Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 09/03/2016

“Burning Shadows”: Toward matrix gaming as a tool for joint professional military education

PAXsims has been pleased to publish a variety of pieces on matrix games, including various iterations of ISIS Crisis, Ben Taylor’s analysis of serious matrix game techniques, and a report on the use of matrix games at the US Army War College.

This latest piece has been contributed by Luke Nicastro and Ian Platz from the Center for Advanced Strategic Learning, National Defense University.



At the National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL), we develop experiential learning materials in support of the university’s core academic mission of joint professional military education (JPME). Essentially, we support the component colleges here by providing course-relevant wargames and exercises, with a particular emphasis on current and future strategic-level security challenges.

In view of its importance to the curriculum here, much of our work is centered on examining unconventional or ‘gray’ conflict. For our purposes, gray conflicts are characterized by low to medium intensity fighting (which, though pervasive, stays below the threshold for conventional conflict), the substantial use of non-kinetic tools, and the extensive involvement of non-state actors. The complexity of gray conflict makes it difficult to model through traditional tabletop gaming, since formal rulesets tend both to obscure and restrict students’ understanding of precisely those dynamics most crucial to an understanding of gray conflict. In search of another way to ‘gameify’ gray conflict, we came across the work being done by other wargaming professionals with matrix gaming. With its lack of comprehensive rules, inclusion of abstract concepts, and emphasis on structured argumentation, matrix gaming struck us as a potentially valuable tool for national security practitioners to explore dynamics of unconventional conflict. To test its applicability at CASL, we created a matrix game focused on Libya, to which we’ve given the working title “Burning Shadows.”

Libya Map North

Libya was chosen as the focus of our game for a number of reasons. The current situation in the country exhibits all of the most salient characteristics of gray conflict – a multiplicity of ill-defined actors, endemic low to mid-intensity conflict, and the prevalence of unconventional/non-kinetic tools. Libya is also becoming increasingly important to U.S. interests and operations in the Middle East and North Africa, even as it remains understudied and ill-understood (especially compared to Iraq and the Levant). Centering a game on Libya thus creates an opportunity for national security professionals to focus on the country in an academic, JPME environment. Additionally, the setting allowed us to utilize many of the dynamics present in ISIS Crisis, which served as an invaluable guide for us as we developed “Burning Shadows”.

Though the game was developed in January 2016, it is intended to reflect whatever situation exists in Libya at the time of gameplay. A basic map of territorial control is included in the game materials, but facilitators are encouraged to update the setup based on changes in the geopolitical situation. There are four playable factions in “Burning Shadows”: the House of Representatives (HoR), based in Tobruk; the General National Congress (GNC), based in Tripoli; the Islamic State (IS), based in Sirte; and Western partner countries/NATO. These four factions represent the most important geopolitical actors in Libya, and are described in detail in the game materials. As in ISIS Crisis, there is also a one-page role sheet for each faction, giving players an overview of their position, objectives, relationship to other factions, and special conditions. In addition to these playable factions, several other state and non-state actors (e.g. neighboring governments, tribal militias) can be controlled either by a facilitator or subject matter expert.

Libya Map South

Gameplay is represented on two large maps of Libya – one depicting the country’s Mediterranean coastline and the other showing its vast interior. By splitting up the map into two separate sections, we hope to emphasize the drastic difference between the two regions’ operating environments. More than 85% of the Libyan population lives in urban settlements along the Mediterranean, and the majority of Libya’s oil production is also located in this region. Southern Libya, by contrast, is sparsely populated and lightly governed. The vast wastes of the Sahara render it difficult for Libya’s rival governments to project power, and it is often the region’s indigenous populations (e.g. the Tebu and Tuareg ethnic groups) that are best-placed to act.

Gameplay is turn-based, with players making their moves in a set sequence (HoR -> GNC -> IS -> NATO). Turns are divided into two phases – Diplomatic and Movement. During the Diplomatic phase (which should last no longer than four minutes), the current player undertakes whatever negotiations or communications he/she may wish to make with other players and factions. After these have been concluded, the Movement phase begins, in which the current player outlines the major action they intend to take and provides relevant supporting arguments, which are adjudicated and then resolved. Each player is allowed to undertake one major action on the northern board and one on the southern board.

We’ve run a few ‘playtests’ of “Burning Shadows”, mainly among others in our office. Overall, we’ve been satisfied with the way the game runs, particularly the quality (and intensity!) of the discussions it’s generated. However, there are two persistent challenges we’ve run into. The first is probably an inevitable consequence of the subject matter – the complexity of and participant unfamiliarity with the Libyan situation (even after background reading and an introductory briefing) tends to create uncertainty and paralysis among players during the first few moves. Unsure of what a reasonable or ‘typical’ move might look like, new players often spend inordinate amounts of time planning actions, slowing down gameplay and impeding the flow that is so crucial to matrix game success. Although there is no way to remedy this altogether, one solution we’ve adopted has been the use of “suggested move templates” for the first turn, along with robust suggestions from facilitators.

The second challenge is one that I believe to be common to matrix gaming as a whole – the question of victory. The participants that have been generous enough to ‘playtest’ this game have observed that it is difficult to coherently organize strategies without a clear idea of a) how you win; and b) how you know you’re winning (or losing). There is a general concept of victory – physical/strategic control of Libya – but nothing more specific, and few metrics along the way. While matrix gaming can absolutely create a valuable forum for discussion and analysis without clear victory conditions/pathways, we believe that it would be optimal, especially when dealing with an understudied environment like Libya, to have those incentive structures present. This is a problem we’re currently working on –we have no answers yet, and would welcome and all input on ways of integrating victory conditions and metrics into the matrix game format.

We see this game (and JPME-focused matrix gaming in general) as a way of extending the DoD’s call for “increased innovation through wargaming” from the analytic into the educational sphere. The uniquely free-flowing nature of matrix games, the lack of constraints on participant action, and the entirely player-driven scenario progression together create a unique opportunity to foster precisely the sort of innovation and creative thinking demanded of national security professionals.

The game materials for “Burning Shadows” – which include instructions, role descriptions, map boards, and tokens – are still in draft form, but we’d be more than happy to send the current drafts to those who are interested. For more information, questions, ideas, or just to talk shop, we can be reached at and

Luke Nicastro is a defense analyst at NDU’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning in Washington, D.C. Ian Platz is a defense consultant from Booz Allen Hamilton working in support of NDU’s wargaming capabilities.



Women and wargaming: the good, the bad, and the ugly

A few days ago—spurred by a recent PAXsims readers poll that showed that an astonishing 99% of our readers are men—I posted a few thoughts on gender and national security gaming. My argument, I thought, was fairly unremarkable: Women are underrepresented in professional national security gaming; this is due to a variety of reasons (gender socialization, male preponderance in the military, underrepresentation of women within hobby wargaming, and so forth); and increasing the number of women in this area was a good idea, since—among other things—it brings more brainpower and bodies and expertise to address important issues in serious gaming.

As part of that argument, I pointed to the massive gender imbalance within the wargaming hobby, which is probably 95% or more male too. Since hobby gaming can help to develop professionally-relevant skills, and thus be an asset for those who go on in national security analysis (or, for that matter, teaching), wouldn’t it be a good idea to try to encourage more women to participate here too?

I then suggested a few obvious things that might help.

The reaction to the discussion from within the professional wargaming community has been entirely positive. One defence analyst heavily involved in government wargaming wrote to thank me for the piece, noting that he himself was trying hard to promote women in the field, and underscoring that there was much work still to be done. Another senior wargamer involved in professional military education also wrote to note that he too saw it as a problem. A wargame designer and educator commented (as I have) that there’s no difficulty getting women engaged in conflict simulation in university settings, and we needed to think about how those lessons could be exported more widely.

So that was the good. What about the bad and the ugly?

This showed up when I cross-posted the piece to several general hobby wargaming forums. Certainly many, many comments were positive and encouraging, and in one forum the discussion was entirely and completely reasonable. Elsewhere, however, some male commentators suggested:

  • women prefer shopping for shoes
  • women prefer wine and manicures
  • I was trying to impose “quotas”
  • that encouraging more women to wargame was like demanding more male shop clerks at Victoria’s Secret
  • if women were interested they would form their own clubs
  • that it was good to include women, unless they were those pushy “social justice warrior” types
  • wives would just criticize our game moves
  • that wargaming, like war itself, is brutal and competitive and not suited for women (after all, who hasn’t been wounded by spilled beer or a sharpened pretzel?)
  • that men were hard-wired to be wargamers by a supreme creator, and we shouldn’t be tampering with intelligent design
  • that I was a “fag” for even suggesting such a thing

Now, as a researcher, it is important for me to mention an important methodological caveatcomments made in online fora are rarely representative of general views, since they tend to attract the most highly-motivated or aggrieved participants. They certainly aren’t representative at all of attitudes within my own gaming groups.



At the same time, reading some of these statements I’ll have to admit my reaction was: OMFG. Really? In 2016?

In one forum an articulate and highly-experienced female wargamer entered the fray, and rather forcefully articulated some of the problems she has encountered over the years. She finally left the discussion in frustration. In another forum, where the consensus seemed to be that women just weren’t interested in such things, a long-time female lurker on the website chimed in that she had always wanted to try wargaming, but had never found a shop or club or mentor that she found particularly encouraging. She commented (and I quote with her permission):

Not that many women are interested. True, but then those who are might not feel welcomed. I just wanted to share my personal experience and point of view. Putting it out there “I’m interested.” But the truth is I don’t feel welcomed. So I’m out.

PAXsims isn’t predominantly a blog about hobby wargaming, although we certainly address aspects of it. However for those of us who enjoy the hobby, all this suggests we need to think about providing a pathway for women and girls to learn more about conflict simulation that is welcoming, supportive, and reduces the various barriers to entry.

Some of that can occur in clubs and shops, although here one encounters the chicken-and-egg problem that neophytes may be reluctant to visit in the first place (especially if they get that “hey, there’s a girl in the store/club/competition!” look that will be familiar to many female players of Warhammer).

I think casting gaming wider than traditional hex-and-chit wargaming helps too: certainly we’ve seen political-military megagames grow from 10% to 20% or more women in recent years. At our own recent  New World Order 2035 megagame at McGill almost 40% of the approximately one hundred players were women (all of whom had paid to attend), as were 45% of the Control team.

I’m inclined to think (and I’m sure Phil Sabin will agree with me here, since half his conflict simulation class is typically female) that educational institutions are a good place to focus efforts. Quite apart from gamer-professors or gamer-teachers using games in the classroom, there’s probably scope for gaming clubs to partner with organizations or instructors. NWO 2035, for example, was for all intents and purposes a partnership between Jim Wallman (Megagame Makers), some folks from our local gaming group, and the International Relations Students’ Association of McGill (IRSAM).

Finally, the obligation to not be a sexist ass extends beyond behaving properly to making it clear that sexist comments by others are considered unacceptable. Indeed, that’s perhaps one of the key differences with gaming in a university (or, increasingly, professional) environment: casual reference to sexist stereotypes on campus will generally win you a room full of icy disapproving stares.

Further discussion is welcomed in the comments section.

Troubled Lands


Troubled Lands is a a simple but elegant cooperative, semi-cooperative, or competitive card game that explores the challenges of environmental sustainability. It has been designed by Tom Fennewald and Brent Kievit-Kylar, with artwork by Katherine Jameson.

The Troubled Lands website you’ll find more information, a downloadable print-and-play version of the game, a link to an online digital version, and articles on game development. A printed copy will be available through The Game Crafter later this year.



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