Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: May 2016

ISIS Crisis at Geek & Sundry


First it was VICE News, then France Info, and now Geek & Sundry has published a piece discussing work by PAXsims and Defence Research and Development Canada on the ISIS Crisis game and the serious application of matrix gaming techniques.

In late 2014, DRDC tried out a game meant to help demonstrate various aspects of certain strategies called ISIS Crisis in order to see how these types of games influence the knowledge of the players of various factors that go into a single scenario. To simplify it, ISIS Crisis can be used to demonstrate and increase understanding of the complexity of many world conflicts, which have numerous factors that need to be addressed rather than a single solution. DRDC then released a report on their findings.

Built by McGill University, ISIS Crisis was designed using aspects of the current (end of 2014) conditions in the Middle East crisis involving ISIS. As Professor Rex Brynen, who helped develop ISIS Crisis,notes on his blog, the game wasn’t meant to strategize an actual attack on ISIS, it “just happened to be the scenario/game that was used to explore the methodology.”

It should be noted that Tom Mouat designed the materials used in the games, and Tom Fisher produced our local copy of the game. Chris Engle is the originator of matrix gaming.

Connections Netherlands 2016

This year’s Connections Netherlands interdisciplinary wargaming conference will be held on 12 September 2016.

Poster Connections NL 2016II.png

You’ll find additional information here.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 29 May 2016


PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers. Ryan Kuhns provided material for this latest edition.



The Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 (GMT Games, 2010).

The Catalan Journal of Communication and Cultural Studies 8, 1 (April 2016) contains an article by Juan Luis Gonzalo Iglesia (Universitat Rovira i Virgili) “Simulating history in contemporary board games: The case of the Spanish Civil War.”

This article examines the structure of simulation of two recently published analogic war games on the Spanish Civil War in order to analyse the ways in which they represent the history of the Spanish conflict. The study places the board games as an object of analysis within the field of Game Studies and then undertakes a search of which elements used in the study of video games can be used to approach the analysis of historical board games. The analysis of the ludic structure of these games shows a Civil War initially focused on the chaos on the Republican side, followed by the progression towards the professionalization and militarization of the conflict as the only path to victory. The study shows that the elements of the ludic macrostructure become the means used by the game to delimit the simulation of history, before going on to reflect on the theoretical and cultural implications of this condition.

More specifically, we will analyse two war games created by Spanish designers that have been recently published by two American companies that specialize in war games and games of historic simulation. The games are The Spanish Civil War 1936–1939 (TSCW) designed by Javier Romero and published by GMT Games in 2010 (Romero 2010) and Crusade and Revolution: The Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 (C&R), designed by David Gómez Relloso and published by Compass Games in 2013 (Gómez Relloso 2013): this product is based on World War I game Paths of Glory, published in 1999.


Crusade and Revolution: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 (Compass Games, 2013).

As to the author’s conclusions, I will quote these at lengths for readers who are unable to access the (paywalled) article:

This study belongs to the body of literature that analyses the construction of the narrative contained within games, in particular within board games. We have shown that the theory and methodology of Games Studies can also be used to analyse board games. We have used the analysis of analogue games as a ludofictional world made up of the elements of ludic simulation. The study shows that two contemporary board games have a ludofictional world with very strict rules, which aim to justify a high level of historical represen- tation and decrease the players’ capacity for significant decision-making that would modify the limits of the possible world.

In summary, even though both sides can win the game and therefore modify history in case of a Republican victory, the structure of the game delim- its these possibilities. Indeed, it is easier in these games to change the final outcome of the war (what happened) than it is to find ways to achieve that result (how it happened). The main narrative shows a Republic with severe problems of internal division and lack of coordination that pushes the player towards the reorganization of the Popular Army as the only possible way of defeating the enemy. And while the National side takes the initiative, it must initially focus on political objectives over and above the military goals, and must eventually also restructure its forces in order to achieve victory. In the game, this is illustrated by the categorical rules that restrict the players’ actions (particularly the Republican players), and the lifting of these rules in the more advanced phases of the war.

We should emphasize that this assessment is not meant as a criticism, since the explicit intention of the designers of these two games was precisely to highlight these issues. However, it brings into question the extent to which the game experience generates a sense of freedom in the players. On the other hand, and to break through the rigidity of the simulation, both games offer an alternative set of rules (What if?) that should be analysed in depth to see which other simulation paths they offer. Also, some aspects of these games would require further study – for instance, how the design of the different mechanics on which they are based (in particular the Card Driven of C&R) influence their gameplay.

We could also question the intentionality of these specific constructions of the Spanish Civil War. The rule booklets and the game books contain some clues about the vision of the authors, but this aspect could be further inves- tigated by means of direct interviews with the designers: we could ask, for instance, to what extent the rules and mechanics intend to simulate an event or whether they offer balanced mechanics that give options to both sides. Another topic of study would be the direct game experience of the players.

Which narrative of the Civil War emerges from the experience of dealing with the games’ rules and from overcoming the challenges that these rules pose? It is interesting to note that the whole structure of rules, mechanics and objec- tives can be dismantled by skilful players able to foresee their options, thus deconstructing the narrative built by the game contents, ultimately to gener- ate a different history. Indeed, this is what most players aim for. The vision of the players and their different approaches to the game refer to a particular aspect of the world of games that should in reality be a field of study in its own right.

Finally, we have analysed board games to claim their place as artefacts that warrant study. Further studies should address the differences between analogue and digital simulation of the Spanish Civil War by comparing our games with video games currently found in the marketplace. It would also be necessary to undertake a deeper study of the specific methodologies that allow the study of analogue games.

Beyond the specific aspects of games as cultural artefacts, the implications of games on the recovery of memory need to be taken into account. There are many challenging questions on the specific possibilities that games offer to the workings of memory. Besides the predetermination of some (though not many) narratives about History in the game design, it is undeniable that games promote debate about the interpretation of the past. Predetermination contrasts the equidistance claimed by the ludic simulation – within a genre of games, which define themselves as serious and based on documentation – which constitutes at the same time both a problem and an opportunity to break with the ‘official history’ and create new ways of approaching trauma. There is a whole area of analysis on how games, digital or analogue, can serve as a reflexive tool to dispute the rigidity of institutional history and to recover partial, alternative and personal memories. This is especially relevant in national contexts, as in the case of Spain, where there is a strong social claim to uncover long-standing historical offences.

h/t Javier Romero



At GovTechWorks, Michael Peck explores the challenges of wargaming cyberwarfare:

Faced with a variety of new threats, from hypersonic ship-killing missiles to anti-satellite weapons and terrorist attacks, top Pentagon leaders are pushing for more analytical wargaming to devise strategies to counter such threats.

But in an era where information can be an instrument of war, the question of how to effectively wargame cyber attacks is a critical issue for military planners.

Modeling cyberwarfare resembles the philosophical question of whether a tree actually fell in a forest if no one heard it fall. How does a wargame designer realistically depict a stealth weapon like a computer virus, whose very effectiveness depends on the victim not knowing that the virus exists or how it works?

“We have been trying to integrate stuff like that [cyberwarfare] into operational games, but the weapons themselves are so highly classified and tightly held that we don’t really know what capabilities exist,” says Peter Perla, a defense wargaming expert and senior research scientist with the Center for Naval Analyses.

Perla calls cyber the “holy grail” of wargaming. “We have some general ideas of what might exist but we tend not to be able to cross those barriers. So we kind of give people generic capabilities and ask them to find something that they’d like to have. Then we assess whether it is a one-shot deal, or it might be persistent for a while,” he said. “But the parameters are very difficult to get a handle on because we have no experience with them.”

John Curry is quoted as highlighting two key issues:

John Curry, author of “Dark Guest: Training Games For Cyber Warfare,” sees two issues with simulating cyberwarfare. The first is that there is little real-world experience of cyberwarfare on which to base a game. While cyberattacks do occur, we have not yet seen the kind of intensive cyber warfare that might take place between sophisticated cyber powers at war. “Google, Microsoft, HP and our universities have not been mobilized in an all-out effort to hit the other side,” Curry says. “Despite protestations that we have had cyber war, we have only had skirmishes on the fringe of conflicts.”

The second is the incredibly rapid fluctuations endemic to cyberwarfare. “One of the issues of cyber weapons is they are largely untested and can be rendered ineffective by the next software patch,” Curry says. “You build a tool, the other side builds a patch and then your tool has to be re-engineered.”

Peck concludes with some useful observations:

So how should cyberwarfare be simulated in defense wargames? Experts say there are two ways to approach this. One is to simulate cyberweapons in detail, such as distinguishing between different types of viruses and their effects. This would help teach players something about how these weapons work and how they could be employed in conflict.

But Perla and others suggest the alternative solution is better: It’s a “black box” approach in which players only see the basic effects of cyberwarfare and don’t get caught up in the details about how something is done. It’s the same approach wargames use for electronic warfare, where players are simply told that jamming has disrupted their communications.

“I would focus on potential effects rather than specific weapons,” Perla says. “For example, one type of attack might reduce command and control capacity, making it difficult to issue or change orders. This could be characterized on a ‘Cyber Card’ the player has available. When played, the game controllers would implement the effects as they see fit. Possibly, the effect is either bigger or smaller than expected. Possibly, the opponent is aware of the attack and able to negate it, or even turn it against the original user,” he said.

Perla also notes that depicting cyber depends on the level of warfare being simulated. “Cyber at the strategic level is likely to use different tools against different targets than cyber at the tactical level,” he said. “Big surprise. For example, at the tactical level, one side may try to tap into the cyber networks of their opponent after capturing a headquarters. But the opponent may run a deception op, feeding false info through the captured node.”

Simulating cyberwarfare also depends on the audience. If the goal is to create a training simulation for cyberwarfare operators, then it makes sense to delve into the nitty-gritty of specific forms of attack and defense, or the characteristics and vulnerabilities of various types of software or computer networks. But if the audience is a slate of senior generals and admirals wargaming a North Korean invasion of South Korea, then there is no reason for the game to simulate the differences between a malware attack and a denial-of-service cyberattack.

“The operational reality is that cyber is integrated with the other domains of warfare,” Curry says. “Cyber is just a means and is rarely the end.”


At e-International Relations, Daniela Irrera (University of Catania) discusses a classroom NGO simulation she has developed:

I involved my students of Global Civil Society in something I called ‘NGO simulation’. I have split them into smaller groups and asked to ‘build’ an NGO profile (in terms of identity, geographical location, objectives and tools). Then, I presented to all groups a call for projects to be submitted to international donors (the European Commission, or various UN agencies). They had basically to prepare a project (including the rationale, the selected partners and the budget), in order to fulfil a given request (usually something to be built or developed in a troubled country, affected by war, natural disaster, economic and social deprivation, etc.).  I organised two different sessions, for allowing students to get familiar with their group and plan the activities. A collective public session was held based on groups leaders, presenting their projects and trying to get funds from donors. Finally, a debriefing assembly gave to students the chance to express their appreciation or concern and to me the possibility of assessing the activity within the course.



Early registration is now open for the North American Simulation and Gaming Association annual conference, which will be held this year on 26-29 October in Bloomington, IN.


At Punk Rock Operations Research, Laura Albert McLay quotes David Banks (Duke) as recently proposing “three levels for modeling that applies to research in statistics, operations research, and optimization” which I thought were quite useful:

  • LEVEL 1: You solve the problem.
  • LEVEL 2: You solve the problem in a cost-effective manner (e.g., using heuristics to get a quick solution that is “good enough”)
  • LEVEL 3: You solve the problem in a cost-effective manner that a decision-maker will implement

There’s some wisdom here for serious game designers and for wargame outputs/analysis too.


The folks at Active Learning in Political Science have put together a podcast discussing their impressions of the Political Studies Association-sponsored Workshop on New Pedagogies at the University of Sussex. You’ll find a link to it here.



None of these people is Brian Train.

As Iraqi troops and militias  (backed by Iran and the US) fight to recapture the city of Fallujah from the so-called “Islamic State,” Brian Train offers a chance to simulate the battle. Specifically he has created a variant scenario for Joe Miranda’s game Fallujah 2004: City Fighting in Iraq, which appeared in Modern War magazine #23. You’ll find it at Ludic Futurism.



Dstl Portsdown West.

I’ll be in the UK at the end of June, to deliver a week of wargaming lectures and workshops at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratories (Dstl) Portsdown West. If you’re a member of the UK defence, security, or foreign policy establishment and would be interested in attending one or more of the sessions, drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch with my Dstl point-of-contact.


France Info reports on ISIS Crisis

IMG_1311First it was Vice News, and now it is France Info reporting on the ISIS Crisis games conducted by Defence Research and Development Canada last year.

Les hauts-gradés de l’armée canadienne ont pris l’habitude de tester leur stratégie via… des jeux de société. Le dernier en date s’inspire de l’actualité au Moyen-Orient.

La crise de Daech” se joue avec six équipes: Daech, le gouvernement irakien, le gouvernement régional du Kurdistan, les milices sunnites, l’Iran et les États-Unis. En début de chaque partie, les factions ou puissances étrangères élaborent un plan d’action et des stratégies. Elles peuvent aussi passer des accords secrets, sans que leurs adversaires ne soient au courant. C’est un professeur de science politique, Rex Brynen, enseignant à l’Université Mc Gill à Montréal qui a eu l’idée de ce jeu, en collaboration avec un commandant de l’armée britannique. Ils l’ont proposé cet automne à un centre de formation militaire aux Etats-Unis.

Ce jeu n’a pas d’application concrète sur le terrain et les théâtres d’opération. C’est plutôt une façon pour les militaires et les stratèges de réfléchir à des actions possibles, d’élaborer des scénarios, exactement comme ils le font déjà lors d’une réunion classique. Mais ces outils ludiques ne sont pas vraiment nouveaux. L’armée prussienne utilisait un jeu baptisé Kriegsspiel (Le Jeu de la Guerre) pour planifier ses campagnes militaires. Et il semble qu’Henry Kissinger, le célèbre secrétaire d’état américain, adorait jouer à Diplomatie, qui consiste à monter des alliances pour conquérir l’Europe.

Click the link above for the full audio report. This time AFTERSHOCK gets a shout-out too!

For a discussion of what the games were really about, see my earlier blog post on the subject, as well as the actual DRDC report that sparked all the interest.

For more in the ISIS Crisis game, have a look at these links.

h/t Tracy McNicoll‎  


Zones of Control: book launch/discussion in Arlington

9780262033992An invitation from Matt Kirschenbaum:

ZONES OF CONTROL: PERSPECTIVES ON WARGAMING is an 800+ page compendium featuring nearly 70 authors just published by the MIT Press addressing professional, academic, and recreational applications of wargaming.

Please join co-editors Pat Harrigan and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, along with distinguished contributors Larry Bond, Brien Miller, Peter P. Perla, Volko Ruhnke, and Russell Vane (and perhaps some surprise guests) for a panel discussion and book launch event at the Center for Naval Analyses on June 24 from 1200-1400.

The event is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. CNA is located at 3003 Washington Blvd, Arlington, VA. Light refreshments will be served and attendees may bring a brown bag lunch if they wish. Signs will point the way to Room 214 (the Multi-Purpose Room).

Attendees will be required to show photo ID to enter. RSVP to is kindly requested; non-U.S. citizens should contact Peter P. Perla ( for a security form in advance.*

Please distribute this announcement widely. CNA Corporation and its Federally Funded Research and Development Center, the Center for Naval Analyses, welcome those interested in the release of the important new book ZONES OF CONTROL, dealing with the timely subject of wargaming.

*Because, you know, it’s not like a US citizen has ever been a spy.



Today I had an enjoyable day running two games of AFTERSHOCK for colleagues at Defence Research and Development Canada. The first game involved four DRDC/DND analysts playing, while second game included one from DRDC, a very experienced humanitarian aid worker, and two staff from Global Affairs Canada. Both teams eked out a narrow win in the closing turns of the game, with the second group scoring a little higher (in large part because of better coordination).


Although AFTERSHOCK was designed as an educational game for university students, military personnel, trainee humanitarians, and junior diplomats and aid officials, the purpose here was to assess whether it might offer a differing perspective on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations than the one generally adopted in military planning scenarios for capability-based planning. In particular, the game highlights not the hardware of platforms and assets, but rather the software of coordination and inter-agency synergies.

In any case I think everyone found the game enjoyable, and certainly the fictional, earthquake-afflicted population of Carana was grateful for their help.

I’ll be running one more game of AFTERSHOCK in Ottawa this weekend, in the very different setting of the CanGames gaming convention. Come and join us in the Sunday 2pm slot!



The New World Order comes to NDU


Earlier this year, we ran a very successful New World Order 2035 megagame at McGill University, overseen by the infamous Jim Wallman.

Now he’s back, and taking the capital of the Free World/global capitalism/neoimperialism/Pax Americana by storm:

When: Tuesday and Wednesday, May 24-25, 9:30-4:00

Where: National Defense University, Ft. McNair, Washington, DC

What: Jim Wallman will demonstrate his techniques for designing and running larger-scale games by presenting New World Order, a Megagame set in the not-so-distant future.  NDU’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning is hosting the event as a way to better understand the Megagame format – the focus will be on learning the format rather than maximizing gameplay, but it should be a useful experience for all.

How to attend: email to register and to receive directions, or if you have any questions.

How can gaming help test your theory?


Image via C3i magazine.


This article was contributed to PAXsims by Yuna Huh Wong, a researcher for the RAND Corporation where she is involved with wargames, futures methods, and a variety of defense-related studies.  She also sits on the Board of Directors for the Military Operations Research Society; and is a Research/Affiliate Scholar at the Center for the Study of Narrative and Conflict Resolution at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.

The article is adapted from comments she made during a Dec. 3, 2015 panel on “Testing Hypotheses: Escalation and Deterrence in Cyberspace,” at the Cyberspace and Deterrence Academic and Inter-Agency Symposium at the Elliot School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington, D.C


As someone who struggles to set up my home Wi-Fi network, I had a surprise invitation to speak on a panel on hypothesis testing for escalation and deterrence in cyberspace. After assuring me I would be weighing in on gaming, not cyber, the panel chair posed the following question: “How might you use wargaming to test hypotheses on cyber, deterrence and escalation control?” Because using games in hypothesis testing applies to domains other than cyber, my answers here have been adapted to be more general.


What is “gaming”?

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work’s February 2015 memo on reinvigorating wargaming has spurred a great deal of interest among defense circles. But what the U.S. defense community means by “wargaming” is a very broad set of activities that cover everything from group discussions, planning exercises, training exercises, and meetings that identify requirements and gaps.

I distinguish wargames by this key question: Are there are at least two opposing sides, with an equal opportunity to affect outcomes through their decisions? The more an event is about reviewing the internal processes of one side, rather than examining the consequences that player decisions are having on the course of events, the more it is about planning than gaming. There is nothing wrong with planning. It is simply a different tool.

Another important question is: What proportion of time do participants spend engaging in first-person role play versus third-person commentary about their topics of expertise? Signs of role-playing include immersion in the role’s perspective, first-person dialogue, emotional engagement, and active attempts to further the role’s objectives. My favorite example of this was watching a State Department participant play a host nation government in a game. With a flushed face, raised voice, and adamant hand gestures, she said, “They [the U.S.] just can’t do this. This is our country!” She was so engaged in role playing that she was angry on behalf of a fictitious government—against the government she was part of in real life. The less role-playing within the context of a specific scenario—and the more participant commentary that takes place outside of a role—the less it is a game and the more it is an expert panel discussion. Again, there is nothing wrong with expert panel discussion – it is again simply a different tool.


How does gaming help test your theory?

The act of designing a game will force you to articulate your theory or to be more specific about it. It will also require you to operationalize your variables and theoretical constructs of interest into a specific context, and prompt you to anticipate the ways in which it may play out in that scenario. For example, if your theory says that countries balance against perceived threats, whose perceptions within a country are important? What exactly is significant enough to constitute a threat? What is the time scale involved for threats to be perceived and for reactions to occur? The choice of roles, the levels of analysis, the design of the adjudication mechanism, how long players will have for how many turns, how many turns your game has to cover—all have the practical effect of dragging your theory from the abstract to the tangible. This exercise can also assist you in thinking through potential real-world indicators that are relevant for your theory.

It is important to note that a wargame cannot prove your theory or concept. There are too many variables involved to draw firm conclusions about causal mechanisms and too many questions about the external validity of wargames to be confident that what happens in a game applies to reality. It is impossible to include the full range of important real world factors for the wargame to approach reality, and real life tends to unfold in ways deemed unlikely by the experts.

A game is a model, and all models are abstractions from reality. Having a theory or concept show success in any one model or simulation, such as a wargame, is by itself insufficient proof that it will be successful in the real world. Wargames suffer the additional uncertainty that the same game played even by the same players may produce a different result on another occasion, and in ways not easily understood. This distinguishes it from most forms of computational or mathematical modeling and simulation, where results can differ over repeated runs of the same set of parameters, but in fundamentally knowable ways.

Additionally, there can be considerable conscious and subconscious pressure to give wargame sponsors the outcomes that they want or largely expect. Participants hostile to the concepts ostensibly under scrutiny are not usually invited to wargames sponsored by the concept developer. There can also be considerable pressure on sponsors to declare their game a success. Because of this, caution is warranted if you are both the concept or theory developer, and the wargame sponsor. You would need to combine the outcomes of many games, studies, and other methods to argue that your theory is plausible.

Games can also help by disproving your theory. If you can plausibly construct a good scenario and a believable sequence of events that provide results counter to what your theory predicts, your theory may be wrong. Whether a theory is actually disproved depends a great deal on the game mechanics and the quality of play in the game.

A game can also help test your theory by bringing attention to things that previously did not come to mind. Thomas Schelling, an early developer of nuclear crisis games for the Kennedy administration and Nobel Prize winner in economics for his work on cooperative game theory, remarked that no person, “no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination” can “draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.”[1] A good game will confront you with alternative variables, mechanisms and outcomes that may have never occurred to you and which your theory probably doesn’t cover.

Wargames also provide a chance to consider alternate conceptualizations of the problem. According to educational psychology, one of the costs of expertise can be cognitive rigidity.[2] Experts are valuable because they have developed deep knowledge in their chosen areas, but sometimes rely heavily on mental models not appropriate for areas outside their expertise. In areas that are poorly understood, such as cyber, this automatic “copy and paste” of mental models is likely to happen more often, but less likely to be directly challenged by others. None of us are exempt from the tendency to give precedence to techniques and methods that have earned us success in the past, or are free from cognitive biases and disciplinary paradigms. Wargaming can give us the opportunity to examine our mental models in entirely new ways.

Gaming can also help test your theory by confronting you with the level of context that you need to take into consideration. Many of us social scientists were taught from our youth to revere parsimonious causal theories as the pinnacle of elegance and intellectual achievement. However, the older I get, the more I am convinced that context greatly matters—and that parsimonious theory is often unhelpful in real-world decision-making. In life, it always depends. A game at least attempts to consider some of this real-life messiness that is context, often in ways that have not occurred to you. Understanding how your theory or concept interacts in specific contexts is immensely important if your work is supposed to have practical implications for a particular organization. Context appears very important in cyber, and the legitimate outcome of many a game may be that context drives more of the outcome than parsimonious theory or quantitative predictions.


Potential pitfalls

In the nine years I have been involved in wargaming in various roles, I have made all of the following mistakes. I encourage anyone interested to learn from them.

Trying to do too much with one game. Keep your list of game objectives as short as possible. I highly recommend that you have ONE objective if you can. Multiple objectives often seriously compromise game design and game play, potentially resulting in nothing being done particularly well or receiving adequate attention. Unfortunately, this rarely happens for a host of reasons. It’s easy to get excited about sponsoring a game and tempting to ask for as many things as possible. It’s genuinely hard to know ahead of time what you should exclude from a game, because if you knew what you don’t need to consider, you probably don’t need a game to begin with.

If the wargame has a chance at affecting anything down the line regarding important stakeholders, those stakeholders may require certain types of outputs from the wargame, adding to your objectives. Others in your organization may ask that the game try to solve different problems. So try not to frustrate your wargame by asking for too many things. Narrow the scope and keep repeating to interested parties that their concern is absolutely important, but beyond the scope of this wargame.

Spanning different levels of a phenomenon at once.[3] This is very tricky to do well. National security games often try to straddle the operational and strategic levels at the same time. This is because sponsoring organizations often must answer operational level questions, but are operating in a strategic context that is not static. Trying to generate game play that incorporates dynamic developments at both levels poses challenges for designers as well as players.[4] It is not impossible to have games straddle different levels, but can be tricky for the different levels to receive equal consideration in the game.

Counting on certain outputs from a game. A game can be the wrong tool to generate certain types of products. It is best to rely on a combination of studies, games, and other inputs for concrete recommendations on a specific decision, rather than the outputs of a single game or even series of games. Games not do not produce comprehensive lists of requirements or shortfalls for an organization, given the path-dependent nature of the overall results. Other approaches, such as structured brainstorming with key stakeholders, would produce a better answer in this case than simulating the enemy actions to one course of action. Additionally, if your requirement is to “validate” something, a wargame is likely the wrong tool. When used well, wargames can generate a list of things that you hadn’t considered. This list may help identify important questions and factors previously overlooked in studies, analyses, brainstorming, computer models, and live exercises. But wargames are not a substitute for any of these.

Reading too much into a single game. Because a good game can be so engaging, people can put too much stock in what they took away from a single game, particularly if they do not often participate in games. Games can be powerful because they are immersive and “experiential.” Games are also effective forms of engagement because gaming taps into the underlying structures in our brains that we used to learn about and explore a huge number of complex topics while we were younger.

As children, we learn through play. Play – imaginative play – is considered a key component of early childhood learning. A number of therapies aimed at children also incorporate play to help with skill development and emotional processing. The positive relationship between play and cognitive development has also been studied in animals. My personal, completely unscientific theory is that when we wargame, we still tap into these deep and powerful structures in the brain that help us process, imagine, and create. Children learn faster than adults and are more creative. And if play is the primary cognitive tool we learned while younger to process vast amounts of information about the world around us, we could do significantly worse than to use this tool again.

That said, if games are powerful because they tap into our deep and powerful structures in the brain for learning, then games that give “wrong” lessons may be a powerful and persuasive experience for attendees. To mitigate this, it may be interesting to ask during the “hotwash” post-game discussion: What would have to be the case for the group’s conclusions about the wargame to be wrong?


Gaming advice

If you are interested in gaming, you already know more about it than you likely give yourself credit for. Model United Nations, board games, card games, miniatures games—if you’ve taken part in any of these, you have experience that will translate to gaming serious issues.

To quote Peter Perla, the man who literally wrote the book on wargaming, players make the game. One thing that is very true in professional games — particularly for difficult problems with high degrees of uncertainty — is that the knowledge and expertise of the players is paramount.[5] This is definitely true when the purpose of a game is to explore an issue or test a theory. (Games meant to teach or train are obviously geared to those with less knowledge.) Many professional games do poorly not because of design, but because those who come to the game are insufficiently versed in some critical aspect of the problem to properly play out the dynamic. Doing research to find good players is critical, because the players frame the problem. To find players, start early, make yourself known in circles you want to recruit from, show up at conferences, ask experts to refer other experts, and actively woo the highest quality of experts you can.

Also, the more pressure there is on a game to produce a certain set of products, the less you actually want a game and the more you may want to consider another type of event, such as structured discussions or other form of expert data collection. In addition, remember the many types of things that games will not give you. With this in mind, use games to triangulate with multiple other approaches to examine your problem from different angles.

Keep your game under the radar and out of the limelight as much as possible. It may seem a positive to have a high-profile game that gets lots of attention, but high visibility can mean greater scrutiny and pushback even before your game begins. There can also be greater pressure for more predictable sets of products and greater certainty in what the game will produce.

And remember to look for the markers of successful games. Active engagement and the right roster of players are not enough to result in a good game. In a truly successful game, what you should see are leading experts in their field immersed in role playing and thinking of things that had not occurred to them before.

Yuna Huh Wong

[1] Thomas Schelling, “The role of war games and exercises,” in A. Carter, J. Steinbruner, & Zraket, C. (Eds.), Managing Nuclear Operations (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1987), pp. 426-444.

[2]Gregory Schraw, “Knowledge: Structures and Processes,” in Handbook of Educational Psychology, 2nd edition (American Psychological Association, 2006), edited by Patricia A. Alexander and Philip H. Winne, p. 259.

[3] Elizabeth Bartels, Margaret McCown, and Timothy Wilkie, “Designing Peace and Conflict Exercises: Levels of Analysis, Scenario, and Role Specification,” Simulation and Gaming (February 2013), Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 36-50.

[4] One common result is that players will choose one of the levels, as noted by Ellie Bartels at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. I have also seen one team in a game pick the strategic level in a game, and the other team pick the operational level, with both declaring victory in the end.

[5] Some people also make better players than others – a topic where I do not believe we have a lot of research.

Decisive Action Training Environment


War is Boring has obtained, via a FOIA request, a copy of the latest (April 2015) version of the US Army’s Decisive Action Training Environment. The 825 page DATE document offers a fictional military, political, and socio-economic setting, located within a semi-fictionalized Caucasus region, for use in Army training exercises, wargames, and other learning activities:

The purpose of this Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE) document, version 2.2, is to provide the US Army training community with a detailed description of the conditions of five operational environments (OEs) in the Caucasus region; specifically the countries of Ariana, Atropia, Donovia, Gorgas, and Limaria. It presents trainers with a tool to assist in the construction of scenarios for specific training events but does not provide a complete scenario. The DATE offers discussions of OE conditions through the Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, Infrastructure, Physical Environment, and Time (PMESII-PT) variables. This DATE applies to all US Army units (Active Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve) that participate in an Army or joint training exercise.

This DATE will incorporate some real-world data and some artificial data in order to set the conditions for a wide range of training events, to include decisive operations. Section 2: Variables of the OE and Orders of Battle (OBs) provides the bulk of these details. The variable discussion explores the complex and ever-changing combination of conditions, circumstances, and influences that could affect military operations within a given OE. The PMESII-PT variables offer insight into each country’s independent, dynamic, and multi-dimensional environment. By defining these variables’ makeup and interoperability as they relate to a specific country, a picture emerges of the environment’s nature and characteristics. The OBs, which follow each country’s PMESII-PT variable discussions, contain the administrative force structure (AFS).

As War is Boring notes, the “fictional countries” bear striking resemblance to the real countries of the region:

Ariana — clearly filling in for Iran — is a theocracy ruled by a clerical caste. “A brutally efficient military ensures the continuation of the current power structure,” the guide explains. “A sham representative government appeases or distracts Western interests.”

Atropia and Limaria substitute for Azerbaijan and Armenia, respectively. The Army describes the first as a “classic dictatorship” and the second simply as an “autocracy.”

In Atropia, “every national success or failure reflects directly on the ruling family,” the handbook says — a clear reference to Heydar Aliyev, who governed the province of Azerbaijan under Soviet rule between 1969 and 1982, and then, in 1993, became the third president of independent Azerbaijan.

Then there’s Limaria. Its “key political goal is the survival and advancement of the Limarian ethnicity,” according to the DATE. “Any argument for action between Limarians can be won by the side offering better protection for the local and diaspora population.”

No clearer reference could be made to Armenia and the national sentiment of Armenians the world over. Much to the dismay of Turkish authorities, Armenians understandably and regularly petition foreign governments and organizations to recognize the genocide that occurred between 1915 and 1917, when suspicious Turkish authorities orchestrated the deaths of up to two million Armenians.

To this day, Ankara disputes this number and refuses to describe the events as systematic genocide.

Atropia and Limaria don’t get along in the Army’s war-gaming universe, either. The two countries are locked in conflict over a region called “Lower Janga,” with each supporting various militant factions such as the Free Lower Janga Movement and the Limarian Liberation Front.

Back in the real world, since 1988 the Armenians and Azeris have fought a prolonged but sporadic skirmish over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In April 2016, factions in the area clashed, leading to what some observers described as a “four-day war.”

Donovia and Gorgas — stand-ins for Russia’s autonomous Caucasus republics and the independent Republic of Georgia, respectively — have a similarly tense relationship in the game world. The Army gives its most positive description to the residents of Gorgas.

“Gorgas is a political oddity in the region as an emerging representative democracy,” the DATE manual explains. “Gorgas is trying to make a democracy work and stands to lose much if let down by Western interests.”

By contrast, Donovia “is an authoritarian state led by a small, incestuous elite,” according to the DATE. “This group uses state power and resources to enrich itself and secure both domestic and international political support.”

This fake country covers the part of Russia occupied by the semi-autonomous and nominally Muslim provinces of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and North Ossetia. In the real world, local and international media and humanitarian groups regularly describe Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov as a gangster.

The DATE handbook provides an overview of the overall strategic setting; a detailed summary of political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical environment, time, and order of battle data for each fictional country; an account of 77 recent events, which might be used as scenarios or vignettes; and a series of appendices with additional military information.


Collectively, it all represents an outstanding free resource for political-military simulation designers looking for a highly detailed, (semi-)fictionalized backdrop for their scenarios.


Simulating the Arab-Israeli conflict: to what ends?


Last month The Forward published two articles dealing with Arab-Jewish dialogue, and the particular contribution of negotiation simulations in promoting empathy and understanding. The first, by Sam Kestenbaum, describes a negotiation simulation at CUNY’s Queen’s College:

On a recent afternoon in Queens, Secretary of State John Kerry sat with Israeli and Palestinian representatives, chatting amiably. “It’s great to see you two side by side,” Kerry said to the delegates. “Now, have we agreed about these land swaps?”

The Israeli and Palestinian smiled and nodded — a historic agreement had been reached; it seemed there might be an end to the crippling decades long stalemated conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

But then the class period ended.

John Kerry, peeling off a nametag, introduced herself as Rachel Olshin, a Jewish student at Queens College. The Israeli delegate revealed herself as a young Muslim named Amer Ashraf. The Palestinian delegate was a Jew and onetime soldier in the Israeli army, named Jeremy Pitts. The three students were participating in a semester-long simulated peace process at City University of New York’s Queens College, one of a number of measures taken on that campus to ease religious and political tensions.

Around 2005, Rosenblum developed a curriculum and course called “America and Middle East: Clash of Civilizations or Meeting of the Minds.” The next years saw slightly different iterations, culminating in the conflict-resolution simulations.

McGee, who has now taken over Rosenblum’s class, said students are often uncomfortable with the material. And that’s the point. They’re asked to assume characters from “the other side” of where they are coming from.

Students broke up into small groups in different parts of the classroom, peering over maps of the region. Some had difficulty finding Gaza and Tel Aviv on the map. One student struggled to pronounce Bahrain and Kuwait correctly; a young woman in a hijab leaned over to correct her.

A whole range of characters was cast: Amos Yadlin, IDF military attaché to Washington; Salaam Fayyad, former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority; Samantha Powers, United States ambassador to the United Nations, and Turki Al-Faisal, from the Saudi royal family.

If a character is simply beyond the pale for a given student — for example, taking on the role of a Hamas representative, or an Israeli settler — McGee will let that character take a more backseat role. One student confided in a private message to McGee earlier this semester, “It’s really important for me to understand the Palestinians, but I’m terrified.”

The other piece, by David Makovsky and Gaith al-Omari, describes a negotiation simulation at the University of California Santa Barbara:

…the most unique feature of our UCSB program is the mock negotiation exercise, where we ask students who self-identify as pro-Israel to play the role of Palestinian negotiators and vice versa. It’s all too common in such a highly emotive conflict for partisans to dismiss the views of the other as mere posturing or as unfounded propaganda. Rather than simply spelling out the various parties’ positions to the students, we challenge these students to articulate the logic and sets of interests that lead each side to adopt its position.

This is not an emotionally easy process for students who feel a strong affinity to one side. As facilitators, we can see in the students’ facial expressions and body language clear signs that many of them struggle to argue for the very same positions they have grown accustomed to criticizing. So it’s important for us to ensure that they are not made to feel uncomfortable with their views or pressured to abandon them. Instead, we hope that students leave this exercise with a greater understanding that the positions of the other side are based on a set of facts, interests and narratives that need to be understood, even if they are not adopted, by anyone who seeks to end this conflict.

As the exercise progresses, we see the participants becoming more comfortable with the idea that people can have their own narratives and that often, although not always, these different narratives do not come from a place of malice. The participants begin to understand that this conflict is not a morality play, as they may hear from some of their teachers in the classroom.

In the end, we believe that the effort is worth it when students — often those who were most skeptical at the start — tell us that they leave the exercise understanding that the conflict is more complex than the bumper stickers or fliers on campus suggest it is, or that they now appreciate that both sides believe they have justice on their side. Our hope is that students will use the knowledge they gained to promote dialogue and practical forms of coexistence rather than engage in BDS or other forms of divisive, mutually delegitimizing activities.

In a sharp rejoinder, however, Natasha Gill is rather critical of the approach:

Despite what many people may believe, humanization between individuals does not resolve conflict between groups. And yet against all the hard evidence, most conflict management or simulation exercises still put this forward as their primary objective.

The Forward recently ran two articles about conflict negotiation simulations dealing with the Israel/Palestine dispute. Both mention the challenges and rewards of role-reversal, in which participants take on the part of their adversary during the course of the simulation.

But by citing the troika of dialogue and peace projects — humanizing enemies, encouraging an understanding of “the other” and developing mutual empathy — both models appear to be driven by the same unquestioned assumption that has ushered Palestine/Israel reconciliation movements into oblivion: that there is a relationship between mutual understanding among individuals and the end of violence or the achievement of peace between groups or nations.

As one of the first to devise Israel/Palestine role reversal negotiations over a decade ago, inspired and trained by Barnard College historian Mark Carnes’s highly successful “Reacting to the Past” method, I have found that the emphasis on dialogue, empathy and humanization is misleading. In reality, the most powerful component of these modules is that they offer a unique space where adversaries can face each other without being pressured prematurely into friendship or asked to feel each other’s pain, and where their anger and hatred can be accepted, even respected.

In the end, such simulations do compel participants to better understand their adversary, but not out of any sense of moral responsibility, virtuousness or respect for “the other.” Instead, they do so in order to take stock of their own options and the realities that their own people face . As a result, participants might rethink their approach to the conflict even when they do not change their mind about their enemies’ motives, rights or actions. They’re likely to query the effectiveness of their own strategies and goals, and closely analyze whether these are achievable. And they will often recognize the beliefs of their adversaries as facts on the ground that have to be addressed, no less powerful than any that can be seen or touched.

The results of this process are quite different from those that emerge from many peace and dialogue groups — not because the latter are not meaningful for individuals, but because whereas personal encounters may open hearts and minds, participants in these programs are rarely given tools to address their adversaries within the context of the conflict itself .

And the results are certainty different from the kind of work done by advocacy groups, where intra-community debate is subject to stringent rules of censorship, and where the goal is generally to learn only enough about your enemy’s stated positions so as to design a set of counter attacks and talking points. That’s a staggeringly superficial and ineffective strategy whose only success has been to deprive otherwise intelligent individuals of the insight they need in order to be effective advocates for their own cause.

In contrast to these approaches — both of which, for different reasons, avoid a confrontation with reality — a well designed simulation plunges participants into the heart of the conflict, where they analyze in great detail the social, economic, political, territorial, diplomatic and psychological obstacles to peace, from the perspectives of all parties that have a stake in its outcome.

Natasha is well known for her work on integrative simulations to teach conflict, negotiation, and mediation, and has been a contributor here at PAXsims. Like her, I have been critical of many of the “people-to-people” initiatives that flourished in the heyday of the Arab-Israeli peace process. These typically placed too much emphasis on changing attitudes within a very small section of the grassroots while overlooking more hard-edged political and  structural challenges. That being said, I think she’s being a little unfair to the two projects described, since both clearly have student socialization as an important goal, as well as seeking to educate participants about the conflict. On campus, classroom friendships and empathy can play a powerful role in changing broader community dynamics, even if they have no impact whatsoever on the actual conflict—a point noted by the authors of both pieces.

She and I also partly disagree on the potential value of “fictional or futuristic scenarios, which can be uplifting for participants but misleading for all involved.” Certainly there are badly-designed fictional or future simulations, and understanding of current problems is usually best served by setting a simulation in the here-and-now.

Depending on what you are trying to do, however, there are sometimes very good reasons to liberate participants from the tyranny of the present if you are trying to identify future challenges or develop innovative approaches. This is a point that Sean McMahon and Chris Miller have made from a critical studies perspective. At the other end of the spectrum, many professional national security simulations utilize such settings because they allow you to set initial conditions in a way that best suits analytical or experimental needs.

Indeed, the most successful and influential Arab-Israeli simulation I have ever been involved in—one that led directly to several international meetings attended by diplomats and technical experts, briefings in multiple national capitals, and two follow-up simulations in direct support of on-going negotiations—was set in a future scenario rather than a current one, and this setting was critical to its success. It was certainly realistic and engaging enough that we had to stop one group of participants from consulting their (real-life) national leader’s office to obtain (simulated) negotiation instructions.

Taken together, the pieces by Kestenbaum, Makovsky and al-Omari—together with Gill’s critique— raise some valuable questions about how we run simulations, to what purpose and with what effects, and how greater understanding might best contribute to conflict resolution.

h/t Neil Caplan 

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 16 May 2016.


Today is, of course, National Sea Monkey Day—yes it really is. In honour of that most important occasion, we at PAXsims have collected together a number of items that, while having nothing at all to do with Sea Monkeys™, do concern conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) games.

Ryan Kuhns and James Sterrett contributed material for this latest edition.



A few months back we posted an item regarding RAND’s wargame-based analysis of a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic republics. Those games, designed and conducted by David Shlapak and Michael  Johnson, found that NATO was unable to defend its Baltic members, and that doing so would require investment in at least additional seven brigades that were either forward deployed or could be deployed to the area on short notice.

At War on the Rocks, Michael Kofman disagrees:

In RAND’s wargames, Russia rolled through the Baltics even with NATO airpower to contend with, but so what? The structure of such scenarios can lead to radically different conclusions about what the U.S. should do in response. RAND’s wargame is fraught with problems, starting with its assumptions and its reading of Russian strategy and military. The results have been hyped up like so much hot air filling a balloon.

First, he argues that the game scenario of a hasty Russian attack on the Baltics was unrealistic, since any direct attack on NATO would involve far great mobilization of effort and risk.

If Russia was planning a full-scale invasion of the Baltic states, it would also have to plan to take on all of NATO and defend against a counter-attack. Great powers typically don’t attack superpowers with cobbled-together forces and hope for the best. Moscow would likely bring to bear a force several times larger than that assumed in the wargame and maintain the logistics to deploy additional units from other military districts. Opinions will vary among Russian military experts about the size of force Russia could muster in a hurry, but one estimate I suspect you will not hear is 27 battalions thrown together for what could be World War III. Think much bigger and not within an arbitrary 10-day time limit.  It is unclear where the 10-day invasion rule came from. It was also referenced in a recent Atlantic Council report.  Has NATO coordinated this preferred time table with the Russians?

Second, he is critical of what he sees as their attachment to a 1980s conception of Air-Land Battle, and their decision to focus solely on operations in the Baltic republics and not the broader Baltic Sea and surrounding countries.

If we are to have this surreal Dr. Strangelove discussion, then let’s play out a high-end fight between Russia and NATO. Imagine it is the future: NATO has done as told and forward-stationed several American brigades in the Baltics.  Russia also repositions forces in the Western Military District in response, and realizes previously announced plans for new unit formations. One day, Russia decides to roll the dice on the fate of humanity and challenge NATO through a conventional invasion. Except the Russian General Staff looks at the map and realizes that there’s no need to seize Baltic cities since they can simply walk through Belarus and link up with Kaliningrad, thereby severing NATO’s “Army of Deterrence” in the Baltics from the rest of its forces in Poland. Russia’s Baltic Fleet is not much of a naval force, but it can blockade Baltic ports for a while, mine them, and effect sea denial. Of course, the other problem is that all of U.S. forces will be within the arcs of Russia’s long-range air defense, operating at the mercy of Russian cruise missiles, artillery, and an initial air attack.

One thing AirLand Battle didn’t have to deal with is S-400 air defense systems with 250 kilometer ranges, 350 kilometer-range Iskander-M tactical missiles, or 300 kilometer-range Bastion-P coastal missile defenses. Of course, everything can be overcome in time, except that there’s no obvious way to reinforce U.S. units in the Baltics or to keep their supplies and fuel from being destroyed in the opening hours of the fight. This entire scenario starts within Russian kill zones and electronic warfare zones. Russian units can come from Belarus, Kaliningrad, Russia itself, or by sea in preparation for an assault. The ability of Moscow to compel Minsk’s cooperation plays a key role, because the railroads run right through Belarus and to the Suwalki Gap or by Vilnius. Author and retired Army Colonel Douglas MacGregor’s brief to the Senate Armed Services Committee was no less alarmist than RAND’s, but he recognized the more important problem of Russian forces attacking from Belarus to Kaliningrad.

Why would Russia make a dash for Baltic capitals, as in RAND’s wargame, when the battle is decided by whether or not NATO can successfully reinforce from Poland? Instead of fighting NATO forces in the Baltics, the best way forward is to turn that deterrent into a military hostage. What if, in the time it takes NATO to generate forces sufficient to break through a Russian defensive position across Kaliningrad, the alliance collapses politically, especially given the concern over losing its units behind enemy lines in the Baltics?

Lurking behind all this is the issue of nuclear deterrence, or even nuclear weapons use.

When we understand the nuclear ramifications of this entire discussion, it becomes clear how mad much of the argumentation over conventional deterrence in the Baltics truly is. There is not even a meager attempt to explain how deterrence has failed or why Russia would attack NATO, despite the fact that through most of the Cold War and into the present, deterrence has rested more on the threat of punishment. The U.S.-Russia relationship always enjoyed deterrence by punishment aplenty (no offense to AirLand warriors), through nuclear and subsequently conventional retaliation. Despite the current tensions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there’s little to indicate that this equilibrium has been lost.

The questions raised about the broader context of such a war are important ones—indeed, we briefly mentioned some of them in our discussion of a Baltic crisis game conducted by the  Center for a New American Security.

Kofman is critical of RAND’s use of a hex-based wargame, and their consequent focus on assets in the immediate area:

One of the challenges with wargaming and the hex-square approach (a tactical grid dividing the map terrain into hexagonal squares) is that it can lend you to structure advice not in service of a real-world problem, but in the service of fixing the wargame. Looking at the board, no doubt Russia’s hex squares are filled with powerful red unit pieces and NATO’s are disappointingly empty. The logical conclusion is to fill NATO’s side with blue pieces — problem solved.

I don’t think the problem here is necessarily hex maps. Indeed, part of Kofman’s argument (although he doesn’t state this) is, in effect, that the map was too small and the wrong assets were considered. However, he does point to an issue in all wargame design, whether hex-based or using any other mechanic: a design can skew outcomes, and hence conclusions.

The debate over Russia, NATO, and Baltic security continues.



In The National Interest, Michael Peck discusses “Why the Pentagon Loves War Games Again.”

It’s a great time to be a Pentagon game nerd.

Long dismissed as the geekier side of the military, war gaming is suddenly in demand, after the Department of Defense realized that if it wants to devise a strategy to beat China and Russia, it needs to play games.

Last year, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work issued a startling directive demanding the military conduct more wargaming. Work’s eye is on an important prize: a new “offset strategy” for the twenty-first century. The First Offset Strategy, in the 1950s, relied on nuclear weapons to stop massive Soviet ground forces, while the second strategy of the 1970s emphasized smart weapons to stop the Red Army. Now the focus is on a Third Offset Strategy to discover technologies and tactics to neutralize an imposing spectrum of new threats, such as ship-killing hypersonic missiles, cyberwarfare and terrorism (for my deeper analysis of the Pentagon directive, go here).

War games and the military go back a long way. Chess was invented in India almost two thousand years ago as a game of military strategy, and the Germans used Kriegsspiel to train their elite General Staff officers. More relevant to the current U.S. strategic dilemma is how the U.S. Naval War College used wargames in the 1930s—including model ships maneuvered on the floor—to develop the war plans that eventually defeated Japan in 1945.

Yet as Work said in his directive, “I am concerned that the Department’s ability to test concepts, capabilities, and plans using simulation and other techniques—otherwise known as wargaming—has atrophied.” To fix the problem, the Department of Defense has requested $55 million for war gaming in fiscal year 2017, which is still a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly $600 billion the Pentagon spends now.

 Peck worries whether the money will be well-spent:

Whether that money will be spent wisely remains to be seen. Commercial war games, designed and played by hobbyists (in the interests of full disclosure, I’m one of them), are a cheaper and quicker alternative to the Pentagon’s habit of awarding contracts to the big defense firms. Some commercial war game designers, for example, have produced remarkably sophisticated simulations of counterinsurgency conflicts such as Vietnam. Networking technologies should make it easier to bring together diverse and geographically distant decisionmakers and experts for gaming.

But what ultimately counts is the human dimension of war gaming. What games and war have in common—and what makes war gaming so valuable—is that they are a competition of wits in which the participants use every last bit of cunning to beat their opponent. Mathematical models may be fine for estimating how many F-35s or aircraft carriers America needs. However, a conflict in the South China Sea or eastern Europe will be instigated by humans and waged by humans, and therefore should be gamed by humans too.

He’s absolutely right, of course, about the centrality of human factors as both an element of and a reason for wargaming. His fear of defence contractors hijacking the initiative with big-budget digital wargames that deliver little is one that others have expressed, notably Peter Perla in an article last year at Wargaming Connection. Peter adds to this the equally great risk of things being relabelled “wargames” so as to seem consistent with current senior-level interest, or low-quality games being conducted just to show compliance with the new directives.

But I fear some hidden “others,” most of which are lurking in one word: “systematize.” There are far too many organizations new to or unfamiliar with wargaming that see an opportunity in claiming to have a new and improved “system” for doing wargaming. Most of these sudden converts are either purveyors or patrons of big (and expensive) computer simulations at one extreme, or the practitioners and participants of bogsattery at the other.

We have already seen the signs of bureaucratic antibodies rising to fight against new application of real wargaming as seminars, workshops, and facilitated discussions are suddenly re-characterized as wargames. And what I like to call CSWPs—pronounced caz-whips, for computer simulations without players—are touted as precisely the sort of “systematized” and high-tech solutions needed.

I would add two other caveats.

First, I’m not sure that commercial/hobby wargames necessarily hold the silver bullet of a low-cost alternative. Certainly there are many, many excellent designs available, and absolutely there is a great deal to be learned in terms of design approaches and mechanics. However hobby games are often a poor fit for the analytical purposes and practical constraints of national security gaming, and I’ve attended too many wargame discussions which seem to have difficulty breaking away from the traditions of hobby games that participants grew up with or have stockpiled in their basements.

Second, the danger in positioning quantitative OR analysis and qualitative, human factor wargaming as opposites is that it obscures the many potential synergies between the two. After all, we don’t want a (Captain America) wargamers vs (Tony Stark) operations researchers civil war, do we?



The US Naval War College recently wargamed the battle of Jutland, using modified rules from the 1930s. According to the NWC press release:

This reenactment pitted Howe, acting as commodore of the German fleet, against Samuel Cox, director Naval History and Heritage Command, who led the British forces.

The reenactment used wargame techniques from that time to include staging the game on a large floor space and physically maneuvering game pieces representing ships. All movement calculations were completed using period technology.

Recreating the Jutland wargame required some digging and good luck to find out how the original game was played by students almost a century ago.

While looking for information on the original wargame, NWC archivist Dara Baker happened on a historic find in the archives.

“The reenactment all started with the idea of putting together an exhibition to acknowledge it has been 100 years since the Battle of Jutland,” said Baker. “To do that, my staff and I started looking through all of the material we have in our collection on the battle. When we were looking, I found this box titled, “War Game Outfit,” and I was like, ‘Huh, I wonder what that is.’ I pulled the box out and opened it up and there were all these pieces, it was just fantastic.”

Baker had discovered that the archives’ collection contained much of the original game from almost a century ago.

“We unpacked the whole thing and realized we had all the [game] pieces created in the 1930s for the Jutland game,” Baker added. “By knowing what the pieces looked like, it allowed us to recreate those and actually put on this event.”

The game pieces used for the reenactment were recreated for the event and modeled after the older pieces from the archives.

The archives staff also uncovered the instructions used for the original game. The instructions were used to develop the reenactment instructions.

A video of the wargame will be posted to the NWC Facebook page on May 31, the centenary of the actual naval confrontation during WWI. In the meantime, you can watch this excellent documentary video from the Jutland 1916 website explaining the battle:


The Wall Street Journal features an interesting piece on the value of extremely difficult (video)games:

Today’s most challenging games are dubbed “masocore,” a combination of “masochist” and “hard-core.” Masocore games are nearly devoid of instructions, kill new players within seconds, and require repeated trial and error to succeed.

But it’s not all pointless vexation. These games reinforce a character-building truism: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” And they also inculcate some practical virtues. All of that losing, it turns out, teaches you how to win, and not just in videogames.

You can read the full article here.



Many wargames, especially commercial/hobby wargames, grant players a gods-eye view of the battlefield, allow them to be everywhere, and provide them with absolute control over the behaviour of their forces. In a thoughtful article at GrogHeads earlier this month, Derek Croxton addresses this issue of “Perspective in Wargames: Who Exactly Are You?

This article investigates the problems of trying to put players in historical roles: first of identifying proper historical figures to simulate, and second of creating the possibilities and limitations that those figures historically faced. I contend that a game is usually more fun and more realistic where a designer has given thought to these issues.

The problem of perspective is especially acute at the tactical level. The smoke, noise, and confusion of battlefields are legendary; friction and fog of war are as important as planning, and psychology sometimes dominates doctrine in deciding the victor. These sorts of problems are very difficult to simulate. ASL,probably the greatest tactical system ever, does not even make much of an attempt. The concept of morale and broken units was and remains a brilliant innovation, but it only covers a small part of the problems experienced by a leader. Though it purports to deal with “the ultimate stress situation” in which decisions “could be warped by the unpredictable dictates of fate,” in fact players have absolute vision of the battlefield and total control of any squads not actually shot at, and broken, by the enemy. I once debated with a friend for an hour on the lack of reluctant sergeants, botched communications, and inaccurate maps that one might actually have to deal with. His initial reaction was disbelief: of course there are no reluctant sergeants, you are the sergeant. This is what the name of the game would lead you to believe – you are, after all, playing Squad Leader – but in fact you are more like a company leader (if you were a squad leader, they should give you only one squad)….


9780262033992Also at GrogHeads, Brant Guillory reviews Pat Harrigan and Matthew Kirschenbaum, eds., Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (The MIT Press, 2016).

 The beauty of Zones of Control is that there’s so much in here that the likelihood is that the reader is going to find more to his or her liking than not.  Bond discussing the creation of Persian Incursion is a fascinating look the process of building one of the odder game systems to emerge in recent wargaming.  Racier talking about Paths of Glory is of comparable quality and insight.  Zones of Control gives equal time to aesthetic creators (Mahaffey), professional practitioners (Bartels), academics (MacCallum-Stewart), legends (Costikyan), and journalists-turned-creators (Goodfellow).  Even those chapters whose contents you don’t agree with (like my critique of Schulzke’s chapter above) serve as jumping-off points for very serious conversations about wargaming as a whole.

“Do you need to buy this book?” is the ultimate question.  Unless you’re a single-track wargamer, who eats, sleeps, breathes, and lives & dies with one type of game – tabletop hex & counter, or digital FPS – there’s going to be more than enough reading to keep your interest.  Moreover, if you work in wargaming at all, whether as a hobby designer, or a defense contractor, or an educator using wargames in the classroom, this is a must-buy.  And if you can manage to bill it to an expense account, buy two!

You’ll find the review here, the book here, and its table of contents here.


The latest in EA’s Battlefield series of multiplayer first-person shooter videogames, Battlefield 1, will be set in World War I—and that has sparked some interesting commentary about the appropriateness of that setting for the gaming genre.As Jake Muncy notes at Wired:

PEOPLE TEND TO grow reverential when talking about the First World War. Many see it as the epitome of wanton cruelty, a brutal and pointless stalemate that killed some 16 million people and gave rise to the worst excesses of modern warfare. This war to end all wars, more than almost any other modern conflict, is difficult to separate from the horrors it inflicted.

That’s a big reason why you don’t see World War I as a setting for a mainstream first-person shooter. But Electronic Arts wants to give it a try with Battlefield 1. This might sound like an exciting new frontier for the genre, but there’s a reason WW1 has long been no-man’s land for developers: It was a quagmire of death and disease that turned strategy into slaughter, with no handy narrative of heroism to layer gameplay atop.

Certainly WW I was generally characterized on the Western Front by the dehumanizing slog of trench warfare, where individual actions and heroism were dwarfed by mass industrial slaughter. However, it is noteworthy that in the trailer above much of the gameplay seems to focus on aspects and theatres of the war where individuals appeared to have greater freedom of action and where battles of maneuver were possible: combat in the air, in the deserts of the Middle East, and possibly the breakthrough battles of 1918.

The debate is also taken up by Alex Hern in The Guardian:

The first world war may not be the most obvious time period in which to set a team-based first-person shooter with a heavy emphasis on vehicular combat.

The pointless slaughter of trench warfare, with lines of enlisted men marching slowly towards machine guns that mowed them down by the thousands, all to gain or lose mere feet of frontline, isn’t exactly a “fun” scenario.

And while the Great War was the first time tanks, planes and zeppelins were used in combat, their deployment was often small-scale and of minimal strategic importance.

Nonetheless, Battlefield developer EA Dice has committed to tackling the period with latest game in the series, Battlefield 1. The definitive name comes from the studio’s desire “to portray the dawn of all out war… the genesis of modern warfare”.

It may also be accurate to suggest that the series has come to the 1914-18 conflict because it has run out of alternatives. Since the arrival of original game Battlefield 1942 in 2002, Battlefield has toured the second world war (multiple times), Vietnam, the present, the future, and even the battles between organised crime and militarised police forces in the cities of America.

Despite being the most removed from the present day, however, the first world war retains a unique position in the public psyche. Perceived as a shamefully wasteful contest between sabre-rattling empires, leading to the unnecessary deaths of millions, it has largely been exempt from interactive portrayals – apart from biplane flight combat sims and hexagon-based war games. Call of Duty briefly took players to an alternative, zombie-infested version of the conflict, but that’s about it.

This leads him to the broader question of how we remember wars:

But asking whether the first world war is an appropriate topic for a first-person shooter may reveal a more pressing question: why do we think any war is?

A game set in the Great War will necessarily whitewash the horrors of trench warfare. Even when games do tenderly address these subjects, they rarely do so through the medium of 64-player class-based combat. The beautiful Ubisoft title Valiant Hearts, about four characters attempting to help a German soldier, is a puzzle adventure that told human stories. It did not encourage players to excitedly recreate the battle of the Somme.

But games set in the second world war – which has been deemed acceptable as a backdrop to gung-ho shooters like Call of Duty and Brothers in Arms – tend not to address the disgrace of civilian bombardment, let alone the horrors of the atomic bombings or the holocaust.

Fundamentally, there are two second world wars. There’s the complex, messy one of history. The one where Britain entered a war not to fight an evil dictator, but to protect its allies and interests on the continent; where America sat out for two years as fascism grew popular within its own borders, only joining when Japan forced its hand; where the horror of the holocaust was known to Allied leadership, but not acted on, long before Russia liberated Auschwitz.

And then there’s the WWII of Boy’s Own, Eagle and Commando: Where Britain and America joined forces with the goal of taking on an evil empire, and liberating the people of Europe. It’s a reshaping of history, but one which enabled the horrors of the war to be understood and processed by a new generation.

By contrast, the first world war has only really had one portrayal. Starting with shellshocked war poets writing, and dying, on the front line, the horror and wastefulness of the Great War has never been far from its popular perception. Stories of (the fictional) Biggles, the (real) Red Baron and the flying aces of world war one are able to exist alongside the horror of the trenches, but never obscure them.

Maybe Battlefield 1 can enter that canon too, and slowly build its own version of the first world war to go alongside the cartoon retelling of the second. But if you think it shouldn’t be allowed to try, it may be worth first asking why you are happy with war games at all.

The game is set for release in October.


On the subject of videogames, the Russian Embassy in the UK posted accusations that Syrian opposition groups had obtained truckloads of chemical weapons, and attached photographic evidence. Well, sort of—the pictures were actually screenshoots from the game Command & Conquer: Generals.

The caveat “image used for illustration purposes only” was later added, but the tweet was not taken down.

Kelsey Atherton has the story at Popular Science.


Top scientists reveal shocking truth: amazing wargaming methodology makes wrinkles vanish in days!

Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_Image-7.jpgIt seems the words “methodology evaluation” don’t attract readers to online media, so sometimes you have to go with a more clickbait-y headline.

The appearance of a Defence Research and Development Canada paper on (matrix) wargaming to support strategic planning on the DRDC website led to me getting a couple of calls from reporters this week about ISIS Crisis. As I told them, none of this was about planning military operations against ISIS. Rather, that just happened to be the scenario/game that was used to explore the methodology and whether it might have something to contribute to capability-based planning in general.

Because “methodology” is rather dry, geeky stuff  VICE News has just run an article under the exciting headline “The Strategy Board Game the Canadian Military Could Use to Fight the Islamic State.”

It’s like Diplomacy meets Dungeons and Dragons meets Prussian military tactics.

That’s ‘ISIS Crisis’ in a nutshell, a Canadian-developed table-top war game that a wing of the Canadian military says could be useful in getting strategists thinking more broadly about fighting in Iraq and Syria.

The game, developed by a major in the British army and a professor at a Canadian university, was given a test run by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), the military’s in-house technology and research division.

The research body played the turn-based strategy game to see if it changed their way of thinking about any of the military, social, economic, or cultural problems facing the region….

Again—as is clear from the actual DRDC report—this isn’t at all why ISIS Crisis was played. It was used simply assess how this general type of game might be a useful analytical tool. The scenario was set in the Middle East, but might equally have been military response to the Great 1998 Ice Storm, the current forest fires in Fort McMurray, or a future hypothetical peacekeeping missions.

On this plus side, the article does at least highlight the value of serious gaming for analysis, and I do think ISIS Crisis does generate useful insight into the conflict with Daesh. Amazing but true!


Simulation and gaming miscellany, 11 May 2016


PAXsims is pleased to present some items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers. Research associate Ryan Kuhns provided material for this latest edition.


This War of Mine—the very successful digital game by 11 Bit Studios in which a player assumes the role of a civilian trying to survive the winter in a war-ravaged city—is going to be published by Awaken Realms in a boardgame version. The Kickstarter for the project is now live, and has received enthusiastic backing, with the project goals were reached in less than a day.


James Sterrett reviewed the original game very positively for PAXsims when it was released last year. I very much like it too, and have already pledged support for the project on Kickstarter.


Game designer extraordinaire (and sometimes totalitarian military dictator) Brian Train recently passed through Montreal as a guest of honour at the local Stack Academie gaming event, and to deliver a guest lecture on game design at the Université de Montréal. You’ll find a copy of his presentation here.


Brian also recently spoke at the US Army War College, where he tutored play of his forthcoming Algeria game Colonial Twilight.



At Red Team Journal, Mark Mateski discusses how red teams can understand the “operational code” of the actors they represent, and manifest this in game play or other red team activities.

Red teams are often expected to adopt an opponent’s operational code, although most red teams don’t directly employ the concept or term. For better or worse, the individual team members’ tacit knowledge regarding the opponent or competitor represents the sum of the red team’s operational code analysis. For example, a client might charter a red team to study a “cyber” problem from the perspective of a particular class of adversary, say, criminal hackers.6 The team would then employ its tacit knowledge of the cyber domain to view the problem from the perspective of the criminal hacker. In some cases, this may be sufficient. In most cases, however, value exists in at least roughly documenting the opponent’s code. Doing so brings hidden and perhaps varying assumptions to the surface, thereby encouraging the red team to refine and calibrate its perspective. It can help the team learn where its understanding is limited, where gaps exist, and how these gaps might be filled or otherwise addressed.

He also offers some important caveats about allowing an actor’s perceived operational code to over-determine their actions:

Complicating this approach are several real-world dynamics that can be both difficult to assess and difficult to overcome. One is the fact that uncertainty is inescapable. We can be more or less certain, but we must avoid the trap of believing that the operational code we posit is indeed the adversary’s “true” operational code, now and forever. Another is the fact that few adversaries are unitary and rational. What emerges as the perceived operational code might be (or probably is) the result of many stakeholder interactions and, at times, conflicts. Branding this result an “operational code” can mask these interactions and conflicts, which we should not do, at least fully. The challenge is then one of balancing the utility of a high-level model of the adversary’s operational code with the important understand of the stakeholders, concerns, and conflicts that move and shift behind the model. (All of which might conceivably be captured in the operational code.)

Additionally, operational codes might not apply in certain situations. These might include circumstances where one opponent or another chooses to act before thinking or sits on the horns of a dilemma where both options force the opponent to vary from his or her typical code. Finally, adversaries can at least attempt to project false signals regarding values, preferences, methods, and tactics. (In other words, deception might be an important aspect of their operational code.) Ideally, they would like us to operate under a mix of true and false assumptions regarding their code while they prepare to exploit our misperception. To close the circle, remember that we will always be operating under a mix of true and false assumptions. In short, proceed with caution whenever red teaming.

You can read Part 1 of his discussion here, with Part 2 to follow shortly.



The CIMSEC blog features a piece by LT Megan Mcculloch on “wargaming distributed lethality” in which she makes the case that the concept and capability can enhance both strategic deterrence and operational response, but requires considerable attention to planning and command:

Initially, my opinion of Distributed Lethality was that it was the current ‘flavor of the month,’ and I would pay more attention if it were still being discussed when I started Department Head School. This opinion changed dramatically when I participated as a Red Team member in an N96-sponsored game being developed by US Army, Air Force, and Indonesian Naval officers at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) to test various Adaptive Force Packages (AFPs) designed to optimize the Distributed Lethality concept

The game was eye-opening on both the strategic value and execution challenges of Distributed Lethality. As one Red Team player described it, in this particular region and the given scenarios, Distributed Lethality was “operational deterrence with strategic ambiguity.” The game successfully showcased how the different AFPs give Distributed Lethality a greater level of flexibility and increase the options available to COCOMs across the range of military operations. The use of smaller ships also has implications for diplomatic as well as military engagement with partners, friends, and allies, possibly serving as an operational or strategic force multiplier.

The value of Distributed Lethality, as tested in this particular war game, was of operational value; however, it also added complexity to the planning for the Blue team. Not only are the logistical challenges greater with a more dispersed force, but in the scenario given, the blurring between Red combatants and fishing vessels, as well as the use of disabling unconventional tactics [iv]was effective and were more difficult for the operational commanders to counter due to the political or tactical ramifications of any given reaction. While increased strategic ambiguity and disaggregated forces are strengths of the concept, they are also a potential weak point. As we give greater responsibility to and increase opportunities for early command commanders to operate in highly ambiguous situations, they need to have been exposed to and have trained to several different types of hybrid warfare specific to their area of operations before taking command.


In an article at The Strategy Bridge, Daniel Sukman argues for conceptualizing an “institutional level of war” that would focus on promoting innovation, adaptability, effective inter-agency process, and all of the bureaucratic-institutional characteristics that contribute to effective warfighting at both the tactical and strategic levels.


Wargaming, he suggests, can play an important role in developing such institutional capacities:

…planning in the institution can mirror planning in the operational force. Within the Joint Operational Planning Process (JOPP), wargaming is a critical part of course of action (COA) comparison. Similar to the JOPP, wargaming at the institutional level of war assists in the determination future force structure, and the required capabilities the force needs to fight anticipated adversaries. Recently, Secretary Carter has taken steps to prioritize service wargaming. For example, the use of wargaming at the institutional level can identify what capabilities the force needs, from skilled cyber planners to artillery that can shoot faster and farther. Identification of facts and assumptions and other mission analysis steps can drive doctrine development, while elements of design can influence the development of institutional campaign plan and strategies.

I’m a little dubious about the conceptual merit of proliferating the levels of war. That being said, I do think—not surprising for a political scientist—that Sukman’s focus on how institutions constrain or enable effective action is an essential one, and I too think that gaming has much to offer in this regard. While policy gaming is reasonably well-developed on concept, procurement and portfolio issues, it is still in its infancy with regard to institutional change, knowledge management, and innovation incubation.


(Matrix) wargaming to support strategic planning

Last year Murray Dixson, Michel Couillard, Thierry Gongora, and Paul Massel of Defence Research and Development Canada wrote a paper on “Wargaming to Support Strategic Planning” which describes DRDC’s study of matrix games as a tool to explore the Force Development Scenario Set used by the Canadian Armed Forces as part of their capability-based planning process:

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) capability based planning process uses a set of force planning scenarios to assess different options for the capability requirements of future forces. A good understanding of the key drivers of the scenario is important so that the subject matter experts can more fully understand and identify the capabilities required for success in it. A project is underway to investigate whether this capability identification can be enhanced through the use of various wargaming techniques. The Matrix game methodology is one that has been chosen for this research and was used in a recent series of research games. An ISIS conflict scenario was used as an explorative tool in all the games which were played out using several combinations of player types. Each iteration of the game was analysed using a set of metrics to help determine the utility of the games for the force planning application. The results are provided in this paper.

Readers of PAXsims will already know something about this, based on Ben Taylor’s thoughtful piece on serious matrix games, our game at the University of Ottawa, and our various other posts about the ISIS Crisis game that was used as a testbed for the study.

The study concludes:

As a result of these experiments a number of useful observations were obtained concerning the intricacies of organising and conducting a wargame; the value of participating in a wargame from the players’ perspective; and the potential applicability of augmenting Canada’s capability assessment efforts with one or more wargames. In terms of conducting a wargame, valuable experience in understanding the importance of the rules and structure of the game; of the principles and limits of keeping players involved in the game; and of the nature and key role that the GM or adjudicator plays in the conduct of a successful game. From the players’ perspective new players gained a greater understanding of the Matrix wargaming methodology, and more experienced gamers gained a greater appreciation of the many layers of complexity and dynamics that characterise this regional conflict. Finally, in terms of the relevance of Matrix wargaming methods to supporting Canada’s capability assessment effort, this experiment was limited by the nature of the game itself. The ISIS Matrix game is a replication of a complex, multiplayer, geo political situation. As such, it was observed to be a useful platform for introducing some of the region’s complexities to the assembled players. This would seem to have similar promise if this methodology were to be applied to one or more of Canada’s defence planning scenarios, but this clearly resides in the realm of future work.

I think Murray and the team are right that ISIS Crisis is a game heavily skewed towards political-military dynamics—in their test games, kinetic actions only accounted for slightly more than half of all player moves. Moreover, because military actions are dealt with at high level of generalization and abstraction, ISIS Crisis may not be very useful at teasing out questions of capability.


However, that is in large part a function of the scenario design: a better test of the matrix game method for capability-based planning would probably focus on military activities more narrowly, with units on the map representing clearly-defined assets rather than indicators of relative combat power, and a more rigorous time scale for player actions.

On the other hand, as DRDC’s RCAT playtest suggested, some of DND’s current Force Development Scenarios probably hinge far more on political and other non-kinetic actions than is intended. Political-military matrix games as useful for pretesting and refining planning scenarios, and could certainly be used to generate vignettes that could then be explored in greater detail through a capability-based matrix game, another type of wargame, or other forms of analysis.

The DRDC report also offers some interesting insight into the challenges of game adjudication (in the MAGIC 1 playtest they describe, where I was double-hatted as both facilitator and subject matter expert, left an impression among some of heavy-handed adjudication), compressed vs extended playtime, the ease of learning the rules, and other issues. It is very helpful reading for those considering using matrix games as an accessible method for wargaming complex problems.




The 33rd International Symposium on Military Operational Research will be held 26-29 July 2016 at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Papers and posters are sought on all aspects of the application of analysis to defence and security.  We welcome practice-based papers that explore case studies, demonstrate new techniques, shed light on our most important issues or that bring a multi-disciplinary approach to solving today’s problems (complementing OR with disciplines such as management science, risk, economics and human sciences).

On the Wednesday there will be workshops, a dedicated poster session and tutorials covering techniques, professional practice and case studies.  Posters will be especially welcome from early-career analysts, who are able to attend the symposium at a specially reduced rate.

The call for papers and other further details can be found here, and the registration form is here.

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