Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 25 May 2019


PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers.



A new online wargame is intended to explore issues of signalling, deterrence, and escalation:

A first-of-its-kind online game, released publicly today, is poised to revolutionize the field of wargaming. Developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this new multi-player computer game was custom built to explore deterrence and decision-making in an escalating conflict.

Over the past century, military leaders and in the United States have sought to answer similar questions with seminar style discussions or table top exercises. These types of wargames typically involve convening high-ranking military and political officials to play through scenarios that are representative of real-world situations. Insights gathered from the game are then used to inform decisions about policies, strategies and tactics. However, this approach has key shortcomings that limit its usefulness.

“Because you have a limited player set and only play through a few scenarios, you don’t get enough data from these scenario-based discussions to draw statistical inference. You may only get an idea of how these specific people would react,” said Bethany Goldblum, a researcher in UC Berkeley’s Nuclear Engineering department. “This is why traditional wargaming is often described as an art rather than science.”

You’ll find more at the link above. The article rather overstates the novelty of online games as a research method to generate large-n findings—in fact, this method is a staple of experimental psychology and economics, and used in other social science fields too. However, these are almost always very much simpler games intended to explore a narrow range of hypotheses.

If you try the game, drop us a line and let us know what you think. So far, I’ve been unable to get past the consent form (possible browser compatibility issues–I’ll play around with it when I have more time), and a few others have encountered problems setting up, or find the game and interface a bit clunky. Obviously, ease of use is a key issue in experimental games, otherwise you run into problems of sample bias or interface-driven results.

Still, it is a great idea. We’ll be very interested to see the results.


DSTL arctic.png

Some of the folks at the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory have been busy wargaming in the Arctic.

It was -20°C, a blizzard was moving in fast, and the Marines were laughing at me as I’d fallen flat on my face in deep snow. As hilarious as they found my predicament, this was a perfect example of the kind of conditions that the Marines are trained to face as we quickly slid down a mountain to our waiting Viking armoured vehicles to avoid the incoming storm. Not necessarily what I was expecting when the Wargaming and Historical Analysis Team had sent Paul Strong and I to support C Company (Coy) from the Royal Navy’s 40 Commando Royal Marines by running a wargame for them….


As a Montrealer, I’ve got to say that -20C is just a regular winter day—although perhaps not so much in Dstl Portsdown West.


The Centre for Land Warfare Studies (New Delhi) and staff from the UK Ministry of Defence Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre recently conducted a matrix game.



The International Organization for Migration continues to hold crisis preparedness simulations in the Sahel region as well as West Africa. The latest were conducted in April

More than 300 people took part in a fifth cross-border crisis simulation exercise organized Thursday by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in partnership with the Government of Senegal in the eastern city of Bakel near the borders with Mauritania and Mali.

The exercises prepare local populations and border management actors to respond to potential security crises by testing and strengthening collaboration and communication between border communities, administrative authorities, security forces in Senegal and Mauritania, as well as health and relief services.

“Security is first and foremost an individual responsibility that extends to the community and then becomes a national interest,” said IOM Senegal Project Coordinator Massimo Ramanzin. “With this fifth exercise, IOM reiterates the important role of the community in safe and humane border management.”

The first pilot project “Engagement des communautés frontalières dans la gestion et la sécurisation des frontières au Sénégal” (Engaging border communities in border security and management in Senegal), was launched in 2015 by the Government of Senegal and IOM.

Four additional exercises were carried out in Matam (February 2016), Tambacounda (December 2017), and Saint-Louis (November 2016 and April 2018).

and in May:

In an effort to empower authorities to effectively respond to large-scale population movements, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) organized the first ever crisis simulation exercise along the Gambian-Senegalese border.

Held in Giboro, Gambia’s West Coast Region – which hosts the busiest border post with Senegal’s southern Casamance region – the exercise tested actors’ ability to effectively respond in times of crisis; in particular, to provide assistance to vulnerable migrants.

80 volunteers from The Gambia Red Cross Society (GRCS) simulated the migrants and first responders, with various state and nonstate actors called to the scene. Key to the simulation was the interaction between immigration, security, health and social welfare authorities to register arrivals, provide medical and psychosocial support and establish evacuation and shelter plans.

“Although it was good that we were able to control the situation in the border post early, we need to improve the coordination between all apparatuses” commented Edrisa Manneh, GRCS’ Volunteer Management Coordinator, in reflection of the exercise.

The exercise was meant to model the border turmoil brought by the political tension of 2016, in which over 45,000 Gambians fled to Senegal, as well as a 2011 upsurge of violence in Casamance, in which the region received 700 additional Senegalese asylum seekers, adding to the almost 8,000 in The Gambia.

“In 2016, we realized that West Coast is at the receiving point of movement between The Gambia and Senegal,” remarked Binta Sey, Secretary-General of the Regional Disaster Management Committee, highlighting the significance of emergency preparedness in the region. “In any crisis involving migration, Giboro bears the load more than any other town,” echoed Modou Jallow, community youth leader.

The exercise was preceded by a four-day workshop, where the committee updated its contingency plan, identifying population movement as one of the region’s top five hazards. The exercise was also followed by a debriefing with all stakeholders to document lessons learned. One key aim was to incorporate the Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster (MICIC) into the region’s contingency plan. IOM introduced the MICIC Guidelines to The Gambia in 2018 through a series of trainings. “You are successfully working together to increase the capacity of first responders to properly react in times of crises,” commended Carl Paschall, Ambassador of the US to The Gambia, at the workshop.


The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative held its most recent three day humanitarian training simulation/field exercise in April, involving more  than 250 students, faculty and volunteers .



Earlier this month, the International Academy of Astronautics Planetary Defense Conference undertook a simulation of an asteroid heading for Earth—ultimately impacting New York City.

A hypothetical asteroid impact scenario will be presented at the 2019 IAA Planetary Defense Conference (PDC), to be held in College Park, Maryland, USA, April 29 – May 3, 2019. Although this scenario is realistic in many ways, it is completely fictional and does NOT describe an actual potential asteroid impact. The scenario begins as follows:

  • An asteroid is discovered on March 26, 2019, at magnitude 21.1, and confirmed the following day. It is assigned the designation “2019 PDC” by the Minor Planet Center. (To reinforce the fact that this is not a real asteroid, we are using three letters in the designation, something that would never be done for an actual asteroid.)
  • Initial calculations indicate that the orbit of 2019 PDC approaches well within 0.05 au of the Earth’s orbit. (The unit “au” stands for “astronomical unit”, which is the mean distance of the Earth from the Sun, 149,597,870.7 km, or 92,955,807 miles.) Since the initial estimate of the asteroid’s absolute (intrinsic) magnitude H is 21.7, it qualifies as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA).
  • The asteroid’s orbit is eccentric, extending from a distance of 0.89 au from the Sun at its closest point to 2.94 au at its farthest point in the middle of the main asteroid belt. Its orbital period is 971 days (2.66 years), and its orbital plane is inclined 18 degrees to the Earth’s orbital plane.
  • The day after 2019 PDC is discovered, JPL’s Sentry impact monitoring system, as well as ESA’s similar CLOMON system, both identify several future dates when this asteroid could potentially impact the Earth. Both systems agree that the most likely potential impact occurs on April 29, 2027 – over eight years away – but the probability of that impact is very low, about 1 chance in 50,000. With only two days of tracking this object, no more definitive statement can be made.
  • When first detected, the asteroid is about 0.38 au (57 million kilometers or 35 million miles) from Earth, approaching our planet at about 14 km/s (8.5 mi/s or 31,000 mph), and slowly getting brighter. 2019 PDC is observed extensively for a few weeks after discovery, and as the observational dataset grows, the impact probability for 2027 increases. Three weeks after discovery, when observations pause during full moon, the impact probability has risen to nearly 0.4 percent, or about 1 chance in 250. The asteroid continues to brighten somewhat as it approaches, but it reaches a peak brightness of only 20.3 at the end of April.
  • Very little is known about the asteroid’s physical properties. Based on the apparent visual magnitude, its absolute (intrinsic) magnitude is estimated to be about H = 21.7 +/- 0.4. Since its albedo (reflectivity) is unknown, however, the asteroid’s mean size could be anywhere from roughly 100 meters to over 300 meters.
  • 2019 PDC approaches the Earth for well over a month after discovery, and it reaches its closest point of about 0.13 au on May 13. Unfortunately, the asteroid is too far away to be detected by radar, and it is not expected to pass close to the Earth again, until 2027.
  • Astronomers continue to track the asteroid almost every night, and the impact probability for 2027 continues to rise. As of April 29, 2019, the first day of the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference, the probability of impact has climbed to about 1%. The rest of the scenario will be played out at the conference.

You’ll find more at the conference website, and a summary of what happened at EarthSky.

PAXsimsAccording to Breaking Defence, the US Army War College is thinking about how to wargame advances in Artificial Intelligence:

ARMY WAR COLLEGE: Theater commanders around the world want weapons they can see and use right now, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs told the Army War College. It’s a lot harder, Gen. Joseph Dunford said, to sell experienced senior officers on an untested and intangible capability like Artificial Intelligence.

One week after Dunford’s visit, the Army War College convened two dozen officers and civilian experts to take on that challenge: How do you demonstrate the potential value of a military AI before you actually build it? (The conference was scheduled long before Dunford’s visit, but his words were very much on participants’ minds). The immediate objective: come up with ways to mimic the effects of an AI so the school’s in-house game designers could turn it into either a computer simulation or a table-top exercise within 10 months — without new money. The hope is that the 2020 game, in turn, will intrigue Army leadership enough that they’ll support a larger, longer-term AI effort….


Wargaming the future is difficult because predicting the future is difficult. In the June 2019 edition of The Atlantic, David Epstein briefly explores the some of the challenges involved—and what contemporary social science tells us about effective forecasting.

The pattern is by now familiar. In the 30 years since Ehrlich sent Simon a check, the track record of expert forecasters—in science, in economics, in politics—is as dismal as ever. In business, esteemed (and lavishly compensated) forecasters routinely are wildly wrong in their predictions of everything from the next stock-market correction to the next housing boom. Reliable insight into the future is possible, however. It just requires a style of thinking that’s uncommon among experts who are certain that their deep knowledge has granted them a special grasp of what is to come.

Much of the piece focuses on the work of Philip Tetlock and the Good Judgment Project.



In a recent edition of the Ludology podcast, Mikael Jakobsson and Rick Eberhardt from the MIT Game Lab discuss their research into colonial themes in board games, and the game design workshops they run in former colonial countries.



When you’ve finished listening to that, here’s another podcast for you: Armchair Dragoon, this time featuring a discussion with James Sterrett and Brian Train on Matt Caffrey’s new book, On Wargaming, as well as other essential reading on wargaming.



One more podcast: a recent edition of the War Studies podcast from King’s College London features an interview with Philip Sabin on wargaming.



In December 2018 a cybersecurity wargame was held at Teachers College, Columbia University to explore insider threats, using a modified matrix game.

Lawrence Furnival has a report at LinkedIn.



President Trump’s trade war with China—and the imposition of new tariffs on toys and games—could hit the US gaming industry hard:

President Donald Trump’s trade war with China is causing a panic inside the board game industry. A list of tariffs on Chinese imports proposed by the United States trade representative would raise the cost of virtually everything needed to produce modern tabletop games. John Stacy, executive director of the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA), says that tariffs could dramatically reduce the number of new games in production in the United States. Even worse, they could cost workers and business owners their livelihoods.

You’ll find more details at Polygon.


Finally, an item that isn’t new, but we hadn’t seen before: a 2017 research report by Lt Col Christopher R. DiNote (USAF) discussing the development of an ISR  (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) wargame (OPERATION AZURE OSPREY) based on AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game.

In a February 2015 memorandum, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work issued a call to the department and the military services to reinvigorate the use of wargaming across the defense enterprise. He connected wargaming directly to innovation in technology, as well as new operational and organizational concepts to avoid strategic surprise. The secretary’s guidance emphasized the urgency of this task, explaining that the United States faces an era of constrained resources and rapid global change. This essay contributes to the Air Force response to this call to action, including a game design-in-progress, from the perspective of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) strategic decision-making. The author contends that games designed with ISR central to their play can facilitate greatly needed, yet politically difficult discussions of force allocation, risk assessment, return on investment, prioritization, transregional threats, and the insatiable demand for ISR coverage in an increasingly disordered world of contested norms.6

Contemporary military wargames are expensive undertakings. They consume great amounts of time, personnel, and resources, and depend on classified computer models and simulations. Policy-making seminar games, featuring extensive roleplay, also make significant demands on the schedule of senior leaders, and the availability of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and adjudicators. Rarely will either format address or inform ISR aspects of strategy in a significant fashion. Therefore, the material presented here explores the latest academic research and wargaming innovations to demonstrate the utility of low cost, fast-play, tabletop manual games as tools to experiment, innovate, train, and analyze historical, contemporary and future defense problems from an ISR-centered lens. This project also aspires to foster an officially- sponsored “gaming culture” throughout the AF ISR enterprise.

Following an initial playtest of Aftershock held at the LeMay Center on Maxwell AFB, AFWGI personnel conducted analysis and began to conceive of modifications to the game to transform it into a global ISR-centric wargame. For Azure Osprey, the players will represent ISR producers and/or distributors, each with their own distinct player brief. The National Command Authority, representing the POTUS and executive branch, can drive priorities as well as has his or her own support requirements. The other players represent the NSA, NGA, and CIA. Originally, the author intended the players to represent various CCMDs, but the Aftershockplaytest, as well as the pointed analysis of AFWGI members showed no way around the zero- sum competition effect resident in real-world ISR allocation, in playing the game from that perspective. Therefore, the CCMDs will fill the role of the Districts in Aftershock. The CCMD “districts” host requirements for various types of ISR to meet their PIRs on stacks of cards. Failure to address these PIRs, which emulate those found in their AOR’s TCP, OPLANs, and CONPLANs, increases the risk over time of strategic surprise, attack against the US or its interests, or disastrous failure of US policy in that region. Azure Osprey will simulate USPACOM, USCENTCOM, USEUCOM, USTRATCOM, and USSOCOM. The other CCMDs will be simulated via event cards that drive their own cost requirements in ISR resources.

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