Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: November 2016

Wallace: Wargaming needs new recruits


At How Do We Get to Next?, Mark Wallace discusses the importance of expanding the ranks of professional national security gaming, and developing greater professional competencies in the field:

Since the early 19th century, the loose collection of military thought experiments known as wargames has been informing commanders on the eve of battle and at the height of cold wars. Wargames have guided significant tactical and strategic decisions in conflicts including World War II, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and undoubtedly others we don’t even know about. Now, as part of a new emphasis at the Department of Defense on using innovation to sustain the United States’ military position in the world, wargaming is set to play a bigger role than it has in decades.

But as the province of a bunch of “middle-aged white men,” who for the most part came to wargames first as a hobby, the discipline is in sore need of younger and more diverse practitioners to fill out a roster that is increasingly “hair-pigment challenged,” as one person put it. So if wargames are to remain as useful as they’ve become, the question Wong wants to answer is, how do we train a new generation of these grognards?

The “Wong” being cited, of course, is none other than occasional PAXsims contributor Yuna Wong (RAND).

Also cited in the piece are (Connections wargaming conference guru) Matt Caffrey:

Caffrey also believes wargames can save civilian lives, as well as the lives of combatants. “The U.S. and our allies typically try to win our wars fast, with as few casualties overall and with the least destruction as we can,” he says. “This is because such victories produce a better state of peace. Wargames help us fight smarter, hence get closer to our ideal form of victory.”

“Two of the biggest problem with wargames are that outcomes are being taken too seriously, and that outcomes are not being taken seriously enough,” Caffrey says. “You can never prove what’s going to happen in the future. A wargame never proves anything. In fact, if a contractor says this wargame proves you should buy my product, run screaming.”

…(wargaming wise man) Peter Perla:

One of the reasons wargames work so well, according to Perla, is that the collaborative storytelling process gives players a “you are there” feeling that brings out their best thinking, and helps them internalize the experience and make it part of their problem-solving toolset for the future.

One of the most eminent of the craft’s eminences grises, Perla is also one of the grayest: “A lot of the really knowledgeable master wargamers, we’re getting up there in years,” he says. “I’m sort of semi-retired now, and I’d like to be more than semi soon. We’ve got to build the cadre of people who really understand what wargaming is, how to do it, and how to use it.”

…(PAXsims associate editor) Tom Mouat:

A more rigorous approach is clearly needed, and could also help address some questions that even the experts have. “Wargames create that environment in which people will start to think more broadly about a problem, think in an indirect manner, and generate original and unusual solutions,” says Mouat. “But there is the issue of whether manual wargaming begets original thought, or whether organizations that engage in original thought tend to have wargaming.”

…and yours truly too.

You can read the full article at the link above.

Matrix game construction kit update #1

Tom Fisher, Tom Mouat, and I are currently developing a matrix game construction kit that will contain pretty much everything anyone needs to design, and run, a matrix game. Specifically, it will include:

  • coloured tokens, representing the assets belonging to each player in a game;
  • a large collection of adhesive stickers for the tokens, representing pretty much all of the military units, civilians, and effects markers one might need;
  • access to Avery-format templates to enable additional stickers to be printed on any laser printer;
  • a general set of matrix game rules and design guidelines;
  • maps (in the kit, or downloadable);
  • two complete games to serve as examples.

The idea here is to make it relatively simple for anyone to buy the construction kit, design a game or scenario, and customize the tokens as need be using the stickers provided. We hope to have the entire thing finished by the Spring of 2017. Our efforts are being supported by Dstl.

The first game to be included will be ISIS CRISIS, with game scenarios covering both the rapid expansion of ISIS control in Iraq in 2014, and the Iraqi/Kurdish/coalition counter-offensives of 2015-16. ISIS CRISIS has been extensively playtested over the last couple of years, and  nicely illustrates how a matrix game can be used to model a contemporary political-miitary campaign at the strategic and operational level.

The second game will be a newly-designed one, A RECKONING OF VULTURES.

A RECKONING OF VULTURES is set in the capital of the fictional Republic of Matrixia. There, in the ornate Presidential Palace, surrounded by his most loyal Presidential Guards, the President-for-Life is on his death-bed—and various power-hungry factions are jostling to take power themselves. Once the President passes, competition between the would-be successors will escalate to open conflict until such time as the Central Committee of the Ruling Party can meet and agree on a successor.

A Reckoning of Vultures is a fictional scenario designed to demonstrate aspects of matrix game design. Unlike ISIS Crisis, the focus here is on urban space. Additional markers are used to indicate unit status, in this case the influence that rival factions seek to exert over actors, institutions, and assets. The game has three distinct phases—As Vultures Circle, By Beak and Talon, and The Buzzards’ Banquet—each with its own rules and game dynamics. Moreover, most of the final part of the game does not use matrix game-type interaction at all—thereby highlighting the ways in which a matrix game may be linked into another game system by generating scenarios, situations, or contexts.

Five factions compete for power in A RECKONING OF VULTURES:

  1. The Central Security and Intelligence Directorate (CSID) are Matrixia’s shadowy—and much-feared—secret police, responsible for maintaining a close watch on both dissidents and potential rival power centres within the regime. Although lacking large numbers of armed personnel, covert CSID operatives are well-placed to blackmail, influence, sabotage, subvert, or spy.
  2. The Matrixian Armed Forces (MAF) can call upon large numbers of military personnel located in three major military bases around the capital. Inter-service rivalries and the influence of other factions may mean, however, that not all MAF units are loyal or obey orders.
  3. The Ministry of the Interior (MoI) has authority over police and emergency services personnel in the capital. Although MoI units are well-positioned across the city, most are inferior in combat capability to those of the regular military.
  4. Much of what happens in Matrixia is controlled or influenced by a group of rich and powerful Oligarchs, who control much of the business sector. Although they have only a few private security guards and mercenaries to safeguard their positioned, they have considerable wealth that can be used further their political ambitions—as well as ties to the country’s major criminal syndicates.
  5. The National Union of Toilers (NUT) represents the downtrodden workers of the country. NUT hopes to mobilize the workers and their allies and advance their political agenda  through strikes, demonstrations, and direct action. If they are able to arm some of their followers into a workers’ militia, they could become very powerful indeed.

Last night Tom Fisher and I playtested with the game with five volunteers from McGill University, plus a generous supply of pizza. None of the players were professional or serious hobby wargamers, although four had previously played ISIS CRISIS, and the other had taken part in some of our other political-military games.


Setting up the game. Unlike the playtest version shown here, the final version of the game will include a fictional tiled urban map that can be assembled in many different ways.

All in all, the game went very well. It was certainly very close right up to the end.

Phase 1: As Vultures Circle

In the first phase of the game it looked as if CSID were establishing a commanding lead, having heavily infiltrated army units at the main military barracks. The Matrixia Armed Forces commander responded by redeploying suspect units away from key locations. The Ministry of Interior sought to purge CSID agents from among the ranks of the police. The wealthy Oligarchs focused on raising new funds, as did the National Union of Toilers.


Much plotting (and pizza) underway.

Phase 2: By Beak and Talon

When the President-for-Life died on turn 3, however, everything was thrown into turmoil. The loyalty of most Army units held. Moreover, the Army had secured influence in the forces guarding the CSID HQ, setting the stage for an extended battle for control there. The Oligarchs hired private security forces/mercenaries, and tried to seize the national airport—but were decimated by the MoI police units there.

presidential palace.jpeg

The President-for-Life is dead. Police units have blocked the nearest bridge, while rogue CSID and MAF units fight for control of the Intelligence Directorate. The colour of the token indicates (original) unit ownership, the adhesive graphic indicates unit type (police, infantry, leader, secret files, etc), and the smaller disks indicate units that have been subverted by another player.

MAF marines stormed the Presidential Palace, while MAF helicopter-borne paratroopers took control  of parliament. MAF aircraft also bombed the police units holding the Ruling Party headquarters, but to little effect. In retaliation MoI prison guards released NUT prisoners from the central prison, and together they sought to seize the main airforce base. They were unsuccessful.


Tom Fisher looks on as MAF Marines storm the Presidential Palace and Paratroopers seize Parliament.

Phase 3: The Buzzards Feast

The final phase of the game began when the Ruling Party finally met (despite delays due to MoI control of the airport) to choose a new President-for-Life. The MAF Chief of Staff started with a slight advantage due to control of strategic locations in the capital, although MoI control of the Ruling Party headquarters would prove useful when the various rounds of voting were tallied.

The Oligarchs and CSID were quickly eliminated from competition, although the former’s superior financial resources allowed them to survive the game intact and place second overall. In Matrixia, money talks!

The leader of the National Union of Toilers fell out of consideration next.  Due to the workers’ having seized control of the main port earlier in the game, however, he was able to escape the country. The proletarian struggle is not yet dead!

In the final round of voting the Minister of the Interior managed to narrowly beat the MAF Chief-of-Staff, who promptly fled the country.

However the head of CSID was less fortunate. The former secret police chief was arrested, executed, and found guilty of treason—in that order.

Next Steps

The game was a lot of fun. We also had some very useful feedback, and in particular we’ll be adjusting some of the rules, especially regarding influence and subversion. Everyone thought the three phases of the game worked well together, and nicely illustrated the different ways matrix game mechanisms could be used.

In the coming weeks and months we’ll be writing and modifying rules, finalizing graphics, and doing some more playtesting. Watch this space!

Urban Nightmare/State of Chaos: A Wide-Area Megagame


On 1 July 2017, gamers from around the world will be conducting the first ever wide area megagame, Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos. This will involve  multiple game locations (each with 50+ players), linked to each other in real time within a  common scenario:

As a megagame, the Urban Nightmare games explore the higher level decision making during a major, potentially existential, crisis. In the movies and other games the zombie trope generally focusses on the individual or on small groups of survivors, but rarely explores how the world gets to that state. It all just happened and got out of control.

In a megagame we can really look at how things get that far out of control. Or not. In the emerging gameplay of a megagame the outcome is entirely open to the consequences of player decisions and their interactions.

In the previous version of the game, the focus was on just one city—Romero City—a place beset with many mundane problems of its own even without the outbreak of a terrifying pandemic. In UN: State of Chaos, we have extended the perspective to explore what is happening across the whole state. Five cities (of which Romero City is the largest) are all struggling with their own troubles and turning to the State Governor and the National Guard for help. Will this be enough? Or will the state Governer have to sacrifice valuable political capital and go, cap in hand, to the Federal authorities and the President for Federal help?

Games will be conducted in the following locations (and possibly others):

  • London (UK)
  • Bristol (UK)
  • Southhampton (UK)
  • Cambridge (UK)
  • Leeds (UK)
  • Brussels (Belgium)
  • Nijmegen (Netherlands)
  • New York (USA)
  • Montreal (Canada)

McGill.jpegYou’ll notice the inclusion of Montreal on the list. We’ll be running a small game at McGill University, with players will assume the role of key local, provincial, and national actors in neighbouring Northland. Do they help out their southern neighbours? Turn back refugees, deny aid, and prevent the spread of the disaster at all costs? Or take advantage of the chaos to the south to pursue their own hidden agenda?

We will not be opening the game up for registration until mid-February, soon after we complete the Something’s Up In Binni! megagame, also at McGill University.

Watch this space!

Trew: Can Strategy be Playful?

The following guest post is by Lt Col Jason M. Trew (USAF), a senior pilot and a graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). He is currently studying the history of technology at Auburn University. Part of his doctoral research is about the relationship between playfulness and airmindedness. He welcomes any feedback regarding this article or his research project (


War and strategy are serious topics and theorists constantly search for appropriate images to better grasp their complex nature. In their search, it is not uncommon to apply metaphors of games, such as gambling or wrestling. Indeed, a useful tool to “examine warfighting concepts, train and educate commanders and analysts, explore scenarios, and assess how force planning and posture choices affect campaign outcomes” is war gaming.[1]

Does the image of a game imply playfulness? Is it appropriate to frame strategy as playful? There is actually some ancient precedent for this, as reported by Plato in his dialogue, Laches.[2] Additionally, the literature on play is sometimes remarkably similar to strategic theory. In the list of quotes below, can you determine which ones are referring to military strategy or war, and which ones are from scholars analyzing play?

  • “[It] proceeds according to a set of artificial rules and, to the extent that it does, stands apart from ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life.”[3]
  • “[Participants] try to position themselves within a protected occasion that contains both familiar and unfamiliar elements and that possesses problems or challenges they consider intriguing or significant…players address and respond to some of the challenges, tensions, or conflicts…[it is] a form of problem solving.”[4]
  • “[Thinking about this activity requires] imagination, insight, intuition, ability to put one’s self in another person’s position, understanding of the wellsprings of human motivation”[5]
  • “[In] a de-centered world, change, randomness, particularity, cultural and social diversity, conflict, and ambiguity [it] is perhaps the most appropriate response to contemporary circumstances.”[6]
  • “[It] is about exploration and the development of new ways of seeing, thinking, and being.”[7]
  • “[It is performed] before audiences who not only critically evaluate but also contribute to an unfolding scenario that has neither clear beginnings nor ends.”[8]
  • “[It is] confined only by the event horizon of possibilities, a horizon which expands anew with every action. A potentially unlimited panorama of choices may be revealed with the next moment. There is no beginning or end…only more or less.”[9]
  • “[It] occurs in physical environments that both enable the activity and provide forms of resistance…fostered by conditions that are ambiguous, novel, and changing.”[10]
  • “[It is] not a thing…It is an idea, a product of the imagination. It is about the future, and above all it is about change. It is anticipation of the probable and preparation for the possible.”[11]
  • “References to ‘adaptive variability’ and ‘selective simulations’ at the beginning and end suggest that it is best not to think of [it] as a thing…but as a series of connected events. In this respect, [it] resembles a revolution, or a journey, or growth, or acceleration, or other processes that unfold and move along at varying rates….a process of unfolding in the direction of order supplies the most useful trope for framing [it].”[12]
  • “[It] does not seek a specific outcome or decision.”[13]
  • “[It is] often about relations of power, showdowns that make public the respective capabilities of the persons and groups involved…people do not always win or get their way. To some extent, they do not desire that they should always win.”[14]
  • “[It] is not about winning,” but more about “embracing perpetual novelty.”[15]
  • “[It] promotes the survival…when confronted with new or difficult circumstances.”[16]
  • “Surprises must be expected. They must be embraced and seized upon as opportunity.”[17]
  • “[It is] an exploration of powers and predicaments…[to] find out what we can—and cannot—do and to see if we can extend our capabilities. As a consequence of these attempts, we also learn what the world can do to us.”[18]
  • “[It is characterized as] a Conceptual Spiral for Generating: Insight – Imagination – Initiative.”[19]
  • “[The purpose of it is to] make coherent their possibilities for acting in the world.”[20]
  • “[To be effective] we need a variety of possibilities as well as the rapidity to implement and shift among them.”[21]
  • “[It is] a kind of performance, an acting out of imaginative possibilities”[22]
  • “[It involves the] “play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam.”[23]

Can you tell which ones strategists wrote and which were written about play? Starting with the first quote, every other line is from the former. The overlap is interesting, but—to quote another strategic theorist—“so, what?”[24] Are there really advantages to construing strategy in this way, even in serious military matters?

Answering that question requires a preemptive reply to a reasonable objection: warfare and play are not coincident domains. Metaphors, however, never are. As the saying goes, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”[25] The utility is found both within the overlap between contrasting images and where they diverge; a process that itself has been described as cognitive play.

Like other mammals, physical play is a critical component of our childhood development. But humans also play, and play for much longer throughout our life, in the domain we command: the so-called cognitive niche. Our evolutionary advantages accrue from intelligent decisions and that intelligence is nurtured by mentally playing with patterns, stories, and metaphors.[26] In other words, even if strategy is never playful, working through the competing images—that is, playing with the metaphor—yields cognitive benefits useful to strategists.

The alternating quotes above, however, reveal that strategy and play do share some elements. Therefore, those who have a role in the strategic process (theorizing, modeling, execution, etc.) should explore the origins and consequences of those connections; not in spite of the gravity of war, but precisely because of its high stakes.

We should not neglect any source of strategic wisdom, regardless of how peculiar it may first appear. Strategy as play does seem outlandish, bordering on inappropriate. But, even Carl von Clausewitz characterized war, in part, as the “play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam.” Or was that someone writing about playfulness?

Jason Trew

[1] “Wargaming.” RAND. (accessed November 12, 2016).

[2] “The Athenian Sophists Euthydemus and Dionysodorus applied their skills to military strategy, explicitly calling their approach (as reported by Plato in his dialogue Laches) ‘playful’” (Armand D’Angour, “Plato and Play: Taking Education Seriously in Ancient Greece,” American Journal of Play, Volume 5, Number 3 (2013), 304).

[3] Martin van Crevald, War and Technology (2010), 286.

[4] Thomas S. Henricks, “Play as Self-Realization: Toward a General Theory of Play,” American Journal of Play, Volume 6, Number 2 (2014), 192-3.

[5] Jessie Bernard, quoted in Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (2013), 153.

[6] Henricks, 194.

[7] Dolman, Pure Strategy (2005), 188.

[8] Henricks, 195.

[9] Dolman, 13.

[10] Henricks, 195-6.

[11] Dolman, 1.

[12] Scott G. Eberle, “The Elements of Play: Toward a Philosophy and a Definition of Play” Journal of Play, Volume 6, Number 2 (2014), 220.

[13] Dolman, 43.

[14] Henricks, 205.

[15] Dolman, 5, 132.

[16] Henricks, 196.

[17] Dolman, 126.

[18] Henricks, 204.

[19] John Boyd, quoted in Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (2006), 228.

[20] Henricks, 190.

[21] John Boyd, quoted in Osinga, 186.

[22] Henricks, 195.

[23] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (1989), 89.

[24] Colin S. Gray, “Out Of The Wilderness: Prime Time For Strategic Culture,”

Defense Threat Reduction Agency Advanced Systems and Concepts Office (2006), 12.

[25] George E. P. Box and Norman R. Draper, Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces (1987).

[26] Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (2010).

Simulation & Gaming (December 2016)


The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 47, 6 (December 2016) is now available.

Gaming Material Ready to Use


A refugee crisis megagame

The following is a guest post by Tom Grant (Serious Games at Work).


Before I say anything, many thanks to Rex for giving me a guest spot here on his blog. Rex and I both have a deep passion for serious games; both of us use them, in different ways, in our day jobs. Rex invited me to write this blog entry to tell you about a megagame planned in Washington, DC in February. Here are the details.

The goal

Now that the US election is over, the natural question is, “What comes next?” The answer: Quite a lot. The agenda during this political season shrank to a minuscule set of issues, leaving many questions—about the economy, national security, education, infrastructure, and practically everything else—unaddressed. Worse, the acrimony that saturated this election made it difficult to have a real discussion about practical solutions. Instead, we got yelling.

One of the issues that got very little attention was the refugee crisis. Americans are not facing the same influx of refugees as Europeans are, but that’s a temporary condition. The US government chose to do less that it could have in the face of the current crisis. However, what we are seeing now is just the first wave. Climate change and future conflicts are likely to compel more people to leave their homes, looking for safety or opportunity elsewhere.

The infrequent conversations about this topic that we have had in the public forum have been acrimonious and fact-free. We feel strongly about refugees, swinging between sympathy and fear. However, most people who are not already deeply involved in refugee issues don’t have basic information that might guide their sentiments in a practical direction. How many refugees are there? How many are men, women, and children? How much does it cost to re-settle a refugee? How big is the risk of a refugee being a hidden terrorist?

The game

That’s why we’re organizing a megagame about the refugee crisis: to provide a forum for a more informed and practical discussion. To play the game, you need answers to the sort of questions that I cited in the previous paragraph. (And we’ll give participants those facts.) It’s a good opportunity to learn a lot in a short period of time, as part of what you’re doing in the midst of the game.

The game is also designed to get into practical solutions, instead of just voicing concerns. The scenario puts the players in the midst of a political controversy here in the nation’s capital: What would happen if the District of Columbia government decided that it wanted to do more for the refugees? This scenario pulls in all the major parts of the US federal government, plus various groups outside the government, from charities to churches to anti-immigration groups to the refugees themselves. It gives them all a chance to make or influence policy…If they can build coalitions, make persuasive arguments, and work within the constraints of politics and the law.

Finally, the game is an opportunity to create greater empathy—and not just for the refugees. One of the reasons we moved to DC was to bring the benefits of serious games to serious political discussions. In the game, you might play a role of someone with whom you don’t agree in real life. You will have to listen to other people in order to win their support. You will have to do more than state positions if you want to get anything done.

The game itself is designed for around 50 participants, organized into a variety of different groups (refugees, DC’s mayor and city council, Congress, Homeland Security, the White House, etc.) We will have a team of referees, as is typical for megagames. It’s free for anyone to join, as either a player or a referee.

If you’re interested in participating, the game is scheduled for Saturday, February 11, from 10 AM to 3 PM. You can sign up on our web site,, where you will find more details, too. Even if you can’t make it, there are ways to support the game.

By the way, there were other topics we considered and could have selected for this megagame, such as terrorism, climate change, and police shootings. We plan on future DC-based megagames to cover these and other topics. There’s a lot for Americans to discuss, so there are a lot of reasons to hold future megagames covering other topics.

Tom Grant

Transition Gaming

In an article this afternoon covering the meeting between President Obambombera and Donald Trump at the White House, the New York Times included the following snippet of information at the end:

“In December, Mr. Obama’s team plans to hold the first of two war-gaming exercises to prepare Mr. Trump and his staff for a potential national security crisis.

Mr. Obama’s aides participated in a similar exercise organized by Mr. Bush’s White House the week before his 2009 inauguration, during which they sat side by side in the Situation Room and gamed out how the government would respond to a series of simultaneous explosions in American cities.

The second simulation for Mr. Trump is set for January, days before he officially gains access to the nuclear codes.”

Very high-level games like these – and the periodic other games held at the White House situation room – are usually organized by some combination of the National Security Council staff and key elements of the most relevant Departments that are responsible for strategic-level, political-military gaming (for example the Joint Staff Studies, Analysis, and Gaming Division (J-8 SAGD)).

Something’s Up in Binni! (another McGill megagame)


On 11 February 2017 McGill University will be hosting another day-long megagame by  (notorious) UK game designer Jim WallmanSomething’s Up in Binni!

The Republic of Binni is wracked by civil war. As President-for-Life Eddie Ancongo clings to office, rival groups of militias and warlords plot to seize power for themselves. Strange cults and radical extremists proliferate. Mercenaries offer their services to the highest bidder. Mineral prospectors and multinational corporations seek profit amidst the conflict. Archaeologists scramble to safeguard valuable artifacts from the ravages of war—or unscrupulously sell them to the highest bidder. Neighbouring countries meddle, seeking to further their own regional interests.  The great powers call for peace—but is that what they really want?

Approximately one hundred participants will assume the roles of national decision-makers, diplomats, international organizations, mercenaries,  archaeologists, cultists, corporations, journalists, rebels, organized crime, and others. Can peace brought to Binni? Or will the country further descend into chaos?

For those new to megagaming you’ll find a report on one such game in the British newspaper The Independent here, and a video report at the blog Shut Up & Sit Down here (and here and here). Details of the last McGill megagame, New World Order 2035, can be found in the McGill International Review and at PAXsims. No prior experience is required, beyond a willingness to enjoy yourself with 100 scheming people in several large rooms while confronting the complexities of a (fictional) country beset by strife and intrigue.

Space is limited, so you’ll need to buy your tickets once they become available. Watch this space for updates!


Something’s Up in Binni! is coorganized by PAXsims, the Ivory Goat Gaming Group, and the International Relations Students’ Association of McGill.


A scene at the map table from New World Order 2035 megagame (February 2016), sometime after New York blew up but before Japanese scientists created a computer artificial intelligence with ambitions to “fix” humanity.



Tickets are now available for the game here. We hope to see you there!

NYT: Play “The Voter Suppression Trail”


The New York Times features a videogame/commentary by Chris the shortcomings of the US electoral system, and in particular the measures taken in many areas to suppress minority turn out—all of it based on the classic 1970s educational videogame Oregon Trail.


It’s a clever piece of political commentary—give it a try.


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