Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Turning Tides

The following article is written by Betsy Joslyn, a Research Associate for the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division for the Institute for Defense Analysis. Her game research and design has largely focused on great power competition, mis/disinformation, and risk literacy. She received a Master of Science in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy at American University’s School of Public Affairs. In addition, Betsy served in the Peace Corps in Zambia working as an aquaculture specialist. 

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2014, identified that international cooperation was essential to the discussion on global threats posed by climate change. In April 2022, the IPCC finalized the third part of the Sixth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. This report reiterated that international competition and cooperation is a critical enabler for achieving ambitious climate change mitigation goals. “Accelerated international financial cooperation is a critical enabler of low-GHG and just transitions, and can address inequities in access to finance and the costs of, and vulnerability to, the impacts of climate change.”[i] Despite the emphasis on international cooperation, IPCC notes that more international cooperation is required, sooner rather than later, to meet climate objectives by 2050.

When looking at what is needed to establish international cooperation for climate change, government bodies take a few things in mind: popular support for climate treaties and the costs of participating in such treaties. This game is meant to emulate international cooperation in climate change action while balancing popular opinion and costs.

Turning Tides is a microgame designed to demonstrate competing interests between powers to reduce global greenhouse gases (GHGs) at a geopolitical level. This is a highly accessible game that is easy to learn and can be played in under 1 hour. 

Design Approach

My approach to designing the game was centered on both the theme and the central mechanic of negotiation.  I’ve always loved the combination of cooperative and competitive style games like Lord of the Rings designed by Reiner Knizia and Dead of the Winter designed by Jonathan Gilmour and Isaac VegaIn these games, players are faced with a common foe that can only be defeated together, however, each player must weigh group survival with individual objectives that at some point in the game may compete with the interests of the group. 

As a wargame designer, many of my games focus on great power competition at a strategic level where different teams are forced to work together to combat some threats while also ensuring that their countries come out on top at the end of the day.

When given the chance to design a microgame that professionals could use, I knew that this “cooperative and competitive” style mechanic would be the central piece to gameplay. 

In terms of the theme of the game, I wanted to design a microgame that would bring value to the field. Something we are discussing in the national security apparatus, but are also struggling to translate into relatable terms. 

The purpose of this microgame is to understand the dynamic of competing interests between powers to reduce GHGs at a geopolitical level. Gameplay is meant to highlight the necessity for international cooperation, while also showcasing how difficult international cooperation actually is. As players are weighing the importance of negotiation, they must also balance economic pressures for growth – which often produce greenhouse gases – as well as achieving and maintaining popular support from the people. Each player has been given different climate and popular opinion objectives. While some elements of objectives may overlap, the lack of universal strategic goals creates significant external tensions between the players.

As a microgame, this design demanded simplicity. However, the features used in this game are meant to be viewed as commodities that can be leveraged by the players to exercise diplomacy. Though no model is 100% accurate, this game is meant to provide a useful model that surfaces the ability of players to discuss, negotiate, and strategize actions that will result in the survival of all, and the targeted benefit of one. 

Design Challenges and Compromises

One of the biggest challenges I faced when designing this game was aligning the internal validity of the game to the external validity of the theme. As it stands, the game mechanics are balanced to surface the challenges each player must face when leveraging group survival with “winning.” However, the winning conditions that I have set for each player, as it pertains to climate goals, are not based on a specific report or country specific objectives. In addition, my reduction of greenhouse gases from 100% to 0% by 2050 net growth is not quite realistic; “tech” is a blanket term that refers to green technological advancements in renewable energy, batteries, and carbon storage; and, all countries start with the same amount of funding that has equal status. Each of these game features have core internal validity to the balance of the game and the ability to negotiate. 

Team PRC: From left to right: Nolan Noble, Sarah Williamson, and Web Ewell grin manically as they prioritize tech investments over global negotiations

However, there are many other elements to climate-related international cooperation that are not represented here. One of the original design mechanics I stripped was an international summit that took place at the beginning of every turn. The U.S. and the E.U. were required to attend the summit, but the PRC was not. The U.S. and the E.U. would have to find incentives to offer the PRC in order to attend. If PRC chose not to attend, they were forced to work unilaterally until the next summit while those who attended the summit would receive increased impacts for a successful reduction roll. In the current version of the game, players have noted that there is little incentive for the PRC to negotiate with other players. Though this is realistic feature of the game, an important lesson of the game is to emphasize the necessity to negotiate, not just the fact that negotiation is hard. To address this challenge, I gave the PRC an Active Player Bonus that only works when negotiating with another government to reduce GHGs. At least 3 times in the game, the PRC may gain an additional popular opinion point (POP) when working with another government to reduce GHGs. Though PRC may not “care” about GHG reduction, they do care about global influence, especially if it means having more than the U.S. In this way, PRC could be convinced to work more with other governments if they’re getting a bonus out of it.  

Team EU: From left to right: Peter Perla and Doug Jackson deliberate on a potential negotiation to offer the US on lowering GHGs

In addition to edits made to Active Player Bonuses, the role that technology and popular support has played in the game has gone through many iterations. During a few feedback sessions, I was encouraged to bolster the external validity of the game by adding more detail to what the tech icons represented, and the different abilities that tech could host as the game progressed. I became too focused on this detail and I realized 3 things: the additional detail made the game even more susceptible to external validity criticism, the detail distracted from the original lesson of the game, and the detail was consuming far too much of my limited white space. I ended up removing the augmentation and returned to the original, simpler, depiction of tech. 

Team US: From left to right: Gino Saad and Andrew Olsen weigh the consequences of lowering a GHG outside their objectives while gaining global credit for the effort.

POPs became a focal point of contention for many players. Originally, I wanted popular opinion to be domestic element for each government. In this capacity, the U.S. and the E.U. were given victory conditions to gain certain popular opinion metrics, while the PRC was not. However, the game also features an “attack” ability where players could construct information campaigns to harm other government’s popular opinion. This element suggested that popular opinion represented global influence rather than domestic ones. If that was the case, the PRC would care about popular opinion as a victory condition. I decided to redefine popular opinion as international influence and provide PRC with their own popular opinion victory conditions. Rather than having each player obtain a certain number of POPs, I took a page from the game Hedgemony: A Game of Strategic Choices designed by Michael Linick, John Yurchak, Michael Spirtas, Stephen Dalzell, Yuna Huh Wong, and Yvonne Crane, and set the popular opinion victory conditions to world order conditions. The U.S. is trying to have more popular opinion than anyone else, the E.U. is trying to have equal or greater popular opinion than the U.S., and the PRC just wants to make sure that the U.S. does not have the most popular opinion. 

Despite the need for simplification, I did find that the probabilities of reduction rolls needed to be more complex.  Feedback I received suggested that it was just too easy to reduce GHGs. Originally, increased funds dedicated to GHG reduction dramatically increased the probability of a successful role. To make it slightly harder to reduce GHGs, I created the table below so that increased funds still increased probability of success, but not a dramatic as before (see split probabilities when paying $4-$6).

I have witnessed an array of gameplay strategies for Turning Tides, which is something I love about it. After at least 10 playtest sessions, I have seen only 1 session where all players lost. I have witnessed each of the governments chosen in the game win multiple times, which leads me to believe that the game is not weighed towards one player. In addition, I’ve also seen the game end anywhere between 45 minutes to 2.5 hours. Since the core mechanic of the game is cooperation and competition, this game relies heavily on table talk. This is not a problem if you’re interested in the topic, or enjoy competitive style games. However, this game might not be appealing to players on a time crunch or who want more strategic complexity with less bargaining breaks. The final edit made to the game addressed the pace of gameplay. By observing gameplay, I noticed that the game pace tended to slow down between turns 3-7 as the structure of the game became easier to comprehend and the pressure to negotiate seemed far off. Incentive to work together is largely influenced by one winning constraint: By Turn 10, if there are least 2 GHGs in the red zone, all players lose. To spark additional incentive to negotiate quicker, I introduced a punishment marker at Turn 5: If all 4 GHGs are still in the red zone by Turn 5, all players lose 2 POPs (which will affect probability rolls). 

Despite the challenge of aligning the internal validity of the game with the external validity of the theme, I feel that this game, designed under the parameters required of a microgame structure, have accomplished a useful and balanced model.


The lesson I want this game to teach changed over the period of game design, which resulted in about 17 design redos over 2 months. I feel confident that the current game mechanics, simplified as they are, target the complexities and sacrifices required for international cooperation to take climate action despite the external validity gaps that remain in the design. 

Moving forward, I would say that the audience for this game is very broad. Turning Tides could be used as an educational tool to increase climate change literacy and awareness, a professional ice breaker, or even a hobby game between friends who have no interest in the topic. Although the game is simple, players looking for more of a challenge are encouraged to design their own objectives cards that represent different countries and governments. 

I designed this game with no prompt or guidance from a sponsor. I never realized how hard it is to design a game when you don’t have a client who is looking for a specific lesson to be highlighted. This process reinforced for me that game designers MUST start with a question before they can jump head first into design. 

A special shoutout to GUWS faculty advisor, Sebastian Bae. His feedback, suggestions, and ineffable ability to put me out of my comfort zone have been a necessary driving force of this game design process. In addition, I would like to thank the individuals below who took time out of their busy schedules to playtest my game and share key feedback:

  • Peter Perla
  • Web Ewell
  • Sarah Williamson
  • Andrew Olson
  • Doug Jackson
  • Gino Saad
  • Nolan Noble
  • Volko Ruhnke
  • Peter Joslyn
  • James Sterrett 
  • Jonathen Turner 
  • Tom Vielott
  • John Miller
  • Julia McQuaid
  • Sophia Chang 
  • Evan D’Alessandro
  • Joe Schmidt
  • Emerson and Sue Joslyn
  • Ethan Queen
  • Tom Plant 
  • Matthew Heidel
  • Will Trimble

I hope that whoever plays Turning Tides will enjoy the simplicity of the overall game design and appreciate the complexities that such a game is meant to surface. 

Betsy Joslyn

[i] “Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Summary for Policymaker.” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. April 2022.

One response to “Turning Tides

  1. Tracy Johnson 04/12/2022 at 10:15 am

    Speaking of “Turning Tides”, at a Junior College (which I was allowed to audit free as a senior citizen), I took a beginning Engineering class. I was no compunction to get a good grade since an auditing student doesn’t get any. I took a different approach to my term paper and presentation.

    I took on the problem of rising sea levels. So I wrote the paper on building dykes. I turned the paper into a faux investment proposal. If the sea levels were rising invest in a dyke building company! I showed diagrams from various dams, dykes, revetments and their construction methods.

    In the presentation, I handed out each student $10K play money notes from an old Rail Baron game and asked if they would invest it in my new dyke building company “Guys Building Dykes Seawall and Revetment Company”. Those who were willing to turn in their $10K play money note got a faux Stock Certificate.

    Now this interests me on turning this into a game. I’d probably do something like Acquire, with dyke building companies competing for seaside real estate.

    P.S. Copy of my term paper on request.

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