Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: June 2016

Zones of Control at CNA: Book Launch!

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On June 24, 2016, six of Zones of Control’s authors turned up at CNA Corporation’s Arlington offices for the federally-funded Center for Naval Analyses. Coincidence? No, they were there for a book launch with volume editors Pat Harrigan and Matthew Kirschenbaum.

As we trust many readers of PaxSims know by now, Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming is a big footprint book recently published by the MIT Press. With some 60 essays by nearly 70 contributing authors, the volume weighs in at over 800 pages with 100 b/w illustrations. While no one book will encompass wargaming in all of its historical and material diversity, we try hard to cover the bases, with pieces ranging from tabletop game design to the mathematical underpinnings of operations research and systems design to the ethics and politics of wargames as radical forms of play; and contributors who run the gamut from hobby luminaries to some of the foremost professional and academic authorities in the world on their subjects.

For the launch event, however, we were especially concerned to introduce the volume to its potential audiences in the DC-area serious games and policy establishment, and so CNA provided the ideal venue. Panelists included bestselling author Larry Bond and his collaborator on Harpoon and other Admiralty Trilogy games Chris Carlson; Brien Miller, who has worked on everything from statistical recreations of the US submarine campaign in the Pacific to Red Orchestra; Peter Perla, who literally wrote the book on the subject, his indispensable The Art of Wargaming (1990); Volko Ruhnke, lead designer for GMT’s COIN series; and PaxSims’ own Rex Brynen, the only non-‘Murican in the group who thus had to brave additional levels of security to get past the lobby. Much missed were likely DC-area (or frequent visitor) suspects Ellie Bartels and Yuna Wong, both of whom had conflicting obligations, as did Elizabeth Losh, based in nearby Williamsburg.

The fragility of any potential for gender representation—let alone gender balance—on such a panel is, of course, indicative of professional and hobby wargaming at large. For many reasons, the entire ZOC launch is usefully juxtaposed with a recent panel on feminist wargame design held at the Electronic Literature Organization conference in Victoria, British Columbia and featuring some of the best rising academic voices in game studies, notably Stephanie Boluk, Diane Jakacki, and Anastasia Salter, as well as ZOC’s own Losh and panel convener Jon Saklofske. (Though the need for cross-disciplinary and cross-professional conversation is rendered all the more acute by the way in which the term “wargames,” in that venue, tended to be employed mainly as shorthand for first person shooters.)

Back to Arlington. There were some 25-30 people gathered in the room (a few hobby stalwarts, numerous suits), along with a well-stocked table of refreshments and a sales display for the book, ably overseen by DC’s Reiter’s Books. After opening remarks from Pat and Matt contextualizing the volume, we turned things over to our panelists. The discussion was as wide-ranging as you might expect, and we have hopes of making an audio recording available soon, so we won’t attempt anything like a comprehensive summary. If there was a dominant theme, however, its terms were set by Ruhnke, who noted that here we sat, the morning after the UK’s Brexit vote, and shouldn’t wargames—broadly construed—have a role in inculcating the kind of complex systems thinking so obviously necessary for citizenship in a 21st century globalized society? Or wargaming as a counter to what some commentators have recently dubbed “post-factual democracy”?

This is a powerful argument, and nicely encapsulates the underlying ethos and rationale for a big book devoted to wargames: it’s not about the war, or even the games per se, it’s about what Howard Rheingold, writing in a very different context, once called tools for thought. To that end, Matt introduced the example of Ruth Catlow’s three-player chess variant inspired by 2003 Iraq war protests, discussed in Mary Flanagan’s ZOC essay, in which one player controls white’s royal pieces, another black’s, and a third the pawns on both sides who attempt to bring the game to a stalemate. As Flanagan notes, Catlow’s variant “provides an alternative model of a wargame that introduces a new interested party, the pawns, who know they will bear the brunt of any war in terms of military services, economic challenge, and sacrifice.” (Meanwhile, Brynen mused, “In the aftermath of Brexit someone really needs to develop a board game about a small, insular little island where people trade brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore.”)

There was also a bit of news to announce at the event: ZOC has sold through its first printing, but is happily once again available from the Press and other quality booksellers. Given the widespread public interest in wargaming at the present moment—typified by the vigorous public discussion around RAND’s recent wargames on Russian intervention in the Baltic—we believe the time is right for an inclusive volume collecting multiple, indeed often conflicting, perspectives on the messy but continually compelling form of play known as “wargaming.” We hope Zones of Control meets that need, and even more importantly that it becomes the impetus for further discussion and debate, all the more so in places where its gaps and silences are the most palpable.

We are grateful to CNA for generously hosting the event, and for assistance from Reiter’s Books and the MIT Press.

Matthew Kirschenbaum and Pat Harrigan

Crisis gaming at the Atlantic Council: Some methodological reflections


I am currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and this past week I was in Washington DC to run a crisis game, one designed in conjunction with my colleagues Bilal Saab and John Watts. The details and findings of the game will be outlined in an eventual Atlantic Council report, and may also be reported by journalists who participated, so I won’t detract from any of that by discussing the scenario or any of the findings here. Instead, I wanted to offer some thoughts on game methodology we used.

In particular, we had been asked by the Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force to develop a game approach that would explore the impact of two different future US policy postures in the region. From the outset we were committed to assuring that the game design was not pre-cooked to validate a preferred option, but rather represented a fair examination of both approaches. Doing this properly really required two runs of the game, so that each posture would be presented with a series of similar challenges. However, such a desire had to be balanced against real world constraints: the participants would comprise around sixty former (and current) senior policy-makers and subject matter experts, we could really only expect to have them for a day, and we were limited by available space, budget, and other practical considerations. Also, we wanted to maximize the time players had to consider both the scenario and the implications of American policy.

What we decided on was rather different than the usual seminar wargame.

For a start we ran two simultaneous games using the same group of participants. One game (PURPLE) involved one set of US policies, the other game (GOLD) involved an alternative approach. The scenario and initial injects in both games were the same. However, once started the games were free to diverge. You can think of the process as involving two alternative game universes, with the variation built around a different set of US policies.

In terms of role assignments, the PURPLE and GOLD games each had their own US teams. However, the other teams were playing in both games at the same time.

We had concerns about doing it this way. Could players remember the details of the two games, especially when they started to diverge? We addressed this by appointing PURPLE and GOLD team captains in each team. The team captains were responsible for approving immediate tactical responses to the crisis (which could be submitted to the White Cell at any time) and overseeing the development of broader strategic responses (which were submitted in writing at the end of each game turn). The remainder of each team were free to assist both team captains with input and advice. In doing so, they were effectively operating in both alternative universes and hence were in a position to assess what impact differences in US policy had across the two games.


Each team had a White Cell liaison attached (drawn from a group of excellent Atlantic Council interns, plus one visiting Canadian).  These acted as note-takers for the group, helped participants stay on track in terms of the game agenda, and communicated with the central White Cell and each other via the Slack messaging system. Slack was also used for formal statements by teams, and by us to insert inject events as needed (which were then being read to team members by their assigned White Cell liaison).

In most of my game designs I am eager to include elements of fog, friction, and various coordination challenges. I am also a very strong believer in building narrative engagement by players and encouraging them to internalize their roles and associated perspectives. In this particular case, each team was assigned to a different meeting room, but participants were encouraged to physically travel to amd meet with the other teams to consult and coordinate actions. There was some concern at asking senior participants to run around two floors of the Atlantic Council offices as if they were participating in model UN, but I’ve generally found people quite willing to do so. Moreover, we were able to allocate the rooms in such a way as to make communications between some rooms easier by placing them in close proximity, while making others more distant and hence increasing their sense of (diplomatic) isolation.

The crisis scenario and briefings were designed with asymmetric information to contribute to intra-group tensions and suspicions, but in such a way that escalation and desclataion were both realistic and possible outcomes. Following plenary welcome speeches and a game briefing, the first turn of the game ran until lunch. As the players ate the White Cell hurriedly collected together and synthesized the actions of the various teams, and a second game turn (with new crisis elements) was then introduced for the afternoon. Finally everyone reassembled in plenary session to share insights and analysis.

How did it go? The participants and observers are really the ones in the best position to judge that, but I was very pleased. The teams were extremly active, meeting with each other, making statements, taking immediate tactical actions, and developing larger strategic responses to the crises we threw at them. The key parties very much internalized “their” view of events, and sometimes became genuinely frustrated and antagonized by the actions of opponents. No one really seemed to be bored, or tuned out—indeed, at the end of the game we had to repeatedly tell some teams to stop playing and report for the coffee break and final plenary session.

I was also pleased with the richness of data we were able to extract from the process. The fact that most of the day had seen participants divided into multiple teams meant that we had many times more discussion than would have been possible in standard plenary sessions. The scenario seemed a fair test of both US policy postures. By playing simultaneously in two parallel games participants were readily able to identify both similarities and divergences. In some cases, US policy drove the two games in different directions. In other cases, differences in US policy were largely drowned out by powerful local and regional dynamics. That, I think, was a useful reminder that many of the levers of American power are far from all-powerful, and that it is frankly very hard to direct the behavior of a complex, adaptive system with so many actors and interests involved.

Finally, I was very pleased with the commitment of the Atlantic Council to run a methodologically-rigorous game. Not all national security gaming manages to avoid sponsor-injected bias, and using games as a mechanism to promote pre-existing policy preferences (something I’ve called “gamewashing”) is far from unusual in the think-tank world either.

When the final report is released—it has to be written first, of course—I’ll certainly link to it here at PAXsims.


Some of the White Cell at work (picture by John Watts).

Connections UK 2016


The Connections UK 2016 conference for wargaming professionals will be held at King’s College London on 6-8 September. Registration is now open. The conference will last three days: Tuesday 6 September is devoted to a hands-on “megagame” active learning experience, and the main conference is on Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 September.

Purpose. The purpose of Connections UK, the original US Connections and Connections Netherlands and Australia, is to advance and sustain the art, science and application of wargaming. Connections brings together stakeholders from across the field (military, defence, scientific, hobby, commercial and academic) to exchange information, ideas, requirements and best practice.

Programme. The latest programme is attached and also available on the Connections UK web site.

Key topics and events are:

  • The psychology of successful wargames.
  • Non-combat (non-map and counter) wargames.
  • Strategic gaming.
  • Wargaming innovations.
  • Institutionalising wargaming and building the wargaming capacity.
  • Professor Rex Brynen is the key note speaker, talking about Advancing and Expanding the Craft of Wargaming.
  • The highly successful two-session Games Fair will again take place on Wednesday.

Cost. Connections UK is non-profit; it is a service to the wargaming community. Charges are as small as possible, sufficient to cover food, venue and whatever minimal administration is required. Serving UK personnel can use Learning Credits when attending Connections UK. The ‘megagame’ day has been costed separately from the main Conference days, so the costs for Connections UK 2016 are:

  • Megagame day: £60.
  • Main days: £135.

Location. The Connections UK 2016 location will again be Kings College London, The Strand Campus, in the Great Hall and Edmond J Safra Lecture Theatre.

Registration. Registration is open, but please note that the last booking date is 15 August, so do not leave this to the last minute! Register now at the KCL e-store web site.

Accommodation. Finding accommodation is an individual’s responsibility, but there are two Connections UK-specific deals to be aware of. The Strand Palace offers reduced rates for Connections UK delegates (approx £135 per night depending on room type), and KCL has cheap and cheerful student accommodation available (approx £50 per night). Details are on the KCL estore web site at the ‘More Info’ tab.

Points of Contact and further information. See the Connections UK website  for the periodically updated 2016 programme, content of former conferences, etc. Coverage of previous conferences can also be found here at PAXsims.

Please send general questions to or detailed queries concerning registration and administration to Bisi Olulode at

Simulation manager wanted

Critical Ops is looking for a Simulation Manager to plan and facilitate emergency preparedness training simulations. Details are below(pdf).

Simulation Manager_Critical Ops JOB

Note: PAXsims is not involved in this position in any way, so please do not contact us about it. There’s no closing date on the announcement, but there’s likely little point in contacting them several weeks after this posting.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 14 June 2016


PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious gaming that may be of interest to our readers.


balticstates.jpgIn War on the Rocks, Karl Mueller and his colleagues at RAND (David Shlapak, Michael Johnson, David Ochmanek ) offer a spirited defence of their recent wargames that examined the vulnerability of the Baltic republics to a Russian attack:

Michael Kofman’s recent War on the Rocks essay spent much of its length critiquing RAND’s February report on the requirements for establishing a more robust conventional deterrent posture along NATO’s eastern flank. This report describes a series of wargames that we and a team of our RAND colleagues designed and ran in 2014 and 2015 to examine the potential results of a Russian invasion of the Baltic states. In aggregate, these games suggest that the permanent presence of a multi-brigade NATO armored force would likely be sufficient and might well be necessary to present Moscow with the prospect that such an attack would not result in a quick and inexpensive victory. Kofman asserts that our analysis represents “conventional wisdom,” but his piece repeats the most common arguments we’ve encountered since we began presenting this work to Pentagon audiences two years ago, reflecting what had been the standard thinking within the United States defense enterprise prior to our analysis.

In their most general form, these arguments are three in number:

  • While Russia has been willing to use force against countries like Georgia and Ukraine, there is no reason to thinkit would attack members of NATO.
  • Strengthening NATO’s defense along its eastern frontier could ultimately lead to the very conflict it seeks to prevent.
  • The more challenging Russian military threat to the Baltic republics would be limited “salami-slicing” incursionsto which NATO would have political difficulty responding.

There are stronger and weaker formulations of these propositions, but varieties of each are put forward by Kofman. Each contains kernels of truth, but all are ultimately unconvincing. First, while an invasion of the Baltic states appears unlikely, its consequences would be so dangerous that not taking steps to deter it more robustly would be imprudent. Second, while Moscow would dislike a stronger NATO military posture in northeastern Europe and would probably increase its own military capabilities in response, the NATO forces in question would clearly not pose a significant threat to Russian security. Finally, the presence of NATO forces capable of deterring an invasion would also contribute to deterring subconventional attacks or limited land grabs by preventing Russia from backstopping these moves with intervention by substantial conventional forces as it did in eastern Ukraine.


Well, it is good to know that potential readers at the Defence Academy are protected from the radicalizing effects of PAXsims. Or perhaps they just think we’re game-porn.


In either case, we’re blocked!



Connections Oz will be  held in Melbourne on 5-6 December 2016. For more details they become available, check their website here.

I can’t go this year, sadly—but had a great time participating in last year’s event.



As usual, there’s a lot of interesting stuff at the Defense Linguistics blog.



Ezra Sidran has launched a development blog for his proposed computer wargame, General Staff. In it he discusses the game’s design approach, AI challenges, and other issues of interest.

You’ll also find a recent interview with him here at GrogHeads.


An article by A. Ziya Aktaş and Emre R Orçun on “A real-time strategy game, “GALLIPOLI WARS,” as a centennial tribute to the Gallipoli Campaign (1915–2015)” is now available (online first) at The Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation: Applications, Methodology, Technology.


An article at DVIDS discusses the participation of members of the US Naval Post Graduate School in “track two” dialogue of South and East Asian security and foreign policy issues—including the use of crisis simulations:

By conducting crisis-simulation games through Khan’s South Asian Stability Workshops, he has found that it is possible to take a much deeper look into how participating nations conduct diplomacy, implement policy, deploy their militaries and make economic decisions.

“The simulation exercise was designed to reinforce our theoretical understanding of India-Pakistani strategic stability with conceptual clarity. Although track II dialogues and academic conferences have been useful for developing a robust theoretical understanding of strategic stability, the South Asian Stability Workshop provides a laboratory in which theoretical hypothesis can be explored and stress-tested,” explained Khan.

But Khan left the sterile confines of the laboratory long ago. He is deliberately pushing the envelope with his Pakistani and Indian participants in an effort to observe how, or if, participants are able to de-escalate potential crises.

“We try to simulate the interplay of conventional, unconventional and nuclear warfare,” said Khan. “We create a perfect-storm situation.”

Khan notes that into that “storm” each country brings its own preconceived notions and its own diplomatic and strategic objectives.

“We place them into a narrative of their own making, giving them the option to identify the crisis and observe how they react to it over a 72-hour period,” said Khan. “It’s a very serious game. The primary focus of my research is determining how nations can de-escalate crises using these tools.”


A video report on the US naval War College’s recent battle of Jutland centenary wargame can be found on the NWC Facebook page.


Having been reported in North America, France, and Russia, our ISIS Crisis game has now shown up in the Latin American media too.

Next stop, Dabiq!



Suffragetto is a suffragettes vs. police board game published in 1908/09, and an interesting example of both a (then) topical game and the use of a game for the purposes of political advocacy and awareness

 The game:

…[was] created by the militant British Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU). The game is a contest of occupation between two opposing factions—the Suffragettes and the police—each aiming to occupy their opponent’s base while defending their own political home.

You can find out more here, here, and here (the latter including materials to make your own copy at home).


ISIS Crisis at RT


Following pieces by VICE News, France Info, Geeks & Sundry, CBC News, and RIA Novosti, Russia Today has now published a report about the ISIS Crisis matrix game.

With the help of a map and a pair of scissors, you can now print out and play a board game that simulates the conflict in Iraq. Invented by an academic, it is being used by Canada’s military staff to test real-life war strategies.

The brainchild of Rex Brynen, a political science professor at Montreal’s McGill University, ISIS Crisis is not a conventional board game, with elaborate rules and many-sided dice. Rather, it is a matrix game – a structured role-play simulation in which every player has to explain and justify his next move, while the others react, and an umpire adjudicates, sometimes using a simple die roll….

In some ways it is the most detailed report yet, with images of some of the counters and briefing materials. I wasn’t interviewed—the quotes are all taken from other reporting.

Also, the usual caveats apply: ISIS Crisis was developed in conjunction with Tom Mouat, building on the matrix gaming approach pioneered by Chris Engle. The Canadian DRDC games were played  to evaluate matrix gaming methodology, and were not intended to aid in planning for counter-ISIS operations in any way.



The CBC has published a report today examining the use of games by the Canadian government, including our work with Defence Research & Development Canada using both ISIS Crisis and AFTERSHOCK:

Canada’s military has been experimenting with a tabletop game inspired by the war against ISIS to help plan what tanks, planes, ships and people it needs to fight effectively in the coming decades.

The ISIS Crisis uses dice, markers and a large map of Iraq and Syria, and is the latest twist in a government-wide effort to use more games in the workplace for training and education.

“This certainly does have potential to add additional rigour to our process,” said Col. Ross Ermel, in charge of a directorate that plans how the Canadian Forces must evolve.

“It does show some promise.… It’s one of the things that we are certainly considering.”

The ISIS Crisis is known as a matrix-type game, a concept dating from the 1980s, with minimal rules and using debates and arguments, unlike traditional war games with complex rules and drawing on probabilities.

Matrix games allow complex, multi-sided issues to be explored, often by up to six players who don’t need particular expertise in the subject matter.

The ISIS Crisis was created by Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University, who developed the roles and scenario rules, and by a British major, Tom Mouat, who created the map and counters. Brynen also acted as a kind of referee for the Canadian military sessions.

Last month, Brynen ran another board-game session for the military to explore responses to a humanitarian crisis caused by an earthquake in the fictional country of Carana.

The game, called Aftershock, is designed for up to eight players and takes about two hours to play.

As always, Chris Engle should be credited for first developing the matrix game approach.

Those interested in looking at the game materials should check out Tom Moaut’s matrix gaming page. In addition, the latest version of the ISIS Crisis team (and role) briefings can be found here at PAXsims.


Simulation & Gaming, July 2015


The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 47, 3 (July 2016) is now available.

Gaming Material Ready to Use


The Chief of Staff of the Army game


The most recent Military Operations Research Society (MORS) Wargame Community of Practice “brown bag” lecture involved a presentation by Kenneth Long of the US Army Command and General Staff College on “Appreciating complexity: The Chief of Staff of the Army game.”

Dr. Long started his talk (slides here) by noting the challenge of teaching Army officers—who might be used to operating in more certain and clearly-defined contexts—about the fuzziness and uncertainty of the world at the strategic level. He argued that lecturing “at” officers was often not a very effective way or promoting critical thinking about such topics.

The game therefore emerged out of using more interactive methods to promote discussion about the role of the Army Chief of Staff and the importance of budget, investment, research, and deployment issues. In it, players make decisions about investing and maintaining various types of force, and potentially forward deploying these to several different strategic theatres. Different forces have different costs, and different capabilities in different environments (major combat, irregular warfare, peacetime operations). There are also costs associated with building and refitting forces, deploying and maintaining these, investing in research & development, and gathering intelligence about the opponent’s interests and assets. A commercial version of the game—Future Force (2011), designed by Jim Lumsford—is available from HPS Simulations.


In addition to the slides linked above, this article from Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning 38 (2011) provides a very good overview:

When Army officers are promoted to the rank of Major, they become field grade officers with the responsibility of planning, organizing and leading large unit formations, working on high level staffs and running the Army day to day. The “Future Force” game is an experiential learning simulation designed to introduce them to the complexity of supporting the current force in its world-wide missions while simultaneously designing and shaping the force for all possible mission profiles for the next 20 years. Played early in their change management curriculum, the game provides a common frame of reference for further detailed technical lessons. This paper describes the game design process from conception to application.


I was particularly impressed by the explicit way in which he addressed curriculum integration and practical constraints such as available time (a point I’ve often made myself).


All-in-all it was an excellent presentation, and it is a shame there was not more time to discuss it.

(UPDATE: Added link to commercial version of the game.)

International humanitarian crisis simulation at the University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota will be holding a three day field/simulation-based course on humanitarian assistance on 9-11 September 2016 in Canon Falls, MN.


You’ll find further information on their website:

The Humanitarian Crisis Simulation, founded in 2011, is a collaborative program led by the University of Minnesota Medical School, the School of Public Health, and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The program trains prospective humanitarian aid workers through an annual 3 day learning experience. The experience is offered to professionals of all backgrounds who are presently engaged in the field of humanitarian aid work, or who are interested in pursuing a career in the field. The experience immerses participants in an environment typical of humanitarian crises, and will equip participants with knowledge, experience and skills that will assist them in working in any humanitarian crisis. The Humanitarian Crisis Simulation may also be taken for credit through an accompanying 1 credit in the School of Public Health or Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

The first portion of the course consists of interactive sessions that provide an overview of the field of humanitarian aid work. Participants are then divided into interdisciplinary teams representing multiple emergency response teams (ERTs). ERT must apply their skills and knowledge to assess a fictional area experiencing a humanitarian crisis. Teams are expected to develop a plan to address the many problems of the region, including malnutrition, poor infrastructure, insecurity and violations of human rights. ERTs will experience living conditions that are common for professionals working in these conditions.

The exercise is developed and administered by professionals with extensive experience in humanitarian crisis management. We draw on content developed by organizations such as the Sphere Project, ALNAP, and the Core Humanitarian Standard as a framework for material covered in the simulation. The Humanitarian Simulation places a special emphasis on managing the medical aspects of humanitarian crises, although the material is relevant for medical and non medical professionals alike.

Intended Audience 

Who should attend:

  • Adult professionals who are engaged in, or considering a career in humanitarianism.
  • Physicians, Nurse Practitioners, Physician Assistants, Nurses, Pharmacists and other health care providers who are considering working as humanitarian aid workers
  • University of Minnesota graduate and professional students
    • Students can earn one credit through the Humphrey School of Public Affairs course PA 5890 – Crisis Simulation, or through the School of Public Health course PubH 6290 – International Humanitarian Crisis Simulation

Participants will gain:

  • Knowledge of fundamental principles, minimum standards and best practices in Humanitarian Aid
  • Opportunities to apply their professional skills and knowledge in a realistic scenario
  • Opportunities to engage with other professionals involved in humanitarian aid.

You’ll also find a StarTribune article on the simulation here.

Kaliningrad 2017 playtest at NDU

The following item has been contributed by LTC David Barsness, a game designer assigned to the Strategic Simulations Division, Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle, PA. He can be reached at:

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.



Map for the Kalingrad 2017 matrix game.


“Is it already 4 p.m.?” quipped Dr. Callie Le Renard of the National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL), three hours into playtesting Kaliningrad 2017. Time often passes with uncommon haste while playing such free-form “Matrix” games. Nearly another three hours would transpire before the last of her fellow playtesters, Major Geoffrey Brown, Hyong Lee, Luke Nicastro, Ian Platz, Timothy Wilkie, and student interns Christopher Chen and Daniel Matsumoto, called it quits for the evening.

Kaliningrad 2017 is the first of seven games, undertaken by the US Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership, which aim to furnish national security professionals a role-playing forum for examining aspects of non-traditional conflict. The game depicts a fictional clash between Russia and the West over rights of access to the Kaliningrad district across the Baltic States and Poland. It was designed in the winter of 2016, and reflects the conditions of that time. The time period simulated is the late winter and spring of 2017. In Kaliningrad 2017, three-man player teams take on the role of one of five state and composite actors in a potential conflict in North East Europe. Each player team has its own specific objectives and guidelines for action, but the general goal is to preserve sovereignty and deter aggression. Kaliningrad 2017 is a matrix game, modified for use in seminar, whereby gameplay proceeds through structured argumentation and facilitator adjudication rather than a set of formal rules.[1]

The five player-teams in Kaliningrad 2017 are: Russia; European Union; NATO; USA; and the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and Poland. Each team is comprised of three players representing the head of state (President, Secretary General, Parliamentary/Commission Chief and such), diplomatic and information, and military and economic elements of power (DIME model).   One player in each player team represents a significant friendly or allied country not depicted formally (Russia – China, EU – Germany, NATO – United Kingdom, USA – Turkey, Baltic States and Poland – Sweden). Additional players may be added as appropriate to replicate permanent representatives to standing bodies (UN, NATO, EU, International Monetary Fund, World Bank).

Gameplay is represented on a large map of North East Europe (see image above), demarcated to show national borders and ethnic minorities within the playing field. The map also shows the region’s major urban centers, oil and natural gas pipelines, and country affiliations in multiple languages. Smaller boxes off board mark the United States, Germany, Turkey, United Kingdom, NATO, EU, Baltic States and Poland and Sweden on one side and China, Ukraine, and Allied Forces in Afghanistan (Resolute Support) on the other. Tracks depicting world opinion, the influx of refugees into Europe and nuclear escalation line the outer edges. Each player team has a variety of markers representing personnel, assets, equipment, and actions.

The game is played in turns, with players making their moves in a set sequence: Russia > EU > NATO > USA > Baltic States and Poland > Russia. Owing to the array of options available to players, turns are divided into two phases. During the first phase, the player teams discuss among themselves and record their intended actions in writing. Whichever negotiations or agreements a player team wishes to undertake with other player teams also occur in this phase. On conclusion the leaders of each team rejoin the facilitator and subject matter expert around the map and make their respective arguments. As each game turn represents a period of two weeks, the facilitator must ensure that the actions conform to ‘real-world’ time constraints. At the end of each turn, the facilitator provides a quick summary of any new ‘facts’ established by the preceding actions. Note-taking during gameplay is highly recommended.

Players can take an exceptionally broad variety of actions within the game, including the quartet of actions comprising DIME: diplomatic, information, military, and economic.[2]

  • Diplomatic: Any actions or communications involving more than one player team fall under the purview of diplomacy. It is suggested that players make diplomatic moves before all other types of action. Examples of diplomatic action include (but are not limited to) bilateral and multilateral agreements, covert military support, joint statements of purpose. Diplomacy can also be conducted between a player team and a non-player through the facilitator.
  • Information: Information and espionage operations enable players to acquire vital information or undertake unconventional (and often covert) action. These include geographical, human, and signals intelligence, as well as various special operations (including sabotage, assassination, etc.). Players may also submit in writing actions they wish to keep secret to the facilitator for covert adjudication.
  • Military: Military actions are often kinetic and involve the movement of physical assets, to include combat, occupation, and maneuver. Many such actions (e.g. combat and long-distance transit) require a die-roll for resolution. Nearly all military actions are represented through the movement of tokens on the game board.
  • Economic: Economic actions are actions concerning money, resources, or trade. There is no formal mechanism to track the resources available to each player team; rather, the economic components of actions should factor into players’ arguments and are assessed by the facilitator.

The playtest at NDU was the fourth such for Kaliningrad 2017 and the first outside of Carlisle Barracks. As always, the process benefitted from the presence of fresh faces and perspectives. Equally valuable were the suggestions of fellow game designers, Luke Nicastro and Ian Platz. Their approach to the game differed from that of their colleagues or the playtesters at the US Army War College and was informed in great measure by the successes and failures of their own game: Burning Shadows (previously reviewed in PAXSIMs, 9 March 2016). The biggest setback to date has been in simulating the three-man player teams. At no playtest has there ever been more than one player per player team. As such, it has not been possible to model or test the intra-player team discussions, the recording of decisions, and negotiations with the other player teams. Similarly unevaluated has been the influence of each team’s non-depicted ally (China, Germany, UK, Turkey and Sweden).

These deficiencies will be addressed directly at the next playtest of Kaliningrad 2017, scheduled for 14 June, at Carlisle Barracks. The game will debut in the U.S. Army War College’s academic curriculum in July 2016 as part of the graduate seminar “Security in Europe: NATO and the EU” for the Second Resident Course in the Department of Distance Education, by Dr. Joel Hillison. It is also slated for inclusion, alongside six similar games, in the Regional Studies Program in the resident curriculum in winter 2017, for which Kaliningrad 2017 was originally designed.

The game materials for Kaliningrad 2017 are complete and are available for reproduction upon request. These materials include the rules, maps, game markers, player aides, and player team goals and descriptions.


[1] Matrix games are not intended to be fiercely competitive, with obvious winners and losers. Instead, they require players to generate a credible narrative. It is from examining this narrative afterwards that players develop insights into the situation being depicted. The objectives of one player-team will likely conflict with those of others; they may even conflict within player-teams. Similarly, it is possible (and even welcome) for all players to achieve some of their objectives by the end of the game. Matrix games lend themselves well to audiences with fixed time strictures. Being easy to play, they are easy to teach to newcomers. If you can say ‘this happens for the following reasons’ you can play a matrix game.

[2] Multiple placement of diplomatic, information, military, and economic markers. DIME markers differ from other markers in that they may be used sequentially to modify the die roll. Players have the option of placing a DIME marker and adjudicating the action immediately or withholding adjudication and waiting until a subsequent turn and using the marker(s) as a modifier to the die roll. DIME markers may be used to increase friendly die rolls (defined as members of an alliance or union – NATO/EU) by one per marker or decrease an opponent’s by the same. A player may place DIME markers up to the number available at the time of placement. Markers remain in the space until final adjudication, when they are returned to the owning player for reuse elsewhere, regardless of the success or failure of the action. Players may always employ DIME markers to increase their own chance of success or to reduce the chances of an opponent.


Exploring matrix games for mass atrocity prevention and response


Yesterday I was pleased to take part in the Professional Training Program on the Prevention of Mass Atrocities being offered by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS). MIGS is based at Concordia University in Montréal, and is widely recognized as Canada’s leading research and advocacy institute for genocide and mass atrocity crimes prevention. I was asked to demonstrate how conflict simulation might be used both for education/training purposes and as an analytical tool.

I did so by running a version of the ISIS Crisis matrix game. We had run this before at MIGS, but with a much smaller group. Indeed, typically the games we run involve only 6-12 players. This time, however, there would be almost three dozen participants. I had never run a matrix game with such a large group, so it was all a bit of an experiment on my part. Fortunately I think it went well.


I started with a brief (15 minute) overview of the value of serious gaming, and an introduction to the matrix game methods we were using. The slides for this are available here. We then started into the game.

As usual, we depicted the location of military forces, leaders, refugees, and critical infrastructure using markers and a map of Iraq (and Syria). However, with so many participants it was apparent that not everyone would be able to see, let alone access, the map table. Therefore I had brought along a camera and tripod, and an image of the map was projected onto a screen using my laptop and data projector. (Incidentally, the image is typically reversed when set up this way, but I use QCamera, a simple app that corrects for this.)


The map with the camera and tripod. Only one player from each team was allowed at the map table at any one time.


The camera-eye view of the map (screen capture of the projected image).

Players had been assigned to a role and team through the simple expedient of having one of the course organizers hand everyone a name-tag during the coffee break before the session. The eight teams were:

  • ISIS
  • Iraqi government
  • Sunni opposition
  • Kurds
  • Iran
  • United States
  • “Team MIGS” (representing the mass atrocity prevention community: human rights NGOs, humanitarian agencies, the media, the International Criminal Court)
  • Subject Matter Experts (representing all actors, effects, and consequences not otherwise represented in the game)

I hadn’t been sure exactly how many participants there would be, so the name-tags had been stacked in order of priority, thereby guaranteeing that the most necessary positions were assigned first.

The room was deliberately arranged with ISIS and the Sunni opposition on one side, Iraq, the Kurds and Iran on the other, the US at the back, and the SMEs and Team MIGS in the centre. It was my hope that the Sunni opposition would feel a bit remote from Baghdad and intimidated by nearby ISIS (they were), and the US would seem a bit disconnected at times from the local political intrigue (they were). It was a useful example of how the use of physical space can be used to shape a game experience.


The Iraqi government team debates what to do. Photo credit: MIGS.


The Sunni opposition realizes what a precarious situation they are in. Photo credit: MIGS.


“Team MIGS” contemplates how best to prevent mass atrocity. Photo credit: MIGS.

Each team was provided with a team briefing, as in previous games of ISIS Crisis. What was different this time, however, was that each player was also given a role assignment within their particular team. This had several effects:

  • Each team was given a particular procedure to follow for making group decisions. In some teams (Iran, ISIS) the leader had full power to decide on a course of action, with the other team members acting in advisory positions. In other teams, decisions were taken by majority vote (Iraq, Kurds) or some other procedure. The Iraq government’s procedures were especially complicated, and designed to maximize the risk of cabinet squabbles and deadlock. Similar the Sunni opposition had to agree on their action by consensus, or decision-making authority for that turn would be randomly allocated.
  • Many of the individual roles within teams had particular goals (for example, some of the Iraqi team wanted to replace the current Prime Minister), special abilities (such as the ability to veto certain types of team action), and/or areas of responsibility (each of the Sunni opposition players had a home region).
  • Finally, players each had restrictions on which other players they could meet and speak with. Iran and ISIS were not allowed to communicate directly, for example. Iran’s Supreme Leader could only speak with the Iraqi Prime Minister for protocol reasons. Defence Ministers mainly communicated with other Defence Ministers. The Caliph of ISIS was forbidden to speak with anyone outside their team—or even leave their team table—due to the ever-present risk of being killed or captured.

Teams were also provided with a  copy of the game map, plus a recent map from the Institute for the Study of War showing areas of ISIS operations. The situation was the current one, with Iraqi forces fighting to clear ISIS from the town of Fallujah.


The US team considers their options. Photo credit: MIGS.

And so the game started. The noise and excitement level in the room rapidly increased as teams debated their best course of action and began to meeting with other groups. I was positioned with a microphone at the map table, and would call up a representative of each team in turn to state their action, its intended effect, and the reasons why they thought they would be successful. The entire group was then canvassed for other arguments for and against, and—using our usual procedure—the dice were rolled and the outcome adjudicated.

Iraq started off by clearing the remaining ISIS fighters from Fallujah, and then preparing to advance northwards. Team MIGS, worried about possible  abuses by the government’s Shi’ite militias against the local Sunni population, introduced a human right monitoring programme (which Iraqi Defence Minister sought to block by barring NGOs and reporters from the area). The Sunni opposition sought money from Saudi Arabia, while the Kurds sought to resolve an internal political difference. Iran offered more military advisors to Baghdad, as well as arms and money for the Kurds—which didn’t go over well with the US, which delayed their own assistance package to the Kurds in response. ISIS, concerned that the Sunni opposition was considering supporting the Iraqi government, executed a prominent tribal leader as a warning to others.

ISIS also successfully carried out a suicide bombing against Iranian advisors in Baghdad. That led Iran to launch its first acknowledged direct air strikes of the campaign, against an ISIS training camp south of Mosul. Unfortunately either their information or their aim was poor, and —rolling double 1s—they instead hit a camp of internally-displaced Sunni civilians.

The bombing caused immediate Sunni outrage. An ISIS-inspired “lone wolf” in Paris tried to attack Charles De Gaulle airport, but was thwarted by French security. A subsequent plot against the US Embassy in Beirut was also unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the Sunni tribes armed themselves.

Team MIGS cooperated with the US in publicizing the Iranian attack, and Washington even raised the issue at the United Nations Security Council. It soon became apparent, however, that Iraq had authorized Iran to carry out airstrike, and China and Russia (played by Team SME) vetoed any possible response from the Council.

The SME team then reported that the Mosul Dam was at risk of collapse. Baghdad secured the assistance of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who averted a potential catastrophe.

Iraq had expended considerable effort securing US air support for a planned offensive towards Mosul and the Syrian border, although the US was reluctant to embed JTACs (forward observers) directly with Iraqi forces. ISIS sought to regain the initiative by launching a surprise attack against Ramadi, which failed disastrously. The Iraqi government ordered a hasty offensive against the retreating jihadists, but soon ran into a number of ambushes and fell back to their positions in Ramadi having also taken heavy casualties.

At this point I noticed that Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had left the ISIS table to take a look at the main map, something which his role assignment prohibited him from doing. The Central Intelligence Agency was given a fleeting opportunity to target a vehicle which might—or might not—be carrying a High Value Target. They took a chance, and against all odds (they needed a 6 on a D6), were successful. The leader of ISIS was dead in an American drone strike!

ISIS was thrown into temporary disarray as they chose a new leader. A prominent Sunni leader in Mosul seized on the occasion to launch a revolt against ISIS rule there. The Kurds advanced towards the city in support, but stopped short of entering the fray for fear of taking heavy casualties. Team MIGS, concerned at the potential human toll of the fighting,  worked with the Kurds to surge humanitarian assistance capacity to the area. The US conducted airstrikes against ISIS forces around Mosul, but were hampered by the urban terrain, the risk of collateral damage, and a lack of good intelligence.

Nevertheless, parts of the city were wrested from ISIS control by local Sunni leaders in what could well be a turning point for the campaign…

…and there the game ended. We had played for a little over two hours, during which time we had managed to cover a surprising amount. A 20 minute debrief session followed, in which we discussed both the events in the game and the value of the matrix gaming method more broadly for thinking and teaching about mass atrocity. Feedback seemed to be very positive. I was certainly pleased that the game had gone so well with so many players, and that an additional level of interaction had been successfully introduced through the individual role assignments and team decision rules. Indeed, apparently the Iraqis had  even come close to a cabinet crisis at one point.

For those who might interested you’ll find the materials here:



Connections 2016 registration now open

Registration for the Connections 2016 interdisciplinary wargaming conference is now open!

Connections2016.jpgThe conference will be held August 9-12 at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, AL, hosted by the United States Air Force LeMay Center Wargaming Institute.  This year’s theme is: “Advancing Wargaming as a Catalyst for Innovation.”

The Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference is an annual event which is held each summer to bring together practitioners from every segment of the wargaming community to share with and learn from one another.  Keynotes, speaker panels, game demos, working groups, and a workshop component called the Game Lab will provide a wide-ranging experience for Connections attendees.

More information, including the current draft of the agenda, is available at the Connections website.  If you are interested in presenting at Connections, or displaying a poster or running a game demonstration, the registration page on the website also has a link to a Call for Papers, Posters, and Demos.

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