Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

An interview with “Rebel Inc.” designer James Vaughan (Ndemic Creations)


Rebel Inc. is a unique and immersive political/military strategic simulation with over 4 million players. It offers a deeply engaging, thought provoking look at the complexities and consequences of foreign intervention and counter insurgency as you work to stabilise a war torn country. We previously reviewed it at PAXsims here.

James Vaughan is Founder of Ndemic Creations, and creator of hit mobile game Plague Inc., Plague Inc: Evolved and Rebel Inc.

I had the pleasure of a quick interview with James before our upcoming Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development.  At the Forum we’ll have a lunchtime conversation with him and policymakers, diving deeper into some of the questions below.


How did you come up with the idea for Rebel Inc.?

I actually came up with the idea for Rebel Inc. back in 2011 before I made my first game Plague Inc. The core idea was about the game of cat and mouse between soldiers and insurgents – defeating insurgents just causes them to move to a neighbouring area – instead you need to carefully position soldiers to surround/contain them as well as considering broader civilian and military issues to ensure stability. After the runaway success of Plague Inc.  I was finally in a position to make Rebel Inc. as I’d planned all those years ago – a game that simulates insurgency, the failures and mistakes that have been made and how things might have gone differently.

What is it based on?   What kind of research did you do for this?


James Vaughan (Ndemic Creations)

Rebel Inc. is heavily inspired by events in Afghanistan but also by numerous other events including the Columbian peace process with FARC. As a former economist – I love getting my hands on all sorts of data sources to build my simulation models – one of my favourite books was Farewell Kabul by Christina Lamb, the quarterly SIGAR reports were extremely eye opening and I was lucky enough to talk with a huge number of experts, journalists and politicians to get their thoughts and experiences. Said T. Jawad, the Afghan Ambassador to the UK gave me a number of personal experiences / vignettes which I was able to put into the game including one about resolving an issue regarding the stop and search of women by female soldiers.

How did you build in realism but still try to keep it fun?

Developing a game based on real world issues is both extremely challenging and extremely rewarding. In order to make Rebel Inc. an engaging and sensitive game which makes people think, I had to find a balance between realism and fun. Too realistic and it would be overwhelming and too complicated to follow, not realistic enough and it risks sensationalising / exploiting serious situations – and losing credibility

Through my research – I identified a number of key themes that I wanted to capture in the game (e.g. corruption, inflation, the need for a peace process, foreign soldiers going home etc) and then spent years experimenting with different game mechanics. Trying different combinations and methods until all the pieces of the model finally game together and worked. Often it’s about finding the core part of a mechanic and displaying that rather than trying to cram in all sorts of tiny details which although important – can prevent people from understanding what they are being shown. The end result is something I’m extremely proud of – and discussions about where / why the game is not realistic can often be more educational than including them in the game in the first place.


Who plays Rebel Inc?

4 million plus people from all over the world – and more every day! (The most popular countries are the US, China and Russia). Our target audience are people who want to play intelligent games that make them think whilst still being accessible!

Are your players interested in stabilization, post-conflict development and international assistance?  

Yes – although not all of them will have realised this until they started playing! We get a lot of messages from people who have military / diplomatic / expert backgrounds saying how much the game resonates with them and their experiences which is always great to hear. On the other side of the coin (!) , we also get players telling us that they never really had any understanding of what is going on in places like Afghanistan until they played Rebel Inc. They say it helped them think about the complexities and compromises that are necessary in order to stabilise regions. “now I understand why we couldn’t just send lots of tanks to Afghanistan” etc.

We’re looking forward to having you at the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development – what are you hoping to get out of the Forum?

I’m really excited to engage with and hear from people who are experts in the field. It will give me all sorts of ideas for future Rebel Inc. updates as well as identify areas where we can improve the simulation. I want people to tell me what they like about the game but just as important – tell me where they think I got it wrong! Some of the best parts of Rebel Inc. are where I’ve included personal stories and experiences into the game in the form of decisions for the player to make – I want to add a lot more! There has also been quite a lot of interest in using Rebel Inc. for training and education purposes so I’m keen to see if something can be facilitated here.

What are you working on now and what do you have coming out next?

I’m currently working on the next update for Rebel Inc. as well as working out how to get it onto PC. I’m also busy working on updates for Plague Inc. and an expansion for my physical table top version – Plague Inc: The Board Game. No rest for the wicked!


7 responses to “An interview with “Rebel Inc.” designer James Vaughan (Ndemic Creations)

  1. Fat boy #2 22/01/2020 at 9:02 pm

    James , I would love to know who drew the original characters for plague, the ones that where blacked out, I suppose those shadowed figures originally had a lot of detail and color? Do you still have the originals?

  2. brtrain 03/05/2019 at 12:50 pm

    PS: speaking of which, thank you for your recent informative post on BGG about how the board game version is doing. I’m interested enough in the economics and production of these things to never want to do more than home-brewed DTP by myself!

  3. brtrain 03/05/2019 at 12:47 pm

    Thank you James (and thank you for liking A Distant Plain!)
    I am truly sorry if I came across as spiteful or sour-grapey in my posts.
    I suppose what irked me the most was the in-game purchases, but that’s endemic to the computer game industry… how else are you going to make money on a game where the base version is given away?
    You and Gary are correct to point out that what is clear to some people (or rather, it is clear to them how unclear) is not at all apparent to others… and if nothing else, you have made a large fraction of four million people think for a bit about what’s involved in the future of places like Afghanistan, a far far larger number than I will ever reach.
    And in the end, that is what really matters.
    Now, I think I might look into your Plague Inc. board game!

  4. James (Rebel Inc) 02/05/2019 at 7:18 am

    Hey Brian
    Big fan of A Distant Plain – I found out about it a few months before Rebel Inc. came out and got it for the office – we had a great time although I (Afghan Gov) and the coalition spent too much time bickering so lost though :P Hoping to play it again soon.

    I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like Rebel Inc. One thing to point out, most of our players know vastly less than you about stabilisation issues – so an idea that is simple and obvious to you – will actually be complex and mind-blowing to them! I did have to make tradeoffs when making the game in order to make sure that it was accessible enough for people to interact with in the first place. Players do get in touch with us though to share how Rebel Inc. has made them think about the tradeoffs and lack of a ‘perfect’ option in peace building.

    BTW – you might be interested to know that I actually made and released a board game of my previous disease simulation game – it’s certainly a lot harder selling board games!

  5. brtrain 01/05/2019 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks Gary – there isn’t much point in pitting my personal impressions against yours, though that is what keeps much of the Internet spinning.
    I did find the tech trees interesting; if I play this game more I suppose I will get access to those little tweaker peoples too.
    Board game cafes and some game stores have shelves of loaners and rented games where you can truly try before you buy.
    My point, which now that I think of it was rather spiteful, was that buying “the rest of the game” is baked into the computer game model to a greater extent than in the board game world.
    And now that I think about it some more, the tendency seems to be be growing in the board game world very quickly, to look at many board game Kickstarter projects.
    My main concern remains that there is a supplied Answer to the gritty problem in there somewhere – there has to be, almost, since it is a computer game – and most people seem more prepared to engage with the model in seeking that Answer, and not in what is being demonstrated.
    Well, there are plenty of people who play board games like that too, whether or not they were designed that way.
    A broader criticism of counterinsurgency theory and of peacebuilding is that people think there is such a general purpose Answer – “do this, and the war is won”.
    I don’t think there is, and I am aware that in my own designs on the problem I may appear to be supplying one… it’s certainly not my intention.
    Please don’t take my mention of A Distant Plain as sour grapes… the two don’t compete, how on earth could they when the eyes on each are that many orders of magnitude apart… but the time may yet come when a game that is closer to ADP’s more sandboxy approach will emerge. (And then there will be 20,000 copies out there…)

  6. Gary Milante 30/04/2019 at 5:26 pm

    Hey Brian!

    I agree, there is a model that you’re playing against and in some ways the risk is that players are learning the game/model rather than some principles of peacebuilding – that is actually one of the questions we’re going to explore in the discussion at the Forum.

    I think you might be overstating the pushme/pullyou dynamic a bit – there are interesting tech trees in the interventions (development, security) that demonstrate an understanding of the trade-offs between “quick wins” and real reform and I think the three choice dilemmas are useful learning moments where the push and pull aren’t immediately apparent.

    I’ve unlocked some of the additions and enhancements (through game play, not by buying them) and found them to be interesting mods that tweak the game a little and insert a little learning about the difference between, for example, a warlord and a development economist (there is a difference!). They might be less subtle if you played two games back to back with totally different “teams” but the same strategy. I haven’t had the time to devote to that.

    Interesting your observation on in-game purchases on a free app versus boardgames, to my knowledge there aren’t any boardgame shops that let you take out a trial version of a game and play with it for free to see if you like it before paying anything. I agree, a tabletop version would be super fiddly.

    A Distant Plain is awesome, but I don’t think they are competitors. What we’re wondering about int he public discussion at the forum is whether it means anything for peacebuilding that James has got millions of players thinking about stabilization and state-building that might have otherwise been killing zombies or mining tiberium.

    That being said, anytime you want to come to Stockholm and get peace researchers to game out a bunch of Distant Plains with you, I’m sure I could fill a room!

  7. brtrain 30/04/2019 at 1:05 pm

    I got the free Android version and have played it a few times.
    My general impression is that this game has a lot of moving parts, but the relationships between the parts seem to be fairly simple pushme-pullyou, and ratcheting up the difficulty of the game just increases the friction and speed of the pushme-pullyou.
    Like most computer games, especially solitaire computer games, there seems to be a Solution lurking in it, and some pretty unsubtle cues.
    If this were released in board game format, it would be regarded as a fiddly and rather mechanistic exercise (thankfully, the computer takes care of the dozens of little adjustments required every turn).
    However, I’ll admit my comments are coloured by my refusal to buy any of the in-game additions and enhancements – though I am not sure they change the nature of the game, they seem to reduce the friction mentioned above.
    But buying those in-game enhancements is the computer game business model; a board game that left out half of the components and offered them to you for substantial extra money would be scourged.
    It’s interesting enough a game for four million players, but not for me… I note it took nearly six years and three printings to get 10,000 copies of A Distant Plain out there!

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