Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Using a matrix game as an intelligence training tool


The following report has been written for PAXsims by Christopher Davis, a Captain in the United States Army Reserve with a passionate interest in games.


In early March, my Army reserve unit, a military intelligence battalion, conducted an internal simulation using the “matrix game” format. We intended to encourage intelligence analysts to think about a problem-set in a consequence-free environment and to hone structured analytical skills. The exercise proved extremely successful in both inviting active learning by the participants and reinforcing analytical skills.

The scenario selected centered on North Korea – the road to war specifically involved a nuclear test by the DPRK in April 2016. The analysts were randomly assigned to the following country teams: North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and the United Nations. Each country team received two vital interests assigned to them; i.e. ‘preserve the Kim regime’ (DPRK) or ‘firmly follow the path of a peace-loving nation’ (Japan). Two wall projectors depicted a map of East Asia and the actions log. In addition to the basic framework of matrix games, the North Korean team received an immediate free turn for every double rolled with the dice. Before each turn, players were given ten minutes to negotiate and plan their actions. Because of the casual nature of this simulation, the participants and moderators focused more on constructing logical arguments than maintain any strict sense of realism.

Turn 1

North Korea opened the first turn with a successful attempt to evade sanctions and cash out $10 billion. Needless to say, this raised immediate alarm as to the intended purpose of the cash. South Korea opened with an effort to initiate peace talks. The United States followed by adding denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as a condition to any talks. The Chinese team surprisingly cut all material relations with DPRK, citing a need to deter North Korea from further escalation. Japan moved to quickly integrate its self-defense forces with future American-South Korean military exercises. Russia, in a bid to undercut the United States and China, and to assert itself as a Pacific power, invested $1 billion in the DPRK in exchange for a military base in the northern mountain ranges. The United Nations closed the turn with a speech on the need for calm.

Turn 2

The DPRK initiated the second turn by petitioning to join the Collective Security Treaty Organization, alarming all the other country teams. South Korea attempted to remove the U.S. condition of Korean denuclearization, but this failed, sparking protests in Seoul against a ‘weak’ Park administration. A move by the Obama administration to place further sanctions on North Korea and Russia was blocked by a Republican-controlled Congress. Recognizing that it was losing influence over North Korea, China reached an agreement to deploy an infantry brigade for a joint Russian-Chinese base in the country. The Japanese government responded by conducting joint U.S.-Japanese maritime patrols in the Sea of Japan, leading to +1 to all future Japanese and American maritime actions. Due to a lack of coordination, Russia failed to organize joint Russian-DPRK military exercises. The Secretary General of the United Nations ended the turn by summoning all heads of state to Geneva to de-escalate the situation, resulting in -1 to all future military actions on the Korean Peninsula.

Turn 3

The DPRK unsurprisingly directed its cash gifts into improving its military capabilities, specifically its ballistic missiles; leading to +1 for all missile actions but also +2 for all political and economic actions for the U.S., South Korea, and Japan. At this point, the DPRK received a free turn, which it used to conduct a test of said ballistic missiles, only to have the rocket explode on the launch pad. Alarmed, South Korea responded by requesting 100,000 U.S. troops in addition to theater ballistic missile defense. The U.S. initiated a covert intelligence program to infiltrate agents into the North to incite unrest and possibly rebellion. In response, China sold its available intelligence on the U.S. to North Korea. Japan’s attempt to modify its status of forces agreement with the U.S. to also increase troop levels and missile defense was blocked by pacifists in parliament. Russia expanded its military infrastructure in North Korea. The Secretary General attempted to mobilize the United Nations to pursue sanctions against North Korea but this failed in the Security Council.

Lessons Learned and Feedback

I was personally surprised by how quickly the soldiers immersed themselves in the scenario. They were quick to cut deals, promote their own interests, and to respond to perceived threats. The analysts observed a number of things:

  • There are multiplayer layers to decision-making; within the country-team, among countries, and so forth, such as the disagreement between the U.S. and South Korea on denuclearization. This impacted the decisions that were made.
  • Life isn’t fair. Some teams were better positioned than others; i.e. the United Nations team felt helpless as the scenario continued to escalate.
  • In regards to escalation, the players found themselves trapped in a cycle of brinkmanship from which it was difficult to disengage. The U.S. and South Korea did not take up the Secretary General’s call for peace talks because they did not want to legitimize the Kim regime.
  • Many players were surprised by the actions of the other teams. Even though they were all in the same room engaging in open conversations that could be easily overheard, critical information about the intentions and actions of others were missed. This reinforced the constant challenge of maintaining an accurate threat picture in intelligence problems.

The analysts were unanimous in the view that this simulation was very effective in encouraging critical thinking and demonstrating some of the basic challenges in national security.

Christopher Davis
US Army Reserve 

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