Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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.


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