstances to act as independent clinicians, while mass casualty incidents require much greater attention to logistics and command/management.

In the final presentation before lunch Mahesh Prakash (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) discussed the visualization of natural hazard simulations. Among the examples were climate adaptation/flooding risk, fire spread, and uncertainty representation.

Following the lunch break, I delivered an overview of the design and development of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. A copy of my presentation can be found here.

That was followed by Jan McDonald (state Library of Victoria), who offered and overview of their extensive chess (book) collection. The MV Anderson Chess Collection consists of over 13,000 volumes of books, magazines and tournament reports:

Five thousand recent volumes and the latest issues of the world’s major chess magazines are kept in the Library’s Chess Room. There are almost 3000 volumes on openings such as the Sicilian Dragon, King’s Indian, Complete Hedgehog and Hippopotamus. The collection includes books about the history of chess, chess in film and art, and even novels in which chess is a central theme.

intercolonial_chess.jpgA feature of the collection is the many older books on chess; the earliest is a leaf from The game and playe of the chesse, published by Caxton in 1483.

The collection owes its origins to the generosity of MV Anderson, who donated his collection of 6700 volumes between 1959 and 1966. The Library adds several hundred volumes to the collection each year. Others have made generous donations of chess sets.

Roger Lee (Australian Army History Unit) discussed the origins of kriegsspiel, and a contemporary effort to use it to teach about 19th century military operations. Players soon became attached to their military formations, and were frustrated by the (realistic) imperfections of information. There was some frustration at dependence on umpire adjudication (free kriegsspiel). The experiment may not have offered deep insight into 19th century warfare, but offered substantial insight into the challenges of command.

It was agreed that the game was probably too complex to be of use to high school teachers—the intended clients—so instead they tried a game based on the Gallipoli campaign. Each group of players were given a range of possible operational choices: the allies had six invasion choices to select from, while the Turks were given a series of alternative defence deployments. This led to a discussion of the feasibility of each approach. Participants reported that they had learned much about the campaign. Most participants expressed concern, however, that the game was still too complex, and required too much background knowledge by the adjudicators.

Peter Hayes presented on human factors in simulations and training exercises. Such factors underpin the tasks, structures, and systems that we are attempting to simulate; the design of the simulation (including workload, purpose, and fidelity); performance in the simulation;  performance of the facilitators; and use of simulations to learn more about human factors themselves. He concluded by looking at the way simulations had helped to determine crew requirements for the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, and in particular the need for multitasking skills.

Finally, Paul Fitton (International Operations Group) looked at bringing wargaming into the boardroom. He discussed his experience with corporate gaming, in particular crisis management simulations. He noted that in such games, outcomes are often less important than the process of play.

Day 2

Tuesday was taken up with game demonstrations. The DST Group ran some sample course of action wargames, while I facilitated two partial games of AFTERSHOCK. Both teams seemed to get the hang of things quickly, and by the time we had to end the games they were well on their way to success.

After lunch we all came together for a game of the ISIS Crisis matrix game. Iraq, supported by its allies, sought to recapture Mosul but found themselves distracted by fighting in Ramadi and elsewhere. Efforts to woo  the Sunni opposition made only limited headway. Finally, when Kurdish and Iraqi troops launched their on the northern city, the Iraqi Army held back until the Kurds were engaged, and then hurriedly retreated when ISIS threatened their lines of communication to Baghdad. The Sunni opposition threw in their weight against the Kurds, who were then slowly thrown back after initial gains—and the game ended pretty much as it had started. The game was followed by some broader discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of matrix gaming.

Final thoughts

While smaller than the US and UK versions of Connections, I was impressed by the diverse presentations and thoughtful and lively discussions in Melbourne. While not everything focused on war gaming—indeed, many of the presentations were actually about emergency management—I found it very useful to see what was being done in parallel areas, and encountered much that could prove useful in my own work. The weather was perfect too!

All-in-all it was well worth attending, and Australian readers should certainly consider attending Connections Australia 2016 when the dates and location are announced.

* * *

Update: The Connections Oz crew have compiled feedback from the conference, and offer some thoughts on Connections Australia 2016. You’ll find it here.

PAXsims on the GrogCast


PAXsims senior editor Rex Brynen recently appeared on the GrogHeads podcast, The GrogCast. There—despite a somewhat dodgy Skype connections—we discussed various gaming things, including Brynania, matrix gaming, and AFTERSHOCK.

You’ll find it here.

Work and Selva on “Revitalizing Wargaming”

Yesterdays edition of War on the Rocks includes an important piece by (US Deputy Secretary of Defense) Bob Work and (Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Paul Selva on the need for the United States to revitalize wargaming:

Today, we are living in a time of rapid technological change and constrained defense spending, not unlike that of the inter-war years. Successfully navigating through this complex and dynamic competitive environment will once again require us to push the boundaries of technology while ensuring that innovation remains rooted in operationally realistic doctrine and capabilities. One way to do both is to re-prime and re-stoke the department’s wargaming engine.

We want to make clear that there is currently quite a bit of wargaming activity going on in the Department of Defense, and much of it is quite good. However, our review of service and joint wargaming revealed a lack of coordination within the wargaming community and the absence of any direct link between the insights gained from wargaming and the department’s programmatic action. Wargame results are neither shared laterally across the defense enterprise nor up the chain to influence senior level decision-making. In other words, even if wargames are generating innovative insights and suggesting needed operational and organizational changes, the people in position to act upon them are generally unaware of the insights or their import.

This must change. As the inter-war period suggests, wargaming is one of the most effective means available to offer senior leaders a glimpse of future conflict, however incomplete. Wargames provide opportunities to test new ideas and explore the art of the possible. They help us imagine alternative ways of operating and envision new capabilities that might make a difference on future battlefields. When creatively and rigorously applied, wargames help us to think through and begin to resolve complex military challenges, foster the testing of new strategic and operational concepts, stimulate debate, and inform investments in new capabilities.

Wargames help strip down a strategic, operational, or tactical problem and reduce its complexity in order to identify the few, important factors that constrain us or an opponent. They provide structured, measured, rigorous — but intellectually liberating — environments to help us explore what works (winning) and what doesn’t (losing) across all dimensions of warfighting. They permit hypotheses to be challenged and theories to be tested during either adjudicated moves or free play settings, thereby allowing current and future leaders to expand the boundaries of warfare theory. And they provide players with the opportunity to make critical mistakes and learn from them — and to perhaps reveal breakthrough strategies and tactics when doing so.

Wargames are all the more important in an era of multiple strategic challenges requiring joint, multi-dimensional approaches. Today, we face the challenges of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, managing the rise of China, checking Iran’s malign influence, and remaining prepared to respond to North Korean provocations, all while waging a global counterterrorism campaign. Wargames can help us explore all of these challenges, in isolation and combination, and assess the best ways to confront them. By holistically reviewing the results of all games together, we will have the best chance of correctly identifying the most relevant technological trends, most likely future challenges, and most probable military competitions — and how best to exploit or prepare for them.

These comments, of course, follow on from Work’s memo earlier this year on the importance of strengthening wargaming within the US defence community. Similar comments have been made the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and by senior officials speaking to both the Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference and the MORS special meeting on professional gaming.

One noteworthy aspect of this latest pronouncement is that it identifies the potential value of better integrating wargaming—and the development of wargaming skills—into professional military education.

As we look to reinvigorate wargaming across the defense enterprise, there is another lesson from the inter-war period that we would do well to heed. In the years leading up to the Second World War, we energized our war colleges and schools to think about how we would fight differently in future conflicts, and wargaming was central to this effort. All students and officers returning as instructors were taught how to run a wargame. The constant cycling of officers from the schoolhouse to the operating forces not only created great wargames, but great wargamers — many of whom turned out to be great wartime commanders.

Today, given the demand of Joint Professional Military Education (JPME), wargaming courses are generally electives. Should we instead think about using wargames that explore joint multidimensional combat operations to pursue our JPME objectives? Building school curriculums around wargaming might help spark innovation and inculcate the entire Joint Force with a better appreciation and understanding of trans-regional, cross-domain, multidimensional combat. Similarly, a new generation of young men and women are entering the force whose exposure to commercial multi-player gaming exceeds that of any previous generation. Should they be introduced to wargaming in their accession programs? We have not yet answered these questions. But we are considering them, as well as other initiatives to reinvigorate wargaming across the department.

The importance of doing so been strongly and repeatedly stressed within the professional wargaming community, so someone seems to have been listening.

On the other hand, Work and Selva’s comments indicate that while the issue has been noted there is not yet any agreement on how or even whether to address it. I suspect this is partly because PME curricula are already crowded, partly because not all those engaged in military education agree, and partly because the skill-set to teach wargaming has severely atrophied at some PME institutions (something that is certainly the case outside the US, in the UK and Canada too). Clearly there is more work to be done on advocating for the development of wargaming skills as an integral part from the outset of the military educational process.

Connections UK in MS&T


The latest issue of Military Simulation & Training magazine has an extended article on the Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference held at King’s College London in September. You’ll find it here.

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