Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Kaliningrad 2017 matrix game at the US Army War College

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.

LTC David Barsness is 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:

Michelle Angert is student at the University of Pittsburgh. She spent nine weeks at the US Army War College as an intern in the Strategic Simulations Division, Center for Strategic Leadership.


On 14 July 2016, Kaliningrad 2017 debuted in the U.S. Army War College’s academic curriculum as part of the Department of Distance Education Elective DE5540 Security in Europe: NATO and the EU, by Dr. Joel Hillison. Kaliningrad 2017 is a matrix game, modified for use in seminar instruction. Gameplay is conducted through structured argumentation and facilitator adjudication rather than a rigid set of rules that does not promote strategic thinking.

Kaliningrad 2017 is the first of seven games, undertaken by the US Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership, Strategic Simulations Division (SSD) which furnishes 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.


Kaliningrad 2017 matrix game map

In Kaliningrad 2017, 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.

After months of playtesting, in the USA and abroad, this iteration was the first to feature complete player teams and included a resident subject matter expert (SME) assigned to each team. The SME provided the students an expert familiar with their region with whom to coordinate and develop focused policy and positions. Game-specific modifications were incorporated in order to meet learning objectives.[1] Dr. Hillison updated the game assumptions to reflect the British decision to leave the European Union (Brexit), modified the decision-making process on the NATO and EU teams to reflect consensus procedures, added recurring meetings (e.g. NATO Military Committee) to replicate actual structured dialogue within and between organizations and assigned a faculty member to play the Baltic States and Poland.[2]

Organization: The students were divided into four teams (EU, NATO, Russia, USA) and provided team-specific background information and goals. Preparation included analyzing current issues facing the EU and NATO and the strategic approach taken by each organization. Dr. Hillison devoted portions of several in-class seminars for the individual teams to develop strategies to accomplish their team goals. This included crafting concrete objectives, sequencing ways to achieve these objectives using the various instruments of power, and assessing risk. “In-Seminar” preparation ensured the students were prepared to articulate their team strategy and achieve their objectives during the execution of the exercise.

K2017-3Game Play: On ‘game day’, the students gathered in the Root Hall Library and moved into their respective team areas. Awaiting them was a game board, country-specific information and invitation cards for coordinating negotiations. The team venues were spaced out of earshot of the other teams. The game commenced with a ten-minute strategy session, followed by five minutes for negotiations. Afterwards, the teams gathered around the central game board, while the Facilitator reviewed for the last time the sequence of play and any changes to the situation on the ground. The order of play was Russia, the European Union, NATO, USA, BSP (Baltic States and Poland) and Russia (again). During this main phase (15 minutes), the student team leaders made an argument for a given action while the other teams argued sequentially the feasibility or infeasibility of the muted action. The facilitator then assessed the argument and counterarguments, providing a modifier to the outcome die roll (plus or minus), depending on how well each team articulated its position.

K2017-2.jpgWrap-up: The teams made it through five player turns in just over two hours. Having reached the desired time limit, the facilitator and Dr. Hillison then conducted an After-Action Review. Teams talked about their objectives and how actions during the game were meant to effect these. Teams received feedback from the SMEs on quality of preparation, team strategy, team dynamics and the plausibility of actions taken. Students left the exercise with a greater understanding of the relationship between NATO and the EU and the roles of the United States, Russia, Baltic States and Poland and other (non-specified) European nations.

Recommendations: Successful execution of matrix game exercises is dependent on three factors:

  • First, an experienced ‘facilitator’ is critical. This person must be well versed in the mechanics of matrix game play. The facilitator must also have full knowledge of the course material and scenario in order to properly adjudicate arguments. Close coordination with the course faculty instructor is required. The facilitator will guide\demonstrate a full round of play immediately before commencing the actual game. This leads to more effective game play. The demo round might be filmed (e.g. one of the rehearsals), or could be a live demonstration (e.g. move zero).
  • Second, it is imperative to have sufficient faculty expertise on hand in order to facilitate substantive group discussion, provide feedback and ensure learning objectives are met. The simplicity and flexibility of matrix game exercises allow faculty instructors to quickly modify game play in order to meet those objectives. For example, a faculty instructor might translate a teaching point through a particular game move. This is easily done through the facilitator.
  • Finally, and most important, students must come prepared. During gameplay, much like oral exams, students will be called on to properly articulate and employ the instruments of national power in the context of their organization or country and present a reasoned argument in support of a particular action. In this particular exercise, observers remarked that they saw the students demonstrate the use of the ends\ways\means analysis model, using a different “lens” or perspective to look at problems and a marked knowledge of the elements of national power.

From student and faculty feedback, Kaliningrad 2017 was a successful teaching event and validation exercise. All involved were impressed at how the game allowed them to employ lessons learned in the seminar classroom. Kaliningrad 2017 was a ‘proof of principal exercise’ that demonstrated the effectiveness of matrix game-exercises both as a teaching tool and as a measure of effectiveness of course comprehension and learning objectives.

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] Apart from numerous playtests at the US Army War College, Kaliningrad 2017 has also undergone testing at the National Defense University and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory of the UK MoD, and has been furnished to the NATO Defense College in Rome, Italy, the US Naval Postgraduate school in Monterey, CA, the Massachusetts National Guard, and individuals in the United States and Europe. For more on the design and playtesting of Kaliningrad 2017, see the earlier July 2016 article in PAXsims: Kaliningrad 2017 playtest at NDU.

[2] Subject matter experts from across the Army War College assisted in the game and the three rehearsals. Participants included: LTC David Barsness, LTC James DiCrocco, LTC John Mowchan, LTC Jurgen Prandtner (German Army), Dr. Ray Millen and Dr. Christopher Bolan. COL TJ Moffatt and Dr. Jeff Troxell observed the execution. LTC Joseph Chretien and Michelle Angert (intern) of the Center for Strategic Leadership facilitated.

2 responses to “Kaliningrad 2017 matrix game at the US Army War College

  1. Chris Engle 15/08/2016 at 7:54 pm

    Very interesting. One of the early matrix games was a replay of the events of 1989, played in 1990. That game anticipated an attempted Communist coup in Russia and that the Red Army would not support it. We were surprised when this happened.

  2. Lorenzo Nannetti (@LorenzoNannetti) 15/08/2016 at 4:09 pm

    Very interesting. I tried to contact LTC Barsness on getting a reproduction but didn’t hear back. The game has some interesting dynamics built in that would be useful for other European NATO members’ professional wargame and defense community to explore (like Italy, where I’m from). The topic is of high interest and matrix games look to be the most useful to explore it in place of other games (like GMT’s upcoming Next War: Poland) that make direct war a given.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: