Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: April 2020

Western Approaches HQ needs your help!


Those of you who follow PAXsims will know of the work of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit, the group of WWII Royal Navy wargamers who made many essential contributions to both the development of allied convoy and anti-submarine tactics, and to the training of those who fought the Battle of the Atlantic. As we’ve argued before, the women and men of WATU may have been the most consequential group of wargamers in history.

You may also know of the non-profit Western Approaches HQ in Liverpool, a terrific museum and an amazing group of staff who hosted our 2018 WATU wargame. Not surprisingly, they’ve been hit hard by the pandemic, forced to close their doors and hence losing much of their revenue. A Gofundme fundraiser has been established to help them out.

Western Approaches HQ was once the nerve centre of the Battle of the Atlantic. Hidden deep beneath the streets of Liverpool, the men and women who worked in this building changed the course of the Second World War.

The site was rescued from dereliction in 2017 and within two years has become one of Liverpool’s most popular heritage attractions. The site is ran entirely as a non-profit entity, with 90% of the income needed to run and maintain the vast site coming from visitor tickets.

Due to Coronavirus, the site has been forced to close, losing much of its income. Despite this, the team have been working hard to help the local community and create a number of educational opportunities for free to ensure children at home can continue to learn.

A small donation would be hugely appreciated to help offset the huge loss of income due to this current crisis.

Despite the crisis, they’ve been doing a terrific job with isolation history lessons and online activities. Consider lending them some support!

Sepinsky: Wargaming as an analytic tool

William Owen recently offered some thoughts at PAXsims on “what is wrong with professional wargaming.” Jeremy Sepinsky (Lead Wargame Designer at CNA) then replied with some comments—which I have reposted below for greater visibility. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.



I think the challenge here comes with equating “wargaming” with an analytic discipline rather than an analytic tool. Wargaming looks completely different in various context, but criticizing the rigor of the discipline is like criticizing the p-test, the Fourier transform, an MRI, or anonymous surveys: there very valuable if done well, and damaging if done poorly. The trick is in educating sponsors and potential sponsors as to what “bad” looks like. Even peer-reviewed journals have gone for years without identifying the “p-hacking” that has been taking place in quantitative analysis. And wargaming is a lot more diverse a toolset with a smaller number of skilled practitioners (and no peer-reviewed journals, as you point out) than quantitative methods, which makes it even harder to call out the bad actors.

To respond to Owen’s question of “so what, is it obvious?”: When a person running a professional wargame cannot effectively translate real-world decision making into relevant impacts in the conduct of the game, then either a) the person needs to be able to fully articulate why decisions at that level are beyond the scope of the mechanics, or b) it is a poorly run wargame. But many of the situations he discusses are “game-time” decisions. And it would be impossible/impractical (though probably beneficial) to include Matt Caffrey’s “Grey team” concept in all games. In that concept, there is an entire cell whose job it is to evaluate the wargame itself. Not the outcomes, or the research, but instead to critique whether the wargame was an appropriate model of reality for the purpose defined. Though, to support the other points in Owen’s article, I have not been able to find any published article discussing the concept.

But this leads into another point: wargames are more than combat modeling. Many of Owen’s examples and statements about the model seem to imply that the wargames he discuses are those that are interested in modelling and evaluating force-on-force conflict—and that the side that understands the underlying wargame mechanics of the conflict will succeed. To that end, those games do not seem to be played manually for just the very reason that you’re discussing. However, they are instead reproduced as “campaign analysis“. Models like STORM and JICM are trusted, I would argue, overly much. It takes away the requirement for the player knowing the rules, because it pits computer v. computer where both sides know all the rules.

When a given conflict can be reduced to pure combat, campaign analytics are a good tool for calculation. But when conflict is more than combat, the human element comes to the fore and wargames have an opportunity to expose new insights. In these cases, the specifics of the combat models should play less of a role in the outcomes. They are more highly abstracted to allow time and attention of the more humanistic elements of war: the move-counter-move in the cognitive domain of the players. Wargames structured properly to emphasize that cognitive domain should overcome the requirement of memorizing volumes of highly detailed rules by simply not having that many rules. Players only have so much mental currency to spend during the play of a single game, and where that currency is placed should be chosen (by the designer) wisely.

Finally, I’ll concluded with a response to Owen’s final statement: “The right wargame applied in the right way clearly does have immense value. It merely suggests we need to get better at understanding what has value and what doesn’t.” Who is it that defines the value of the wargame? Is it the sponsor? The designer? The players? I guarantee you that each come out with some value, and that they all may not agree on what that value was. Most US Department of Defense wargames that I am familiar with are one-off events. Understanding the implications of each wargame rule on every wargame action or decision is beyond the scope of most wargames and beyond the interest of wargame sponsors. Instead, we wargamers can do a better job explaining the limits of our knowledge. When we design a game, there is a delicate balance between fidelity and abstraction. Some aspect of the game are highly faithful to reality, while others are highly abstract. Where you place the fidelity and what you abstract has a tremendous outcome on the conclusions that you can make at the end of a wargame. Wargame designers, facilitators, and analysts owe it to their sponsors to make it clear what insights and conclusions are backed by a high degree of fidelity and which are not. Complex wargame models always run the risk of inputs being identified as insights, and our due diligence is important here. But that diligence extends beyond the numerical combat modelling into the facilitation, scenario, and non-kinetic aspects of the wargame as well.

Jeremy Sepinsky 


Owen: What’s wrong with professional wargaming?

The following piece was written by William F. Owen, editor of the Infinity Journal. In addition to this he consults for industry, government agencies and armed forces on a range of command, doctrine and capability issues. He started wargaming as a teenager.



Professional wargaming should aim to provide insights that can inform decisions, based on a degree of evidence. In essence professional Wargaming should equal the test of theory, in that it should explain extant phenomena and enable a degree of prediction. Both the phenomena and prediction would have expression as insights or issues requiring further investigation. If professional Wargaming cannot do this, what use is it.

In other words professional wargaming should tell you why, when, where and how combat occurs, thus give the practitioner a sense of what would occur in reality. Well-executed professional Wargaming of the right type has immense value, though the actual empirical basis for this, while extant, may not be as comprehensive or as rigorous as popularly imagined and there is almost no body of peer reviewed body of unclassified academic research. Most importantly, the problem is that what makes a good wargame seems to be poorly understood, particularly by many who advocate Wargaming professionally.  This paper takes the view that the best insights are derived from multiple iterations of truly adversarial wargames, using a number of different valid models and methods.

A very small number of books written by an equally small number of professional wargamers and/or analysts do exist, but little of it seems concerned with the validity of wargaming as a professional tool as concerns how different models produce differing insights. Books about how to wargame and the history of Wargaming does not a body of academic or professional literature make!

The consequences for being wrong or using a bad wargame are both expensive and extremely serious. Firstly people can die based on bad advice/practice emanating from bad wargames and secondly it seems logical to suggest that poor choices based on wargame evidence can easily waste as much money as Wargaming might supposedly try to save. Wargaming may not always be a cost saving measure, if done badly. Wargaming can be used to give the appearance of validity to bad and very expensive ideas. It needs to be explicitly stated that Wargaming can be both very good and very bad. The problem is no one ever seems to talk about the bad or very bad, and how closely the professional community seems to flirt with it or even knowingly ignores such an issue. Thus evidence derived from Wargames is extremely unsafe unless the modelling and processes used have been subjected to a high degree of rigour.

The heart of a professional wargame relies on the consequence of decisions as explained by a model. That model should be a useful approximation of reality. It doesn’t have to be highly detailed or even complex, but it must be able to produce outcomes that are by and large valid in the real world. This is what separate hobby wargamers from professional wargamers. Professionals need it to make sense, or someone gets hurt.

Given the centrality of the model, what drives that model is clearly critical, yet there seems to be very little, if any operational, rigorous or academic literature based on the validity of the models apparently professional wargames employ. Indeed even professional models may well pander to popular perceptions of outcomes as the mechanics are often modified from hobby games. For example the idea that infantry derive in an increase in effectiveness if defending in wooded terrain is highly context specific, so not the absolute given most models assume. There is a body of operational/historical analysis literature that suggests infantry attempting to defend within wooded terrain usually loose and loose badly. That may well mean that some professional wargames rely on very poor models and thus produce unsafe insights.
This may seem contentious but I would like to propose some simple observations that may strike to the heart of professional wargaming.

For example, the participant or participants in a wargame that best understand the rules and how the model or models work have a disproportionate advantage. What his means is that a highly experienced and capable military commander will probably lose when playing a wargame against a civilian who happens to be a more experienced war gamer, all things being equal. This would be because the military man will fight and operate as per his real life understanding and the teenager will merely do what he knows works in the game. So for a military user of wargames the more he is exposed to the game model of combat the more comfortable and able he will become in terms of its employment. If that model his not strongly based on reality, then he will be learning all the wrong lessons and that will or could have real life consequences. The same applies to wargames used for military education, force development and/or doctrine development.
This extends across all wargames not just the professional domain. The Dungeons and Dragons players who are experts in the rules, books and the combat resolution model should and most probably do make far better decisions than people entirely new to the game who may actually be better decision makers, but lack the knowledge to inform them. The immense challenge produced by computer game AI models is not usually a product of complex tactical algorithms. Most computer game AI is tactically simplistic, but if it plays exactly by the rules, which it has to, it will simply compensate to an incredible degree for its lack of tactical acumen compared to the human player, who is unfamiliar with the detail of how the model works.

If you want to excel at any wargame, play it a lot, learn, test and investigate how the rules predict the outcomes of engagements. You will leverage yourself a measurable advantage over someone who knows less. However this will not make you a skilled commander in the real world or give you operational insights that are safe on which to base expertise or professional judgement. You will merely become an expert war gamer.
However given real world experience the same would apply in the real world. The commander who knows most about his force, in terms of how it does what it does and it strengths and limitations will be the man best able to employ that force in combat. Knowledge of your own force is literally a combat multiplier.

OK, so what? Is this not all obvious?

If it were obvious where is the discussion? Who has addressed these issues in an open forum? Why is there not more written on bad wargames and why is professional Wargaming so variable in terms of output? It seems unlikely that research agencies and armed forces that have had bad experiences with wargaming experimentation would be open about what when wrong, even if they were prepared to admit the error; which strongly suggests this subject is avoided even no classification issues exist.

Almost all wargame literature unquestioningly champions and advocates wargaming for the sake of wargaming with almost no professional rigour. The validity of the model and the rule set is simply terra incognita to the vast majority of wargamers as well as a lot who employ it professionally. The reason why many military professionals have been historically and contemporarily dismissive or agnostic to wargaming is that they simply don’t trust the models used. It would seem logical to suggest that if they thought that the combat modelling was accurate they would engage more than they do with the process. Why would they not?

So there are actually two distinct but closely related problems here. The first is that it is entirely right to be sceptical as to the validity of most wargame models or rule sets. The second is that a high level of familiarity with any rule set, in any game confers an advantage which will not translate into safe insights or professional development, unless the model used can be shown to have a high degree of real world validity.

The issue is thus the models and the rule sets. The view that all wargames have a degree of professional merit is toxic to the validity of Wargaming as both a tool for professional military development or indeed any practical military application. It is entirely valid to note that a model is an approximation of reality, not an exact replication of it. Thus the problems occur when those approximations generate false lessons that would not aid understanding or experience in the real world. That said, real world combat is so infinitely variable and subject to friction that any model will struggle yet the very nature of Wargaming seeks to address this specific issue as in to model warfare. By using models were axiomatically accept both their utility but also their limitations. Wargaming is far more the dim candle that lights the path, than the night vision goggles it is often advertised as.

So the challenge offered to those advocating the professional application of Wargaming is, why should any professional have any faith in the validity of your modelling and does their having deep knowledge of your model gain them an advantage that would not be present in the real world? If playing the wargame does not make them better at their job in reality, what is the use of doing it? To be deliberately contentious, if the good civilian wargamers, experienced in Wargaming alone, can beat experienced military commanders what does that tell you? What would that suggest?

Now the premise of this paper fully concedes that Wargaming can be and has been shown to be an extremely valuable tool, but there needs to be an evidence-based understanding of why and how we know that. For example, why would anyone use a hex-turn-based wargame instead of 1/285th scale micro-amour to address a particular point of force structure design? If the answer doesn’t lie in the validity of the model, but in the human organisational, time, budget and playability needs of the organisation conducting the work, then there maybe something very wrong. Likewise how safe are insights generated by one methodology, if they do not concur with the insights generated by a different method, approach or model, especially when examining the same problem?

One interesting aspect of comparing the validity of wargame models via comparison is both the suggestion and assertion that manual as opposed to computer based Wargaming allows for a greater understanding, and visibility of the underlying model. The counter argument is that limited time and budget means that only relatively simple manual models can be used because they simply cannot process or account for the wide variety of parameters inherent to most computer models. Manual games are forced to use inherently simple models. It seems to be a very reasonable conjecture that computer based game are actually played in a very different way to manual ones, to the extent that given broadly the same problem different behaviour and decision making would be required dependant on whether you were playing a computer based game or a manual one. This is largely to do with the number of parameters the model can process. Hex-based computer wargames actually allow this is to be investigated, as do computer games based on Dungeons and Dragons Rule Sets. If the behaviours, thus outcomes are different then this phenomena lies within the model. The issue is not computer versus manual. The issue is the veracity, thus usefulness of the model. Computer models can actually be investigated to a very high degree, although they cannot often be altered. Given simple tools like scenario editors you can investigate the behaviour of combat resolution models and/or the AI underlying the adversary decision-making or AI behaviours. Games that allow third party mods can allow even deeper levels of investigation and understanding. It could be suggested that agencies and organisations that employ Wargaming are/should be well aware his, though perhaps reluctant to engage in a conversation about. If this isn’t the case then it seems fair to ask why after 15-20 years of such games, does this condition persist? The use of computer simulations for operational analysis is a well-trodden path in defence circles.

To conclude, there seems to be little informed discussion or scientific and academically rigorously writing on what makes a good or bad wargame fit for professional use. In fact there seems to be little beyond opinion and faith based assertions that x or y models are valid and safe to employ and that professional wargames are of value regardless of the model. This is not to say professional Wargaming has no value. The right wargame applied in the right way clearly does have immense value. It merely suggests we need to get better at understanding what has value and what doesn’t.

William F. Owen 




GUWS: Sterrett on commercial wargames in professional military education (May 19)


The Georgetown University Wargames Society will be hosting a virtual presentation by James Sterrett on the use of commercial wargames in military education on May 19

James Sterrett will discuss the use of commercial wargames in military education, including selection, employment, and modification of commercial games for the classroom. Leveraging his experience teaching at the Command & General Staff College at the U.S. Army University, he will highlight specific games he has utilized in past courses and provide lessons learned for other educators.

James Sterrett is the Chief of the Simulation Education Division in the Directorate of Simulation Education of U.S. Army University/Command & General Staff College. Since 2004, he has taught the use and design of simulations and games, and supported their use in education. He also earned a PhD in War Studies from King’s College London, resulting in publication of Soviet Air Force Theory 1918-1945. He has also participated in beta test and design teams for many games, notably including Steel Beasts and Attack Vector: Tactical.

A video of the presentation is now available:

US now gaming COVID-19 potential as adversary bioweapon

“The Pentagon and the intelligence community are more forcefully investigating the possibility that adversaries could use the novel coronavirus as a bioweapon, according to defense and intelligence officials, in a shift that reflects the national security apparatus’ evolving understanding of the virus and its risks,” POLITICO’s Natasha Bertrand, Lippman and Seligman report.

Secretary Mark Esper | AP Photo

Secretary Mark Esper | AP Photo

The intelligence community has begun gaming out the potential that bad actors might seek to weaponize the virus, said three people familiar with the matter.

Officials emphasized the change does not mean they believe the virus was purposefully created to be weaponized. The intelligence community is still investigating the virus’ origins, but there is no hard intelligence or scientific evidence to support the theory that it spread from a lab in China, people briefed on the matter said.”

Afghanistan gaming assets


Although many people face lockdown due to COVID-19, there is still a requirement to carry out low-level wargaming training for the military. As a result I have made some contemporary Afghanistan assets (tokens, buildings, vehicles, etc) as transparent PNG files that you can use for free to run skirmish/RPG level games, using Roll20, Google Slides, or something similar.


Roll20 is a browser-based suite of tools that allows users to create and play tabletop role playing games, and is available free in the basic version, with a paid for version offering additional functionality. Alternatively, you can create a shared collaborative environment using Google Slides, where all participants can access the environment at the same time, alongside a video chat application like Google Hangouts or Skype.

Included in the files is an overview map of a fictitious  location in Afghanistan, and a terrain background on which to place the assets.




Professor Game podcast: Chan on GridlockED

PG.jpgProfessor Game is a weekly podcast by Rob Alvarez Bucholska (IE Business School) which interviews “successful practitioners of games, gamification and game thinking” to share “the best of their experiences to get ideas, insights and inspiration to make learning experiences meaningful.”

The latest interview (April 20) is with Dr. Teresa Chan (McMaster University), designer of the hospital emergency room management game GridlockED.

A regular day for Teresa normally involves a lot of academic work and therefore she would only be working 6-7 shifts a month, however, that academic work has now ground to a halt and she is focused on providing clinical care given the pandemic. She is also part of the medical school with medical students to teach and they’re currently receiving a virtual curriculum.

One of Teresa’s favorite fails comes from when she was trying to implement the gamification approach into her continuous learning. She had the chance to create a competency-based medical education program that had a lot of elements of gamification. Although this pilot was good it wasn’t really much considered. Now there is a national platform that was somewhat informed by this experience so although Teresa’s pilot wasn’t used it laid the foundations for the national platform. If Teresa were to approach this again, she would focus more on gaming and gamification ensuring the game is seamless, usable and intuitive. She has found all the things she learned in game design has made her a better assessment designer and something she is applying to her workplace-based assessment systems.

Teresa’s favorite success comes from her game Gridlocked. The original idea came when talking to a colleague about what she was going to do after her thesis, she spoke about how disaster simulations are often done as tabletop games, similar to a war game, and it is used to consider how they would make moves within a simulation environment. This inspired her as there is often a lot of disasters in the emergency department but was no way to get the knowledge about it without being in the emergency room itself. We went on to understand what a multi-patient environment means and how to help upcoming doctors able to handle the kind of difficulties related to those environments. The main lesson she learned was when developing a game, you need other people to develop with if you have a complex game you need a good team to back you up. Another key learning for her was that the first draft is never the best one.

She would recommend identifying what assets you have on your team as this can be greatly advantageous to your project. For example, although Teresa was competent at creating graphics, she knew that Simon on her team had a lot of experience creating infographics and he ended up being the person to design most of the actual game who was crucial.

You’ll find our PAXsims review of GridlockED here.

WATU goes digital

Occasional PAXsims contributor Sally Davis has been working on a little something (again) during lockdown. Read about what she’s done, and then try the demo at the link at the end of her blog post!



Hey look where we are! It’s the Western Approaches Tactical Unit and it’s digital and it’s an interactive story all about their marvellous work!

First challenge

Figure out the school layout from stills. Turns out, there are two distinct buildings. This ties up with the contradictory talk of WATU being based in a temporary building on Exchange Square due to bomb damage, and WATU being based in Derby House which is definitely not a temporary building (but it took bomb damage to the roof in early 42). Here’s the first pass at the geography:


And some comparisons to the real thing:


The Tactical School Duty Officer’s desk (centre) I think is actually out the WATU door (bottom right in the plan view). I think it may have a second door off-camera in front of Roberts (seated) that is the door in in the bottom left shot, between the missing wall section and the right-hand curtain/screens (there’s actually a door there, opened and forming part of the screen under the curtain. But it’s wildly difficult to tell from the available photos, so I cheated and put it behind the white wall in that photo instead.


It was looking pretty good till I added people…and then the accidentally vast length of the hall became apparent…and it wasn’t till I had my player walking around that I realised the screen peep holes are about 7ft off the ground. WATU: standing on the shoulders of giants ? (I’ll get my coat).

I’ve got a lovely pack of low-poly WW2 artwork. It’s D-Day-focused, so mostly US Army and French civvies, but it’s perfect for prototyping. I love all the period posters in it. I will be adding my own, and tidying up the gash posterisation of the WATU logo. My next challenge is to get to grips with Blender and start hacking the characters to make WRNS and RN uniforms. Not quite as simple as just re-colouring the texture’s PNG since the ladies are wearing the wrong kind of hat. I’ve posed them by pulling around their mecanim rigs, which works pretty well.

Challenge Two

How do we move? I’ve gone for an old-school point-and-click mouse adventure feel. So I set up a nav mesh and let unity worry about route planning. I hooked up the player character animation so she walks while she moves. I’ll hook up some interaction animations later on, so she talks when you’re interacting with people etc.

WATU5Blue areas are walkable. You can see a couple of snafus I need to sort out still, like you can walk through Higham. And I need to make a “look at this thing” call for when you click on something interactable. I’m still figuring out how the camera/click-to-move will work. At the moment you can’t turn her round, you have to click near her feet to make her turn to get a view of the direction you want to move her in. But I don’t really want to go first-person-shooter AWSD to move. Once I’ve got cinemachine hooked up I’ll be able to fix some of that and make it less top-down shooter and more discrete ‘scenes’ in the room where the camera pans around as you move more than follows you. That and the cut-to-dialogue shots will help balance out “I need to see where she can go” vs “but now I can’t really see what’s right in front of her.” There are a couple of places you can stand and the camera is on the wrong side of the wall, too

Challenge the Third

Let’s make this interactive. I’m using Ink for this, the interactive story engine behind 80 Days (this is a marvellous game, play it if you haven’t already!), and the Unity Ink Integration package. Ink is a really interesting scripting language meant for writers rather than coders. It’s really simple to get to grips with, and entirely focused on making Choose Your Own Adventure narratives. What’s really exciting is how well they’ve implemented the unity package, so you can write a story in Inky (a nice little app that compiles-as-you-write so you can test out the story)…and then hook it up to anything in your unity scene: the story can control game objects…or you can use game objects to control the story. The vanilla setup is to have the ink story written to a UI canvas, offer you buttons for your choices, and use your button click to tell ink the choice you made (exactly like the vanilla compile-to-html Inky output). But you can do much more awesome things with it. I’m drawing inspiration from three places:

  • The Intercept: a really pleasing but simple re-skin to suit a story set at Bletchley Park. When I say inspired by, I mean to steal the typewriter skinning (it’s under MIT licence, they encourage such things) for some of my game.
  • JRPG example: here’s a nice presentation showing off a bunch of off-label uses for ink in unity. The JRPG bit blew my mind (link to the project files at the start). I started with this and I’m slowly replacing the artwork/functionality with my 3D version. I’m going to take it further and tie animation to the choices you make, too, so if something in the room gets mentioned, say, the character doing the mentioning can look towards it (and by doing it in scripting, it’ll work for dynamic locations…so a view-giving from a Wren will point to where things really are on the plot).
  • Cinemachine‘s state-driven camera system and magical shot-blending-wizardry (I firmly believe inside this package is an homunclus cameraman) means I can use the ink story state to drive cinematic dialogue without having to create cut-scenes. My player can wander up to a character, JRPG-stylee with a follow-camera, and switch to a close-up shot/reverse-shot while they talk. My player can choose to take a view-giving during the tactical game and we’ll switch to a peephole view of the plot.

Here’s my JRPG logic so far: it’s placeholder stuff at the moment, just proving the point that I can make you steer the story by who you physically talk to rather than text-based choices.


At the moment the “game” is that you need to speak to Roberts. If you haven’t spoken to Roberts yet, everyone else you interact with will say go see him. The first time you speak to Roberts he gives you the dit and sends you off to learn about the problem. Now the other characters will speak to you. Eventually you’ll be able to interrogate Higham about his experience on convoy HG76 to win knowledge about what the U-Boats are up to. The second time you speak to Roberts he challenges you to test your theories against the tactical game.

All the -> ENDs are telling ink to yield control to unity again, and unity uses the = interact knots in the story to pick up where things left off. Here’s Higham in unity:


Higham (temporarily a pilot…he was XO of an aircraft carrier, does that count ?) and Tooley- Hawkins are waiting for you to enter the green box Trigger Volume. It’s a trigger collider, and there’s a player controller script listening for OnTriggerEnter and OnTriggerExit events. Update is listening for you to hit space to interact, and will ask ink to resume the story at the knot associated with the trigger volume you’re in. In this example we’ve got a character you can talk to. But you can also interact with the gramophone (it doesn’t cue up story, but you can put on some period music) and the filing cabinet (this is where I’m going to use The Intercept’s typewriter skinning and let you look through the red books).

In this bare-bones version the text doesn’t give you choices yet (because I haven’t implemented buttons in the dialogue box). Once that’s done you’ll be able to have conversations with people and pick what to say. I’m also going to make this context-aware text. Ink allows me to declare variables to keep track of stuff in-game, and then change the options you get and colour the text based on the value. It’s another way ink goes off-label from the book-based CYOA branching narrative; it allows you to keep the narrative fairly linear (the same stuff happens) but change who does it or how they feel about things. This is a great blog explaining the concept. It feels like the right answer for an Explainer game about WATU where you don’t want the story to go off the rails (they have to follow the history) but you want it to still feel like they have agency. Here’s the next- step in my prototyping, where Roberts gets increasingly irritated with you for talking to him but not accepting his challenge. Ink’s a bit messy down in the weeds, so I’m using yED to keep track of my game logic as I go.


Eventually I’ll have something as complex as this crime scene example. My plan is to implement a dictionary of knowledge very much like this, to track what you’ve learnt about convoy HG76. If you have noticed certain things from talking to Higham and other characters, or reading the Confidential Books, you’ll get the option to try that out in the tactical game. If you don’t know these facts you won’t see those branches of the story, and Roberts will get annoyed at you. I want to balance the game nicely so you can’t win by blind-guessing (or knowing the answers already!), and you don’t have to sit through endless chatter to learn the one thing you’re missing, and you come away having uncovered the facts without it seeming to railroad you into a linear narrative.

That sounds super-complicated and weeks-of-coding to pull off, right? But no! With ink all I have to do is come up with the text of that branching narrative. I’ve got my knowledge dictionary planned out (I’ve been red-penning the HG76 narrative, thank you Ed Butcher and the Maritime Warfare Centre for scanning the not-Confidential-any-more Books for me), and I’m deciding who/what to give the nuggets to, and what flags I need to keep track off…one of the things I want to capture about the story is how the Wrens made it work. Roberts was kind of a dick towards some people, so I intend to use that impatience tracker as a marker for how much of a yes-man you currently are. If Higham can see Roberts has been sharp with you, he’ll open up a bit more about HG76 (he was sunk out of Audacity on this convoy, it’s how he ended up at WATU, and probably why he didn’t make a good impression with Roberts).

Try out the barest-bones concept demo!

You can play the super-simple demo here (or click the WATU crest below), at …health warning: it takes a while to load, and I’ve found (at least on my Mac) you need to toggle full-screen mode to get it to work (you can toggle out again; for some reason it starts paused and won’t un-pause except by full-screen-ing). The game isn’t really meant for WebGL but it’s a convenient and platform-agnostic way to share a sneek peek.

WATU colour

Click the WATU crest to give it a try.


  • When there’s dialogue on-screen, left-click to continue the story.
  • Left-click anywhere on the floor to move (if you click on a wall it will interpret that as the floor on the other side of the way if there is any).
  • When you’re standing near a person or the gramophone, press space to interact.
  • Heads up, the gramophone plays music, so put your headphones in if you need to. (Actually, do it anyway, because the sound is spatially-aware and it’s a cool effect!)


Sally Davis 

GUWS: How to start a career in wargaming


On April 22, the Georgetown University Wargames Society will be hosting yet another of their excellent free, online panel discussions—this time on “How to start a career in wargaming.” Details and registration via Eventbrite.


Becca Wasser: Becca Wasser is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where her primary research areas include wargaming, international security, and U.S. defense and foreign policy in the Middle East. She specializes in designing and running structured strategy games for the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense. Becca is also an adjunct instructor in the BSFS program, where she teaches a course on analytical gaming. She is a graduate of the MSFS program at Georgetown University.

Jeremy Sepinsky: Jeremy Sepinsky is the Lead Wargame Designer at CNA, the Navy and Marine Corps’ FFRDC. He started at CNA in 2013 and has been the primary facilitator and designer of CNA’s Wargames since 2017, running about a dozen wargames each year. He holds a PhD in Physics and Astronomy from Northwestern University, taught University level physics for 5 years, and spent 18 months in Yuma, AZ working with the Marine Corps on Operational Test and Evaluation.

Taylor Teaford: Taylor Teaford is a wargame designer and program manager at Systems Planning and Analysis (SPA). He develops future technology focused wargames in support of the Strategic Intelligence and Analysis Cell (SIAC) within the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (OUSD R&E). He previously designed wargames at the Marine Corps Wargaming Division and is a graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program (SSP).

Phillip Pournelle: Commander Phillip Pournelle retired from the US Navy after 26 year of service as a Surface Warfare Officer. He served on Cruisers, Destroyers, Amphibious ships and an experimental High Speed Vessel. He served on the Navy Staff doing Campaign Analysis, at the Office of Secretary of Defense Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, and at the Office of Net Assessment. He is a senior operations research analyst, net assessor, and wargame designer.


If you missed the panel discussion, here it is on YouTube.

Post-pandemic scenarios


What might the world look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control? A number of public agencies, research groups, and private companies have started to offer possible scenarios. All of these can be use in post-pandemic policy gaming, so I have started a list below. I will add to it as I come across new material (and please feel free to pass on suggestions). The abstract or summary is presented below for longer and more substantial analyses.

Be sure to also check out our other PAXsims COVID-19 serious gaming resources.


Sharon Begley, “Three potential futures for Covid-19: recurring small outbreaks, a monster wave, or a persistent crisis,” STAT, 1 May 2020.

Centre for Economic Policy Research, Economics in the Time of COVID-19 resource page (2020)

Tyler Cohen, “A Vision of Post-Pandemic New York,” Bloomberg, 31 March 2020.

Deloitte, The world remade by COVID-19: Planning scenarios for resilient leaders (6 April 2020).

The World Remade by COVID-19 offers a view of how businesses and society may develop over the next three to five years as the world navigates the potential long-term implications of the global pandemic.

Our view is based on scenarios—stories about the future designed to spark insight and spot opportunity—created by some of the world’s best-known scenario thinkers. The collaborative dialogue hosted by Deloitte and Salesforce continues the companies’ tradition of providing foresight and insight that inform resilient leaders:

  • Explore how trends we see during the pandemic could shape what the world may look like in the long-term
  • Have productive conversations around the lasting implications and impacts of the crisis
  • Identify decisions and actions that will improve resilience to the rapidly changing landscape
  • Move beyond “recovering” from the crisis, and towards “thriving” in the long run

We are in uncharted waters, yet leaders must take decisive action to ensure their organizations are resilient. We’ve outlined four COVID-19 scenarios for society and business that illustrate different ways we could emerge from the crisis—and what’s required to thrive in a world remade.

Uri Friedman, “I Have Seen the Future—And It’s Not the Life We Knew,” The Atlantic, 1 May 2020.

As the United States engages in its own agonizing debate about how far to go in easing lockdown measures, I’ve spoken with people in China, South Korea, Austria, and Denmark to get a sense of what they’re witnessing as their countries’ respective coronavirus curves flatten, their social-distancing restrictions abate, and they venture out into life again. And although that life doesn’t look like the present nightmare those still locked in coronavirus limbo are experiencing, it doesn’t look like the pre-COVID-19 past either.

Here are some of the common themes

Peter Gluckman and Anne Bardsley , The Future is Now: Implications of COVID-19 for New Zealand (Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland, April 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought such issues even more rapidly to the fore. The intent of this paper is to help catalyse important conversations that are needed in the wake of New Zealand’s response to the crisis. It is clear that we will not go back to a pre-COVID-19 normality, but instead will inhabit a new normal. Issues that might have taken years to consider, may now have to be considered over a much shorter time frame. New Zealand must take the opportunity from this pervasive and hugely disruptive crisis to shape its future in an informed and inclusive way.

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Recovery of the Austrian economy following the COVID-19 crisis can take up to three years, Policy Brief #26 (April 2020).

Collaboration between researchers from IIASA, WU, WIFO, and the IHS provides scenarios of the medium-run economic effects of the lockdown in Austria using the IIASA macroeconomic simulation model. The analysis suggests that the return to the business-as-usual trend may take up to three years after a steep initial economic downturn due to the lockdown, and a gradual recovery thereafter.

International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook (April 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic is inflicting high and rising human costs worldwide, and the necessary protection measures are severely impacting economic activity. As a result of the pandemic, the global economy is projected to contract sharply by –3 percent in 2020, much worse than during the 2008–09 financial crisis. In a baseline scenario–which assumes that the pandemic fades in the second half of 2020 and containment efforts can be gradually unwound—the global economy is projected to grow by 5.8 percent in 2021 as economic activity normalizes, helped by policy support. The risks for even more severe outcomes, however, are substantial. Effective policies are essential to forestall the possibility of worse outcomes, and the necessary measures to reduce contagion and protect lives are an important investment in long-term human and economic health. Because the economic fallout is acute in specific sectors, policymakers will need to implement substantial targeted fiscal, monetary, and financial market measures to support affected households and businesses domestically. And internationally, strong multilateral cooperation is essential to overcome the effects of the pandemic, including to help financially constrained countries facing twin health and funding shocks, and for channeling aid to countries with weak health care systems.

Warwick J. McKibbin and Roshen Fernando, The global macroeconomic impacts of COVID-19: Seven scenarios (Brookings Institution, 2 March 2020)

Tim Price, “Flattening the curve matrix game report,” PAXsims, 3 April 2020.

Stephen Kessler et al, “Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the postpandemic period,” Science, 14 April 2020.

It is urgent to understand the future of severe acute respiratory syndrome–coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) transmission. We used estimates of seasonality, immunity, and cross-immunity for betacoronaviruses OC43 and HKU1 from time series data from the USA to inform a model of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. We projected that recurrent wintertime outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 will probably occur after the initial, most severe pandemic wave. Absent other interventions, a key metric for the success of social distancing is whether critical care capacities are exceeded. To avoid this, prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022. Additional interventions, including expanded critical care capacity and an effective therapeutic, would improve the success of intermittent distancing and hasten the acquisition of herd immunity. Longitudinal serological studies are urgently needed to determine the extent and duration of immunity to SARS-CoV-2. Even in the event of apparent elimination, SARS-CoV-2 surveillance should be maintained since a resurgence in contagion could be possible as late as 2024.

Dennis Snower, “Awakening in the post-pandemic world,” (Brookings Institution, 27 March 2020)

William Wan and Carolyn Y. Johnson , “Coronavirus may never go away, even with a vaccine,” Washington Post, 27 May 2020.

There’s a good chance the coronavirus will never go away.

Even after a vaccine is discovered and deployed, the coronavirus will likely remain for decades to come, circulating among the world’s population.

Experts call such diseases endemic — stubbornly resisting efforts to stamp them out. Think measles, HIV, chickenpox.

It is a daunting proposition — a coronavirus-tinged world without a foreseeable end. But experts in epidemiology, disaster planning and vaccine development say embracing that reality is crucial to the next phase of America’s pandemic response. The long-term nature of covid-19, they say, should serve as a call to arms for the public, a road map for the trillions of dollars Congress is spending and a fixed navigational point for the nation’s current, chaotic state-by-state patchwork strategy.

Herman: The Intersection of Professional and Commercial Wargaming (GUWS)

The following was first posted to Facebook by Christopher Weuve (Air Force Research Laboratory). Reprinted with permission.

On Thursday,  I watched a presention by Mark Herman called “The Intersection of Professional and Commercial Wargaming,” hosted by the Georgetown University Wargaming Society. As expected, Mark had a lot of interesting things to say.

For those who don’t know him, Mark is somewhat of a legend in the wargaming community. Mark is widely recognized within both the DOD and hobby wargaming communities, having started with hobby publisher Simulations Publications, Inc in the 1970s, working as a professional wargamer in the Pentagon for the 1980s and 1990s (including, famously, wargaming the Gulf War in the Pentagon while the initial invasion was still going on), and eventually leading Booz Allen’s wargaming division before his retirement a couple of years ago. Most wargame professionals have their expertise mostly in either the hobby or professional side; Mark’s experience puts him at the top of **both** lists. When you take into account the breadth of his wargaming efforts, he may be the most accomplished wargame professional in history.

A couple of things stood out from his talk. One is that, for a wargame, “the most important decision is who to invite.” The right players are critical.

The second was a slide that Mark put up regarding the utility of wargame. The bullet points are:

  • Wargames approximate and illuminate the human dimension of warfare. All else is commentary.” [He did not name the colleague who said this.]
  • Wargames offer the ability to observe human behavior within a conflict context.
  • Wargames are to Modelling & Simulation what Anthropology is to Mathematics.
  • If wargames had a patron saint it would be Jane Goodall, not James Clerk Maxwell.
  • An insight is a human participant reaching a first order conclusion based on experiences and information uniquely produced in a wargame.

A large portion of the talk consisted of personal examples that highlighted these points.

Christopher Weuve 

Review: Parkin, A Game of Birds and Wolves

The following review was written for PAXsims by Tim Borsilli. Tim is a teacher and lecturer based in New York with a keen interest in the use of simulation and gaming as pedagogical tools. His studies focus on the history and intersection of war games, war planning, and war fiction

Review: Simon Parkin, A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019) 320pp.

45730911.jpgThe release of a new book on historical wargaming, sadly, is a shockingly rare occurrence – rarer still one designed for a general reading public, rather than wargaming’s professional analyst class or its grognard hobbyists. This is one thing that makes A Game of Birds and Wolves, a recent release by Simon Parkin, a contributor for The New Yorker and game critic at The Observer, such a welcome respite. Within, Parkin examines the little-known Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) that operated out of Derby House in Liverpool during World War II and its contribution to the Allied war effort in the Battle of the Atlantic. Specifically, Parkin is interested in looking at how this unit was able to use war games to help develop anti-submarine tactics to counter the German U-boat effort, as well as the unusual role that the women from the Women’s Royal Navy Service (colloquially known as Wrens) played in this process at a time when women were only begrudgingly permitted to perform even secretarial roles in the armed forces.

A few things make this book stand out from others on the “serious games” shelf. The first is that, unlike most of the highly technical, scholarly literature on this topic, Parkin brings an unusual, but welcome, narrative flair to his account. This is a work of creative nonfiction, that somewhat ambiguous genre most closely associated with longform, glossy magazine pieces. A Game of Birds and Wolves largely succeeds in this stylistic approach. It’s evocative prose and source-driven dialogue recreate the tense atmosphere of a wartime Britain in desperate straits. It’s narrative admirably brings Captain Roberts and his staff of young women to life, even if Parkin must reach on occasion where it seems the historical record is a bit thin. This could well be the books greatest strength: introducing wargaming to a wider audience in a way that is both compelling and human.

Despite being targeted at a broader readership, the “serious” gamers shouldn’t sleep on this one. Parkin offers a well-researched, detailed, and personal account that – while not as analytical as some of the academic work on the same topic – sheds light on a period when properly applied gaming contributed to the Allied war effort. Perhaps most importantly, it outlines the contribution of women, a demographic group that has been historically marginalized in both military histories generally, and in the history of wargaming specifically.

From a historical perspective, the WATU games are something of an outlier in the historiography. Except for the United States Navy, which had a robust wargaming culture, the Allies used conflict simulations far less than the Axis powers. The general historical consensus has been that the Allies strayed away from gaming during the war, favoring instead the burgeoning field of operational research. Only a scant few war games were employed during the war itself, and those that were conducted tended to be rudimentary or impromptu affairs. This stands in stark contrast to the Germans and Japanese, both of whom practiced mid-war gaming to plan major operations.

What this book offers, then, is an incredibly detailed, intimate, and personal look at an instance that flies in the face of this long-held assumption. Moreover, while serval factors helped turn the tide in the Atlantic, Parkin makes a compelling case that the tactics that emerged from this unit played an important role in the anti-submarine campaign. Exactly how much is difficult to tell, though Parkin is quite bullish on the impact of the games. At the very least, the widespread dissemination of these tactics through the WATU school serves as an excellent case-study in how gaming and simulation can be a valuable pedagogical tool for exploring new possibilities and actively sharing them.

Even more unusual from a historical perspective was the critical role the Wrens played in the process. Wargaming has been, for most of its history, a male-dominated space. Obviously, as highly patriarchal institutions, professional militaries were incredibly resistant to allow women into the fold until very recently. As Parkin notes, even the British, who might pat themselves on the back for the sheer fact of the existence of the Women’s Royal Navy Service, were reluctant to allow women to perform roles of real responsibility.

This problem, however, is not limited to merely the naturally conservative armed forces. James Dunnigan, perhaps the man best in a position to know, has estimated that among the commercial wargaming community, only somewhere around 1% of active gamers are women. There have long been significant barriers to women entering this space, and despite what some have argued, these barriers are not biological, but rather social and cultural. But the culture is changing.

Today, many women have entered this formerly male-dominated space, particularly in the professional community. Slowly, perhaps too slowly, the craft is shaking off its boy’s club veneer. A Game of Birds and Wolves is an excellent book to signal the changing of this tide, and possibly introduce a wider audience to the community. With the film rights already picked up for a possible adaption by Amblin Partners, Steven Spielberg production company, this effect could be amplified.

A Game of Birds and Wolves is therefore important on a variety of fronts. It succeeds on a surface level as a stirring, well-told account about a long overlooked historical episode. Its narrative tone sets a high bar in a field that can at times be dry and academic. For those interested in serious games and their history, it provides an intriguing counterpoint to traditional notions of how the Allies used gaming, not merely for pre-war planning, but also for active training and tactical troubleshooting. And, most importantly, its centrality on women sheds a much-needed light on a group that his been systematically overlooked.

Tim Borsilli  

Review: Intervention!

Review of: Intervention! Stone Paper Scissors, 2020. £15.99

Intervention0.pngIntervention! is a game of fictional great power intervention in the modern era, designed for 17-28 players (with a control team of four). It is playable in 2-4 hours.

This is a megagame about major power intervention in a regional conflict in the early 21st Century. Silvania has severe internal problems, marked particularly by a major rebellion in the south. The important port city of Warren Falls has been taken over by the rebels, and in order to oust them, and restore order, the Silvania Government has asked the aid of a powerful modern nation, Freedonia.

In this game the players will be either on the side of the Government and its interventionist friend trying to restore the status quo, or on the side of the rebels seeking to hold on to some hard-won independence, self-determination and freedom of religion.

Gameplay focusses on planning for and carrying out the battle for control of the city, whilst trying to stay ahead politically and avoid causing too much collateral damage.

Negotiation, resource allocation and good communication all feature heavily.

This is an entry-level megagame, for a relatively small group of players. Simple and easy to understand this makes a good start for anyone wishing to experience megagames for the first time

The game is designed by Jim Wallman, the guru of megagaming, and is received a set of downloadable pdfs comprising rules, briefings, maps, action cards, displays, counters, role badges, and everything else required to run the game. The purchaser is responsible for printing these.

INT Main Map

The contested port of “Warren Falls” (or “Freeport,” if you’re a radical Daftist), looking suspiciously like Folkestone, albeit with a Buddhist Temple located in the grounds of the Parish Church of St Mary & St Eanswythe. 

As the summary above notes, the game pits two coalitions against each other: the Silvanian government and its powerful Freedonian allies, versus the Separatist movement and radical Kippists (of Determination And Freedom Today, or DAFT). However, coalition politics is a challenge for all sides, and not all interests fully align. Even within a single team the challenge of coordination is substantial, with the political and military echelons needing to work together, and the various military commanders needing to agree on an operational plan and synchronize their actions. This sort of player-driven, semi-controlled/semi-chaos is what megagames are all about.

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Teams must manage their resources carefully: Ammunition (necessary to attack), Action Points (necessary to move, and conduct other actions), and various Special Action Cards. The game uses simultaneous movement, based on Order Cards that the various military players submit at the start of the turn. Combat outcomes are based on the combat scores of the two sides, and resolved by a Results Card. Some units are more reliable, and have higher combat values, than others.


The Political Support Track of each side is essential to victory. This is affected by casualties, causing damage to (or fixing) civilian infrastructure, military victories, and control of key locations in the city. The lower the level of political support a side has, the fewer resources it will receive each turn. If it reaches zero, they begin to disengage.

The rules, displays, and various cards are all very clear and easy to understand. While the rules run to 19 pages, most of this is explanation and examples and could easily be briefed to players in 15 minutes or so. The various team briefings each are between 8 and 15 pages in length, consisting of political background and a description ofthe various roles and assets.

All-in-all, Intervention! is an excellent introduction to megagaming—and a very considerable bargain for the price. Having mastered the basics, it would be relatively easy to scale up, add complexity, or use this as a jumping off point to designing your own megagames.

Bartels: Building better games for national security policy analysis

Bartels.pngIt’s out! Ellie Bartel’s long-awaited PhD dissertation on Building better games for national security policy analysis is now available on the RAND website.

This dissertation proposes an approach to game design grounded in logics of inquiry from the social sciences. National security gaming practitioners and sponsors have long been concerned that the quality of games and sponsors’ ability to leverage them effectively to shape decision making is highly uneven. This research leverages literature reviews, semi-structured interviews, and archival research to develop a framework that describes ideal types of games based on the type of information they generate. This framework offers a link between existing treatments of philosophy of science and the types of tradeoffs that a designer is likely to make under each type of game. While such an approach only constitutes necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for games to inform research and policy analysis, this work aims to offer pragmatic advice to designers, sponsors and consumers about how design choices can impact what is learned from a game.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One
    • Introduction: Games for National Security Policy Analysis and How to Improve Them
  • Chapter Two
    • Study Approach
  • Chapter Three
    • Towards a Social Science of Policy Games
  • Chapter Four
    • Four Archetypes of Games to Support National Security Policy Analysis
  • Chapter Five
    • Designing Games for System Exploration
  • Chapter Six
    • Designing Games for Alternative Conditions
  • Chapter Seven
    • Designing Games for Innovation
  • Chapter Eight
    • Designing Games for Evaluation
  • Chapter Nine
    • Trends in RAND Corporation National Security Policy Analysis Gaming: 1948 to 2019
  • Chapter Ten
    • Conclusions, Policy Recommendations, and Next Steps
  • Appendix ASample Template for Documenting Game Designs

SWC: Wargaming gone wrong (April 16)

Event Flier.PNG

The newly-formed SAIS Wargaming Club will host a webinar on Thursday, April 16 at 1800EDT on “wargaming gone wrong,” focusing on the (in)famous 2002 US Joint Forces Command “Millennium Challenge” wargame.

Please join the SAIS Wargaming Club for a conversation on Millennium Challenge 2002 with a panel of industry experts. Following the keynote speech by Dr. Micah Zenko, author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, RAND Senior Policy Analyst Ms. Rebecca Wasser and CNA Lead Wargame Designer Dr. Jeremy Sepinksy will join him in a moderated panel before the discussion is opened to questions from the audience.

The panelists will bring the lessons of MC02 into a contemporary space by discussing leadership, game design, and adjudication issues in a historical context before they look forward to modern applications. In light of the recent crisis, agile defense planning is at the forefront of policymakers’ minds, and wargames remain an essential tool to envision modern U.S. military options.

Registration is via this link. The link to directly join the webinar when it starts can be found here.

Additional background reading:


A video of the presentation can be found here:

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