Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


James Vaughan (Ndemic Creations)

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

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

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

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


Who plays Rebel Inc?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Quick little review of 7 Ronin

7 Ronin. Badger’s Nest. Game designers: Marek Mydel and Piotr Stankiewicz.

Great game!

Okay, the review is slightly longer than that. 7 Ronin is a new 2 player board game of simultaneous moves, fog of war and incomplete information by Piotr Stankiewicz and Marek Mydel. I managed to squeeze in a couple games in a long overdue gaming session with my buddy Aram a few days ago and he managed to pick up his rare stateside copy of the game in Seattle. The premise for the game is basically the film Seven Samurai. One player takes the role of seven “good guys” (tools of the authoritarian regime) who are protecting (extorting?) a community against up to 50 bandit/ninjas that are attacking (liberating?) the village. I won’t get into the mechanics of the game too much, except to say that each player assigns their units (ronin or ninjas) on a secret board and then reveals where their units are, there are a few tactical choices depending on where they’ve deployed and then the effects are tallied. The ronin try to run the clock out by either surviving 10 turns or killing all the ninjas. The ninjas win if they control five village spaces or kill all the ronin. For a more complete review of gameplay, take a look at this nice review from Space-Biff.

Rather than talk about the gameplay, I’d like to spend my rare blog post ink on the value the game could have to our community. As it is, the game is already an elegant, quickplaying (30 minutes), easy to learn and fun to play model of asymmetric warfare. I could see it being used as a quick introduction to the basic principles for a non-military professional audience. They would learn a lot about guerrilla tactics and the fog of war and have fun doing it. There is slightly more narrative and story to the game than the excellent but abstract Guerrilla Checkers from Brian Train and less complexity than the brilliant games like Andean Abyss or Labyrinth by Volke Ruhnko, which, though very good games for wargamers, may be too complex for a non-gaming audience to learn. See Rex’ excellent post on A Distant Plain and some reflections on some other recent asymmetric wargames. As a big fan of elegance in game design and simplicity in execution, this game won me over quickly.

But in writing this review, I can also see two more uses for this game in the classroom:

  1. Unpacking and exploring narratives in conflict. As I alluded to above, the stereotypes of “protector” vs. “bandit” found in Seven Samurai and perpetuated in its ilk in cinema and in other games like this one (see Stronghold, men defending against “creatures” and Shadows over Camelot, knights (men) taking “heroic actions” against the shadows), are based on narratives of, yes, men, protecting the vulnerable (usually women, but 7 Ronin has one (1) female ronin!), from the darkness and the other…. Unfortunately, the other defend games like Stronghold and SoC are too long to use in a classroom exercise. But I could see real value in constructing a quick rule set for two opposing players that describes their own side – depending on how the rules are written, the “ronin” could have been hired by the villagers to protect them or sent by the despot to conquer the village or simply there to extort their own rents. The “bandits” could be bandits, or liberators. Either side could be recast as men or women. Their relationship with the people of village could be written in a variety of ways. It would be fascinating to hear the narratives that would develop from the game play depending on the background briefs provided to each player. The game designers have already explored this narrative and viewpoint concept a little, by providing each player with a planning mat that reflects their position – the ronin have a nice silk-painted mat on which to plan, the bandits have a rudimentary mat sketched in sand and marked with stones.
  2. Modeling local development priorities with competing interests. The game is so simple and so elegant, it could easily be recast as a PRT in a complex environment game with 2 (or 3?) sides, demonstrating the complexity of development and meeting local needs in a fragile setting. One side could play the role of a PRT or other “comprehensive approach” development actor, attempting to “clear, hold, build” in a complex setting, while the other player takes on the role of insurgents (liberators?) attempting to interrupt development and stability, and/or create their own stability through local law or autonomy. A third player could be the village, trying to survive, perhaps leaning toward helping one side or the other as the promise of stability and safety becomes more meaningful. As it is, the game has a lot of these features – the ninjas can insinuate themselves among the community to increase the rate at which they can enter the village, targets for the insurgents are the well, the granary and the path which all have different effects on the effectiveness of the ronin and the bandits — modelling, perhaps, winning the hearts and minds of the host community. A student of Iraq or Afghanistan would already see much in the metaphor of the Seven Samurai – with a small amount of tweaking it could be a very instructional game.

7 Ronin isn’t a perfect game – I think it is really tough to get the bandits up and running and it takes a full play before the icons make any sense/are intuitive – but it is near perfect for what it is. I’ll pick up a copy when I get a chance and I hope to hear about it making into a classroom. Who knows, maybe I’d even design the PRT variant… stop laughing, Rex.

Returning from the Contested Crescent

Tim Wilkie as President for the Contested Crescent Sim.

It only took me a Metro Ride and about four hours of observation to visit the US Embassy in Iraq and get a first hand look at the US response to the ISIL threat, courtesy of the nice folks over at Strategic Crisis Simulations / Insight Simulation Services LLC. On a beautiful Autumn Saturday they were running a simulation for 77 student participants at George Washington University modeling how the US National Security Council might develop a containment and response strategy for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). They invited me to act as a mentor/observer for the humanitarian/ development/ diplomacy actors along with 16 other subject matter experts to act as mentors and observers for other offices. Though I have visited the Embassy and various Ministry offices in Baghdad, I was hardly qualified to mentor on diplomacy or statecraft in the region, but was happy nonetheless to comment on the actions within the simulation and the simulation itself and will continue my pontificating with some further reflections on the simulation experience and the simulation engine here.

If you haven’t seen it in action yet, the Insight Simulation Engine is an intriguing and powerful piece of software that could be a very useful engine for running professional simulations for large groups. Basic functionality is what you might expect for running a sim: it includes messaging between participants and control, submitting actions to control and automating information releases and injects (to all or some participants), as well as a nice map interface with various views depending on security clearance and the fog of war. Actors have drop down list of actions, depending on their office and role and Control can quickly review submitted actions and approve them – determining what the effects are from that action, impacts on the map, responses from “non-player” actors, etc. With a lot of the built in functionality that a game master needs, preloaded documents, files and multimedia, controls on who can interact with whom, pre-programmed injects and scripted actions and reactions, the engine can deliver the realism and complexity needed for a truly immersive world. Another nice feature was the built in analytics, some results are shown in the figures that follow below, showing activity over the course of the four+ hour sim (representing the month of November in simulation time).

It should be acknowledged, though, that pulling off a sim of this scale comes with a price beyond the engine – the school kindly allowed Strategic Crisis Simulations to use more than a dozen classrooms and halls and the team running the thing was 14 hard-working and dedicated folks, “writers” who had clearly put a lot of work into developing the sim and delivering it, serving as control as well as playing the parts of various red and green party actors (Iraqi government, Iran, Kurdish regional government, ISIL). Watching them in action was not unlike watching a play from backstage, sure, there were actors playing out scenes in person and online, but there were also stage managers running around and making sure things were proceeding according to plan and on schedule, even one of the directors delivering rationed cookies purchased on a thin budget to people too engaged in the sim to take a break for food. Also, they had asked along 17 mentors and observers, all more qualified than me, who donated their time to advising the students in role and out.

And the simulation didn’t go off without a hitch. There were a couple misunderstandings within Control that led to vagaries or odd results from the 350 actions attempted and 728 messages sent during that day that confounded the players and were, unfortunately, distracting, including Iran kind of accidentally capturing a town near the Syrian border in an effort to save an operative and ISIL trying to make a small feint to distract joint forces command and create unrest, but instead somehow creating a foothold in Shia dominated area of Iraq.

But these were minor glitches in an otherwise very successful simulation. What was truly amazing about the simulation is that it was well-written and challenging enough that all of the 77 participants were really, really engaged, whether they were acting at the most tactical level in theatre in the Embassy or the Joint Forces Command or at the most strategic level putting together the national security council plan for the president. I observed a number of rooms and there wasn’t a single one where any of the participants were not actively engaged with their own challenge (whether it was sending drones out on strikes, negotiating where a refugee camp would be located or unpacking the semantics of what “boots on the ground” in the President’s speech really means). Some of this was selection bias – people that signed up for the sim weren’t getting course credit that I know of, they chose to dress up in their suits and roleplay government policymaking indoors on a rare cool, crisp October day in DC, but the design of the sim engaged those participants for the entire day and they stayed actively engaged through the debrief.

One side note on role play. In observing the official visits from the Ministry of Interior and Sunni Imams to the Embassy, I appreciated that the simulation organizers had set up independent actors to play these roles. Though I have to say that I think the actors playing these roles may have been a bit overwhelmed by their responsibilities in the sim to actually deliver the nuances of political economy demanded for their roles – there was absolute trust from the government and Imam actor of the US Embassy and pretty high (and rather unlikely) willingness to cooperate and share information, despite a number of alternative incentives that might prevail, from personal interests to distrust of the foreign hegemon to simple fear for their own safety for meeting with the US. Still, as Tim Wilkie (mentor/observer playing the President for the sim) and I observed on reflection during debrief, this best case scenario for the sim demonstrates how hard all this work is even when everyone is cooperating and one doesn’t have to worry about corruption and ulterior motives – this is as easy as it gets and it is still really damn hard.

In the end, the NSC developed and delivered a plan by their 5 pm deadline (end of fictional November), but there was still huge divergence between the Defense and State vision of “best response” and the intelligence vision. I have to say, I was much more swayed by the players from the intelligence community’s interpretation of both the situation on the ground and their assessment of the likely outcomes of any of the US interventions leading to sustainable peace in the region. True to real life, all three actors, State, Defense and Intelligence (if I can lump all of the various parts of these actors together) were using the hammers they had at their disposal and picking the nails they could do something about, often neglecting the nails (or screws or hinges or Johnson rods or whatever hardware metaphor works best) that were really necessary to reach a workable solution vis-à-vis ISIL and/or a sustainable peace in Iraq and Syria. As an American who worked at the World Bank for a decade and now works for a Swedish think tank, it was culture shock to see what a Washington conversation this was – the UN and the rest of the world as actors were little more than an afterthought to the development of the plan by the actors (and seemingly in the simulation) – but perhaps that is more realistic than my worldview?

Lastly, I should note that you can get a glimpse of the Insight engine on the website linked above, but you can only really see it in action at one of the sims. The developers have made it proprietary and I wonder how this will play out – I don’t know the business model they have in mind or the market they envision for their engine, but this run of the simulation demonstrates that the value in the engine is as much in the context and knowledge of those running it as it is in the programming. The folks behind Insight will need to figure out how they package subject matter expertise, knowledge of the way the world works and wisdom about actors and effects that complement the engine during a sim to be successfully packaged for export to other trainings and analytical exercises. But there are a bunch of smart people working on this and they definitely have the energy – looking forward to seeing where this engine goes.

If you’d like more information about Insight or the Strategic Crisis Simulations Group at GWU or if you would like to attend future events as a participant, observer or mentor, you can contact Scott Chambers.

Last 10 hours to get in on the Twilight Struggle Digital Edition on Kickstarter

I finally got my act together and pledged on the Twilight Struggle Digital Edition Kickstarter. With an entire 10 hours left in the campaign! What, me, procrastinate?

If you didn’t know already, Playdek and GMT have teamed up to bring Twilight Struggle (a two player game of the Cold War) on to pretty much every platform available: PC, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android – about the only thing you won’t be able to play it on is your garage door remote – maybe that is the last classified stretch goal?

I love Playdek’s near flawless execution of Lords of Waterdeep, so I am delighted to see them delivering this great game, and Jason and Ananda always deliver high quality content, so this is going to be a win for everyone. Plus you get a lot for your money with these pledges, so it is just a good deal all around.

They’ve hit nearly all the stretch goals – the last one to meet in the next 10 hours adds strategy guides and Chinese and Korean language translations. Won’t you help our Asian gamer friends join the Struggle?

Review of Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2012)

Freedom: The Underground Railway. Academy Games, 2012. Game designer: Brian Mayer. $70.00.

It has been awhile since I could game and I was looking forward to trying this cooperative experience, so when Aram suggested we get together for dinner and some Freedom, and Julie agreed to suffer through it and Deb was on board, I was delighted we’d get a chance to play “Freedom: The Underground Railroad“. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a cooperative game, for 1 to 4 players, about the abolitionist movement in the antebellum American South. Players take on roles in the Underground Railroad, trying to move slaves from plantations in the South to freedom in Canada. If you’re not familiar with the actors, Aram is my gaming buddy, conveniently located around the corner and always up for a good game. Julie and Deb tolerate us both, Julie spends most of her time tolerating me and Deb is tasked with tolerating Aram. We started the game a little late, so the review below might be affected by how tired we all were, though it was no doubt positively influenced by the great Indian food, the good hospitality from Deb and Aram and the great soundtrack that Aram put together for the event.

Basically, the game revolves around moving slaves (wooden cubes) along four or five waypoints on a dozen paths, while slavecatchers move semi-autonomously across the paths, around the border between North and South. In the easy game, for four players, you try to save 22 slaves without losing 20 (and there are some other particularly pernicious victory conditions). If the slavecatchers end in a city with a slave, they send them back to the slave market. Meanwhile, every turn, tragically, a new shipment of slaves floods the markets in the south. You see, if you can’t move slaves out of the plantations fast enough, the supply outstrips the demand and slaves are “lost”. The poignancy of calamitous waves of “excess supply” of humans and the subsequent losses weren’t lost on the group, three lawyers, three of us with economics degrees. It is a tough subject to model in a game and kudos to the game designers for making it playable and interesting with such a difficult subject matter. In any event, with cooperative planning, players attempt to fundraise and gather support for the abolitionist movement (what better place than Capitol Hill to lobby and fundraise?), while using precious few actions to move slaves up the paths, all the while avoiding the slavecatchers. Each of the players has a role and commensurate strengths (a la Pandemic), I was the shepherd and it was cheaper for me to take the tokens that could move slaves, Julie was the station manager and could stop the slavecatchers from moving, Aram was the financier and rallied most of our support, Deb’s power was buying cards cheaper.

I’m going to cut to the chase – we lost. It is a really tough game, we seemingly made only a few minor mistakes early on and we ended up getting completely overwhelmed by the slave markets and the constant flow of slaves into the plantations in the south, to the point that we had to choose at the end between rallying support for the cause or getting people out of the plantations to make room for the next slave shipment. We needed both to win, but it wasn’t clear we could accomplish either. No doubt once the group knows better, they can do better (just happen to be listening to this while writing that line). But, I don’t want to spend a lot of this post on the play by play and I want to be clear, as a game, I think it is a good one, there are lots of interesting choices and it has a nice design (if you want a nice review of it is a board game, look here). But I want to focus on what I think is most interesting to our audience here at Paxsims: the educational merits and how that affects the link between theme and game design.

So, to me, Freedom is a game about building a movement, building support and fundraising to accomplish a collective goal. It delivers some of that. The tension between getting slaves actually moving to safety and “using” slaves in northern cities to rally support for the cause through financial support is strong, it reminds us that good intentions alone are insufficient to accomplish the noblest of goals (yes, you get more money for the cause bringing a slave through New York than you get routing them through Detroit). It also delivers lots of historical information through the cards. So would I recommend it as an educational tool for a classroom or family trying to better understand slavery?

Probably not.

Again, I think it is a great game, as a boardgame. If you are tired of Pandemic and want to play a challenging co-op, this is a great alternative. But I found the physics of the game, interesting as they were (basically careful strategizing about how to move slaves to pull slavecatchers and avoid capture), distracting from the theme. Players spend much more time thinking about how to move slaves like checkers to maximize fundraising and control the slavecatchers then they spend celebrating freed slaves or worrying about who might get caught (from a random die roll). Yet, the story of the Underground Railroad is so powerful – it wasn’t a calculated, centrally controlled logistics challenge of how to move people, it was real people taking real risks, deciding whether they could trust strangers to lead them to safety, or whether they wanted to risk their own lives to help others. It was subterfuge and conspiracy and concealment and hiding in barns and grasping for a few hours of refuge after walking 20 miles a day to safety. I felt very little of these tensions while playing.

Meanwhile, in the real world, there were real people, slavers and plantation owners and “decent folks” engaged on the other side, publishing notices in newspapers and sending bounty hunters and packs of dogs to reclaim their property. Maybe I’ve been a social scientist for too long, but I flinch at efforts to reduce adversarial human behavior to predictable response paths and random action (insert joke about economists here, Rex). I’d prefer to see an adversarial game where slavecatchers are working against the Railroad and both “sides” are trying to outsmart each other.

Maybe my critique is just because it is a cooperative game, built against difficult odds and a stacked deck as cooperative games have to be. I’ll definitely try the game again, but I don’t think it will ever be as satisfying as it would be knowing there were people on a red team in the next room playing “Oppression: Preserving our Way of Life”, deciding how they were going to move their bounty hunters on rumors of my slave on the run and whether they were going to use their profits as plantation owners to lobby Congress to pass the Fugitive Slave Act. In a classroom, I’d rather see students taking on these roles, choosing when to run, when to pursue, trying to sustain a plantation, investing in a risky movement. Maybe that subject matter is too difficult for a game, but maybe a game isn’t the right vehicle, then, for that subject matter?

Stepping up the Game in Raleigh – conclusion report

We had a few beers on the evening before the last day of the course, as simulation leaders and facilitators will do. We were considering how far the syndicates have come and where we wanted them to go. We agreed that the teams were playing it safe and that most of the participants needed more challenge. At the same time, we didn’t want to lose people who were still learning basic concepts of the comprehensive approach. How to push the participants’ game to the next level, late in the game and without losing some of the players, with only two hours left of exercise?

As you’ll recall, though things had been going from horrible to very horrible for a long time in Raleigh, the precipitating event for the scenario was a dirty bomb that exploded on a passenger plane, killing all aboard and many in the terminal. That passenger plane was a national carrier for a major (world?, hegemonic?, super-?) power in the Atlantic, one that had long committed policy to eliminating all WMD threats.

To step up the game, we (coaches, facilitators, senior mentors) decided that a power like that might respond unilaterally, indeed, we figured such a power in our fictional world might have a predilection for going alone. So we introduced a whole new element, including time pressure and some new outputs for the last scenario session:

SOF have been inserted over night, fleets have been mobilized, marines are on the way and will arrive in less than 48 hours. It is a punitive action and will not be pretty, it is not expected to have any permanent, positive effect on development in Raleigh. You, advisors to the NATO SG, must take what you’ve deduced about the the underlying causes of the decline of the country and prepare a short (max four slide, five minute) briefing to the NATO SG on why/how a comprehensive approach should be undertaken – something the SG could use for an informal discussion with the President of the superpower. If convincing it might just avert a further destabilizing invasion or redirect it into something more positive. You have two hours, go and prepare this briefing.

20130714-120616.jpgIt was a bold experiment, I commend Sandy and the other coaches for risk-taking. It could’ve easily been too much to ask and there were times, in my group at least, where the resolve was flagging. They still needed to build a coherent vision for their plan and with this change up we were forcing them to do that and polish it into something short and presentable to senior policymakers, make it catchy and compelling.

It was an unmitigated success. We got all four teams to present extremely high energy, short presentations with lots of clash from our senior advisors acting as SG and military command. I’ll repeat that, we got four high energy, short presentations in which the entire room was interested/engaged on the fourth day of a long and complicated training course – we did not get rambling 20 slide presentations with several asides about the process. No one was checking their blackberry during this final session – it was that good.

And this carried right into the debrief, rather than “another thing we have to do”, Sandy very ably pivoted the discussion right from the substance to the process, because people still wanted to talk and share (and still had their dopamine and adrenaline going). I was delighted to see a simulation deliver like this, using the fictional storytelling to drive participants to really step up their game. Kudos to my NATO hosts for another successful delivery of the CA course.


Thoughts on facilitating someone else’s simulation

20130710-181205.jpgWe determined a few years back that our family crest should read “What you oughtta do…” – (in Latin: quid te oporteat facere – what you must do, but I actually prefer the English or American if you like, which is more a suggestiopn). My brother and I (and my folks) simply can’t eat at a restaurant, stay at a hotel or visit a website without coming up with some improvement or suggestion for making it better – I am sure it is quite annoying to people who are just going about their job. As a result, it isn’t easy for me to facilitate a simulation for someone else and thought I’d post some reflections from the experience for consideration.

I’m acting as one of the “syndicate coaches” for the Raleigh Simulation in the NATO Comprehensive Approach Awareness Course, an effort to teach NATO officers on designing a strategic response to complex challenges like fragility and instability. The fictional country of Raleigh (New Zealand dropped in the middle of the Atlantic) is beset by secessionist rebels, overwhelmed by organized crime and trafficking, overrun by migrants heading from Africa to Europe and, yesterday, the world’s newest target of anti-globalization terrorism in the form of a passenger jet blown up at the airport and a popular Minister killed in a suspicious plane downing. The NATO Secretary General has determined that the environment is too complex for a simple military response and has asked a small group of advisors (course participants divided into four parallel syndicates) to put together an assessment of the crisis, possible steps that could be taken by both national and international actors to improve the conditions in Raleigh and avoid it descending into a failed state.

The exercise itself is not dissimilar from the Carana exercise we use for our strategic planning course at the Bank as identifying “Lines of Operation” is the military equivalent of identifying post-conflict needs and the kind of strategic planning necessary for a multi-donor/ integrated/ joint (comprehensive approach) response to a problem. At the end of the week, syndicates prepare presentations of their work and there is a peer and expert advisor (generals, ambassadors) review of the work.

There are lots of things that the simulation designers have done well and I don’t want my thoughts here to be read as criticisms, rather as observations. Also, to their credit, I’ve been given a lot of latitude for interpreting instructions and freedom in coaching my syndicate. Running someone else’s simulation, though, I’m very conscious of what I’d do differently and the freedom we (I include Rex and other contributors on this site) enjoy as simulation designer/leads. Here are a few reflections from this side of the design table:

20130710-190103.jpgIdentity: Our group spent some time cycling through their findings and recommendations because they weren’t sure “who they are” – are they themselves brought together to advise or are they senior NATO advisors or are they non-aligned global advisors thinking about recommendations for the NATO Secretary General? It turned out the latter was the answer, but I wonder whether roles and some background information for each of the participants would’ve avoided this confusion? Often designers avoid role play, especially with professionals who are not expected to “play along” but roles are very useful for motivating discussions and avoid the downtime. I’ve never heard a complaint about a simulation having “too much role playing” but maybe others have?

Structure and Workload: It just doesn’t stop – my group has produced a dozen flip chart sheets and nearly 30 slides over 2 days and they are still going. Part of this comes from the template from the simulation design, open ended questions with no limits on the answers. This results in little censoring. I personally prefer a more structured exercise with clear outputs in small stages, but this approach produces a lot more output and allows more free-thinking. Two versions of an issues assessment reflect some of that output – the circle ended up being a very useful way for the group to show the relationship between root drivers of conflict, issues and impacts on the population (and not all the way I would’ve done it).

20130710-181222.jpgStatic vs Dynamic: The background history and documentation for Raleigh is deep and richly textured and there are a variety of interesting and complex global, regional and national stakeholders, so there is plenty of immersion in the simulation. There were questions early on whether there would be inserts during the simulation, and the leaders hinted that there might be, but there were none, and nobody complained. It is, after all a lot of work and changing conditions and new and changing information could be very distracting from the strategic exercise. Again, I would do it differently, but maybe this is the right way to cover all this ground.

These are just some reflections from a fictional island state. As I said earlier, they aren’t criticisms, just reflections on design choices for your consideration.




Heading back to Raleigh and Fjordland

I am in Brussels and have been invited back to the troubled island of Raleigh by NATO and will be facilitating one of the syndicates over the next few days, more from the mid-Atlantic, Internet permitting.

A useful article with which I completely disagree

Following a conversation over a few glasses of wine this last weekend about player types with Julie and my friends Aram and Deb, Aram sent along this article on GameDev about Bartle’s Taxonomy.  I really appreciate all the useful links in this article, but I think the author has rather missed the point.

Bartle's Diagram

Bartle’s Diagram of Player Types

No one expects that a “typology” of player types is going to perfectly reflect the variety of personalities in the “real world” of game players. Like all models, Bartle’s typology is a useful thought exercise for approximating the types of folks that play games.   It could be useful to designers who are wondering if they’ve missed anything glaringly obvious about their design or the players they are appealing to.  The conclusion that “Bartle’s player types theory mostly (and perhaps only) applies to MUD games” seems completely unfounded to me, it applies to other game and game types to the extent that it is a useful description of those who play that game.

In any event, the article is very useful for anyone thinking about game design and player types, so I recommend it for a quick refresher on recent thinking in gamification.

Crisis Response – from your brains to print ready

Typical card from Crisis Response

A sample card from the game. You can draw this and 50+ other cards and use them to save lives in Crisis Response.

While preparing a short elective course on strategic coordination in crisis response, I was inspired by our discussion at Connections on the Haiti GameLab design challenge and started putting together a very simple card game that I’m currently calling Crisis Response (though other name suggestions welcome!). During a whirlwind week of travel (and a few moments of rare relaxation), I managed to playtest the design with five different groups (some policymakers during the course, some colleagues at work, and some other friends).Some quick reflections on what we’ve learned so far playing the game:

Coordination is difficult – Beyond just deciding who plays what cards, the game also reflects other coordination challenges: Different timelines (the foreign military leaves after five rounds), different capacities of actors (who draw from different decks), sequencing issues and the trade-off between investment in future capacity and current delivery. Even with really good gamers, coordinating and planning as much as possible, we’ve made a few mistakes that really hurt us later in game.

And people don’t make coordination any easier on themselves – While I don’t give very much instruction on how the group should play together (other than not letting them take back a card that has been played), it is interesting to watch players:

  • resist sharing their cards (many naturally keep them face down and need to be told by other players to share),
  • play cards quickly because they can do something and contribute, even when it would be better for other actors to play the same card,
  • resist playing cards because others tell them to do it (interpersonal dynamics affect even game play, project that on to real life),
  • ignore the effects of other people getting knocked out of the game until it is far too late – in one of the games, players actually laughed at the national government when it was knocked out because needs hadn’t been met – only to complain three turns later that they couldn’t play enough cards…

It is useful:  Having people play a game, think about the cards they are playing and the dynamics of the game, think about how they would improve next time (everyone, so far, has been interested in playing a second time, though time often didn’t permit), and why the game was designed as it was, has led to some thoughtful discussions about the challenges faced in coordination (see quote below) and a better understanding of the roles, capacities and objectives of the actors involved in crisis response.

I was the foreign military, and though I could’ve done anything, I realized halfway through that I needed to let the national government do what it could or it wouldn’t work – course participant

I don’t consider this at all a “finished” design – curious to hear what PaxSims readers think of it and would recommend.  One thing it is definitely missing right now is instructive and flavor text – the italics included on a few cards is representative, but would be great to hear from SMEs on a sentence or two for each card, what should each card teach?  Obviously, the game could be developed in a lot of directions, including a development expansion we discussed, which might help us all to better understand the tensions between coordination humanitarian response and development.

You can print everything from the PDFs linked below (you’ll need around 125 3″ x 5″ note cards, have a few extra onhand in case you have printer feeding errors). You’ll also need 3 friends so you can play all four roles (NGOs, national government, foreign military, UN) and some markers (I use little plastic blue counting cubes) to represent supplies.


Playing Cards – Humanitarian, Security and Diplomacy Decks, Role Cards and Cardbacks

Needs and Insecurity Cards 


New America event in DC on kids, gaming, education and new technologies

For those in DC, the New America Foundation, as part of their “Future Tense Now” series (cohosted with ASU and Slate) will have a lunchtime discussion on “Getting Schooled by a Third Grader: What Kids’ Gaming, Tweeting, Streaming and Sharing Tells us About the Future of Elementary Education”.  Details here.

Not super relevant to peacebuilding but I was struck by the overlap between the questions they are asking their panel and the reflections that Wheaton is posting about in his 5 Myths of Game Based Learning Series.

Speaking of which, here is an update:

Myth 1: Game Based Learning Is New
Myth 2: Games Work Because They Capture Attention

Report from Caranas #39, 40 and 41

Just returning from another delivery of Carana in Nairobi – our 13th delivery of the core course and 14th class of Caranas (or our 39th, 40th and 41st parallel universe Caranas). We had a very good group of students, the whole range of expertise and seniority in the Bank, from junior staff on their first assignment to some managers and senior team leaders, resulting in a tremendous amount of exchange between students. This is an important feature of the success of the course – our course participants often don’t realize until the end of the week how we’ve tricked them into helping us to teach their peers through the simulation and other group work. If we were to ask them in advance to teach their peers, we’d get a few hours (if we were lucky) of powerpoint dumps of varying quality, but for the course we just stick the participants in the fictional (yet fairly realistic) world of Carana. In the simulation, the participants need to apply their knowledge and they can actively debate policy and practice with just a bit of guidance from us – ending up training each other very intensively for four days.

The recovery plans for this group of Caranas were basically “okay” – no major missteps, no massive failures, one of the teams resorted to using the military to break the coal strike, a few lingering security issues persisted that could go horribly wrong, one group completely ignored the threat from the Presidential Guard despite repeating warnings. For this delivery, our fearless troupe of SimMasters (Marcelo, Anne, Alys, Sarah and I and Khadija in training) agreed that we got a particularly technocratic response to the issues – basically the teams ignored a lot of the ethnic tensions, their roles’ own personal motives (patronage networks they represent, personal incentives) and the history of the country (that got Carana into the civil war) in favor of recommending the kind of blanket solutions we, the international community, often push – demobilize to hit some target, often with disregard for the composition and purpose of the resulting army; treat elections as a milestone to hit rather than a national discussion and opportunity for reconciliation; provide health and education for “development as usual” and build roads and get the infrastructure repaired so that the economy can get going again, regardless of who benefits (again, often ignorant of the drivers that led to the conflict). This happens a lot in Carana – while we give people roles with backgrounds that connect them to particular ethnic groups or even personal incentives for malicious behavior, we rarely can replicate in the simulation the kind of cross purposes or even antagonism that we see in real life. In that respect, I think we fall short a bit in our simulation in tapping some of the real power of “role-playing”.
As we rarely get a “really good” plan, these outcomes generally serve as teaching moments. Even with the best of intentions and cooperation, this kind of work is difficult.

Map of the 8th Continent

Map of the 8th Continent used as background “color” in Carana deliveries

That is, despite the tendency of people to “play nice” in the Carana simulation and work well together to come up with a plan, even the most technocratic and cooperative solutions are often inadequate to resolve the issues. I think this is partly by design (everything is a priority and there are insufficient resources to do everything), but also partly because a really good plan requires a deep understanding of the underlying drivers of conflict in the simulation. In effect, a cooperative and congenial atmosphere often results in the players ignoring the deeply divisive issues the plan is meant to resolve. Rarely do players step back and consider the ramifications of their interventions. Will their plan result in continued disenfranchisement of the West and South? Have they resolved the tensions around control of the diamonds and timber that were the principal source of financing for the rebels? Have they neutralized the threat of coup from the ousted president who still has links to loyalists in the military? Even after 40+ Caranas, we’ve yet to see a recovery plan that really considers these types of questions and provides “real” answers.
More than 400 people have visited Carana (not including the UN, African Union or AusAID deliveries), and we have extremely positive responses. I continue to believe it is a valuable teaching tool and intend to use it for many more courses to come, but I’m concerned that we’re still missing the mark on simulating the kind of contentious environment that exists in a post-conflict or fragile, highly corrupt and unequal society, where priorities and planning are driven by patronage and personal interests. I’m not disposed to creating “victory conditions” or other artificial incentives for people to play their part, but I am still looking for something to encourage participants to roleplay and replicate the more realistic friction that exists in these environments. Any ideas?

First reflections on a brown bag lunch about “gamification” with Gabe Zichermann

The Knowledge and Learning Council (KLC) here at the Bank hosted a very interesting discussion on gamification with Gabe Zichermann, author of  Game-Based Marketing  and Gamification by Design – you can see his blog here.   Gabe’s presentation was really well done and very well received.  It was mostly a Bank audience (about 60 folks), though there is clearly some selection bias in who attended (people interested in games).  Gabe is a really engaging speaker and, despite his digs on economists, I was happy to act as a discussant for the presentation.

Gabe described the concept of gamification (the use of game design techniques and mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences – see the gamification wiki here).  He explained why this is effective, concentrating on the feedback loop from challenge to achievement.  He focused a lot on incentives, status, access, power and “stuff” – which resonated a lot with the Bank audience.  He then proceeded to provide some really good examples of where incentive structures have been adapted – including lotteries tied to speed cameras to incentivize obeying the law in Sweden and virtual pets built into driver interfaces in hybrid cars.  I’ll link to his actual presentation once the KLC has it up, but a similar presentation is found here.

The "Singification" of work in the 1800s...

All that being said, I still find myself lost in vagaries in the ongoing discussions of gamification.  For all of my love of games, I wondered, during my role as a discussant, whether we aren’t just calling anything that makes work more engaging or in which incentives and feedback are better designed “gamification”.  This is not a new critique, I had the same concern after finishing McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken (Yes, I did finally finish).  This is exacerbated by the fuzziness around the definition of game and gamification which included even facebook in the discussion today.  The gamification concept reminds me of the “singification” that labor underwent in the 1800s, when we were working on the railroad… all the live long day.  What is different about gamification that isn’t just us making work more bearable?

On the flip side, maybe I am just too critical and this is just semantic.  It seems to me that the principles of gamification are right on – we should be looking at systems, teaching and processes and considering where our incentives, feedback and engagement can be improved to provide additional impact and effectiveness.

Another question that concerns me when thinking about gamification is the cultural bias we have/enjoy about games – especially at the Bank.  Gabe is Canadian (and Rex!), I am American – but I am conscious of the different perspectives other cultures have about games – ranging on the spectrum from foolish childsplay to evil gambling.  While we might agree with the principles of gamification, the concept or the language might need to be adapted to context if we want to be effective in different cultures.

Lastly, I still find myself brought back to Gladwell’s three qualities of rewarding work: autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward.  I wonder how many people play games or browse blogs or update facebook at work because they simply are bored or aren’t challenged by their work.  Gabe was brutally honest about how boring and banal many jobs are today (and I thought economics was the dismal science!).  It raised the question, though, about competition for our engagement.  Are the benefits we get from increased engagement due to gamification only because of competition for our limited attention?  If this is the case, then we can expect diminishing returns from gamification as it we would expect to see a ratcheting up of competition for our attention from other sources.  Are there limits to how much engagement we can give?

Who needs to invent a fictional country?

When we’ve already got so many?

Will Potter's transition government choose justice or reintegration for surviving Death Eaters?

This very clever article at Foreign Policy scratches a lot of the same itches that a thoughtful simulation of post-conflict reconciliation would.

Rowling’s world has depth, is well known and provides numerous applications of post-conflict principles – I looked past a few of the stretches in favor of the clever and thorough literature references.

Dual hat tips to Laura Bailey and Shanti Kalathil (both fellow Bankers!) for pointing me to a very cool read.

report from Fjordland I

Fortunately, Raleigh (and Fjordland in the South) has oil and lithium, so people care…

First round in Fjordland (see statement of mission objective, below)…

Everyone was given background materials before the event (electronically) and hard copies on the first academic day of the course (yesterday).  This was a 30 page write-up describing the scenario, with a very nicely done “recent time-line” for the past X days. 

For example, on a day nearly three weeks ago (E-20):

E-20 (a particularly bad day)

  • In relation to last week’s discovery of Lithium, Chinese and Nigerian authorities immediately express interest in contributing to the extraction of the mineral. Moroccan contractors also express interest in Lithium resources, especially as a source of export to northern Africa. (FDI)
  • A prominent Moroccan investment broker is murdered in Raleigh. The government releases a statement, denouncing the murder and pledging to commit resources to bring the culprit to justice. The Moroccan Foreign Minister, in a statement, condemns the murder and urges the government to apprehend the suspects and safeguard the security of Greek nationals living in Raleigh.
  • The Moroccan Ambassador in Raleigh holds a meeting with the Minister of Interior Zamour to discuss the investigation of the murder.  Prior to her European trip Minister Marta Zamour received threats to her life unless she ceases her campaign against terrorism and organised crime.
  • Four hundred kilos of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) explosives are stolen during the night from a quarry in PUKAKI, Raleigh. All the newspapers ask a same question: terrorism or violent crime purpose? The Greek newspaper openly accuses GLAD for the incident.
  • World Food organization announces record deficit in agricultural production for Fjordland projected for next year.

Sadly Minister Zamour’s airplane crashed this morning under suspicious circumstances…. 

After reviewing this material, we were asked to act as the Special Advisory Group to NATO, and tasked with delivering strategic guidance to NATO on a comprehensive approach.  To begin the process, we were asked to start by brainstorming through the problems – identifying all of the challenges facing Raleigh/Fjordland and the sequencing/priorities of these challenges – which took us all of this morning.

I wasn’t entirely convinced that this is a good starting point, but it was a good, basic exercise, engaging the group in producing an early output and clarifying some early discrepancies in understandings in the group of the task we’d been assigned and how it could be done collaboratively.  Indeed, in light of the success of the exercise, I am considering an edit to one of the first stages of the Carana exercise – usually we have folks playing the same role discuss their assessment of the challenges and their goals – it is fairly unstructured – based on this exercise, I might expect a deliverable out of that session with a list of challenges and goals – perhaps something that could be typed up and distributed at the end of the simulation. 

Out list of “symptoms” (types of conflict and challenges in Fjordland)  had 32 items on it (at least there is no cholera).  We’re identifying stakeholders and goals this afternoon…

%d bloggers like this: