Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Hostage Negotiator

The following review was contributed by the ever-mysterious Tim Price.

Hostage Negotiator. Game designer: A. J. Porfirio. Don’t Panic Games/Last Level/Van Ryder Games, 2015. USD $24.99

Hostage Negotiator is a single-player game involving cards and dice. The player plays the role of the Hostage Negotiator in a scenario where someone has taken hostages and is threatening to kill them unless their demands are met.

Hostage Negotiator1.png

The basic game mechanic is that you have a “Hostage Negotiator Tableau” on which there is a track representing the mental state of the Hostage Taker. This represents the threat level and, if the threat level is low, you get more opportunities to influence the Hostage Taker and perhaps get hostages released; or if the threat level is high, your chances of influencing the Hostage Taker reduce and the chances that he will kill a hostage increases. There are random “Terror” cards and “Pivotal Events” to add flavour and increase uncertainty.

The principal tactics are to select “Conversation Cards”, each of which has a cost in “Conversation Points” and a risk/reward payoff with regard to the threat level. The aim is to get at least half of the hostages out alive and capture/kill the Hostage Taker, or to rescue all the hostages, in order to win.

The game is well made with very high-quality components, the rules booklet is clear and well-illustrated and the scenarios are well balanced. The box is small with no wasted space and the time to play is 15 to 30 minutes.

I’m really not a fan of solo games, but the idea of someone making a game about hostage negotiation really intrigued me. There are some minor niggles with the rules (exceptions to existing rules at different times in the game), but they are generally clear and easy to follow.

Hostage Negotiator2.jpg

The game was tense and developed a credible narrative following the cards played. I became engrossed and, after messing things up horribly (with most of the hostages getting killed), I immediately played again – which is always a good sign. I then introduce the game to someone who really isn’t a game player but was also intrigued by the subject and it was just as much fun, if not more so, working together to decide on the best negotiating strategy.

The reason that I’m writing a review here for PAXsims is that the game struck me as a possible model for social media influence, or other “hearts and minds” effects base influence operations. The threat track could easily be modified to represent “Social Media Sentiment” or “Support for the NATO Peacekeepers” with measurable effects occurring at the points where a hostage would have been released or killed. Modifying the conversation cards into a range of different “effects” gambits would be a very useful exercise, along with working out appropriate alternatives to the random “Terror” cards.

There is a lot of interest in “social media” simulation and emulation at the moment in Defence. A number of large simulation companies are offering to replicate various social media demographic groups by the use of “AI and machine learning”. The aim is to generate a social media feed that is supposed to replicate the target demographic to such an extent that the users can try out influence strategies for the purposes of training.

My personal view is that you might be able to use “AI and machine learning” to some extent to identify useful information from a mass of background noise, but this is several orders of magnitude away from being able to replicate those feeds to a level of fidelity for training purposes. These approaches are also likely to be hugely expensive and take some years before they could possibly be effective. In the meantime, we need to train people in “hearts and minds” and “effects” on people’s beliefs and attitudes, right now. Current training consists of scripted injects into exercises that are either trivial “box-ticking” exercises or at best short-term interventions that are deliberately limited in their effects so as to avoid upsetting the normal flow of training.

I think that the process of looking at a simple and inexpensive, off-the-shelf, little game like this; with a view to modifying it to produce a manual game system for effects and influence, may have a much greater payoff than putting one’s hope in a large multi-national company’s promise of “AI and machine learning”…

I intend to try this idea out and hope to be able to report back shortly.

Tim Price

Review of Islamic State: The Syria War

Islamic State: The Syria War. Game designer: Javier Romero. Game developer: Ty Bomba. One Small Step/CounterFact magazine, 2017. USD$32.00 (including magazine).

Islamic State is a two-player game included as part of CounterFact magazine #7. It examines the struggle against Daesh (also known as ISIS or the Islamic State) in Syria. Game play is semi-cooperative, in that the Syrian/Russian/Iranian side and the US/Coalition/SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, including the Syrian Kurds/YPG) side are both fighting against non-player Daesh, and neither can win unless the Islamic State is defeated. However, if Daesh is sufficiently weakened, the game reverts to being full competitive, in that only one of the two players can ultimately triumph. The game is similar in general design to Islamic State: Libya War, published in 2016. The rules can be downloaded for free here.


Image credit: Javier Romero (via BGG).

Islamic State: Syria War uses point-to-point movement, which is appropriate given the geography, population distribution, and transportation network found in Syria. Indeed, a very similar system was used in the Countering ISIL game designed by the rapid prototyping working group at the 2015 MORS special meeting on wargaming. That game was later developed by RAND for use in professional settings.

Players have a number of combat options to choose from each turn, ranging from movement/ground combat to reconnaissance, air/artillery strikes, snatch-and-grab operations, and targeted killings, The actions of Daesh are largely determined by chit draw, and might include military offensives, infiltration, subversion, kidnappings, and smuggling. From time to time, other Syrian rebel factions or Turkey might also take action through a similar mechanism. When combat occurs, Daesh forces are randomly drawn, with some units having particular characteristics such as limited anti-tank or anti-air capability, or use of IEDs and human shields.

Islamic State: The Syria War has some rough edges. Some game mechanisms could be a little more elegant, and the rules have some gaps or areas where they could be clearer. It also very much focuses on Syria through the prism of Daesh, and rather than the struggle between the Syrian opposition and the Asad regime. Nevertheless, for a small magazine game it features some interesting elements, and it nicely captures many key aspects of the conflict. I particularly liked the portrayal of special operations forces, the role that intelligence collection plays in the game, and the way in which Daesh activity can be slowed by eliminating leaders or sealing the northern (Turkish) border.

GCAM2.0 “Comprehensive Approach” simulation

Last week, Dr. Anja van der Hulst (TNO and University of Amsterdam) was kind enough to run a game of the (somewhat-awkwardly-named) “Go4it Comprehensive Approach simulation Model” (or GCAM2.0) for 18 student volunteers from my POLI 450 course on peacebuilding. It went very well indeed.

GCAM2.0 was developed in cooperation with the NATO Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) Centre of Excellence, and is now regularly used in both Dutch and NATO military training. The “comprehensive approach” itself is NATO jargon intended to underscore the need to engage a variety of means and tools and a multiplicity of actors in stabilization operations:

NATO’s new Strategic Concept, adopted at the Lisbon Summit in November 2010, underlines that lessons learned from NATO operations show that effective crisis management calls for a comprehensive approach involving political, civilian and military instruments. Military means, although essential, are not enough on their own to meet the many complex challenges to Euro-Atlantic and international security. Allied leaders agreed at Lisbon to enhance NATO’s contribution to a comprehensive approach to crisis management as part of the international community’s effort and to improve NATO’s ability to contribute to stabilzation and reconstruction.

GCAM2.0 is a card-driven game with computer-assisted adjudication, in which four sets of players—the local government in a fragile and conflict-affected country, a (UN or NATO) foreign task force, NGOs, and opposition forces (OPFOR)—allocate limited resources each turn to a range of possible assessments and interventions.


When the interventions are entered into the computer, it immediately updates a range of political, security, and socio-economic indicators, which are displayed to players as a series of bar graphs. The effectiveness of interventions may be affected by contextual conditions, such as security; by what other cards have or have not yet been played; and by how many teams have allocated resources to support any given initiative.


Teams discuss what actions to take, while the projector indicates the current situation.


Players look at their cards and hence various options.


More discussions and planning.

In our game, OPFOR decided early on to not pick a fight with the Task Force, but rather try to appear cooperative—while at the same time laying the groundwork for its own de facto administration in the conflict area. They did this by supporting their own clinics, schools, and other projects (often securing NGO or Task Force support), while always finding some excuse not to support government initiatives. The Local Government grew ever more frustrated that no one was listening to their legitimate authority.


Players wait to see the results of their latest actions as Anja enters the details into her computer.

As their local popularity grew, so too did OPFOR resources. In the end they even branched out into drug production —and, what’s more, somehow managed to convince the NGO team to fund it under the guise of being “an alternative agricultural project”.


An investment in illegal drug production.


Anja and OPFOR (locally known as “Team Evil”) thank an NGO representative for her unwitting contribution to the local drug trade.

The game lasted about 2 and a half hours, and everyone seemed to both enjoy themselves and learn from the experience —including the importance of not blindly supporting projects suggested by nefarious local rebel factions!

You’ll find a fuller academic paper on GCAM2.0 here.

Crisis in Galasi

Next week I’m off to France to take part in a conference on the urban dimensions of religious conflict, organized by Prof. Mick Dumper (University of Exeter). In addition to the usual academic papers and discussions, this conference will also include a simulation set in Galasi, the fictional capital of the fictional country of Carana. This envisages the rise of a Christian populist political party, a nervous Muslim minority, and a possible clash over a disputed religious site, the Sultan Hamad bin Said Mosque (or Church of St. Mychil).

I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

DIRE STRAITS at McGill University

On Sunday, some one hundred participants took part in DIRE STRAITS, a megagame exploring crisis stability in East and Southeast Asia.

McGill University’s third annual megagame, DIRE STRAITS, is set in the year 2020. It explores crisis stability in East and Southeast Asia in the context of an unpredictable Trump Administration, growing Chinese strategic power, and multiple regional crises.

How will the region and the world deal with the challenge of North Korean nuclear weapons? Will China consolidate its hold over the South China Sea? How might relations between Beijing and Taiwan develop if the latter decides to adopt a more independent path? And how will the White House—beset by scandal, factional infighting, and an angry, unpredictable President—respond?

This is the second time Jim Wallman and I have run the game—the first time was at the Connections UK wargaming conference at King’s College London back in September, which prompted this BBC News report. So, how did it go this time around? Very well, I think.

In contrast to the KCL game, at McGill the various ASEAN countries started to push back quite hard against Chinese territorial claims and illegal fishing in the South China Sea. Vietnam at one point dropped practice depth charges to warn of a Chinese sub, and Indonesia and the Phillipines both arrested Chinese fishing vessels or tangled with Chinese naval and coast guard vessels—with aggressive maneuvering by both sides causing several collisions.


Military forces in and around the Korean peninsula.

North Korea tested a multiple reentry-vehicle (MRV) warhead on its Hwasong-15 ICBM, lobbing it over Japan to a splash-down in the Pacific. (A Japanese effort to intercept the test with an Aegis BMD was unsuccessful.) Thereafter, however, diplomacy prevailed, with the two Koreas and Japan signing an agreement that called for advance warning of tests and military exercises, and which also resolved a number of outstanding fishing issues. Hedging their bets, both South Korea and Japan took some preliminary steps that would facilitate the launch of a future nuclear weapons programme.

Part of the reason for this was the unpredictability of US policy, which seemed to oscillate wildly as different factions in the White House fought for influence. (Such was the level of political turmoil in Washington DC that at one point the White House Chief of Staff sought to have the Secretary of State fired—only for the maneuver to backfire, and the Chief of Staff be fired by President Trump instead.) Ultimately the US did fire on one North Korean sub that was shadowing a US carrier too closely, but fortunately this did not spark North Korean retaliation.

India proved very successful at advancing it’s interest in disputed border regions, using covert information operations and diplomacy to deepen defence cooperation with both Bhutan and Nepal. In this they were aided by the other demnds on China’s attentions, with Beijing facing multiple crises.

The most important of these was Taiwan, where revelations of Chinese election hacking had caused a massive backlash against Beijing. China continued to conduct cyberwarfare against Taiwan, and even funded some opposition groups, but this only seemed to increase Taiwan’s resolve to seek greater independence from the mainland. The extent to which ASEAN countries were pushing back against China was undoubtedly a factor in China’s growing strategic frustration too.


Nationalist fervour in Taiwan. Shortly thereafter sirens would sound, indicating incoming PLA missiles and aircraft.

Finally, as the crisis grew, aggressive maneuvering by the two sides in the Strait of Taiwan escalated into open military clashes. Ships and aircraft from a US carrier task force supported Taiwan. This led the Chinese to mount a full-scale invasion of the island—and to put their nuclear forces on full alert to deter any more outside intervention as they sought to repress their “rebellious province.”

The game thus ended with Chinese troops having secured a bloody foothold on the island, as the outnumbered and outgunned Taiwanese armed forces fought back resolutely.

The game was essentially the same as the KCK version, with only a few small tweaks: less form-filling, a system of intelligence cards, and a simplified system for indicating commitment and military orders.  Once again, our media team did a terrific job of keeping everyone informed of what was happening.

We’ll be doing another McGill megagame in February 2019, so watch this space!

“In-Stride Game Adjudication” Session at Connections US 2018

Invitation to participate as an expert panelist

Many multiplayer events require adjudication to be performed simultaneously with play over a period of hours or days. This session will focus on the unique challenges for success in such events. After a introduction of the topic, each participant will spend 10 minutes outlining a specific challenge/problem of their choice experienced in such events, offer approaches to how to solve these challenges and highlight the advantages/disadvantages of each approach based on logic and experience. Following the speakers we will engage in an open discussion between the speakers and the floor.

an-army-lines-up-for-battle-paul-noth.jpgEach participant will commit to providing a white paper (minimum three page text, not PowerPoint, but as long as you like) describing the challenges they are addressing, their proposed approach, the logic and experience that leads them to believe their approach might work, and the disadvantages of their approach BEFORE the conference. They may downselect to a specific challenge when speaking at the panel. They will also assist in producing the product from the session — a stand-alone report containing the panelists pre-delivered white papers, a bibliography on the topic, and notes generated from the session. Ownership and rights to sections of the product will belong to the relevent authors. Your white paper can be a previously published (relevent!) piece so long as you provide permission to include it in our report.

The objectives of the session are to start a research conversation on the topic, identify people working the topic, and create a written document for promulgation to the wargaming community.

Examples of topics could include the following when doing in-stride adjudication:

  • How to provide timely adjudication
  • Rigid versus Free adjudication
  • Inductive versus Deductive adjudication
  • Dealing with aberrant player behavior
  • Dealing with observed player agendas
  • Recovering from adjudication errors
  • Whatever else you can think of …

(1) If you are interested in being on the panel please email both of us as soon as possible along with a very brief outline of your paper and presentation for us to review.

(2) If you would like to submit a white paper for inclusion in the session report but do not want to speak, please send that to both of us.

(3) Everyone, please email both us us with your suggested items for a bibliography of the topic.

We have seats for 8 panelists.

Many thanks for your considerstion

Merle Robinson,

Stephen Downes-Martin,

CONNECTIONS NORTH 2018 wargaming conference report


On February 24, almost two dozen defence analysts, game designers, academics, and conflict simulation students met at McGill University for the CONNECTIONS NORTH miniconference on professional wargaming in Canada. It was a modest affair, but also a resounding success, I think—possibly the largest meeting of its kind ever held in Canada.  We were also buoyed, of course, by the official message of support and encouragement sent on in advance of our meeting by our British wargaming colleagues at Dstl. A key impetus for the meeting was the presence of a number of professional colleagues from Ottawa and Kingston who had travelled to Montreal for the DIRE STRAITS megagame at McGill on Sunday, which will be the subject of a subsequent report.


Waiting for things to start.

The afternoon started off with three surveys of wargaming and other serious gaming. Ben Taylor (Defence Research and Development Canada) discussed the development of gaming techniques to support and enhance the Capability-Based Planning (CBP) process. DRDC CORA is exploring matrix games as a relatively simple method for exploring scenarios and scenario development, and recent games involving a former defence planning scenario have found considerable receptivity. One advantage of a matrix game approach, he suggested, is that players are not limited by game components, and therefore more likely to think broadly and creatively. In the discussion that followed, participants raised such issues as the need for senior leadership-buy in, possible limitations of matrix games for operation or tactical-level gaming, the strengths and weaknesses of more structured gaming techniques (such as RCAT) and how various gaming approaches might be integrated, and where in the CBP gaming methodologies best fitted. You’ll find a copy of Ben’s slides here.

Next, I offered an overview of various gaming initiatives that I have been involved with, whether in a teaching capacity at McGill University, in support of educational and policy research initiatives elsewhere, or through PAXsims. I also raised the issue of how best to carry forward the momentum we have seen in Canada in the past year or so, marked by the establishment of the CONNECTIONS NORTH email list for professional wargamers/policy gamers, the informal networks that have emerged from the Diplomatic Challenges in the South China Sea game that Global Affairs Canada sponsored last fall, from DRDC initiatives, and now from this conference. You’ll find the slides from my presentation here.

Connections North

Anja van der Hulst (TNO) then discussed some of the game initiatives she has been involved with recently. Of particular interest was her discussion of exploring hybrid warfare using matrix games. She noted that game design and components had a substantial impact on game play, with a preponderance of military assets predisposing players to kinetic methods. Anja also raised the important role that emotions and other psychological factors can play in shaping player behaviour and strategy. This spurred considerable discussion throughout the conference as to how best to encourage players to internalize game narratives and respond in ways that resemble either the psychology of particular actors, or their value systems, fears, and concerns.

A coffee break followed, complete with Timbits. This was a Canadian wargaming conference, after all.

After the break, Jim Wallman (Stone Paper Scissors) offered some perspectives on the UK Royal Air Force’s recent Eagle Warrior exercise, which consisted on one major wargame and  series of associated games. As noted by the RAF:

Exercise Eagle Warrior brought together the best and brightest military minds from the Royal Air Force, British Army, Royal Navy, Joint Force Command, Defence Intelligence, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the United States Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

This operational-level war game was the first of its kind in eight years but was in fact much more than a game alone, it was a platform for conceptual analysis and critical thinking as well as the development of further interoperability with our Allies.

The wargame lasted two weeks with multiple games being played throughout, focussing on how wars might look in 2030.


Exercise Eagle Warrior (picture credit: RAF)

While Jim was constrained to address only unclassified aspects of the exercise, he offered extremely valuable insight into the challenges of senior leadership engagement (both as a positive factor, and as a challenge for game facilitation), rapid game design, and the importance of game design and materials in shaping player experiences.

Grand Designs Design Thinking in Games Graphic Design Presentation

All of this led nicely into a presentation by Tom Fisher (Imaginetic) on “Design Thinking in Games,” in which he discussed how the presentation of a game shaped player experience, above and beyond the formal system represented in the game rules. Specifically, he drew upon Don Norman’s three levels of game design: visceral, behavioural, and reflective. Visceral design addresses the almost unconscious impact of graphic design and game components on how players “feel” about the game, and the intellectual and emotional associations these stimulate. Behavioural design is about usability, and how the graphic presentation of the game enhances, or detracts from, playability. Finally, the reflective element of design concerns how a player rationalizes the game experience, and the impact that it has. Throughout, Tom warned about inappropriate graphic or component choices that force players out of engagement and narrative (and also warned against the danger that beguiling graphics can result in players accepting unrealistic or misleading models of reality). Finally he emphasized the importance of making game designs as simple as possible for a given purpose, the value of “dual coding” (in which text and graphics are mutually reinforcing), and how one can use a player’s preexisting mental model to make something more acceptable and convincing. You’ll find a copy of his slides here.


Some of the participants at CONNECTIONS NORTH.

That ended the formal activities for the day. In the evening, however, we ran a game of A RECKONING OF VULTURES from the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK) for those who wanted to stick around.

A RECKONING OF VULTURES is set in the capital of the fictional Republic of Matrixia. There, in the ornate Presidential Palace, surrounded by his most loyal Presidential Guards, the President-for-Life lies on his death-bed—and various power-hungry factions are jostling to take power themselves. Once the President passes, competition between these would-be successors will escalate into open conflict, until the Central Committee of the Ruling Party can meet and agree on a new leader.

The game was designed to show how matrix games can be used to explore a range of issues and modalities, from political maneuvering through to tactical employment of force in complex urban environments.


In the first phase of our game, the Central Security and Intelligence Directorate (secret police) largely focused on gaining information and leverage, including control over the media. The Matrixian Armed Forces moved potentially disloyal troops away from key power centres, and focused on securing the loyalty of the armed forces. The Ministry of Interior dispatched police units to the potentially rebellious university campus, while the Oligarchs rented thugs and bribed religious leaders. The National Union of Toilers (NUT) infiltrated union organizers into the police unit guarding the prison, as well as a key armoured battalion (which had spent days parading around the city since no one wanted it outside their power base).


Early in the game of A RECKONING OF VULTURES.

When the President-for-Life died, NUT sympathizers in the police seized the main prison, while the tank battalion declared itself a supporter of the proletarian revolution. CSID control of the media and the Oligarchs’ influence with religious establishment allowed both of them to shape public expectations. The MAF commander was successful in both ordering military reinforcements to the city and securing the loyalty of the Presidential Guard, both of which then attacked CSID headquarters with support and encouragement from NUT protesters. Although the CSID spymaster managed to escape this attack, his efforts to relocate to the Central Bank were foiled when his thuggish convoy of black SUVs was shot up by soldiers at a MAF checkpoint. At a critical moment, the NUT-controlled tanks stormed the campus, and freed the students there from the tyranny of police occupation.

Finally, the Central Committee of the Ruling Party met. The Minister of the Interior went into the balloting with a small advantage, for the police had shown the foresight to quietly occupy several key locations in the city while everyone else fought. In the end, however, it was the MAF Commander who emerged victorious and was named the new President.


Simulation and gaming miscellany, 23 February 2018


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. Bill Rogers suggested material for this latest edition.

Have suggestions for our next update? Send them on!


Arnold Games.jpg

The Joseph “Jay” Arnold discusses “Buildings Teams with Board Games” in the January 2018 edition of the United States Naval Institute Proceedings:

Leaders are often at a loss to find successful team-building exercises, frequently falling back on stereotypical team sports or costly outside facilitators. Many modern board games offer an opportunity for team-based and cooperative play that can provide surprisingly innovative team-building. Unlike tired old family standbys such as “Monopoly,” “Clue,” or “Sorry,” these more recent games are tailor-made to be more challenging, more cerebral, and more likely to encourage repeat play. Furthermore, these games can help your team develop transferable skills—performing complex tasks while stressed, anticipatory planning, and interpersonal communications. A class of Illinois Army National Guard officer candidates recently tested the value of such games by playing the science-fiction game “Space Cadets: Dice Duel” by Stronghold Games as part of a weekend activity and found it valuable.


Waypoint features a thoughtful interview with Luke Hughes about his new wargame (or tactical leadership RPG), Burden of Command:

Burden of Command follows a historical company of U.S. soldiers, part of the Army’s 7th Infantry Regiment “Cottonbalers,” through some of the now-familiar beats of World War II. And even though if you squint a bit the game might look like a familiar wargame complete with hexes and unit counters, its focus is on relationships rather than rounds of ammunition and armor levels.

For Hughes, empathy and what he calls “emotional authenticity” are the focal points for the design of Burden of Command. The studio has set out a rather prickly design problem: synthesizing battlefield tactics and doctrine with moral decisions about how to respond to the needs of your men in a way that’s both historically accurate and engaging on a deep level. And to do this, they’ve shifted their focus away from rounds per minute statistics and onto the psychological concept of suppression—which is, essentially, the tactical application of fear.

“Most games treat firepower as the essence—I mean, pick a shooter. It’s all about landing those bullets, that’s how you win. Wargames too, for that matter, focus on firepower,” Hughes explained. “In our game, it’s all about fear of death. So when you fire at the enemy, you probably don’t kill them. If they’re not fools and running around in the open, they’re probably down on the ground, behind some cover, and you’re not going to hit them.”

You’ll also find an interview with Hughes here at the GrogHeads podcast.


At War on the Rocks, Michael Peck discusses what GMT Games’ Churchill might teach us about alliance politics.

The ultimate lesson of Churchill is that diplomacy matters. The game simulates this through cards and dice (players can make agreements among themselves, though the rules emphasize that these are notbinding). But the game beautifully illuminates how clever, incompetent or perhaps unlucky diplomacy at a conference table can profoundly influence a nation’s strategy.

Churchill also illustrates an essential truth of both alliances and marriages: conflict and cooperation must exist, even if in uneasy harmony. To defeat the Axis, the Allies must work together. America, Russia, and Britain will win some issues at the conference table, and lose others. There is no shame in not winning it all, as long as you win what you need.

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. State Department is losing seasoned diplomats. In fact, diplomacy and alliance-building seem to have lost ground to belligerent tweets and unilateral actions. But as Churchill the man and Churchill the game would agree, this is no strategy for victory.



Red Team Journal continues to regularly feature items of interest to serious gamers, including recent blog posts on the important of addressing cognitive processes and bias, and frequent shortcomings of Red Team engagement.



The Wavell Room recently discussed the “Utility of Wargaming.

War games create a training environment in which we can test ourselves against the frictions and frustrations of combat.  It allows us to model the impact of chance and improve both our planning and execution of military operations.  This article highlights the key themes from the HQ 20 Armoured Infantry Brigade (20 Brigade) experience of war gaming.  It aims to encourage others to take up war gaming as a serious professional development tool.  20 Brigade has used war gaming, specifically the Army designed Camberley Kreigsspiel, successfully to test plans and enable the execute. War gaming is also fun; it is a conversational team activity that players enjoy.  The key lesson for the Brigade is that it must be taken seriously and engaged with as we would any other battle.


The Asia Times offers some insights into the use of computer games and related technologies within China’s People’s Liberation Army:

Chinese soldiers are being encouraged to indulge their patriotic enthusiasm via computer games like Command & Conquer: Red Alert and its homemade shooter game Glorious Mission to hone their skills for national defense in the real world.

The People’s Liberation Army Daily says that artificial intelligence, computer games and wearable devices will be new tools to train commanders and new recruits in real-time strategy games with inputs from the country’s intelligence system to mock wartime conditions, and a raft of parameters adjustable to simulate different combat scenarios.

Glorious Mission has been criticised for trivializing the reality of war by presenting conflict as a video game, but an updated version has gone a step further by allowing gameplay on the Diaoyu Islands, or Senkaku in Japanese, which has been at the center of the bitter spat between Beijing and Tokyo over the past decade.



The Atlantic has an interesting piece on how “The Shape of Ancient Dice Suggests Shifting Beliefs in Fate and Chance.”

Dice, in their standard six-sided form, seem like the simplest kind of device—almost a classic embodiment of chance. But a new study of more than 100 examples from the last 2,000 years or so unearthed in the Netherlands shows that they have not always looked exactly the way they do now. What’s more, the shifts in dice’s appearance may reflect people’s changing sense of what exactly is behind a roll—fate, or probability.

We’ve discussed before at PAXsims how dice and chance are perceived differently by different groups (such as hobby gamers and military officers), and also how game components embody cultural views and player expectations.



The 2018 edition of the Geo-Political Simulator, “Power and Revolution,” is now available:

With the 2018 add-on, you can participate in the conquest of space and try to be the first to set foot on Martian soil,  battle cybercrime and use it to cripple your enemies, administer justice to the roster of terrorists to thwart attacks and step in to prevent World War Three by overthrowing the American president and neutralizing North Korea.


The Kickstarter for Nights of Fire is now live. Nights of Fire is a much-anticipated card-driven boardgame of confrontation in Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, designed by Brian Train and David Turczi. The game can be played solo, cooperatively by 2 players, or by 1-2 players against a third opponent in charge of Soviet forces.


According to the Daily Mail,A police simulation featuring hundreds of brawling soccer spectators invading a stadium has sparked outrage.”

The New South Wales Police scenario, played out at a secret training facility in Sydney’s west, soon raised the ire of soccer fans online.

Furious followers of the sport accused the police force of stereotyping and bias, saying they should focus on riots or violent cricket or rugby league fans instead.

You’ll find more on the story from Nine News.



Meanwhile, at McGill University, there continues to be a great of conflict simulation work underway. Students in my POLI 490 conflict simulation design seminar are working on their projects (urban operations in Mosul, the Darfur War, and China’s One Belt One Road initiative). The class has also recently played demonstration games of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game and Islamic State: The Syria War as they explore the challenge of designing semi-cooperative games.

I’ve completed work on the “Crisis in Carana” game that I’ll be running at a forthcoming academic conference on urban religious conflict.


Game briefings for Crisis in Carana. Note the ominous “People Who Don’t Like To Be Photographed” name tag…

Finally, this weekend is the CONNECTIONS NORTH 2018 miniconference on Saturday, followed by the DIRE STRAITS megagame on Sunday. It will be a busy weekend indeed!


Last, and almost certainly least: the New Learning Times contains an interview with yours truly on serious gaming. You’ll find it here.

Cunning plans: Connections UK 2017 feedback and 2018 sneak peak

Graham Longley-Brown has kindly passed on the following report on feedback from the Connections UK 2017 professional wargaming conference, and an early peek at what 2018 will look like.

Many thanks to everyone who completed the Connections UK 2017 feedback survey, and a warm welcome to those who have expressed an interest in finding out more about professional wargaming.

The Connections UK 2018 conference will be, as far as we can make it, a precise reflection of your views and requests in the 2017 feedback survey. The resulting conference outline is below. If this is of interest, please note the dates 4 – 6 September 2018 in your diary. I will distribute registration details presently. More details of Connections UK, including all previous presentations, can be found at the Connections UK website.

Connections UK 2018

If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. 91% of survey respondents found the 2017 conference useful or very useful; 85% said you would attend a future Connections UK; and 91% thought the conference was the right length. Some survey comments:

  • ‘An excellent event, a great opportunity to meet professional wargamers and those crossing over into the hobby side. An invaluable experience for the UK wargaming community.’
  • ‘Overall this was an excellent and extremely encouraging event demonstrating the high international standing of UK wargaming.’
  • ‘Looking forward to 2018!

However, as the comments below illustrate, there are compelling reasons to go into more depth at Connections UK 2018. Answers to the question ‘How do we make the event better?’ included:

  • ‘More on practical approaches, case studies and insights.’
  • ‘Deep dives on game design and data capture, versus ‘we did this.’
  • ‘More emphasis on lessons learned from developing and delivering wargames.’
  • ‘Intellectual depth into the art and science of wargaming.’
  • ‘Methodology and best practice for analysis in wargames.’

Adopting a ‘deep, not broad’ approach accords with the Connections purpose, which is to advance and preserve the art, science and application of wargaming. So, this year we will concentrate on the ‘how to’ of wargaming, from design through execution and analysis to refinement. Expert speakers will talk in detail about the practicalities of designing and delivering wargames, and will include best practice and lessons identified, both positive and negative. The Games Fair and various breakout sessions will give you a hands-on experience of a large number of game designs and tools, and there will be plenty of time to network with many of the world’s best wargamers.

Three points the organisers would like to add:

  • The ‘High North’ was briefed last year by the UK MOD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC). This remains a topic of interest for Defence. Games that feature the ‘High North’ would be most welcome at the Games Fair. DCDC’s presentation can be found here.
  • There were a number of requests in the survey to feature the psychology of wargaming, human decision-making and such like. Rather than try to squeeze that – large and significant – topic into the 2018 conference, we are considering devoting most or all of Connections UK 2019 to this.
  • Games selected to be shown at the Games Fair will qualify for one free place per game. Conference fees for all three days will be waived.

Connections UK 2018 details

  • Connections UK purpose. Advance and preserve the art, science and application of wargaming.
  • Dates. Tuesday 4 – Thursday 6 September 2018.
  • Venue. Kings College London, The Strand, London, UK.
  • Cost: no change from 2017 (and 2016!): £60 for the megagame/Introduction to wargaming day; plus £135 for the two main days. Connections UK is not for profit; the cost covers administration and food, which is provided.
  • Themes. ‘How to’ wargame. Best practice, in-depth insights, and lessons identified in the wargame ‘steps’ below. You will note a striking resemblance between these and the MOD Wargaming Handbook, which is available online as a free download.
    • Design.
    • Development.
    • Execution.
    • Analysis.
    • Validation.
    • Refinement.
  • Key note speakers: Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train. We are extremely fortunate that Volko and Brian, two of the world’s leading wargame designers, have agreed to help us. Straddling recreational and serious gaming, and with decades of award-winning and high-profile game design behind them, they will participate in multiple plenary sessions, as well as deliver the key note address. For any who don’t know Volko and Brian:

Volko Ruhnke is a game designer with three decades of experience in the US intelligence community. He most recently served as an analytic instructor, making extensive use of boardgames in the classroom. He also is an award-winning creator of numerous commercial wargames, such as GMT Games’ COIN Series about insurgency and counterinsurgency.

Brian Train has been designing conflict simulation games for the civilian market for over 20 years, with over 45 published designs to date. His articles and games have been published by a wide range of large and small firms. His special interests in game design are irregular warfare, “pol-mil” games, concepts of political influence in games, and asymmetry in games generally. In his spare time, he is an Education Officer in the Ministry of Advanced Education of British Columbia, Canada.

  • Outline. Some details remain to be confirmed, but the conference structure should look like that shown below. The left-hand column includes the themes, or wargame ‘steps’, mentioned above, and shouldn’t change much. The right-hand column includes topics drawn from your feedback survey suggestions. These will be refined as we confirm speakers and chairs.
Day 1. Tuesday 4 September  
Introduction to wargaming for newcomers This will be an entirely separate event to the megagame, with a series of games interleaved with talks
Megagame This will be an engaging and fun ice-breaker on a serious and contemporary topic.
Component production Informal evening session.
Day 2. Wednesday 5 September  
Introduction Relating the conference structure to the MOD Wargaming Handbook wargame process.
Design 1. Dilemmas and Trade-Offs in wargame design.

2. Serious wargame design.

3. Design factors and choices.

Development 1. Game mechanics and processes.

2. Play-testing and Test Exercises.

3. Scenario development.

(Look forward to Execution) Scenario execution.
Games Fair session 1
Key note address Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train.
Games Fair session 2
Day 3. Thursday 6 September  
Execution 1. Wargaming uses.

2. Wargaming Case Study.

(3. Facilitation will be covered in a grand finale; see below).

4. Adjudication.

5. Automation – break out and demonstrations.
Analysis 1. Analysing wargames.

2. Data capture.

3. Lessons identified from the analysis of the 2017 Dire Straits megagame.

Validation 1. Validating wargames.

2. Applying wargaming lessons identified to the real world.

Refinement 1. Making wargames better.

2. Sharing best practice.

Facilitation (from Execution) Hands-on learning experience.

Please email me with any questions. Registration details will follow presently.

Graham Longley-Brown

How Russia wargames


In the latest issue of the British Army Review (Winter 2018), Steven Main explores “How Russia ‘Plays’ At War.”

Earlier this year, an announcement appeared concerning the re-opening of the War Games Centre in the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. According to the interview of the Commandant of the Academy, Lieutenant-General Sergei Kuralenko:

…after refurbishment, in the Military Academy of the General Staff is the Centre of War Games. It is a multi-media complex and, thanks to the latter, the Centre of War Games will be able to conduct inter-service war games, as well as [other] measures of an operational training nature.

In an earlier statement on the work of the War Games Centre, Kuralenko noted that:

…the reconstructed War Games Centre has all the latest achievements in the area of information technology, all the training and strategic and operational strategic command posts have been re-equipped. The conduct
of command staff and military-practical games at the aforementioned command posts to the fullest extent possible ensure the practical training of the students to assume high of ce in the Armed Forces, or other forces of the Russian Federation.

You’ll find the full article at the link above.

Simulation & Gaming, February 2018

sgbarThe latest edition of Simulation & Gaming 49, 1 (February 2018) is now available.






Gaming Material Ready to Use



McGill gaming update

McGill hex.jpg

It has been a good week for McGill University gaming-related activities.

On Monday and Tuesday, I had a very enjoyable (and, I hope, very productive) couple of days at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Alexandria, VA. Much of the time we were discussing the ethics and crisis management simulations IFES is developing to bolster the capacity of election commissions, with the view that it is best to practice these sorts of issues in a safe-to-fail game environment. I also had time to make a more general presentation on the use of simulations and serious games (pdf here). They are a terrific group of skilled and dedicated folks at IFES, and kept me well supplied with coffee and sugary treats.  As you might expect, any place that names its conference rooms after the murder locations in the board game Clue is going to be simulation-and-gaming friendly.

IFES elections

Wednesday was my weekly conflict simulation design seminar at McGill. We discussed aspects of game design (drawing heavily upon Phil Sabin’s excellent book Simulating War), and the students provided an update on the three group projects they are working on:

  • A wargame examining urban warfare in Mosul (2016-17). We had considerable discussion of how best to represent urban terrain, building types and density, urban population, transportation routes, ISIS defences (tunnels, fortified positions, various types of IEDs, human shields), and other elements in the game.
  • A wargame of the war in Darfur. This is intended to educate human rights workers, diplomats, development workers, and military personnel about the political and military logics of mass atrocity, with an eye to developing appropriate ways to deter and respond to them.
  • A strategic diplomatic/economic/military game of China’s One Belt One Road initiative. This is shaping up to be a semi-cooperative game, in which players represent different Chinese actors (for example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Liberation Army, state-owned enterprises, and the Chinese private sector).

We also heard a student presentation on gaming international humanitarian law. This largely looked at efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to promote greater IHL compliance in video games, including the partnership between ICRC and Bohemian Interactive which saw the release of IHL-themed downloadable content for the ARMA series of tactical first person shooters.

At the end of each seminar, we play a game (or at least part of one, since there is rarely time to finish). This week it was the 3 October 1993  “Lead the Way” scenario from Urban Operations, in which US Rangers and Delta Force personnel try to fight there way through hostile Somali militias to secure the crash site of Super 61 of “Blackhawk Down” fame. The game does a terrific job depicting urban terrain using a combination of hexes (for outside areas) and polygons (for buildings), which is why I had selected it as a demonstration game.

While all seemed to be going well at first for the Rangers, angry Somali crowds began to slow the Americans and growing numbers of Somalia National Alliance militia began to engage US forces. The Combat Search and Rescue team grimly held on at the crash site, using the helicopter wreckage to fortify their position as they drove back waves of attackers. Eventually they started to take casualties and run low on ammunition. Overhead, AH-6 Little Birds provided much-needed fire support, but found it increasingly difficult to get a clear shot at gunmen as the streets grew more crowded with angry local residents. Finally, Somali forces closed in on the Rangers from the west, and a lucky RPG shot took down one American platoon commander and forced the rest of his unit to take cover well short of Super 61.


The Rangers advance towards the crash site, harassed by angry crowds and SNA gunmen. Minutes later, however, additional militia reinforcements would arrive from the west (left), engaging the rear of the American force.

This week we also finished the annual McGill AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament. This was a optional activity for students in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course, and 28 of them chose to take part as one of four teams. There are class participation bonuses for taking part, for being part of the highest-scoring winning game, and for being a member of the highest scoring individual team. In order to provide a similar level of challenge, and also to optimize teachable moments, the Event deck was prepared before each game to present an identical sequence of challenges and opportunities for each group.


The results of the 2018 McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament.

This year, two of the games were wins, one was a narrow loss, and other was a more substantial loss. This is the third year I’ve run the game for the class–you’ll find last year’s results here.

IMG_9264 2

This year’s winning team at work in the 2018 McGill AFTERSHOCK tournament.

Finally, we’ve sold most of the tickets for the DIRE STRAITS megagame at McGill on February 25 (although there are still some available, if you’re interested). The scenario video for the game was posted earlier today here on PAXsims.

DIRE STRAITS: the video

On February 25, McGill University will host its 3rd annual megagame: DIRE STRAITS, a game of crisis and confrontation in East and Southeast Asia. The video we will be using to introduce the game scenario is below—assuming, that is, that no one starts a real nuclear war on the Korean peninsula in the next three weeks.

While most of the tickets for the event have been sold, there are some remaining via Eventbrite. We hope to see you there!

Military Operations Research Society 86th symposium


The 86th annual symposium of the Military Operations Research Society will take place on 18-21 June 2018 at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California:

This year’s sessions will be conducted at the classified and unclassified clearance level with FOUO options.  Corresponding portions of the Symposium are open to U.S. Citizens with or without a clearance and cleared “Five EYES” (FVEY) participants with some restrictions.

The 86th Symposium will include 500+ sessions taking place in 33 Working Groups, 7 Composite groups, Distributed Working Groups, Special Sessions, Demos, Tutorials and CEU Courses over the four-day program.

Take advantage of this unique opportunity at the 86th Symposium to present your work and get valuable feedback from your colleagues across the National Security community.  The submission deadline is 16 February 2018.  MORS Service Sponsors are actively working on conference approvals for the 86th Symposium.

I won’t be there, alas—the clearance procedures and restrictions for FVEY participants are just too much of a hassle—but it is a great place to interact with others in the national security gaming community, as well as to learn about relevant insights from military operations research more broadly.

A busy year of gaming ahead


Well, 2018 is already shaping up to be a very busy year for PAXsims, and certainly for yours truly.

This term I’m teaching a small seminar on conflict simulation design at McGill University. This is really a dry run for a larger course next academic year—and, if that goes well, possibly a regular offering in the academic years ahead.

Starting this week, Hiba Zerrougui and I will be running an AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game tournament for students in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course. This is an optional event, in which players pick up bonus class participation credits for taking part, and an extra bonus if they win the tournament. You’ll find a report on last year’s version here.


Next week, I’ll be in Washington DC for a couple of days to assist the International Foundation for Electoral Systems to develop serious games and simulations for training election officials. IFES does terrific work around the world helping countries with the complex procedures and mechanisms of electoral democracy, and I’m happy to lend a hand. I’ll also be doing some work with the ICONS Project over the coming months.


On February 6, it’s off to my alma mater, the University of Calgary, to talk about the use of serious games in teaching about international development, and to run a demonstration game of AFTERSHOCK.


On February 24, we’ll be holding a CONNECTIONS NORTH miniconference at McGill University on professional wargaming in Canada, with around 20 participants. Small as it will be, it is likely to be the biggest assemblage of Canadians to discuss serious wargame development in quite some time.

The following day Jim Wallman (Stone, Paper, Scissors) and I will, together with members of our elite Control team, be running the 3rd annual McGill megagame, DIRE STRAITS. This is a revised version of the game that Jim and I organized for the Connections UK wargaming conference back in September (and which received international coverage from BBC News). Anja van der Hulst (TNO) will be passing through Montreal so that she can take part in both the conference and the game, and she’s kindly offered to run her comprehensive approach game for my students on the following Monday.

In early March, I’ll be taking part in a workshop on the urban dimensions of religious conflict, being organized by my colleague Mick Dumper (University of Exeter). Mick and I have worked on other conflict simulations before—including a prescient 2013 policy simulation that explored possible US cuts to UNRWA, and an educational simulation on the Syrian refugee crisis. This time I’ll be developing a multi-part crisis simulation, set in the fictional country of Carana, that will continue throughout the event. Our hope is that it will compliment the academic papers and discussion that are the main component of the workshop with some illustrative communal flash-points, conflict, and policy challenges.


In early April, civil war will once more stalk Cyberia, as more than one hundred students in POLI 450 and POLI 650 spend a week trying to bring peace to Brynania. This will be the 19th annual running of our massive McGill University peacebuilding simulation, and I’ll spend much of the time monitoring more than 15,000 emails between the participants in my role as CONTROL. The effort that the participants put into this is truly phenomenal, especially considering how little the activity actually counts for (10% of their course grade), and is testimony to the outstanding students we have at McGill. You’ll find a detailed account of the simulation here, in an article in PS: Political Science & Politics (2010).

During the summer, things won’t be slowing down all that much. I’ve got an article, and possibly a book chapter, to write on serious gaming. There may be another return visit to Dstl—I certainly hope so, since these have been a hugely valuable opportunity to see what my UK defence colleagues are up to. I hope to be presenting at the Connections US professional wargaming conference at National Defense University in July on the results of our DIRE STRAITS experiment, and I’ll certainly be attending the Connections UK wargaming conference at King’s College London in September.

Plus there are all sorts of game ideas germinating—some of which you will hopefully see on the pages of PAXsims in 2018. And that’s just me! Associate PAXsims editors Ellie Bartels, Devin Ellis, Tom Fisher, Gary Milante, and Tom Mouat are just as busy with their own projects too, many of which you will also see here in the year ahead.

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