Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Simulations miscellany, National vanilla ice cream day edition

wordle230716In the United States at least, July 23 is allegedly National Vanilla Ice Cream Day. In commemoration of the important sacrifices made by vanilla beans everywhere, PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulations and serious (and not-so-serious) games that may be of interest to our readers. Jerry Elsmore contributed to this latest edition.


Gender Expansion graphic.jpgThe first AFTERSHOCK expansion set will be available soon!

For some time Tom Fisher and I have been working on an expansion set for AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game that will allow players to delve more deeply into the role and impact of gender in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Now everything is done, the graphics files have been uploaded, and we’re just waiting for the final printings samples back from The Game Crafter before we make it available.

We hope that this will be the first of several AFTERSHOCK expansions sets. These will been designed so that they can be mixed so as to customize play for particular instructional needs and themes. Our next expansion is likely to focus on humanitarian operations in fragile and conflict-affected societies.

A list of forthcoming AFTERSHOCK demonstration games can be found here.



On a similar topic, a new video game developed for the US Army helps to prepare military personnel for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. According to National Defense:

A new Army video game is taking soldiers into the heart of foreign disaster zones and delivering real-world training from their laptop or tablet.

A joint task force — including U.S. Army South, the Army Research Laboratory, the office of foreign disaster assistance and the Army games for training program — has put Disaster Sim into the hands of soldiers after two years of research and development.

Disaster Sim was created by the Army Research Laboratory and programmers from the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California as a cost-effective training tool for company grade officers and mid to junior non-commissioned officers engaged in foreign disaster relief, said Maj. Timothy Migliore, chief of the Army’s games for training program.

“The more ways you can involve actually doing the task or the job at hand, the faster you learn,” he said.

Hour-long vignettes based on real-world events familiarize users with operational environments they could encounter on the ground, and teach them how to work with the office of foreign disaster assistance, non-governmental agencies and the host country. The initial scenario challenges a soldier to respond to needs in Guatemala after an earthquake….

The US Army offers additional details:

Disaster Sim’s initial scenario challenges a Soldier to respond to the needs of Guatemalans during an earthquake, said Lt. Col. Greg Pavlichko. Until taking a new assignment, he was the chief of the Games for Training program, which is part of the National Simulation Center and CAC-T.

“In the game, the Soldier has many more requests for help than resources,” said Pavlichko. “That forces the Soldier to prioritize resources to meet the most critical needs. If the Soldier doesn’t correctly address the most serious problems, there are adverse second-and-third order effects.”

The hour-long scenario also teaches Soldiers the proper procedures to work with OFDA, non-governmental agencies and the host nation. Eventually, Disaster Sim will offer leaders the opportunity to create new foreign disaster scenarios.



The CIMSEC blog features an interview with Philip Sabin (King’s College London) on wargaming—including its application, his teaching, design, how he got started, and his favourite games. You’ll find it here.



The Military Operations Research Society will be holding its Wargaming II special meeting on 18-20 October 2016 at the Institute for Defense Analysis in Alexandria, VA.

Logo.pngThis workshop will provide a forum for presentations, demonstrations and discussions on wargaming within the National Security Community. The workshop will address two important issues:

1. How wargaming fits into the larger analytic process.
2. How to generate wargaming capacity and improve quality.

MORS will provide an environment to promote discussions among friends and allies on the former topic and educational environments to address the latter topic in facilities capable of hosting up to SECRET/NOFORN level. Most of the discussions will be held at the UNCLASSIFIED level, and as many of the classified discussions as possible will be held at the FVEY level to enable allied participation. It is expected the UK will send representatives.

MORS will also be offering a short certificate course in wargaming:

MORS will be offering a Wargaming Certificate Program (MCP) starting this October. The first course will be offered 17 October 2016 titled Wargame Theory. The goal of this course is for participants to understand the theoretical basis for the method of wargaming. This 7 course certificate program is designed to provide next level professional development not covered by academia or commercial sources



The 2017 American Political Science Association Teaching and Learning Conference will be held on 10-12 February 2017 in Long Beach, California. The call for papers is now open, and extends until September 15.


PAXsims reader (and hobby gamer) Jerry Elsmore recently playtested CRISIS, a “dieselpunk and worker placement for serious gamers.” He liked what he saw, and passed on this mini-reveiew:

Stripping out the hyperbole from the Kickstarter strap-line leaves “an economic game set in a nation on the brink of ruin.” CRISIS is a worker placement, resource management game with a degree of engine building and a significant semi cooperative twist.
It was demoed at ManorCon by Paul Grogan of Gaming Rules!

I’m the world’s worst completer finisher so being given a blank page and asked to write a review is my worst nightmare. Luckily there are plenty of reviews available: just start at their Kickstarter page. Suffice it to say I didn’t need any persuasion to play a second game and I’ve put my money where my mouth is and pledged myself an early Christmas present.



The latest edition of Battles magazine came out recently, and—in addition to its usual hobby game contents—also includes much of interest on the serious application of wargames. This includes articles by Karl Mueller (on RAND’s Baltic wargames), Sebastien de Peyret (on wargaming in the French army), and Philip Sabin.


We can’t possible end this edition of simulations miscellany without at least some mention of Pokéman Go—the innovative and hugely successful augmented reality game that has everyone trying to enslave sentient beings so that they can be forced to fight each other so as to satisfy their owners’ lust for glory find cute loveable creatures. Specifically, we bring you this piece by BBC News on the dangers in playing the game in a minefield:

Bosnians playing the hit mobile game Pokemon Go are being warned to avoid straying into areas still sown with landmines from the war in the 1990s.

A Bosnian demining charity, Posavina bez mina, issued its warning after hearing reports of Pokemon Go users venturing into risky areas.

Players use their smartphones to hunt for cartoon monsters in the real world.

At least 600 people have been killed in landmine accidents in Bosnia since the end of the war in 1995….


Frost: Wargames are for players

Proceedings.jpegThe July 2016 issue of the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings contains a piece by Adam Frost entitled “Wargames are for Players,” in which he reminds everyone that professional wargame design needs to be driven by purpose and its usefulness to clients. It’s a short—but very timely—piece.

Wargames Are for Players 

Adam Frost

The Department of Defense is breathing new life into wargaming. Since Deputy Secretary of Defense (DepSecDef) Bob Work signed his February 2016 memo challenging the department to rejuvenate a venerable tool of military professionals, there have been more general officers and assistant secretaries discussing wargaming than at any other time in recent memory. Legions of staff members are following suit.

For those of us in the gaming community, there is a sense of vindication. For entire careers, wargamers have tinkered away in relative anonymity, tolerated as harmless but generally dismissed by “real” DOD analysts. Now we have a champion and have been called upon by the DepSecDef himself to help dispel the darkness of a reduced topline.

Or so we tell ourselves.

Since February, all manner of experts have found receptive audiences eager to discuss the power and limitations of wargames. But as the initial wave of enthusiasm ebbs, it reveals the true quandary.

Wargamers will not be the heroes of this story. They are not the innovators who will develop the Third Offset Strategy, avoid operational or technical surprise, and help make the best of the department’s shrinking resources. Actionable insights–the ideas that spur innovation, address emerging challenges, exploit new technologies, and shape the security environment–are the purview of the sponsors of and participants in wargames, not of the game staffs. Certainly, gamers distill the question into a “gameable” model, craft an environment that prompts insight, and are invaluable in interpreting findings. But wargames will only meet the DepSecDef’s intent if someone does something with those findings. The arbiters of that decision–those who do–are the ones who will change the future. Not us.

Why? Wargames exist to provide insights into questions. Wargamers, however, generally do not own those questions. Within the broader DOD, the majority of offices, contractors, universities, and research labs that actually wargame are service providers that design, execute, and report on wargames on behalf of someone else. In my office, we call them sponsors.

In our excitement to discuss how to game, gamers have allowed a chasm to open between how we game and why we game–and we game for the benefit of our sponsors and our players.

Beginning to fill that chasm are words like “standards” and “validation”–the seeds of our demise–and gamers seeking to preserve this moment are taking the bait. First codify what makes a “good game,” they say, and with standards in hand we can resist critique.

That is a losing proposition focused on the wrong audience.

All wargames are wrong to some degree; some are useful. Wargamers certainly have a professional responsibility to improve the craft. But all wargames require a simplification of reality just to play, and each simplification is tailored to the question at hand. So if all wargames are “wrong” to some extent, there is an insidious danger in the notion that if we just make games “more right,” we can assuage the critics and produce innovation. Yet the chasm will remain: What is the question? How does the game explore it? Who is playing?

Proscribing any methodology absent the context of the research question is a cardinal error in study development. Deciding how we game before discovering why we game presumes that the game staffs know the problem better than the sponsor asking the question. Moreover, method-before-quest ion perversely excludes from study any question outside the scope of the method–akin to wargamers polishing the old Harpoon rules while looking askance at a question about deterrence. Such cart-before-horse judgments only tempt gamers into self-absorbed arguments over who is the “real wargamer”–a debate of little use to those who will grade our value.

While the DepSecDef is right that games can help build a culture that embraces experimentation and tolerates dissent, gamers must remember that the experimenters and the dissenters are not the game staffs; they are the students, planners, policy directors, and program managers who provide for our defense. They are the generals and assistant secretaries responsible for making decisions in the face of uncertainty and risk. They will determine whether the findings were useful and whether the reinvigoration of wargaming helped the department in these troubled times.

We must redirect the focus from whether a game is “right” to whether a game use “useful” to our sponsors and players. Because as to the question of whether we are re invigorating wargaming itself, it is our players and sponsors who are ultimately judging us.

* * *

Adam Frost is a wargame analyst and Acting Deputy Division Chief for the Joint Staff J-8 Studies, Analysis and Gaming Division, an office that has had the privilege to execute wargames for all ranks of sponsors and players from the Department of Defense, National Security Council, foreign allies, and interagency partners since 1947.

Lacey on wargames in strategic education (MORS wargaming CoP)

Lacey slide

Today James Lacey of the Marine Corps War College offered his thoughts on wargames in strategic education to members of the Military Operations Society’s wargaming community of practice. Dr. Lacey had previously written a pithy article on wargaming in the classroom for War on the Rocks (which in turn provoked an equally pithy rejoinder in National Interest from some colleagues at the Naval War College).

The slides from his presentation can be found here. I’ll summarize some of the highlights from his verbal comments that I found especially useful:

  • Students do not retain large amounts of reading. Wargaming is experiential learning par excellence. Student response to using wargames in the classroom is very positive (see student comments on his slides), and they talk about it for weeks and months afterwards.
  • The use of wargames in the classroom is shaped by how much time is available for courses, and how much autonomy instructors have to experiment.
  • The adversarial nature of wargaming gives participants “an entirely different appreciation of how difficult it is to execute a strategic plan.” Students begin to see that sometimes the “best strategic options are terrible.”
  • You need to think about who your students are. Colonels are competitive, and don’t like to lose. Military officers tend to regress towards their comfort zone of kinetic operations, and need to be pushed to examine strategic issues and non-military elements of national power. Students should be left with “no place to hide.”
  • The wargame is the capstone event of a series of interrelated activities: audio tapes, readings, lectures and discussions, and staff rides.
  • Wargame maps can be more useful than conventional maps for highlighting the strategic importance of terrain, lines of communication, and resources (since they tend to depict those elements that are most influential on the conduct of strategy and military operations).
  • Initially he did not allocate sufficient time for post-game debriefing, which was a mistake. Also, it would have been more useful to examine why and how students had made their decisions, and let students develop criticism, rather than to have the instructor critique them directly.
  • In terms of where future help is needed, he identified:
    • video tutorials to teach game mechanics
    • experienced gamers in-class to assist with games
    • more strategic-level games than integrate across the DIME spectrum
    • simple/elegant game designs which involve complex decisions
    • games on the “ungameable” that are suitable for a PME audience
    • funding to make these things happen
  • Next steps will include: refining game selection; adapting games to highlight strategic dimensions; building a repository of appropriate games; developing a megagame that focuses on the conduct of operational-level battle; experimenting with fast-playing matrix games; using more SMEs during gameplay; running several games simultaneously; and encouraging out-of-class gaming.

A number of interesting issues were also raised during the subsequent discussion.

  • How can imperfect information and fog-of-war be incorporated into tabletop classroom wargames? Does it always matter?
  • Allowing students to replay a game, and therefore refine and tests their plans and approach, can have substantial educational benefits.
  • What is the role of digital games in the classroom, and what is the potential value of emerging VR, AR and other technologies?
  • How useful are matrix games? Barney Rubel (NWC) suggested that a well-designed matrix game can work well. I argued that if one wants to experiment with matrix games it is probably best to do so for conflicts that involve multiple stakeholders and coordination challenges, examine a broad range of capabilities across the DIME spectrum, and in contexts where you want to encourage innovative approaches that aren’t limited by a predetermined ruleset and game model. There was also discussion of Kaliningrad 2017 and other matrix games in development at the US Army War College.

All-in-all it was a very useful and informative session. It also seemed to be very well attended, thereby underscoring the resurgent interest in wargaming as well as the role of MORS in supporting this.


CKNW on ISIS Crisis


This morning I did an interview with Vancouver radio station CKNW about the ISIS CRISIS matrix game . We also briefly discussed AFTERSHOCK.

You can listen to the discussion here.



2016 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference: simulation and gaming track summary


The latest issue of PS: Political Science & Politics 49, 3 (July 2016) contains a summary of the February 2016 APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, including the simulation and gaming track:


George A. Waller, University of Wisconsin Colleges, Fox Valley

Adam Wunische, Boston College

One of the particular problems that was highlighted at this year’s conference was the difficulty of measuring the effectiveness of simulations for enhancing student learning. For several of the papers presented, success was measured by either student self-assessment or student satisfaction. If students reported that they felt the simulation enhanced their understanding of course material, the simulation was judged to be effective. It was noted that, while this data is important and helps make the case for the use of simulations in political science classrooms, administrators and detractors often need more convincing objective evidence that simulations do, in fact, generate greater student understanding of course content. Discussion on this topic during the paper presentations centered around three things: 1) that the major advantages of simulations include the development of soft skills such as empathy and active learning, which are difficult to measure in the first place; 2) that subjective student assessments of simulation effectiveness may not equate to objective measures of student learning; and 3) that the measurable impacts may be more long term and can only be observed in subsequent classes, beyond the normal timeframe for a posttest. Although presenters and attendees agree that simulations are fun and appear to enhance student engagement and satisfaction, more work needs to be done to explore ways to measure the actual impact of simulations on student learning.

A pivotal question, which was taken up by several of this year’s papers, was when and how simulations might best be utilized. Some types of simulations are perhaps best employed early in a semester or term, while others may be most effective or useful at midterm or near the end of a course. Simulation placement is an important consideration for instructors and should be tied directly to learning objectives for the course and for particular units/modules of the course. One paper proposed the idea that simulations might be more effective for entry-level students, or for students in introductory courses, rather than advanced students who have presumably already developed the soft skills and abilities that simulations are thought to foster. Another paper solved for this by adjusting the rules, roles, and sophistication for higher-level students to ensure the simulation remains challenging. Explaining the purpose of the simulation or game also helps to convince older or more nontraditional students that the games have academic value, increasing willingness to participate and the likelihood of successful outcomes.

It was also noted that increases in length and sophistication can serve as deterrents to both students and instructors. More complex simulations involve a good deal more care in design, planning, and setup by instructors who use them and often require a significant element of “troubleshooting” if things don’t go according to plan. Simulations that take place over multiple class sessions (sometimes even multiple weeks) must be carefully monitored and adjusted when problems arise or when expectations or objectives are not being realized. Some instructors solve for this by dividing simulation work into iterations to give students, and the instructor, time to reset and reflect. Others solve for this by using social networking software to streamline the process of interactions to reduce the instructor’s workload. While longer term, more complex simulations can be very well designed and implemented in some courses resulting in significant student and instructor satisfaction, shorter, simpler simulations can be quite effective for augmenting important course concepts and require less time and fewer opportunities for unexpected developments. In any case, whether to use longer, more complex, simulations or shorter, simpler ones is an important consideration that needs to align with course (or course unit) learning objectives.

Iterations and variety were employed by a number of track presenters. For the longer term extended simulations, the tasks and events in the simulation were spread out over time. For a particular paper presented on a campaign budget activity, events in the activity are spread out through the term and are supplemented by traditional lecture techniques. Other strategies include icebreaker type simulations that are short and simple. These get students, who otherwise might only be accustomed to nonactive teaching methods, to become familiar with the process before being overwhelmed by a resource-intensive, longer, or more complex simulation. These shorter simulations can also serve multiple functions. Students can learn about how multiple iterations of the prisoner’s dilemma change the outcome, while also meeting and working closely with their fellow students thus building the foundations for future group work.

Debriefing is an essential component of simulation pedagogy. Debriefs were mentioned as a way to mitigate some of the possible negative effects of simulations, and also to consolidate student learning. Possible negative effects of simulations include students losing “the game” and being upset or angry about that, or that the simulation fails to achieve the desired learning outcome. Debriefs can highlight the learning opportunities that come from both negative and positive outcomes and what lessons should have been learned. Debriefs can also help shift a student’s focus on personal shortcomings to the actual learning objectives of the simulation. Debriefs should clarify how the simulations are connected to course learning objectives, and what that means for the broader course curriculum.



Joseph W. Roberts, Roger Williams University

Nancy E. Wright, Long Island University, Brooklyn

Simulations and games have long been a key element of the university classroom. These active learning tools are designed to engage and motivate students. Complex topics that may not be as clear in assigned readings are presented in ways that encourage students to think critically, solve problems, and ask deeper questions. The key question is how do we, as educators, know that simulations are doing what we expect them to do? In 2016, as in previous years, the track was a lively mix of discussion and practice. Four critical themes emerged from the discussions: 1) What does success mean?; 2) Context matters for simulations; 3) Tradeoffs of using real versus imaginary simulations; and 4) Rigorous assessment is needed but that does not mean only quantitative assessment.

What Is a Successful Simulation or Game?

If we ask the question “Do simulations work?” we may or may not get a useful answer. In fact, this may not be the best question to ask, because different learning objectives, classroom configurations, and time or other resources, as well as instructor skill and other factors may impact the success of the simulation or game. For Simon Usherwood, the better questions to ask are “How do you design effective simulations?” and “What are effective implementations of simulations?” The key is building pedagogical tools and teaching simulation design to improve learning. Moreover, there is a need to bring the body of literature on teaching and learning to plan and implement high impact learning tools. Both of these questions relate to the real versus imaginary question below. Michelle Allendoerfer discussed the outsourcing of the design process to two upper-level undergraduate students, Tianshan Fullop and Jacob Warwick, in an independent study. The simulation was then used in Allendoerfer’s comparative politics class. This is an incredibly rich opportunity to develop deeper student knowledge of the issues (for both groups of students but particularly the two designers) and to show students collaborative work between professor and students. The success of the simulation must be thought of in terms of learning outcomes. Erin Baumann and John FitzGibbon discussed the use of crisis simulations to teach and approach the issues of effectiveness and motivation from both a perspective on the scholarship of teaching and learning and a perspective of cognitive psychology. For Baumann and FitzGibbon, the design of simulations must work within the broader context of learning outcomes. Including a different and important body of literature enhances the discussion of fidelity (closeness to reality) and systematization (increasing regularity of interactions even in a crisis environment)

Amanda Rosen and Nina Kollars explored ways to implement active learning and simulations in a methods classroom. The traditional laments by students in methods courses include that it is abstract, boring, and difficult. Rosen and Kollars address this by taking a local restaurant’s simple claim to have the best breakfast in town and ask the students to determine where the best breakfast is using the methods of political science. Students operationalize definitions, collect data, analyze the data, and complete a final paper. Rosen and Kollars do not have clear data on the effectiveness of the project save for course evaluations and expressed student interest (see below). There is no one best way to judge effectiveness.

Context Matters

When using simulations in class there are many issues that a professor needs to consider. Who are the students? What do they bring to the table? What type of simulation or game (i.e., low skill versus high skill; long simulations versus short simulations versus games; or in-class vs. online versus hybrid) meets the learning outcome needs of the professor and the students? The participants used different kinds of simulations or games to reach students in different ways. Victor Asal, Josh Caldon, Andrew Vitek, and Susan Bitter demonstrated and discussed a game taking no more than 10 minutes to play, the Running Game. Depending on the classroom or even university, students will have wildly different starting points in their understanding of inequality. This short game is extremely effective at getting students to understand the concepts of inequality and structure particularly in places where some forms of diversity might be more limited. In contrast, Joseph W. Roberts employed a multi-day simulation of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Given the breadth and depth of the issues in the conflict, the simulation is, by necessity, larger and more complex. However, this simulation was extremely effective in the small course (20 students) in which it was used because the number of roles for students was limited. A significantly larger classroom environment would be much more difficult. A third model of simulation size is shown in the paper by Andrew Schlewitz on the Washington Model Organization of American States (WMOAS). Any large-scale simulation of international relations (WMOAS, MUN, Model Arab League, Model EU, etc.) will have a real impact on learners from multiple institutions. With extensive survey data from student participants, Schlewitz showed real learning but in a largely extra-curricular role that supplements rather than supplants coursework.

Gretchen Knudsen Gee showed the unique challenges for professors in larger classes to get and keep students engaged. Simulations allow for greater involvement of students in and across large multi-section courses. Simulations may also provide for some continuity between sections, because though active learning techniques require more confident instructors, there may be a real fear of trying new things. Moreover, Gee’s paper shows that the resources for creating simulations are important to providing more realistic experiences.

Chad Raymond and Sally Gomaa provided a cautionary tale about context. The authors showed the pitfalls of using online tools for simulations in classrooms. In this case, the use of Flash video caused problems because of security settings, removal of Flash from computers, or other issues. Moreover, the original plan for the simulation experiment failed because the planned site was removed from the Internet. When planning a simulation, it is important to have backup plans and to test the systems well in advance.

Tradeoffs of Real vs. Imaginary Scenarios

Most participants agreed that both approaches are valuable in different ways. On the one hand, developing simulations around actual events imparts to students the opportunity and motivation to conduct research outside the classroom in an effort to learn more about the simulation’s assigned countries and events (see Gee, Roberts, Rosen and Kollars, or Schlewitz, for example). On the other hand, those students not as familiar as others with a region of the world where the simulation is taking place may be intimidated, especially if others are familiar. Moreover, focusing on actual events, especially current happenings, can draw students so much into the day-to-day progression of what is taking place that they may overlook the broader significance (e.g., acquisition of negotiating skills or empathy) that is the purpose of the simulation itself.

Nancy Wright combined certain elements of both the real and the imagined, with the former as the case of a project to harness electricity from methane gas in Lake Kivu, Rwanda, and indigenous displacement in the Central African Republic, and the latter as scenarios of the pre-colonial era in each of those countries, which especially in the case of the Central African Republic has very little data available. One of Wright’s key findings is that students can harness facts to place specific issues and events in a larger context, and where data are scarce, students can harness their imaginations to re-create historical situations and then reflect on why they imagine them the way that they do. Wright also points out that understanding students’ preconceived ideas can influence simulation design and operation particularly to counter the tendency to link a country solely to a particular crisis or atrocity.

Rigorous Assessment Does Not Have to Be Quantitative

The increasingly established trend of equating rigor with quantitative assessment is likely to obfuscate the evaluation of rigor in other equally meaningful ways. This is true for two reasons: quantitative analysis cannot explain everything, and it depends on data that may not always be available. There are other ways to assess the value of simulations and games beyond mere quantification. For example, Rosen and Kollars noted that while reliable data actually measuring the effectiveness of games on learning were not available, they did report that course evaluations, often cited as low for methods courses compared to other courses, were consistently high in the methods course that employed several illustrative games, and in fact a significant number of students wished for a second methods course, an outcome attributed to the use of games. Similarly, Roberts used the knowledge domains assessment model (Pettenger, West, and Young 2014) that is based on learning outcomes. By focusing on learning outcomes, the assessment better reflects the goals of the course, though such means of evaluation would not necessarily be counted in the context of traditional empirical assessment.

Nicholas Vaccaro is critical of the experimental and overtly empirical assessment models that are proposed by Baranowski and Weir (2015). Vaccaro notes that their use of “show and tell” infantilizes the process of disseminating useful and helpful pedagogical tools. Description has value and this should not be overlooked. Discussion about potential flaws in experimental design methodologies is critical. Is a pre/post or control/test group model necessary to show learning? Is it fair for one group to engage in high-impact practices and another not? Does the model proposed limit the assessment to environments that can establish two or more test groups? For example, in a small liberal arts university, a course might be taught biennially. This does not lend itself to testing effectiveness of a technique years apart. Ultimately, the issue comes down to the question “Is the medical clinical trial model an appropriate model for social science research?” The general consensus is that it is not always a useful model for research in teaching and learning.


Baranowski, Michael K., and Kimberley A. Weir. 2015. “Political Simulations: What We Know, What We Think We Know, and What We Still Need to Know.” Journal of Political Science Education 11(4): 391–403.

Pettenger, Mary, Douglas West, and Niki Young. 2014. “Assessing the Impact of Role Play Simulations on Learning in Canadian and US Classrooms.” International Studies Perspectives 15 (4): 491–508. doi: 10.1111/insp.12063

Wong on “Wargaming in Professional Military Education”


Today at the Strategy Bridge, Jeff Wong offers some thoughts on the value of wargaming in professional military education—from a student’s perspective:

Students beginning the new academic year at U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College will examine the works of military theorists such as Carl von Clausewitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Mao Tse-Tung to uncover their approaches to strategy and war; study the writings of Graham Allison and Daniel Kahneman to appreciate their perspectives on organizational behavior and cognition; and familiarize themselves with the volumes of joint doctrine to better understand joint-force employment. Books and articles on other topics—encompassing international affairs, ethics, morality, law of war, and critical thinking—will also crowd their shelves. But whither the art of decision-making?

Students will devote a fair amount of time reading, writing, and talking about decisions, but not much time actually practicing how to make them. To address this education gap, American professional military education institutions should re-emphasize the relevance of wargaming to prepare officers for addressing tomorrow’s complex problems. Wargames provide leaders with decision-making practice, support innovation as part of a greater “cycle of research,” and foster greater cultural acceptance of subordinate initiative, flexibility, and adaptability.[1] Gaming has flaws like any other analytic method, but it is a powerful learning tool that warrants wider consideration in the schoolhouse and beyond.

He identifies several key reasons for doing so (emphasis added):

  • “Wargames offer students in professional military education greater opportunities to make tough choices, study their decision-making calculus, and appreciate the consequences.”
  • “Wargaming can also encourage subordinate initiative and adaptability, which aligns with contemporary American approaches to command…”
  • “Wargaming helps solve many problems when used with other tools, but it should not be applied to every analytic effort. Gaming is a people-driven tool that is effective at examining decision-making, exploring issues, explaining implications, and identifying questions for future study.[18] However, it is not an effective tool for calculating outcomes, proving theories, predicting “winners,” producing numbers, and generating conclusions.”

He also correctly notes that “winning isn’t the only thing. Rather, the most important output is the shared understanding that represents potential outcomes, guides a commander’s actions, and fosters an environment for learning.”

There are, Wong suggests, several ways in which wargaming could be more effectively integrated into professional military education:

First, service schoolhouses can integrate games into curricula starting at career-level courses to provide young leaders with tactical decision-making experiences applicable for their next jobs as company commanders, flight commanders, or department heads.

Second, at intermediate-level schools, a wargaming curriculum could teach students how to develop, plan, and execute wargames on their own. This additional knowledge may assist in fostering decision-making skills at the field-grade level, help officers become effective participants in service-level games, and encourage them to continue using games to train operating forces. Several such informal efforts occurred at Marine Corps University in February 2016, when faculty developed a wargame called “Sea Dragon” pitting students from Marine Corps Command and Staff College against students from the Marine Corps War College.

Third, top-level schools could instruct students how to apply wargames at the institutional level for developing future strategies, concepts, capabilities, and resourcing decisions inside the labyrinthine American defense establishment. The Naval War College has taken major steps in this direction, truncating old coursework to make room for more wargames and operational-level planning into its joint military operations curriculum.[20] The newly designed course features three “active-learning” wargames in which students receive immediate feedback based on their plans and actions against adversaries.

His comments here align with similar arguments that were recently made, from an instructor’s perspective, by James Lacey. I was particularly pleased to see Wong highlight the value of teaching wargaming in order to make officers more effective wargame participants, clients, and designers—a point that was strongly made at last year’s Connections (US) interdisciplinary wargaming conference.

There are several sources of resistance to a greater use of wargaming in PME schoolhouses. Part of that resistance, of course, might be a failure by some to recognize its value. As evidenced by the very existence of this blog as well as my own university courses, I certainly think gaming methods can be extremely useful pedagogical tools, representing a sort of “intellectual cross-training” that encourages students to think about problems in different ways and address the challenge of agile adversaries and complex-adaptive social and political systems. However, it is also important that games be done well. If poorly designed, poorly executed, or poorly linked to other learning material the impact of (war)games can be muted—or in some cases, even negative. One issue that so far has not received adequate attention in the current “post-Work memo era” discussion of wargaming is how wide and deep current design and facilitation skills are within the national security community. More than one professional has expressed a concern that a faddish rush-to -wargame could produce some very bad games.

It should also be recognized that there is a lot of material that needs to be covered in PME, and only so much schoolhouse time in which to do it. Given that, it is an entirely fair question to ask how the cost-benefit of wargaming therefore compares with other, more traditional teaching methodologies.

Because of this, I’m often a fan of relatively simple wargame designs that take limited time and effort to run. The Sandhurst Kriegsspiel is an example: it can be conducted in a single short session, and acts as a compliment to an earlier TEWT (tactical exercise without troops) in the field. Matrix games can also be designed and conducted quickly, and lend themselves well to exploring multi-stakeholder issues across the diplomatic/military/information/economic spectrum. Indeed, it is for such reasons that both the US Army War College and National Defense University have started using them in a significant way in the last year or so.

I am sure that this is an issue that will be more fully discussed at next month’s Connections (US) wargaming conference at Maxwell Air Force Base, as well as at Connections (UK) at King’s College London in September, Connections Netherlands, and Connections Oz. In the meantime, if you have your own thoughts on the topic that you would like to develop into a possible PAXsims contribution, feel free to contact us.

Connections (US) conference registration deadline fast approaching!

Stephen Downes-Martin has asked us to post the following reminder about the registration deadline for the forthcoming Connections (US) interdisciplinary wargaming conference:
This year we have an exceptionally strong program.
The registration deadline—July 22—for the annual Connections US Wargaming Conference (9-12 August, Maxwell AFB AL) is fast approaching. Make sure you register soon in order to obtain automatic billeting on Maxwell Air Force Base! Go to and fill out the form!  We cannot guarantee getting your name to the base entry control points, so you could experience long delays the first day if you do not register by the deadline.
If you are a non-US participant see the GATE ENTRY INFORMATION section of the Registration Form.
If you have difficulty accessing the Connections US Website or if your work IT policy forbids you to connect to Google and Google docs (used by the Connections website) then please register from your home computer and account.
Our host facility, the LeMay Center Wargaming Institute, is within easy walking distance of our billets.  If you are flying into Montgomery (as opposed to flying into Atlanta or Birmingham and renting a car), you may wish to rent a cab to reach the base rather than pay for a rental car for several days.
Finally please distribute this message to any of your colleagues who might be interested but are not members of this site. Thanks!

Simulation & gaming miscellany, post-PDW edition


I recently returned from an extremely productive week spent discussing wargaming and analytical methodologies with colleagues from the Defence and Security Analysis Division of the UK Ministry Defence Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at their Portsdown West site. I’ll post a trip report as soon as my comments and the photos are cleared for public release.

In the meantime, PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers. Ryan Kuhns contributed material for this latest edition.


jdn1_16In May, the Pentagon released Joint Doctrine Note 1-16 on the topic of Command Red Team:

Command red teams help commanders and staffs think critically and creatively; challenge assumptions; mitigate groupthink; reduce risks by serving as a check against complacency and surprise; and increase opportunities by helping the staff see situations, problems, and potential solutions from alternative perspectives.

The distinguishing feature of a command red team from alternative analysis produced by subject matter experts within the intelligence directorate of a joint staff is its relative independence, which isolates it from the organizational influences that can unintentionally shape intelligence analysis, such as the human tendency for analysts to maintain amicable relations with colleagues and supervisors, and the potential for regular coordination processes to normalize divergent assessments. Commanders can seek the perspectives of trusted advisors regarding any issue of concern. A command red team may also address similar issues, but unlike most commander’s advisory/action groups, it supports the commander’s staff throughout the design, planning, execution, and assessment of operations, and during routine problem-solving initiatives throughout the headquarters. Red teams and tiger teams may be ad hoc and address specific issues. In many cases, the only difference between the two may be the participation of a red team member who can advise the group in the use of structured techniques. Alternate modes employ red teaming as a temporary or additional duty or as an ad hoc operation, with teams assembled as needed to address specific issues.

JDN 1-16 goes on to address Red Team organization, challenges, and activities, as well as their contribution to joint planning and joint intelligence. The appendices include a list of common logical fallacies and tips for effective devil’s advocacy.



Wikistrat-A-Chinese-Spring-cover-464x600Shay Hershkovitz, Chief Strategy Officer and Director of the Analytical Community at Wikistrat, has passed on a recent report on how China might deal with future unrest.

Wikistrat generally uses online expert crowd-sourcing to explore scenarios and identify drivers and pathways. In this case, the simulation methodology was as follows:

50 analysts were handpicked from Wikistrat’s global community of more than 2,000 to participate in this simulation, including renowned China experts Andrew K.P. Leung, Hong Kong’s former chief representative to the United Kingdom; Professor Yawei Liu, Director of the Carter Center’s China Program; and Hugh Stephens, Executive-in-Residence at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

The participants were divided into four mirror-image teams (all playing as the Politburo) to test whether they would manage the crisis differently. The game progressed across four rounds, each representing a week of real time. The teams were given the same scenario at the start, but conditions were adjusted in subsequent rounds to re ect the actions of each team.

Every participant could propose an action by submitting a “move” containing a policy decision (e.g., suppress online discussion of the protests), a desired end-state and a rationale. The rest of the team expressed their approval by “liking” the proposal (or disapproval by taking no action). Whichever proposal received the most likes in a given round was interpreted by Wikistrat as the team’s consensus and informed the next round’s update.

119 moves were proposed by the teams in total. There was often a clear preference for one or two moves per round in each team. In only a few cases did Wikistrat need to consolidate various moves that received an equal number of likes.

A fifth group of experts was engaged as a U.S. observer team to offer insights into how the United States might interpret and respond to China’s actions.

In the end, the four China teams proceeded more or less along the same pathways, seeking to quell the protests by cracking down on ringleaders while offering concessions and conjuring up foreign plots in order to demotivate the masses.

You’ll find a description of each round of the simulation and key take-aways in the full report (link above).



A modified version of the digital game Civilization V is being developed for use in high school classrooms. According to The Verge:

 Publisher Take-Two Interactive announced that a modified version of the historical strategy game Civilization V is in the works, and is expected to be available for high school classes in North America starting next fall. Called CivilizationEDU, the company says that the education-focused version of the game will “provide students with the opportunity to think critically and create historical events, consider and evaluate the geographical ramifications of their economic and technological decisions, and to engage in systems thinking and experiment with the causal / correlative relationships between military, technology, political, and socioeconomic development.”

While I enjoy Civ V and other 4X (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate”) games, I’m a little doubtful that they are the best way of teaching about world history since they tend to be designed to reflect player preferences, expectations, and preconceptions rather than portray accurate historical dynamics.


…and on that subject, it’s about time we offered a shout-out to Play the Past, a website “dedicated to thoughtfully exploring and discussing the intersection of cultural heritage (very broadly defined) and games/meaningful play (equally broadly defined).”



At the Active Learning in Political Science blog they discuss simulating Brexit:

In the spirit of not wasting a good crisis, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union offers a great way into understanding a number of political dynamics.

Of course, we need to tread a bit carefully here, for a number of reasons. Firstly, this is a highly fluid situation, so whatever one might plan for the autumn might be completely overtaken by events. Secondly, some of the things that have happened over the past week are so extreme and atypical that while you might reproduce them in a simulation setting, you are almost certainly never going to see them happen again. Thirdly, there’s an awful lot going on, so you need to pick your targets clearly.

With all those caveats in mind, some options still present themselves….


460003main_merraflood93.jpgOn 20-21 October 2016, the Digital Culture Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London will be hosting a conference on Simulation and Environments: A Critical Dialogue Between Systems Of Perception And Ecocritical Aesthetics.

Theme #1: Aesthetics and Environmental Simulations

When addressing issues of climate and climate crisis, simulation models and techniques become potent tools for understanding, prediction, and prevention. Yet the epistemological merit of these tools is rarely accompanied with a critical assessment of their aesthetic properties.

Put another way, the history of nature and the environment is, particularly at its interstices with the human and the natural sciences, heavily laden with cultural and even theological ideas about how a nature should look, should make one feel, should be. What guarantee do we have that these ideological preconceptions are not making their way into our simulations and models? If they are being included, how are they influencing our data? Or conversely, should we be including the cultural and affective effects of nature so often associated with the experience of landscape into our computational models precisely because of the way they fold the human into the physical environment?

The aim of this conference stream will be to parse the aesthetic conditions of simulation technologies, assumptions, and ideologies when dealing with the ecosystem. What role can visual or other aesthetics play in the computing of climates and natural phenomena? How does the changing role of the human as geological agent reframe the digital image as an epistemological form?

Proposed essays may touch on one of the following subjects, but are not restricted to including these:

  • Geospatial technologies, imaging, & observational data
  • Earth imaging & observation
  • Computational climate models
  • Military vision and targeting technologies
  • GIS technologies
  • Remote sensing
  • New media art


Theme #2: Simulation and Systems of Perception

Conceptions of simulation attempt to recreate the environment through computational logics of representation that only ever remain asymptotic to the physical world. Rather than asking whether or not simulation can ever provide homeomorphic images of the physical how can simulation instead be used performatively to rethink ways of perceiving, knowing and doing?

This might entail a theorisation of vision – or visioning – in the broader sense of not just perceiving with sight, but also insight, as well as the projection of images of elsewheres and otherwises, futures and fantasies. How would such a repositioning affect the potential instrumentalisation of simulation for political imaginaries and art practices?

The aim of this conference stream will be to invite discussion on the ontological and epistemological implications of simulated modes of perception. How can perception be understood in relation to computational aesthetics and logics?

Proposed essays may touch on one of the following subjects, but are not restricted to including these:

  • Computational modelling systems
  • Mathematics and culture
  • Planning technologies and the imaginary
  • Artificial visioning systems
  • Geopositioning and robotics
  • Cognitive simulations

Those interested in participating should  submit paper abstracts of 500 words to by 1 August 2016. (Please designate theme of interest).

Simulation & Gaming (August 2016)


The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 47, 4 (August 2016) is now available.

Gaming Material Ready to Use

Hanson on “Improving Operational Wargaming: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a War”


Lt Col Matthew E. Hanson (USAF) recently submitted a monograph entitled “Improving Operational Wargaming: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a War” for the School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College. I am grateful for his permission to post a copy here (pdf).

In the monograph he explores how the theory and practice of wargaming often diverge, with negative consequences. He further argues that current US military wargaming doctrine does not sufficiently address this problem.

In 2015, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work committed the Department of Defense (DOD) to overhaul its approach to wargaming in order to reinvigorate innovation across the DOD, including a five-year target to use wargames to improve operational planning. This monograph explores the causes of wargaming failures and proposes recommendations for successful wargames. Does doctrine provide sufficient guidance, striking the appropriate balance between prescriptive and descriptive guidance? This monograph postulates that wargaming theory—including game element analysis and wargame pathologies—provides an excellent rubric for creating and evaluating wargames and wargaming doctrine, that doctrine and practice diverge from wargame theory, and that current doctrine does not provide sufficient guidance. The theory—history—doctrine approach of this monograph is intended for military planners, doctrine authors, and wargaming professionals.

Wargames are a useful tool to assess plans as directed in operational planning processes; however, commanders and staffs should neither equate wargame victory with wargame success, nor consider either as “validation” of a given plan. There are ten elements of wargame design: objectives, scenario, database, models, rules and procedures, infrastructure, participants, analysis, culture and environment, and audiences. These elements provide a framework for creating wargames, and analyzing wargames and their failure modes (known as pathologies).

By evaluating Japan’s Midway campaign plan through the theories of game element analysis and wargame pathologies, this monograph creates greater understanding of those theories and provides recommendations for doctrine. Pathologies exhibited by Japanese planners include those related to wargame objectives, scenario, database, model, participants, and culture; genuine testing of the Operation MI plan appears to have been impossible. Wargame officials twice rejected inconvenient outcomes, undermining the credibility of the game, creating lasting controversy, and preventing meaningful analysis.

Current operational planning doctrine lacks sufficient detail on how to design and conduct wargames, neglecting the diverse needs of planning staffs. At present, doctrine diverges from wargame theory in its contents and by its omissions. Improving doctrine would capitalize on these insights and potentially avert an otherwise foreseeable military catastrophe.

In the absence of updated joint and service doctrine, operational planners will lack the descriptive—yet detailed—instruction necessary to ensure useful and valid operational planning wargames. Doctrine authors should include the lessons of game element analysis, wargame pathologies, and other sources into joint and service doctrine to assist operational planners in creating wargames that are theoretically sound and operationally insightful.

Lt Col Hanson is interested in constructive feedback from PAXsims readers, and especially comments that address the following points:

  • New sources (particularly primary sources) on Midway that would enable stronger correlation to the battle outcome and/or the pathologies framework
  • Similar sources for a secondary case study such as Tannenberg or Barbarossa.
  • Additional evidence/proof for the efficacy of wargames in testing and strengthening operational plans.  How does a commander and his planning staff know that wargaming will improve their planning outcomes?  Can I improve from my general recommendations to improve wargame doctrine to more specific practices and techniques relevant to the operational planner?

Comments can be left in the comments section.

MORS wargaming news

Vol 49 N2 .jpg

The latest issue of the Military Operations Research Society magazine Phalanx (June 2016) contains an article by Michael Garrambone (InfoScitex Corporation), Lee Ann Rutledge (Air Force Resesearch Lab), and Trena Covington Lilly (Johns Hopkins University/APL) on “Wargaming at MORS for Another 50.”

MORS has been involved in military wargaming for most of its existence. There were wargaming working groups in the symposia of the early 1970s, and various members of the operations research community have made many presentations on gaming through the years.


The same issue also contains an announcement of the MORS special workshop on wargaming to be held in the fall:

MORS will hold a special workshop on wargaming in support of the Department of Defense on October 24–27 at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. The Fall 2016 Wargaming meeting will be the second recent MORS meeting on wargaming and is in response to the continued interest in wargaming from senior levels in the Department of Defense (DoD). It will serve as a venue for the services and others to share wargaming best practices and wargaming insights that have impacted service programs. It will also focus on how wargaming and other forms of analysis should best complement each other. This meeting will have portions at the SECRET/NOFORN level, as well as some unclassified sessions. Unclassified tutorials will be held October 24.

This workshop will focus on wargame execution and will provide senior officials leading the wargaming efforts within DoD a forum to provide guidance and answer questions. The workshop will showcase how wargames have been, are being, and will be employed in analytic processes within the department. During the workshop, working groups will discuss wargaming design, methods, and best practices, and provide hands on training for participants.

For details of last year’s MORS special meeting on wargaming, see my report for PAXsims. Information on the MORS Wargaming Community of Practice can be found here.

Zones of Control at CNA: Book Launch!

ClxNgtsVAAAq2Lg.jpg large.jpg

On June 24, 2016, six of Zones of Control’s authors turned up at CNA Corporation’s Arlington offices for the federally-funded Center for Naval Analyses. Coincidence? No, they were there for a book launch with volume editors Pat Harrigan and Matthew Kirschenbaum.

As we trust many readers of PaxSims know by now, Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming is a big footprint book recently published by the MIT Press. With some 60 essays by nearly 70 contributing authors, the volume weighs in at over 800 pages with 100 b/w illustrations. While no one book will encompass wargaming in all of its historical and material diversity, we try hard to cover the bases, with pieces ranging from tabletop game design to the mathematical underpinnings of operations research and systems design to the ethics and politics of wargames as radical forms of play; and contributors who run the gamut from hobby luminaries to some of the foremost professional and academic authorities in the world on their subjects.

For the launch event, however, we were especially concerned to introduce the volume to its potential audiences in the DC-area serious games and policy establishment, and so CNA provided the ideal venue. Panelists included bestselling author Larry Bond and his collaborator on Harpoon and other Admiralty Trilogy games Chris Carlson; Brien Miller, who has worked on everything from statistical recreations of the US submarine campaign in the Pacific to Red Orchestra; Peter Perla, who literally wrote the book on the subject, his indispensable The Art of Wargaming (1990); Volko Ruhnke, lead designer for GMT’s COIN series; and PaxSims’ own Rex Brynen, the only non-‘Murican in the group who thus had to brave additional levels of security to get past the lobby. Much missed were likely DC-area (or frequent visitor) suspects Ellie Bartels and Yuna Wong, both of whom had conflicting obligations, as did Elizabeth Losh, based in nearby Williamsburg.

The fragility of any potential for gender representation—let alone gender balance—on such a panel is, of course, indicative of professional and hobby wargaming at large. For many reasons, the entire ZOC launch is usefully juxtaposed with a recent panel on feminist wargame design held at the Electronic Literature Organization conference in Victoria, British Columbia and featuring some of the best rising academic voices in game studies, notably Stephanie Boluk, Diane Jakacki, and Anastasia Salter, as well as ZOC’s own Losh and panel convener Jon Saklofske. (Though the need for cross-disciplinary and cross-professional conversation is rendered all the more acute by the way in which the term “wargames,” in that venue, tended to be employed mainly as shorthand for first person shooters.)

Back to Arlington. There were some 25-30 people gathered in the room (a few hobby stalwarts, numerous suits), along with a well-stocked table of refreshments and a sales display for the book, ably overseen by DC’s Reiter’s Books. After opening remarks from Pat and Matt contextualizing the volume, we turned things over to our panelists. The discussion was as wide-ranging as you might expect, and we have hopes of making an audio recording available soon, so we won’t attempt anything like a comprehensive summary. If there was a dominant theme, however, its terms were set by Ruhnke, who noted that here we sat, the morning after the UK’s Brexit vote, and shouldn’t wargames—broadly construed—have a role in inculcating the kind of complex systems thinking so obviously necessary for citizenship in a 21st century globalized society? Or wargaming as a counter to what some commentators have recently dubbed “post-factual democracy”?

This is a powerful argument, and nicely encapsulates the underlying ethos and rationale for a big book devoted to wargames: it’s not about the war, or even the games per se, it’s about what Howard Rheingold, writing in a very different context, once called tools for thought. To that end, Matt introduced the example of Ruth Catlow’s three-player chess variant inspired by 2003 Iraq war protests, discussed in Mary Flanagan’s ZOC essay, in which one player controls white’s royal pieces, another black’s, and a third the pawns on both sides who attempt to bring the game to a stalemate. As Flanagan notes, Catlow’s variant “provides an alternative model of a wargame that introduces a new interested party, the pawns, who know they will bear the brunt of any war in terms of military services, economic challenge, and sacrifice.” (Meanwhile, Brynen mused, “In the aftermath of Brexit someone really needs to develop a board game about a small, insular little island where people trade brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore.”)

There was also a bit of news to announce at the event: ZOC has sold through its first printing, but is happily once again available from the Press and other quality booksellers. Given the widespread public interest in wargaming at the present moment—typified by the vigorous public discussion around RAND’s recent wargames on Russian intervention in the Baltic—we believe the time is right for an inclusive volume collecting multiple, indeed often conflicting, perspectives on the messy but continually compelling form of play known as “wargaming.” We hope Zones of Control meets that need, and even more importantly that it becomes the impetus for further discussion and debate, all the more so in places where its gaps and silences are the most palpable.

We are grateful to CNA for generously hosting the event, and for assistance from Reiter’s Books and the MIT Press.

Matthew Kirschenbaum and Pat Harrigan

Crisis gaming at the Atlantic Council: Some methodological reflections


I am currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and this past week I was in Washington DC to run a crisis game, one designed in conjunction with my colleagues Bilal Saab and John Watts. The details and findings of the game will be outlined in an eventual Atlantic Council report, and may also be reported by journalists who participated, so I won’t detract from any of that by discussing the scenario or any of the findings here. Instead, I wanted to offer some thoughts on game methodology we used.

In particular, we had been asked by the Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force to develop a game approach that would explore the impact of two different future US policy postures in the region. From the outset we were committed to assuring that the game design was not pre-cooked to validate a preferred option, but rather represented a fair examination of both approaches. Doing this properly really required two runs of the game, so that each posture would be presented with a series of similar challenges. However, such a desire had to be balanced against real world constraints: the participants would comprise around sixty former (and current) senior policy-makers and subject matter experts, we could really only expect to have them for a day, and we were limited by available space, budget, and other practical considerations. Also, we wanted to maximize the time players had to consider both the scenario and the implications of American policy.

What we decided on was rather different than the usual seminar wargame.

For a start we ran two simultaneous games using the same group of participants. One game (PURPLE) involved one set of US policies, the other game (GOLD) involved an alternative approach. The scenario and initial injects in both games were the same. However, once started the games were free to diverge. You can think of the process as involving two alternative game universes, with the variation built around a different set of US policies.

In terms of role assignments, the PURPLE and GOLD games each had their own US teams. However, the other teams were playing in both games at the same time.

We had concerns about doing it this way. Could players remember the details of the two games, especially when they started to diverge? We addressed this by appointing PURPLE and GOLD team captains in each team. The team captains were responsible for approving immediate tactical responses to the crisis (which could be submitted to the White Cell at any time) and overseeing the development of broader strategic responses (which were submitted in writing at the end of each game turn). The remainder of each team were free to assist both team captains with input and advice. In doing so, they were effectively operating in both alternative universes and hence were in a position to assess what impact differences in US policy had across the two games.


Each team had a White Cell liaison attached (drawn from a group of excellent Atlantic Council interns, plus one visiting Canadian).  These acted as note-takers for the group, helped participants stay on track in terms of the game agenda, and communicated with the central White Cell and each other via the Slack messaging system. Slack was also used for formal statements by teams, and by us to insert inject events as needed (which were then being read to team members by their assigned White Cell liaison).

In most of my game designs I am eager to include elements of fog, friction, and various coordination challenges. I am also a very strong believer in building narrative engagement by players and encouraging them to internalize their roles and associated perspectives. In this particular case, each team was assigned to a different meeting room, but participants were encouraged to physically travel to amd meet with the other teams to consult and coordinate actions. There was some concern at asking senior participants to run around two floors of the Atlantic Council offices as if they were participating in model UN, but I’ve generally found people quite willing to do so. Moreover, we were able to allocate the rooms in such a way as to make communications between some rooms easier by placing them in close proximity, while making others more distant and hence increasing their sense of (diplomatic) isolation.

The crisis scenario and briefings were designed with asymmetric information to contribute to intra-group tensions and suspicions, but in such a way that escalation and desclataion were both realistic and possible outcomes. Following plenary welcome speeches and a game briefing, the first turn of the game ran until lunch. As the players ate the White Cell hurriedly collected together and synthesized the actions of the various teams, and a second game turn (with new crisis elements) was then introduced for the afternoon. Finally everyone reassembled in plenary session to share insights and analysis.

How did it go? The participants and observers are really the ones in the best position to judge that, but I was very pleased. The teams were extremly active, meeting with each other, making statements, taking immediate tactical actions, and developing larger strategic responses to the crises we threw at them. The key parties very much internalized “their” view of events, and sometimes became genuinely frustrated and antagonized by the actions of opponents. No one really seemed to be bored, or tuned out—indeed, at the end of the game we had to repeatedly tell some teams to stop playing and report for the coffee break and final plenary session.

I was also pleased with the richness of data we were able to extract from the process. The fact that most of the day had seen participants divided into multiple teams meant that we had many times more discussion than would have been possible in standard plenary sessions. The scenario seemed a fair test of both US policy postures. By playing simultaneously in two parallel games participants were readily able to identify both similarities and divergences. In some cases, US policy drove the two games in different directions. In other cases, differences in US policy were largely drowned out by powerful local and regional dynamics. That, I think, was a useful reminder that many of the levers of American power are far from all-powerful, and that it is frankly very hard to direct the behavior of a complex, adaptive system with so many actors and interests involved.

Finally, I was very pleased with the commitment of the Atlantic Council to run a methodologically-rigorous game. Not all national security gaming manages to avoid sponsor-injected bias, and using games as a mechanism to promote pre-existing policy preferences (something I’ve called “gamewashing”) is far from unusual in the think-tank world either.

When the final report is released—it has to be written first, of course—I’ll certainly link to it here at PAXsims.


Some of the White Cell at work (picture by John Watts).

Connections UK 2016


The Connections UK 2016 conference for wargaming professionals will be held at King’s College London on 6-8 September. Registration is now open. The conference will last three days: Tuesday 6 September is devoted to a hands-on “megagame” active learning experience, and the main conference is on Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 September.

Purpose. The purpose of Connections UK, the original US Connections and Connections Netherlands and Australia, is to advance and sustain the art, science and application of wargaming. Connections brings together stakeholders from across the field (military, defence, scientific, hobby, commercial and academic) to exchange information, ideas, requirements and best practice.

Programme. The latest programme is attached and also available on the Connections UK web site.

Key topics and events are:

  • The psychology of successful wargames.
  • Non-combat (non-map and counter) wargames.
  • Strategic gaming.
  • Wargaming innovations.
  • Institutionalising wargaming and building the wargaming capacity.
  • Professor Rex Brynen is the key note speaker, talking about Advancing and Expanding the Craft of Wargaming.
  • The highly successful two-session Games Fair will again take place on Wednesday.

Cost. Connections UK is non-profit; it is a service to the wargaming community. Charges are as small as possible, sufficient to cover food, venue and whatever minimal administration is required. Serving UK personnel can use Learning Credits when attending Connections UK. The ‘megagame’ day has been costed separately from the main Conference days, so the costs for Connections UK 2016 are:

  • Megagame day: £60.
  • Main days: £135.

Location. The Connections UK 2016 location will again be Kings College London, The Strand Campus, in the Great Hall and Edmond J Safra Lecture Theatre.

Registration. Registration is open, but please note that the last booking date is 15 August, so do not leave this to the last minute! Register now at the KCL e-store web site.

Accommodation. Finding accommodation is an individual’s responsibility, but there are two Connections UK-specific deals to be aware of. The Strand Palace offers reduced rates for Connections UK delegates (approx £135 per night depending on room type), and KCL has cheap and cheerful student accommodation available (approx £50 per night). Details are on the KCL estore web site at the ‘More Info’ tab.

Points of Contact and further information. See the Connections UK website  for the periodically updated 2016 programme, content of former conferences, etc. Coverage of previous conferences can also be found here at PAXsims.

Please send general questions to or detailed queries concerning registration and administration to Bisi Olulode at

Simulation manager wanted

Critical Ops is looking for a Simulation Manager to plan and facilitate emergency preparedness training simulations. Details are below(pdf).

Simulation Manager_Critical Ops JOB

Note: PAXsims is not involved in this position in any way, so please do not contact us about it. There’s no closing date on the announcement, but there’s likely little point in contacting them several weeks after this posting.


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