Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: November 2020

Tactical Reconnaissance – A Soviet View

I’ve added “Tactical Reconnaissance” (No. 23 of the Soviet Military Thought series) to the earlier post of books 1 — 22 in that series. Maybe of use to anyone interested in Cold War wargaming, or on how Soviet Military Thought has evolved into the current day.

Does anyone know of volumes after No. 23?

(For links to, click on the gear wheel top right of the screen and select “Download PDF” for a clean text-searchable PDF.)

Connections NL 2020

Connections Netherlands this year will take place, virtually, on 7 December 2020, from 0930 to 1600 CET.

For full details to register to the conference, visit the Connections NL website

December 7 is also the start of the Connections Oz conference, although with the time zone differences you could attend both!

Active Learning in Policy Studies in Pandemic Times: The Promise of Digital Games

————– Forwarded ————
From: Bruno Oscar Dente <>
Date: Tue, Nov 24, 2020 at 5:17 AM
Subject: Panel at ICPP5 – Barcelona July 2021

Dear colleagues,

Attached you will find the announcement and the call for papers for a panel I will be chairing together with Ixcel Perez Duran and Claudio Radaelli at the 5th International Conference in Public Policy that will be held (in person, blended or online) in Barcelona 6-8 July 2021.

If you are interested in participating either as commentators or paper givers do not hesitate to contact us. We will also be grateful if you will circulate the announcement to your colleagues who might be interested.

Thank you for your attention.

Best wishes

Bruno Dente

Honorary Professor
Politecnico di Milano
Department of Management Engineering
Via Lambruschini 4/B
20156 MILANO (Italy)

Beyond Solitaire: Gaming the US elections

Liz Davidson at the Beyond Solitaire podcast recent interviewed me on the New Yorker US election simulation. We discuss the Zenobia Award too!

You can listen to the podcast here.

Fully remote and virtual SIMULEX keeps 47-year streak alive at Fletcher

The following report was prepared for PAXsims by Brandon Daigle, Paul Pawluk, and David Kaczmarek (full biographies below), with the support of PAXsims research associate Maggie Snyder.

With only 2 months of deliberate planning amidst a global pandemic and navigating the seas of uncertainty, the first ever Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) SIMULEX wargaming experience is complete. This year’s group of Military Fellows and over 80 Fletcher School graduate students, in close partnership with the Army War College, Air War College and local area institutions, ensured the 47-year continuous chain of SIMULEX experiences remained unbroken under the leadership and guidance of Professor Robert Pfaltzgraff, who garnered resounding participant and cadre feedback as “hands down, the most immersive, fully remote, virtual learning experience I’ve participated in.”

What is SIMULEX?

Each year, The Fletcher School at Tufts University conducts SIMULEX, a major crisis management exercise where participants assume the roles of national policy makers in an international scenario. Over three days, SIMULEX exposes participants to the constraints and opportunities facing policy makers in a highly realistic, near-future quest to make the best possible decisions and associated actions. As representatives of various national and international teams, participants are charged with developing strategy and tactics necessary to achieve their country-specific goals, while driving efforts to bring the global crisis to a preferred end state ranging from world peace to all-out nuclear war. In an atmosphere of conflict escalation, graduate students from a variety of departments within The Fletcher School work alongside resident military fellows representing each service component, Boston area universities, Department of Defense, The Naval Postgraduate School and other partner agencies to learn leadership in uncertainty, crisis management, team building, adaptability, and policy negotiation skills, walking away more equipped to appreciate each component.

SIMULEX2020 Structure

While the past 46 offerings of SIMULEX were held on campus and in-person, this year, the first Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) SIMULEX2020 was conducted on Zoom, SLACK, and a closed loop communication system that fed real world injects into the simulation from real media outlets. No E-mail used throughout the exercise.  The “no-email” option was chosen deliberately, serving as a forcing function to drive players to “newer” tech solutions more representative of how peers communicate, and to streamline an innovative information flow. Additionally, in a crisis environment, communication breakdown through email overload is a real threat. A critical message can be lost in a sea of emails and there is no way to display an inbox worth of information for multiple users coherently in a single interface. Innovations such as SLACK and Zoom overcome that challenge.  In the case of SIMULEX2020, SLACK provided a real-time data picture (at the speed of a text) organizing information by topic in a searchable format. Zoom allowed the face-to-face communication required to mitigate misperceptions and confusion. Combined, both tools become invaluable in managing a fast-paced crisis.

Brandon, Paul and Dave established in a makeshift SIMULEX2020 Operations Center, (utilizing a basement on Hanscom AFB MA., Military Family Housing)

This initial communications framework was a key piece to establish at D-60 (where “D” represents the start date of the exercise and “-60” represents 60 days prior to startex). The participants were aligned to one of six country teams (~10 pax per team) representing India, Japan, United States, Taiwan, South Korea, and China. The control team, media team, closed-loop communication system, non-attribution environment, and three orchestrated moves would stimulate dynamic interaction between individuals, respective participant teams and the overall plenary session participants. One Fletcher School military fellow was directly aligned to each country team serving as advisor to help formulate strategies and provide recommendations on the role of force and the potential use of military capabilities throughout the event.

Near view is a representation of what a single participant/controller sees.   Far view is a much larger monitor designed to project key events, meetings, media releases, additional Common Intelligence/Operating Picture elements across the participants to level information flow.

A Complex and Compounding Scenario in 2023

This year, the setup of SIMULEX2020 was centered around a crisis in the Indo-Pacific region in 2023. The COVID-19 global pandemic has grown even deadlier, appearing to shape the geopolitical environment and introducing a new concept of “Vaccine Diplomacy” to actors on the global stage. The following paragraphs describe the actions that players encountered and drove their necessary strategies throughout the scenario.

Russia and China have aligned more closely, though there is collective recognition that China remains dominant. Throughout the game play and across a series of three critical moves, flashpoints occur in the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea and along the India-China border. Each inflection point occurs within the 2023 timeline and as the United States has continued to strengthen its existing political and military relationships with her Indo-Pacific allies and, in 2023, leads an aggressive formation of a global counter pandemic organization. 

Paul representing a key Russian figurehead in both persona and in language involved in a negotiation meeting with 2ndyear Fletcher graduate student Cameron Fels, who represented China.

Simultaneously, the implementation of the Hong Kong security law has ended its special “one country, two systems” status while Pro-independence forces gain power and boost widespread support in and throughout Taiwan. As these developments unfold at speed, there is an accelerated buildup of China’s military forces on the mainland, opposite Taiwan.  

Enter North Korea.  North Korea and reveals they continue to accelerate the growth of their nuclear weapons capability as a client-state of China and Russia. The situation becomes more complex when India faces a two-pronged threat from China, on its Himalayan frontier and in the Indian Ocean. The escalations and tensions rise across all fronts and support for nuclear weapons increase in Japan even as Tokyo and the United States strengthen their own security links.

SIMULEX Objectives

SIMULEX2020 was designed to intentionally extrapolate current events into plausible near-future scenarios within given time constraints throughout the exercise. The realistic stress associated with making decisions under pressure forces the participants to think on their feet creatively and with a sense of urgency. Learning is the fundamental goal, not necessarily winning. Participant decisions made throughout the game are assessed based on their articulated strategy, alignment of Ends-Ways-Means, methods of communication, and diplomatic feasibility.

SIMULEX2020 participans:

  1. Gained practical experience in developing written national strategies and policies
  2. Experienced a wide range of obstacles and opportunities confronting real-world international decision-makers
  3. Applied classroom foundational knowledge in translating national goals into specific policies with proven workable courses of action across the international system through “living” written strategy papers and practical negotiations in dedicated “virtual” rooms
  4. Encountered internal & external pressures, relationships, & proved ability to adapt to the operational and strategic environment during crisis decision-making
  5. Developed and implemented best practices for crisis communication for real-world application without the use of E-mail.
  6. Understood the benefits and limitations of simulations, virtual exercises, and wargames
  7. Focused more on “how” to think versus “what” to think

SIMULEX2020 participants met or exceeded all objectives in this Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) environment that allowed the opportunity to make mistakes, encouraged opportunities for ideas to compete and fostered an academic space that delivered a high stress yet enjoyable experience for everyone involved, regardless of role.

Six Key Takeaways From the 1st Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) Event

1) Slash cost and maximize efficiencies through available/familiar technologies

Utilizing technology (Zoom, Google Docs, Slack) allows participants to be more creative and much faster improving overall team efficiencies. By using the video teleconference capability through Zoom, each participant was able to adopt a persona (on screen personality, background screen, name, etc.) aligned with their country and position which increased aggregate participation. Additionally, this help game officials ensure the right participants were in the right rooms and conversely, there was no “spying” in on others breakout meetings although in the future, there could be a built in mechanism by which other countries can exercise the influence of their intelligence networks. By having the ability to rapidly schedule multiple events and move from one to another eased increased involvement and provided new opportunities for bi- and multi-lateral diplomatic engagement across multiple levels.  

A simulated social media feed via Slack proved extremely realistic. Incorporating participants’ personal electronic devices into the simulation provided the realism one would face in a real crisis like with the use of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. 

Zoom allowed more oversight and evaluation of the exercise with members of the Fletcher School Faculty, fellows, or advisors to easily bounce from event to event with little to no disruption to the exercise, and without having to record and save “feedback” for a final close-out session.

Developing a 1 min SIMULEX2020 video trailer early on and releasing it at D-45 across all available platforms was pivotal to generating the buzz and fostered the bulk of registrations, despite revealing few details. ****SHOW TRAILER #2**** The key is a rapid investment here early on with the dates, times, general theme, and a lot of graphics. Do not wait to have it all figured out as this is a quick litmus test in gauging the level of interest or becoming aware of other scheduling conflicts competing for the same populous.

Given more planning time, there would be value in exploring software that produces a Common Operating Picture (COP) at the conclusion of each move to display the results of their actions and tasks, associated decision and how it shapes the overall outcome of the game. If software is not possible, a recommendation would be to have the Intel/Control Team brief a situation update at the starting phase of each move.

2) Build the virtual network/framework and set up a weekly battle rhythm event

Consistent over-communication was key across the exercise design and development team. Structuring an early cross-functional Zoom planning session at D-60 set the stage for the knowns, unknowns and revealed the unknown-unknowns. A warm start rehearsal at D-02 with all involved parties served as a first meet and greet and set the stage for the following day’s full technology rehearsal at D-01. These synchronized efforts ensured players and controllers alike were equipped to begin immediately at STARTEX and kept the game on track through its entirety.  Taking lessons learned from experts in the field across many Boston based and Silicon Valley companies, the integration of SLACK rapidly helped to dismantle silos while flattening and improving every command and control (C2) aspect of the simulation.

3) Equip and establish teams to organize for purpose – get better before getting bigger

To allow participants to better understand and experience the emerging environment of great-power competition AND to maximize, optimize, and adopt US, Allied, and Partnered options (ways & means) and their limits in dealing with very plausible crises, it is critical to establish the Team to do so. Establishing a general framework to posture the teams for success should include the minimum:

  • President/Prime Minister/Dictator (can be team lead).
    • Defense Lead – responsible for Requests for Forces (RFF) generation and submission to controller.
    • Diplomatic Lead – responsible for generating any request for action related to the Diplomatic Instrument of Power and submission to controller.
    • Economic Lead – responsible for generating any request for action related to the Economic Instrument of Power and submission to controller.
    • Public Affairs Lead – responsible for developing and issuing unofficial statements.
    • Request for Information Lead – responsible for questions/answers needed to promote a given country’s strategy.
    • Communications Lead – responsible for operating Player Team Slack Channel messaging for Player Team communications. All things comms related conduit to control.

4) Design the game flexibly to absorb dynamic changes at speed and scale

 By incorporating the impact of the global pandemic, the participants were exposed to an added dilemma to consider as they developed their strategy for engagement. This variable was easily understood since each student has first-hand experience of the COVID-19 impacts and as such have seen it play out globally from a personal perspective, especially in cases where it was handled well (New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany). With other pandemic-style variables participants may only rely on historical knowledge and readings which could downplay the scale of its complexity. With respect to a three-move game, consider altering the Move 2 / Move 3 pre-determined outcomes to a free-flowing real time “develop the move on the fly” construct to allow a more dynamic experience that will simultaneously meet goals and satisfy the efforts of individual country teams. Information will flow much faster than the participants, controllers and adjudicators will be able to keep up with. This is okay, it provides another element of realism, an opportunity for exercising patience and making decisions with minimal or unclear information available.

5) Manage the crisis as it unfolds

As SIMULEX2020 played out, other global stakeholders were brought into the scenario. In cases such as these, members of control and staff teams quickly took on the role and entered negotiations with the participant countries. The learning point here is that members of the staff or control team should not play direct roles of actors that are not explicitly written into the exercise UNLESS that is their sole responsibility. For example, in SIMULEX2020, if Russia were played by 3-4 experts that negotiated with each team during the moves, it would offer a new level of realism and uncertainty to resemble real-word diplomacy dynamics. A recommendation would be to have a handful of reserve Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in reserve for potential and expected wildcards that could occur during the game.

6) Prioritize feedback throughout – Incorporate a During Action Report (DAR)

The virtual environment enhances the frequency for real time feedback and interaction across the range of participants and staff. In this role, senior leaders, mentors, fellows, and cadre had the ability to directly inject at the time and place of their choosing to deliver advice on strategy papers critiquing End-Ways-Means approaches in conjunction with how well a team was aligned with the Risk Strategy Framework. The criticality of feedback both in the written and real time negotiation aspects of the simulation ensured participants remained sharp in their strategic thinking and prioritized clearly throughout the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment.

The establishment of a During Action Report (DAR) channel within Slack, allowed for all participants to drop quick points of feedback along the way that could be expounded on later if needed. Writing the DAR comment during game play in as little or many words as desired, ensures the proper context is articulated, actions may be resolved before the game transitions to the next phase and most importantly, the comment is not forgotten at the formal call for feedback and critique.

Closing Remarks

SIMULEX2020 has proven to be a trailblazing event and has established the new standard of Fully Remote and Virtual (FRV) simulations and wargaming experience. This exercise evolution has taught that this model is rapidly scalable, fosters integration and teamwork, streamlines communication, inspires decisive action, minimizes overhead cost, and affords the environment necessary to thrive while valuing real time feedback, both positively and negatively.  

Additionally, the exercise would not be possible without the involvement of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and National Defense University wargaming communities. These communities include the Center for Strategic Leadership, Army War College; Air Force Wargaming Center, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama; Wargaming Department, Naval War College; Wargaming and Combat Simulation Center, Marine Corps Combat Development Command; Wargaming and Simulation Center, National Defense University.  The speed and dynamic nature of the simulation is a direct testament to the involvement of the parties listed. 

For more information or further SIMULEX2020 details please contact the author directly at  

Lt Col Brandon Daigle is an Intelligence Officer in the United States Air Force and has held a variety of in-garrison and deployed leadership positions.  He most recently served as the Commander of a Joint Unit at Ft Bragg, North Carolina. He holds a M.S. in Defense Analysis/Special Operations and Irregular Warfare, Naval Postgraduate School, where he led multiple wargames associated with the Arctic Environment and published his thesis on the Strategic Utility of the High North in December, 2016 using Senturion modeling and spatial bargaining theory.  He holds an M.S. in Organizational Leadership and Design from Amridge University and a B.S. in Religion from Southern Christian University.  He is currently a Military Fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Lt Col Paul Pawluk is a National Defense Fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Previously, he commanded the 22d Airlift Squadron flying the C-5M Super Galaxy. He is a command pilot and EUCOM Foreign Area Officer with fluency in Ukrainian and Russian. He has a MA – NPS,  Security Studies in Europe and Eurasia (with distinction), MA – Norwich, Diplomacy with a Concentration in International Conflict, and a BA-Wisc, Political Science, International Relations, and Russian 

Lieutenant Colonel David Kaczmarek is a Civil Affairs officer in the U.S. Army with several overseas deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa.  He has held various command and staff assignments within NATO, 18th Airborne Corps, 101st Airborne Division, and the U.S. Special Operations Command (Airborne).  He has a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Virginia Military Institute, and a Master’s Degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.  He is currently a Military Fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Zenobia Award: Underrepresented designers, underrepresented topics

The following announcement was written by  Dan Thurot. PAXsims is a proud supporter of the Zenobia Award.

History is big. So big that it belongs to everybody. Every individual, no matter their background or identity, connects to history in unique and important ways.

So why do historical board game designers seem to fit into the same mold? You know the type. White, male, straight, usually academic, often a part-time dabbler in spurious facial hair.

We’ve wondered the same thing. Which is why we’re pleased to announce the Zenobia Award, a board game design contest for underrepresented groups.

That could mean you! Whether you’re a woman, person of color, LGBTQ+, or otherwise underrepresented, the Zenobia Award is all about helping you break into the tabletop game industry. That can mean boards, cards, dice, tiles, miniatures—whatever your game requires, if it’s about a historical setting, we want to help your voice be heard.

How will we do that? Good question. The Zenobia Award is more than a fancy name. It’s a mentorship, intended to pair you with industry veterans who will help develop your game into its best form. It’s an entry point, with partner publishers standing by to discover the most interesting titles and help bring them to print. And it’s a contest, complete with a cash prize, public celebration, and genuine wooden trophy analog—that’s right, a plaque!

Is there a hitch? Nope. There’s no cost of entry, no obligation to list your mentor as a co-designer, and you keep the rights to your game—unless you sign a contract with a publisher, of course. That’s entirely up to you. Being a game designer, you know the importance of the little rules. So, take a look at the fine print over at and welcome to the Zenobia Award. 

Position: Director, US Air Force Air and Space Operations Wargaming Laboratories

The United States Air Force Academy is hiring a Director (GS12) for its Air and Space Operations Wargaming Laboratories.

The primary purpose of this position is to serve as the Air and Space Operations Wargaming Laboratories Director to coordinate education, research, and laboratory activities administered by the Department of Military Strategic Studies. Advises academy leadership on all aspects of policy, planning, project management, budget, wargaming, and research.


Manages educational activities in DFMI facilities; develops and maintains policy and operational standards for DFMI labs and facilities.

Provides assistance and training for faculty members and researchers in laboratory operations and educational activities associated with the laboratories.

Develops, directs and conducts education programs accomplished in DFMI facilities.

Additional details and the application procedure can be found at USA Jobs. More information on the department can be found here. At the time of posting, applications are open until November 23.

h/t James Sterrett

Distributed Wargaming Working Group

The Distributed Wargaming Working Group is now full, no more applicants will be accepted. Respectfully, Stephen Downes-Martin

You are invited to join the Distributed Wargaming Working Group. If interested, read on …

Covid-19 made distributed wargaming a requirement for both safety and economic reasons. By working together the modeling, simulation and professional wargaming communities can satisfy this requirement.

The Simulation and Wargaming Standing Study Group of the Simulation Interoperability Standards Organization has started a Working Group on “Distributed Wargaming”, the focus of which is to:

“examine how technical, social and design processes can exploit the advantages and overcome the disadvantages of wargaming for professional purposes in a distributed environment”

Note that by “wargaming” we mean:
“A warfare model or simulation, using rules, data, and procedures, not involving actual military forces, and in which the flow of events is affected by, and in turn affects, decisions made during the course of those events by players representing the opposing sides”
Perla, P. The Art of Wargaming, Naval Institute Press, 1990, p.274

We are looking for experts in the following areas to apply their expertise to distributed professional wargaming:

  • Wargame design and execution
  • Modeling and simulation
  • Human/machine interfaces
  • Online collaboration systems
  • Human in the loop simulations
  • Distributed simulation
  • Game psychology
  • Distributed decision making and negotiation

If you decide to join you may participate in any of the following ways:

  • Engage in online discussions on any topic that surface within the focus area of the group.
  • Write a working paper for inclusion in the final report. Your paper can be on any topic you choose so long as it fits within the group focus.
  • Comment and discuss other members’ papers and respond to comments on your own (if you write one).
  • Participate in any of several wargaming and simulation conferences.
  • Lurk and learn, and contribute when you feel comfortable doing so.

The Working Group will produce a product consisting of an Executive Summary, the refined working papers, discussion about each paper and other topics, and an integrated bibliography. The objective is to produce a useful resource for the simulation and wargaming community. All contributors retain intellectual property rights to their contributions but grant the Working Group unrestricted rights to post their material as part of the Working Group product online and distribute it widely. For an example of the kind of report we will produce see:

If you wish to join, please email me including either a link to your online bio or a copy of your bio, and let me know your general area of interest in the working group focus. Thank you.

Stephen Downes-Martin

Ludogogy: The wargames issue

A special issue of Ludogogy (November 2020) devoted to wargames is now available.

The issue includes articles on “The Personal Benefits of Wargaming” (Martin Domville), “The missing introduction to wargaming experiences” (Natalia Wojtowicz), “The Re-popularization of Commercial Wargames” (Maurice Suckling), “Gamification of Strategic Thinking with a COTS boardgame” (Thorsten Kodalle), “EdUTeam Wargames – Table-top wargames to train business school students” (Philippe Lepinard), “Start on Day 3: Liminality in High-Stress Wargames” (James ‘Pigeon’ Fielder), “Wargaming: The Challenges of Preconceptions “ (Anthony Sharman), “Business Wargaming….for an uncertain world” (Matt Stanton), and “From Battlefield to Boardroom….. and back again!” (Chris Paton).

GlobState III conference

The Doctrine and Training Centre of the Polish Armed Forces will be hosting a virtual conference on global strategic analysis on 16-20 November 2020.

The aim of the GlobState III conference is to establish a platform for discussing new developments in security environment analysis and operational research, principles of war and operational art, and emerging approaches to the conduct of operations. The conference is organized under the umbrella of the NUP 2X35 campaign of future security environment analysis grouping the military and academia into a cooperating community of interests. In 2020, due to the challenges of the pandemic, the conference will be held online, only. We hope that the conference will be a source of valuable knowledge and inspiring discussions for all the participants.

The conference themes include:

  • principles of war/operational art;
  • future security environment and operational environment/forecasting and simulation of changes in the security environment;
  • strategic foresight analysis and military operations research methodology;
  • geopolitical changes in the 21st century;
  • real and potential areas of military rivalry of states;
  • instruments for resolving contemporary armed conflicts;
  • space as a new domain of military operations;
  • threats and activities in cyberspace;
  • challenges of new technologies on the modern battlefield;
  • armed forces in the state security and policy strategy;
  • organizational and technical transformation of the armed forces;
  • multi-domain operation/battle vs. joint operation;
  • information war;
  • crisis management operations;
  • future military leadership.

I will be speaking briefly about the use of wargames as part of a larger panel on strategic analysis. You can get a sneak peak at my presentation here:

You will find further conference details and registration information at the GlobState III conference website.

Women’s Wargaming Network

The Women’s Wargaming Network, launched by Yuna Wong at Connections US, now has a home at, where you can subscribe to connect with other women wargamers, and share your WWN-related news, events, and opportunities.

The Women’s Wargaming Network is open to anyone who identifies as a woman, professional and hobby wargamers alike. Our mission is to help women thrive in professional wargaming. It is not enough merely to survive as a woman in a male-dominated field: our goal is for women to bring their authentic selves, the full range of their talents and abilities, and their own vision and ambition to professional wargaming.

Our aim is to hold at least one zoom meeting a month. If you would like to present, have ideas about who you’d like to hear from, topics you’d like covered, or content you’d like to provide for the webpage, sign-up and get involved. We plan for events to be a mix of for-women and open-to-all (ie an opportunity for women to educate the wider wargaming community).

The Women's Wargaming Network logo: a black queen with two D6 dice

You can read more about the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in wargaming here.

Gaming a contentious American election

Not a real headline—one of the slides from the game.

Back in mid-October, I co-designed and ran a “contested US election” matrix game for The New Yorker Radio Hour in which we examined what could go wrong after election night. Due to an unexpected problem the segment never aired, but it was a terrific game. So, with polls starting to close and as everyone waits for the actual American election results to come in, I thought I would say a little about it.

At the time the game was held, fears of a US election running off the rails were very real. Indeed, the highly regarded Crisis Group—which usually reports on places like Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, or Nagorno-Karabakh– even put out a report on managing the risks of US election violence:

As the 3 November U.S. presidential election approaches, the country faces an unfamiliar danger. While Americans have grown used to a certain level of rancour in these quadrennial campaigns, they have not in living memory faced the realistic prospect that the incumbent may reject the outcome or that armed violence may result. That has changed in 2020 because of the emergence of risk factors that would spell trouble in any country: political polarisation bound up with issues of race and identity; the rise of armed groups with political agendas; the higher-than-usual chances of a contested outcome; and most importantly President Donald Trump, whose toxic rhetoric and willingness to court conflict to advance his personal interests have no precedent in modern U.S. history. The risk of unrest may ebb and flow as the final days of the campaign unfold, but it is almost certain to remain, and it will increase if either side forms the impression that the vote has been rigged.

Our scenario envisaged a tight race in which much depends on the counting of mail-in ballots—something that advisors to the Trump campaign acknowledged to the New York Times was a distinct possibility:

Trump advisers  said their best hope was if the president wins Ohio and Florida is too close to call early in the night, depriving Mr. Biden a swift victory and giving Mr. Trump the room to undermine the validity of uncounted mail-in ballots in the days after.

Another report added:

In his last days of campaigning, Mr. Trump has essentially admitted that he does not expect to win without going to court. “As soon as that election is over,” he told reporters over the weekend, “we’re going in with our lawyers.”

Trailing consistently in the polls, Mr. Trump in that moment said out loud what other Republicans have preferred to say quietly, which is that his best chance of holding onto power at this point may rest in a scorched-earth campaign to disqualify as many votes as possible for his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

If there is a clear-cut outcome on Tuesday night that could not plausibly be challenged via legal action, all of the planning on both sides could become moot. But if there is no decisive result, the following days would likely see an intensifying multifront battle fought in a variety of states.

After months of claiming that any election outcome other than a victory for him would have to have been “rigged,” the president used his final days on the campaign trail to cast doubt on the very process of tabulating the count, suggesting without any evidence that any votes counted after Tuesday, no matter how legal, must be suspect.

We weren’t the only ones to game out what could go wrong in the election, of course. The earlier work of the Transition Integrity Project has already been discussed at PAXsims.


The game ran over two days. On each day there were two matrix turns planned, for a total of four (November 4, November 9, November 16, and mid-December). In practice we abandoned matrix game procedures for the last turn, and free-styled it in a lively series of moves, countermoves, and open discussion.

There were six main sets of actors:

  • Donald Trump (including the Trump Administration, Mike Pence, and the Trump/Pence campaign)
  • Joe Biden (including Kamala Harris and Biden/Harris campaign)
  • The Republican Establishment (Republican Members of Congress, Republican Governors, Republican state legislators, former Republican elected officials)
  • The Democratic Establishment (Democratic Members of Congress, Democratic Governors, Democratic state legislators, former Democratic Elected Officials)
  • The Extra-Establishment Right (QAnon conspiracy theorists, militia members, Proud Boys, right-wing social media trolls, OAN, InfoWars, police unions, etc.)
  • The Extra-Establishment Left (Black Lives Matter activists, Antifa activists, left-leaning celebrities, progressive social media, etc.)

In addition, two other actors could take actions when called upon or otherwise appropriate, as well as contribute to the broader discussion:

  • The Courts (Supreme Court of the United States, other federal and state courts)
  • The Military (Joint Chiefs of Staff, State Adjutants General, senior military commanders, intelligence community)

All were played by New Yorker writers or others with appropriate expertise. Adjudication used the assessed probabilities, whereby after an action had been proposed by a player and discussed, we polled participants (via a Zoom poll) for their view of the likelihood the action would be successful. We used this to establish a probability against which we then rolled percentage dice. Since all of our participants could reasonably claim to be subject matter expertise on the game topic, it worked very well.

The scenario described a very close election, in which everything hinged on the outcome in Pennsylvania.

The early count had Trump ahead, but mail-in ballots were still being counted and these were breaking two-to-one for the Biden campaign. It seemed likely—unless something happened—that the Democrats would eventually come out on top.

This is, of course, the worst possible scenario, which is exactly why it was the one we gamed. A unambiguous Biden or Trump victory wouldn’t pose the same risks to political stability.

The voting graphs here were dynamically linked to a Google spreadsheet, so they could be easily changed during the game.

The briefing sheets all outlined essentially the same situation, but were very much tailored to the world-view of the actors. The Biden briefing, for example, noted:

Once again, polls underestimated public support for President Trump. In late October, moreover, the President announced a successful  COVID-19 vaccine—though the medical establishment is divided on whether the vaccine in question is efficacious enough for widespread distribution. In several states, voter suppression tactics by Republican-led administrations may have cost the campaign tens of thousands of votes. As a result of all this, the Presidential election has proven to be much closer than expected. 

On election night the Biden/Harris campaign lost in both Arizona and Florida, and won only narrowly in Wisconsin and Michigan. 

Pennsylvania has emerged as an electoral battleground. 

In Pennsylvania, the President is currently ahead. However, according to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, mail-in ballots can still arrive for three more days (until Nov. 6th). Between COVID safety precautions and teams of lawyers challenging every ballot, a long count awaits.

Pennsylvania’s election was beset with irregularities. On election day and during the counting, groups of (often heavily-armed) Trump “poll watchers” have intimidated voters and officials alike. We’ve heard unsubstantiated reports about missing mail trucks, which some on the right have fixated on as proof that mail-in voting was somehow rigged.

A legal challenge about whether these ballots (which are expected to strongly favor Biden) can be counted is on its way to the US Supreme Court. 

The Republican-controlled Legislature in Pennsylvania has said that unless a winner is declared by December 1st, it will award the state’s electors to Trump (one full week ahead of the deadline to name electors). State Democratic legislators have threatened to relocate to West Virginia to prevent a quorum. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf (D) has vowed that Pennsylvania will not name electors until the full election results are certified by Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar (D). 

President Trump is  ahead in the national vote by a small fraction. However that lead will certainty be reversed as mail-in ballots in places like California get counted. 

Democrats seem to have narrowly captured the Senate, but three races are essentially too close to call. The new majority will not be seated until January 3rd. Democrats have kept control of the House.

Amy Coney Barrett has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. Barrett has cleared her hearings in a party line vote. Mitch McConnell has vowed that she will be confirmed by the Senate. 

Encouraged by the President, right-wing activists and militias have mobilized, with some arguing that force might be used to prevent a peaceful transfer of power. Several liberal justices have requested enhanced security measures in view of this growing threat. 

The number of COVID-19 cases is sharply on the rise once more. Some 300,000 Americans are projected to die by February, a total which could rise to half a million if the President and some Republican governors are successful in further easing restrictions, mask mandates, and other public health measures. Expert consensus is that, despite the premature President’s vaccine announcement, widespread vaccination will not be possible until the late summer.

Conversely, the Trump briefing spun the situation as a Trump victory that would be stolen away through absentee ballots. For its part, the Extra-Establishment Right briefing warned:

America now faces perhaps its greatest DANGER since the Revolution. The Deep State and communist agitators are CONSPIRING to overturn the election results. The President has signalled that he needs OUR HELP to defeat this conspiracy. #WWG1WGAWe have information that the Democrats plan to flood the count  fraudulent Biden mail-in ballots, previously harvested by their activists. Before the election, Antifa anarchists stole several mail-trucks containing blank ballots. Local officials in some Democratic-controlled districts also rebuffed poll-watching and ballot security measures undertaken by patriotic groups of Americans freely exercising their 2nd amendment rights. Clearly they had something to hide.

As previously noted, we ran this as as a matrix game over Zoom, with a deck of Google slides used to update the players with the current vote count, news stories, legal deadlines, and other information. Using Google slides in this way it was possible for me to share them with the players, while other members of support team modified future slides behind the scenes to reflect new developments. You can see them here:

In the past, I’ve found matrix games a bit ponderous online—people simply just aren’t as efficient at online discussion and you lose the ability to easily have multiple side conversations during game play. I must say, however, that the team put together by The New Yorker were outstanding. I think this had a lot to do with most of them being journalists, and most having substantial television or radio experience—a setting in which you rarely have more than a minute to answer any one question and only six or seven minutes in the entire segment to get your broader analysis across.

Game Summary

The game started with President Trump complaining vociferously about mail-in ballot “fraud,” a narrative that was much amplifed by the Extra Establishment Right (including faked videos of supposed wrong-doing). The courts were not very responsive to such complaints, however, seeing no evidence of widespread or systematic abuse and preferring to leave the status quo intact in the midst of vote-counting.

The White House escalated by ending federal law enforcement to (federal) post offices and mail sorting centres in Pennsylvania for “security” purposes and seize ballots and look for evidence of the alleged fraud. It was a bit late, however—but this point almost all the ballots were at (state/county) counting centres. Moreover, the (Democratic) Governor of Pennsylvania responded by deploying Pennsylvania State Police to vote-counting locations. As tensions rose the Extra-Establishment Left organized peaceful candlelight vigils. These soon grew to a national campaign.

As the vote started to shift decisively to the Biden campaign, Pennsylvania Republicans considered assigning their own set of electors for the Electoral College. That initiative was unsuccessful, however, with too many members of their own party finding it a step too far. Had they been successful, the Democratic establishment was thinking of responding in kind in other states.

Biden has pulled ahead.

Given the failure of efforts in the Courts to stop the counting and with Pennsylvania Republicans unwilling to override voters, President Trump’s Twitter feed became even hotter and more voluminous. Police resources were increasingly overstretched by the need to safeguard vote counting centres and keeping an eye on vigils. There was some low-level violence and arson attacks, but the risk of something more serious couldn’t be discounted. As a result, Pennsylvania decided to call up some National Guard units to assist the police.

There was growing concern in the Pentagon about how this might all play out. Indeed, efforts had made to assure any military response would be slow and deliberate, stalling for time if necessary and trying to stay out of the political fray. Concerns grew further when the President started to tweet about federalizing the National Guard too, putting soldiers in the position of having their Commander-in-Chief seemingly at odds with their Governor. Pennsylvania National Guard commanders were careful in which units were called up and where they were sent, focusing on those that were known to have good discipline and calm, level-headed commanders—a tacit acknowledgement that some in the military might handle a fraught situation worse than others.

At this point, Russia dramatically stepped-up social media and other digital activities with the intention of further escalating tensions and possibly provoking more widespread violence. In response, the Pentagon took the decision to retaliate with limited offensive cyber attacks against certain Russian internet capabilities. The White House was not consulted in advance on this, with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs arguing this was an immediate defensive response by United States Cyber Command that required no prior approval.

As tensions grew, the stock market started to tank. It also became apparent that the Supreme Court—even with the addition of Amy Coney Barrett—was not going to intervene in the election tally in the absence of actual evidence of fraud. With this, many key Republicans (including many major Republican donors) became concerned at the growing potential for violence, political chaos, and economic crisis . Some reached out to the Democrats to see whether Biden campaign might offer political inducements (such as a promise of no “court packing”) to secure Republican endorsement of the election process and outcome. Biden was under pressure from the left of his party not to agree, but he was inclined to hold firm anyway. He had very much stayed the course throughout, counting on the process to work while the Democratic Establishment mobilized legal and other resources to fight for every vote cast.

And so the game ended, with President Trump still tweeting angrily from his bunker beneath the White House, National Guard, federal law enforcement, and State Police deployed across Pennsylvania, sporadic acts of limited violence—but a transition to a new Biden presidency seeming largely assured.

Whether the political divisions and fractures caused by the process might afflict the United States in the coming years remained to be seen.

Final Thoughts

After it was all over, some participants said they felt reassured that the process and institutions had indeed worked. To me, however, it rather felt like careening down the hairpin turns of a steep and narrow mountain road in a car with no brakes. Sure, it’s great to arrive intact at the bottom of the mountain at the end, but it is also worth remembering how close you came to careening over the edge of cliff. There were several points in the game where things could easily become much worse.

In practical terms, it was one of the best matrix games I’ve taken part in: thoughtful participants, great discussions, and useful insight. At the time of writing this, I have no idea how prescient it might be—but let’s hope the actual days following November 3 are rather less contentious.

Game Review: Enter the Spudnet, or How Potatoes Taught me Cyber

Sometimes a light touch, and a bit of humour can make complex topics very accessible.

Enter the Spudnet is an innovative, and fun, learning game from the studio that brought the coding card game, Potato Pirates, to life. Despite its comical approach, Enter the Spudnet truly is a serious game in a brilliantly accessible disguise.

Played across a network of shipping ports, players must fulfill their 5 potato orders while playing ability cards to benefit themselves or harm others’ shipment or structures. Further complicating the potato fulfillment process are bot “ships” who collide with player shipments and destroy them, overload warehouses, and generally cause mischief.

The analogies to cyber are clear from the moment you open the game board. Each map is organized into interconnected, coloured networks (shipping lanes) of nodes (ports) each with its own IP address. The map is immediately recognizable as a network diagram with a wink to its pirating theme.

Players can place firewalls, blocking travel to others, and play cards like Trojans, Ransomeware, 301 Rediects and so many more. There are 40 of these ability cards, with a cyber explanation for each in the clear and concise manual.

Play can be competitive or cooperative, with each game style giving rise to its own strategies and approaches.

As players move their potatoes (think data packets) across the shipping network they will be faced with all the network hinderances (502 bad gateways, static routes…), navigating inconvenient firewalls, and frustrating connection slowdowns when warehouse nodes get overloaded.

While this teaches cyber security at a higher level – no one will become an instant cyber expert playing this game – it brilliantly illustrates concepts, and introduces the player to those hacks, workarounds, problems and possibilities of the cyber realm. As discussion and emphasis is placed more and more on multi-domain operations this fun, approachable game provides a gateway to understanding a piece of the sometimes arcane concepts of cyber security.

Playable by 2-6 players in 30-60 minutes, with high-quality components, I can think of no more approachable introduction to a very serious topic.

Tom Fisher
I can be reached at if you want a more detailed account.

Review: Hedgemony

Hedgemony: A Game of Strategic Choices (RAND, 2020). USD$250.

First of all, let us be clear that there is no typo here: RAND’s recently-published game of strategic resource management really is called “hedgemony” and not “hegemony.” There’s a good reason for that, too. In Hedgemony, the Blue side is preoccupied with allocating scarce resources, investments, and actions to counter challenges from Red. Much of this involves what international relations scholars call hedging: that is, using a mix of military and economic resources to both balance and engage, while trying to avoid costly large-scale conflict.

Hedgemony is a designed to be played with up to six players (or teams of players) divided into two sides. Blue consists of the United States and its EU/NATO allies. The Red side consists of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. The game also requires a White cell (game control, adjudication, and facilitation) of 2-4 persons. A game would typically take a half or full day. You can see RAND’s nice promotional video below

The game sequence functions like this:

  1. Red signalling. Each Red player chooses up to three investment or action cards that they might play this turn. They then brief these possible actions to the Blue side.
  2. Blue investment and actions. Have been briefed on possible threats, the Blue players decide what actions and investments they will make. Although they too have cards, they are not limited to these and may propose other actions and investments (to be adjudicated by the controller). The US will also have to spend resources to sustain its desired level of readiness.
  3. Red investment and actions. Red may now to choose to play any or all of the cards that they signalled at the start of the turn, provided they have adequate resources for this.
  4. Annual resource allocation. Players gain new resources based on the scenario and developments within the game.
Some possible Russian investments: new military forces, investment in national research and development, and arms sales to third countries.

In any phase, the White cell may inject international and domestic events, selected from an event deck or crafted for the scenario and current situation. Finally, they summarize the state of the world based on the most recent gameplay, thus setting the stage for the next turn.

Some EU/NATO events: interoperability problems, terrorism, refugees.

Key to the game is the struggle for “influence points,” which largely define success or failure. Various actions (or responses to events and actions) tend to increase or decrease each players influence.

Some international events: an earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia, Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, and growing tensions between India and Pakistan.
Some possible North Korean actions: a submarine-launched ballistic missile test, nuclear assistance to Iran, and an incursion in the DMZ. The Blue player must decide how to respond to these, and the outcome usually results in a gain or loss of influence points.

The board is divided into theatre zones, conforming to the US system of combatant commands. Because this is a strategic game focused on national resource allocations and theatre-level capabilities, military assets are abstracted to “force factors.” There is no differentiation of land, air, maritime, cyber, or space assets. However, forces do have a modernization level, which shapes their effectiveness for military operations. The game also tracks national technology levels, as well as certain critical capabilities (such as C4ISR, special operations forces, long-range fires, nuclear capabilities, integrated air and missile defence). There are also special rules for proxy forces.

The China display board, with two actions (Belt and Road initiative, economic cooperation in Africa) and one investment (building a permanent overseas base in another region) signalled.

Hedgemony comes with an extensive rulebook, player’s guide, and glossary, all of which are available as free downloads from the RAND website. There is also a game board/map (27’x36″), markers for forces, indicators for national displays, information displays and place tags for each actor, quick reference charts, and dice. The game materials are generally of very high quality. The force markers are rather small (and with very small printing on them), however. They are also laser-cut and rather sooty—I had to frequently wipe my hands when using them to avoid transferring black carbon smudges to other game materials. If I was using Hedgemony regularly I would probably invest in some plastic chips and laser-printed round labels to make them all a bit more substantial.

The game board and some of the (itsy-bitsy) force factors and dice for scale.

At the time of writing, the pandemic precludes a proper playtest: to do the game full justice you really need a dozen people in a room for a few hours discussing resource allocation and strategic options. However, I had the good fortune to take part in a few moves of the game via a Zoom call with the RAND designers and others. I liked what I saw.

Hedgemony is very much a serious game intended to spark thoughtful discussion on strategic issues, rather than a game designed for hobby play. The game strikes a good balance between the structure of a rigid, written ruleset and opportunities for more freeform adjudicated improvisation. If I were running a session I could even see switching to a quick round of matrix game-style argumentation to resolve actions outside the written rules and cards.

You do, however, need controllers and facilitators who know what they are doing. While the action and investment cards are clear enough, some of the resource bookkeeping could get a bit confusing for players, and they probably need to be talked through how the combat adjudication charts works if they have never seen a CRT (combat results table) before, especially given the need to take force modernization levels into consideration. It might be useful if RAND were to post a a “how to” video showing a full turn of game play to help those who are thinking of using it.

For my part, I will certainly be using it in my conflict simulation course at McGill University when we return to regular teaching next academic year.

Researcher looking for interviewees on games-based learning

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