Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: May 2017

Calling all National Security Policy Gamers: Make your opinions heard!


If you have some time, I’d very much appreciate PAXsims readers who work as professional National Security Policy Gamers (aka wargamers supporting policy making clients) taking a few minutes to contribute to a survey I’m running as part of my dissertation research. More information is below:uncle-sam-we-want-you1-kopie_1 (1)

I’m Ellie Bartels, a PhD candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and researcher at the RAND Corporation. As part of my dissertation research, I am studying the practices of national security policy gamers like you. I am interested in understanding what types of games you run, what tools you use to design and analyze them, and how you assess your work and the work of your peers. To this end, I invite you to participate in a 15-30 min survey on your game design, execution, and analysis practices at the link below before 30 May 2017.

Click here to be taken to the survey’s Google Form <>

(please note, some firewalls may block google documents. If you encounter problems, I recommend trying to access the form on a different network and computer).

Your answers will inform two different projects looking at policy gaming practices. Survey results will be reported in the section of my public dissertation monograph on current practices, will be available on request as a data annex, and may be used in associated articles and presentations. In addition to the primary purpose of this survey, the questions on participant engagement and immersion will be used to inform internally funded RAND research to produce an article on the potential for Alternative and Virtual Reality technologies in policy gaming. Both efforts will produce work that is publicly available, with the hope that it will prove helpful to researchers like you.

Participation, both in the survey as a whole and in answering specific questions, is completely voluntary. Your name, office, and other individual identifying information will not be collected as part of the survey, and no effort will be made by the researchers to link your individual identity to your responses. If you have questions about your rights as a research participant or need to report a research-related injury or concern, contact information for RAND’s Human Subjects Protection Committee is available on the first page of the survey.


Simulation & Gaming (June 2017)


The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 48, 3 (June 2017) is now available. The piece by John Curry, Dana Ruggiero, Phil Sabin, Michael Young on modelling international crises using confrontation analysis is likely to be of particular interest to PAXsims readers.



Tom Fisher joins PAXsims

TomFisherregular.JPGWe’re pleased to announce that Tom Fisher is joining PAXsims as an associate editor.

Tom is a freelance game designer based in Montréal. He developed the Crime Analysis Simulation Exercise System (CASES) for the World Bank’s Financial Market Integrity and Stolen Asset Recovery group, and collaborated with several international financial intelligence agencies in the development and delivery of a strategic intelligence analysis course integrating traditional classroom work with a multi-faceted simulation. He was also game developer and graphic artist for AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game and AFTERSHOCK EXPANSION #1: The Gender Dimensions of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. He has extensive experience in game facilitation with both small and large (100+) participant groups. Currently is part of the PAXsims team working on the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK) for the Defence science and technology laboratory (Dstl) of the UK Ministry of Defence.

Tom is also a previous contributor to PAXsims on a range of issues, including turning tactical analysts into strategic thinkers, conducting megagames, and the contribution of role-playing games to professional game design and facilitation skills.



Dungeons & Dragons as professional development


In response to one of the final exam questions this year, a student in my upper-level undergraduate course on multilateral peace operations at McGill University commented “I never knew D&D could be so useful until I took POLI 450.” That statement finally provided the impetus I needed to offer some thoughts on role-play games (RPGs) and serious conflict simulation.

In the context of POLI 450, the student concerned was referring to the massive Brynania peacebuilding simulation that we’ve been running for almost two decades. It is a grueling exercise indeed: 125+ players, 5-8 hours of game play per day for a full week, 10,000+ emails sent, and hundreds of hours of real and virtual meetings—all at a time when students are also trying to manage four other courses, plus occasional eating and sleeping. The simulation is designed to highlight a range of issues: political conflict and conflict resolution; insurgency; negotiations; humanitarian crisis and response; the challenges of coordination; stabilization; and longer-term development. Like a good game of D&D, participants face complex situations and even difficult moral choices while having to adjust plans on the fly with limited time, resources, and information. As has been evident from exam answers and course surveys over the years, students learn a lot from it, and it helps a great deal in putting course readings and theory into a practical, operational context.

However, I didn’t want to just comment on the value of RPG-type gaming as an immersive learning environment for students—as important as that is. Above and beyond this, I wanted to offer some thoughts of how role-play gaming can help to develop essential professional game design and facilitation skills. Indeed, in terms of professional wargame facilitation specifically, I would argue that running D&D games is probably a more useful preparation than playing either miniature or board wargames.

Before there’s a backlash from my fellow grognards, let me reiterate I’m talking here about game facilitation. I’m a hobby miniatures/board wargamer too, and I enjoy those a great deal. They’ve been invaluable in learning about military operations and history—indeed, far more useful than the 8+ years I spent studying in university. It is undeniable that hobby wargaming can contribute a great deal to one’s knowledge of how to model time, space, movement, and effects.

However, no one would argue that most hobby wargaming (with the notable exception of megagaming) really contributes a great deal to knowing how to run—as opposed to design—the multi-participant events that are usually characteristic of a serious professional wargame or political-military/crisis simulations.

There’s a certain irony in all this. As it is, professional wargamers already deal with a widespread bias against the gaming element of wargames. It is well-known, for example, that many military officers recoil at the thought of dice or cards determining the outcome of military actions in a wargame, even though they are perfectly happy to have outcomes determined through black-boxed stochastic processes embedded in computer algorithms. That Clausewitz once noted ” the absolute, the mathematical as it is called, nowhere finds any sure basis in the calculations in the art of war; and that from the outset there is a play of possibilities, probabilities, good and bad luck, which spreads about with all the coarse and fine threads of its web, and makes war of all branches of human activity the most like a game of cards” doesn’t change the fact that professional audiences often equate cards, dice, and other common game elements with a glorified version of Snakes-and-Ladders. Given that, suggesting that what they are doing is actually rather more like The Tomb of Horrors would certainly be a gaming system too far. Yet RPGs can develop invaluable skills in terms of scenario design, narrative engagement during game play, subtly keeping players on track for game purposes, and managing groups of people within such a context.

In terms of scenario design, this is very much at the core of role-play gaming—the game, after all, is almost entirely about the scenario and the players’ engagement in it. Good gamemasters are good precisely because they are able to keep players within the universe they have created, facing plausible choices with plausible consequences, and subtly encouraging everyone to internalize appropriate perspectives and motivations. In a well-run campaign the players aren’t simply trying to find treasure and slay beasts, but feel themselves part of it all. They begin to filter their worldview through their (fictional) professional specializations: fighters like to fight; magic-users like to stand back and rain destruction of foes while avoiding injury; clerics provide key support; rogues skulk and deceive; and much-maligned bards (like diplomats everywhere) use silver tongues to gain advantages that cannot be obtained by brute force. As Peter Perla and ED McGrady have argued, this sort of player engagement and immersion is also what makes (serious, professional, potentially life-and-death) wargaming work:

We believe that wargaming’s power and success (as well as its danger) derive from its ability to enable individual participants to transform themselves by making them more open to internalizing their experiences in a game—for good or ill. The particulars of individual wargames are important to their relative success, yet there is an undercurrent of something less tangible than facts or models that affects fundamentally the ability of a wargame to transform its participants.

A dungeonmaster also faces the constant challenge of allowing players to explore their universe, while at the same time keeping the game on-track in terms of general storyline and plot—all without letting players feel railroaded into doing (or not doing) particular things. They do so, moreover in a context of multiple participants with different perspectives and personalities. Take, for example, Phil Sabin‘s comments on a recent professional wargame in the UK (emphasis added):

This week at the UK Defence Academy we ran a two day research wargame with a couple of dozen players and facilitators to investigate nuclear risk dynamics.  I was on the Control team, and our main objective was to get the players first to use conventional force and then to escalate to nuclear strikes, despite their natural reluctance to initiate such dangerous and suicidal actions.  We succeeded, and play ended with wide-ranging conventional conflict, the nuclear devastation of central and eastern Europe, and a grave threat of further escalation, all from an initial spark in the Baltics in which both sides felt they were defending their existing rights and interests.

I remarked in the final plenary that wargame controllers in such games are rather like devils, seeking ways to foster player misperceptions and frustration and to present them with horrible dilemmas in a quest to make them trigger a literal ‘hell on earth’.  We succeeded in this aim, and it was sobering for everyone to realise how such a slide into disaster can occur through a horribly plausible sequence of interacting decisions, despite the initial resolve of each team individually to avoid such an outcome.  At least we can comfort ourselves that nobody really died, and that the whole point of such ‘virtual’ destruction in wargames is to help us to understand crisis dynamics and so make such escalation in the real world even more unlikely….

Replace “nuclear strikes” with “boss fight” or “confronting the dragon in his lair” and you pretty much have every D&D game ever. Phil may be more of a traditional grognard than a RPGer, but it is a gift indeed to be able to nudge participants in such a way that they don’t feel nudged, while giving them the freedom to make real choices.

Similarly, in the Brynania simulation, my task as CONTROL is to facilitate exploration of a plausible path of civil conflict and (hopefully) peacebuilding, while not allowing the game to get distracted or derailed. Doing so requires the subtle use of initial scenario and game injects, but in a way that players are—again—making real choices with real consequences. Certainly the outcomes over the years reveal a sort of bell-curve of results, with some more common than others, but none of them outliers in a way that would undercut the instructional purposes of the simulation.

Brynania outcomes 1

Brynania simulation outcomes and events.

Brynania outcomes 2.jpg

Primary peacebuilding mechanisms used in Brynania simulation.

I’m not the only RPGamer who feels this way. Tom Fisher is a fellow member of my local Montréal gaming group and DM extraordinaire, with an impressive record as a professional game designer and facilitator (he is codeveloper of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game and the forthcoming Matrix Game Construction Kit, and has worked with the World Bank and various international financial intelligence agencies on games addressing financial crimes/corruption and strategic analysis). He had this to say on the topic in a recent email exchange:

I can say, without hesitation, that roleplaying games—particularly D&D—have led to the best jobs I’ve ever had.

There is a natural flow between being a gamer and professionally developing games, that much is obvious. What is less obvious, however, are the lessons derived from playing those games that do not directly impact game development. Role playing games, particularly the gamesmastering (facilitation) thereof engages, develops and encourages a particular way of thinking.

Much has been said about the need for outside the box thinking or lateral thinking. What is less discussed is how to train the mind to think different as some marketing campaigns encourage. Roleplaying games, in their various forms, are a virtual goldmine for the development, testing and experimentation of thought, and ways of thinking.

Roleplay, at its best, teaches through gameplay to account for assumptions, test limits of rules, push the limits of established rules – in short, roleplay is a short course on iterative design: “ design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a product or process. Based on the results of testing the most recent iteration of a design, changes and refinements are made. This process is intended to ultimately improve the quality and functionality of a design. In iterative design, interaction with the designed system is used as a form of research for informing and evolving a project, as successive versions, or iterations of a design are implemented.”

Iterative design thinking is, in my view, the foundation of critical, outside-the-box, and lateral thinking. The process of iterative design faces-off actions based on assumptions against reactions based on real-world rules. Famously demonstrated by Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge, participants succeed by testing their assumptions against real-world effects (in that case, gravity and the relative strength of dry spaghetti).

The experiential and imaginary nature of roleplaying games requires reflection and forces a role-player to account for their assumptions when addressing a situation. In so many of my experiences delivering intelligence analysis or crime analysis courses, it is the recognition and testing of one’s assumptions that has been the lynchpin in achieving success in the training. Roleplaying games –and by extension immersive simulation exercises– are a crucible for developing the thought processes deemed so necessary and desired by modern institutions.

The experience of the gamesmaster, or facilitator, of roleplaying games adds a further level of complexity to the mix. Adult role-players, by their very nature, are an interesting bunch. Most tend to be well-read, quite intelligent, and universally challenging. As noted above, roleplay encourages the testing of limits, pushing of envelopes, and accounting for assumptions. So, a gamesmaster (GM) is confronted with a number of players –with their unique agendas– who inherently want to push the limits of the GM’s world-rules to achieve goals laid out by said GM designed to engage, thrill and enthrall each of the players. In short: herding cats. There is no more cost-effective short-course on diplomacy and small-team management than being a roleplaying game GM.

The complexity of gamesmastering (GMing) increases exponentially as GMs become involved in world-building. At the pinnacle of GMing is the world-building GM, who shapes world from thought to engage players in a truly immersive experience. Herein, the GM accounts for the cause-and-effect of player actions against the backdrop of an entire living world simulation. At this level, fluidity and iterative design are paramount to successful implementation and player-engagement, and will lead to a level of suspension of disbelief that will engage players not only logically in the gameplay, but emotionally, on a truly immersive level.

It is these skills of engagement, coupled with the role-player’s way of thinking, challenging and testing that have led to the best jobs I’ve ever had.

Much can be said about the nature of play and the strong links between creative play and language, physical, social/emotional, and cognitive development. Roleplaying games take this level of play to its limits, and push outward, not only encouraging growth, but in my opinion, forcing it, as new pathways of thought develop to deal with novel situations.

The elusive and mysterious “Tim Price,” prolific author of matrix game articles and scenarios, has certainly been known to frequently design and play RPGs. A certain former British military officer and gifted professional wargame consultant—let’s call him GLB—actually carries an image of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook (above) surreptitiously taped to his clipboard to inspire him while facilitating serious games.

As for me, I’ve been playing D&D since the very first boxed three-volume set in the mid 1970s. Like the POLI 450 student quoted above, it’s fair to say that at the outset I too “never knew D&D could be so useful.”


Have your own experiences of using RPG skills in serious gaming? Post them in the comments section!

Kaliningrad Fires is war, but no game


A few days ago The Strategy Bridge posted the first of what will be a continuing series of wargames:

The Next War series on The Strategy Bridge publishes decision games designed to help military professionals visualize and describe the changing character of war and warfare. The games all consist of the same format:

  • An overarching situation and objective
  • An assessment of the enemy in terms of their disposition and composition
  • A space to articulate how players would approach the situation in terms of a central idea, necessary capabilities, and spatial and temporal dimensions (e.g. deep, close, security or shaping, decisive, etc.)
  • A course of action (COA) graphic and narrative

The games are designed to be short thought experiments that fit easily into training schedules. Individuals should take no more than one hour to complete the game and then one hour to compare results with other players in a group setting. These games can be used by military professionals in tactical units, from battalion to brigade, as well as on larger staffs to practice operational art and define new theories of victory. The wargames are experiments in which professionals can test their ideas (i.e. COAs = hypotheses) and identify candidates for further concept and capability development. By exchanging findings with the larger military professional network, practitioners crowdsource military innovation.

The first in the series, entitled Kaliningrad Fires, outlines a scenario in which US and Lithuanian forces are preparing to meet an imminent Russian invasion:

In this decision game, you are the lead elements of a NATO force sent to stop a Russian force from securing key terrain in the opening stages of a conventional fight. The game is designed to assist players in thinking through how to use fires in the defense to disrupt an adversary. You should assume the lead echelon of the advancing Russian force is just that, the lead echelon and likely to be followed by a larger force.

Following a stand-off with Lithuania regarding shipping tariffs between Kaliningrad and Belarus, Russia began mobilizing forces along the border between Kaliningrad and Lithuania. Initial NATO intelligence estimates suggest that Russia will cross the international border and attempt to secure a land bridge between Kaliningrad and Belarus, south of the Neman River, in 96 hours (D+0). The majority of their forces will secure Lithuanian highways A7 and A16, with additional forces guarding north and south of the route.

1/325 IN, B/1/82 AV, and 2/319 FAR (82d) were conducting operation IRON SENTINEL in Poland with other NATO units when Russia began its mobilization, and was re-tasked to fly to Lithuania and assist the Lithuanian Iron Wolf Brigade in defending Lithuania against a Russian attack. The remainder of 2/82, as well as 1/319 FAR and 3/319 FAR, are scheduled to fly in to Kaunas International Airport (1) NLT D-2. 2 CAV (Germany) will begin arriving on D+1 at the rate of one squadron per day.

It’s a great initiative, and I wish them every success with it.

…however, it isn’t really a wargame at all.

Rather, Kaliningrad Fires is a tactical problem, in which one reads the scenario and then develops a possible solution, possibly discussing it with others and comparing ideas afterwards. That can be very useful, but it lacks any sort of dynamic interaction with an adaptive opponent. It certainly isn’t a course of action (COA) wargame: as Graham Longley-Brown has (repeatedly and vociferously) noted, for a COA wargame to be a wargame it must be adversarial, and ideally conducted under some form of time pressure that reflects the real-life constraints on decision-making.

The scenario devotes much attention to the role of a new artillery system deployed by the (future) US side:

2/319 FA is outfitted with the Army’s newest system, the Advanced Artillery System, firing the Artillery Delivered Swarm System (ADSS).

Each of the [artillery] battalion’s 6 platoons has 8 HMMWVs (4 with howitzers, 4 with ammunition). 7 of the 8 are autonomously piloted and operated, slaved to the actions of the platoon leader’s vehicle.

The puzzle is clearly intended to address how this system might be employed:


  • How would you integrate a Manned-Unmanned Teaming artillery swarm with attack aviation and ground units assuming hasty defensive positions?
  • How would you tie into terrain to create a defensive line?

That’s fair enough: it is perfectly legitimate to ask how deployment of a new weapon system might affect battlefield dynamics, and to use both problem sets and actual wargames to explore its tactical employment.

However, to do that one really needs a lot more information.  The tactical description says almost nothing about the entire Lithuanian mechanized infantry brigade that is also part of BLUE: no TOE (table of organization or equipment) is provided, nor any notion of how the Lithuanians would like to defend their country, or the degree of interoperability between US and Lithuanian forces. There’s also no discussion of BLUE air assets, or whether the Russians will enjoy temporary local air superiority in the opening stages of their assault. To my mind, those are all rather important considerations. It’s a bit like asking how the British Expeditionary Force should fight the Germans in 1940 using their newfangled 18/25pdr field artillery with little reference to French capabilities, no discussion of air control, and no reference to French plans.

Review: Bloc by Bloc

Bloc by Bloc: The Insurrection Game. Out of Order Games, 2016.

BbB.pngBloc-by-Bloc is a 2-4 person game in which players cooperate to overthrow state power in a fictional urban setting. Assuming the role of workers, students, prisoners, or neighbours, each player takes turn moving their units (blocs), barricading the streets, looting businesses, confronting the police, building occupations (assembly halls, people’s kitchens, hacker spaces, propaganda workshops, and molotov factories—among many others).

When all of the players have taken their actions, the police respond by drawing cards from the Police Ops deck, moving accordingly, and repressing the revolutionaries. If enough blocs survive in a district they might liberate it, granting bonuses to the revolutionaries. If the players can build occupations in all of the state districts before the end of eight days and nights, they win.

The rules for Bloc-by-Bloc are relatively simple, and player options and most other game rules are summarized on a two-sided reference card. Despite this, game strategy can be complex, and depends heavily on cooperation and planning. Defeating the police—and especially the fearsome riot vans—may take several players, and even after the forces of state repression are driven back it is important to follow up by constructing occupations and building barricades to protect hard-won gains. It’s all very abstracted from actual processes of revolution, but there is certainly enough genuine urban insurrection represented to make this more than simply just a stylish Eurogame with a trendy theme layered on top. Like a typical Eurogame, however, game boards, cards, and other materials are robust and very nicely produced indeed. Game play is listed as 120-180 minutes, but we’ve found it can be played more quickly than this, especially if you have less than four players.

While the beginners’ game is fully cooperative, the full game adds the twist of hidden agendas. Players can collectively win by fulfilling their collective goals, or win individually by meeting their secret goals. My personal favourite is the nihilist faction, who in fact have no collective goals, but instead favour fighting the riot police and burning down shopping centers to the exclusion of pretty much anything else. The game comes with ten scenarios. However, with 30 tiles that can be freely arranged into any 5×5 grid, the game is almost infinitely replayable.

As is doubtless clear from the comments above, I very much enjoyed the game. It could be used in an educational setting to explore some aspects of urban protest and uprising, although one would need to debrief games extensively to highlight where game play and real life diverge, and what aspects of revolution the game does not model. The game would also serve well to teach about cooperative and semi-cooperative game design, as well as the extent to which simple, elegant rules can generate interesting player choices and complex game dynamics.

At present, Bloc-by-Bloc is sold out. However, in keeping with the revolutionary anti-capitalist leanings of its designers, a print-and-play version is available for free from the Out or Order Games website.

UNSOC Northland

UNSOC Northland2
No, it’s not the latest UN peacekeeping force. Rather, UNSOC is Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos, the latest megagame from the fevered mind of mad genius Jim Wallman.

UNSOC is nor ordinary megagame, you see—instead, it is the world’s first wide-area megagame, with interlinked games being played simultaneously in eleven cities in five different countries. In Montreal, we’ll be playing the peaceable country of Northland, faced with a sudden and terrifying menace spreading from South-of-the Border:

Northland is a generally nice (if sometimes smug and self-righteous) place, known for its cold winters, hockey, doughnut shops, poutine, and polite do-gooders prone to apologize for the slightest transgression. As the country celebrates its birthday on July 1, however, this peaceable place may face its greatest threat ever.

South of the Border, something is happening. There are reports of violence, chaos, and panic well beyond the violence and chaos of daily life there. Military units are being mobilized, and this time not to invade some foreign country. Some even claim that undead hordes have taken to the streets in search of human brains—or, at the very least, free national health care. How much longer will it be before the urban nightmare moves north?

The game happens to fall on Canada Day, so that’s appropriate. Our game will be rather smaller than our last two games (New World Order 2035 and War in Binni). However it should be just as enjoyable for those many Canadian gamers who enjoy the complex interplay between federal-provincial relations and an impending apocalypse.

In the Montreal area on Canada Day, and interested in participating? Email me for more details, or buy a ticket at Eventbrite. We’ll be getting an early start, of course, to synchronize with the various European games.

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