Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: forthcoming games and simulations

Matrix game construction kit update #3

We have just had some of the components for the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK) prototype back from the printers, and we are very happy with the result.

MaGCK will contain one set of map tiles, used for A Reckoning of Vultures—a game of coup plotting, political skullduggery, and presidential succession.


Part of the map for A Reckoning of Vultures. The system of tokens and stickers used in MaGCK allows for a deal of customization—here we see political leader, police, a SWAT team, riot police, helicopter, firefighters, an ambulance, and a doctor. MaGCK will contain several hundred stickers and designs,

On the flip side of these there are generic urban tiles. These have isomorphic road connections, allowing them to be assembled in many different ways.


Generic urban terrain. By “many different ways” we mean to say that the map tiles can be assembled in more than 2.6 nonillion (10^30) different ways.

The kit also contains ten two-sided game tracks, which you can use for anything you want: tracking time, moves, die roll modifiers, and so forth.


All of this is due to the graphics wizardry of PAXsim’s very own Tom Fisher, of course.


Tom examines the latest components at my dining room table.

Many thanks to Dstl for supporting the project. Tom Mouat and I be reviewing the contents with them next month, and hope to do a public launch of MaGCK in September at the Connections UK professional wargaming conference.

You’ll find previous updates here:

MaGCK will also contain two scenarios for the ISIS Crisis matrix game, which we’ve written about extensively at PAXsims.


Even more goodies arrived today! Here you can see the box, tokens, and some of the stickers.


Prototype box, plus blank tokens (to which stickers are attached to indicate units, assets, effects, etc.), disks (used to track supply, turns, political influence—or whatever else you want), and dice.


No gaming system would be complete without its supply of thugs (or armed civilians, survivalists, militia, or criminals). These stickers would be fixed to the coloured tokens above.


Some of the box contents (minus rules, scenario briefings, tracking mats).


Pssst, need some stickers for your next matrix game?


UNSOC Northland

UNSOC Northland2
No, it’s not the latest UN peacekeeping force. Rather, UNSOC is Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos, the latest megagame from the fevered mind of mad genius Jim Wallman.

UNSOC is nor ordinary megagame, you see—instead, it is the world’s first wide-area megagame, with interlinked games being played simultaneously in eleven cities in five different countries. In Montreal, we’ll be playing the peaceable country of Northland, faced with a sudden and terrifying menace spreading from South-of-the Border:

Northland is a generally nice (if sometimes smug and self-righteous) place, known for its cold winters, hockey, doughnut shops, poutine, and polite do-gooders prone to apologize for the slightest transgression. As the country celebrates its birthday on July 1, however, this peaceable place may face its greatest threat ever.

South of the Border, something is happening. There are reports of violence, chaos, and panic well beyond the violence and chaos of daily life there. Military units are being mobilized, and this time not to invade some foreign country. Some even claim that undead hordes have taken to the streets in search of human brains—or, at the very least, free national health care. How much longer will it be before the urban nightmare moves north?

The game happens to fall on Canada Day, so that’s appropriate. Our game will be rather smaller than our last two games (New World Order 2035 and War in Binni). However it should be just as enjoyable for those many Canadian gamers who enjoy the complex interplay between federal-provincial relations and an impending apocalypse.

In the Montreal area on Canada Day, and interested in participating? Email me for more details, or buy a ticket at Eventbrite. We’ll be getting an early start, of course, to synchronize with the various European games.

SciTech Futures brainstorming


Matrix game construction kit update #1

Tom Fisher, Tom Mouat, and I are currently developing a matrix game construction kit that will contain pretty much everything anyone needs to design, and run, a matrix game. Specifically, it will include:

  • coloured tokens, representing the assets belonging to each player in a game;
  • a large collection of adhesive stickers for the tokens, representing pretty much all of the military units, civilians, and effects markers one might need;
  • access to Avery-format templates to enable additional stickers to be printed on any laser printer;
  • a general set of matrix game rules and design guidelines;
  • maps (in the kit, or downloadable);
  • two complete games to serve as examples.

The idea here is to make it relatively simple for anyone to buy the construction kit, design a game or scenario, and customize the tokens as need be using the stickers provided. We hope to have the entire thing finished by the Spring of 2017. Our efforts are being supported by Dstl.

The first game to be included will be ISIS CRISIS, with game scenarios covering both the rapid expansion of ISIS control in Iraq in 2014, and the Iraqi/Kurdish/coalition counter-offensives of 2015-16. ISIS CRISIS has been extensively playtested over the last couple of years, and  nicely illustrates how a matrix game can be used to model a contemporary political-miitary campaign at the strategic and operational level.

The second game will be a newly-designed one, A RECKONING OF VULTURES.

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 is on his death-bed—and various power-hungry factions are jostling to take power themselves. Once the President passes, competition between the would-be successors will escalate to open conflict until such time as the Central Committee of the Ruling Party can meet and agree on a successor.

A Reckoning of Vultures is a fictional scenario designed to demonstrate aspects of matrix game design. Unlike ISIS Crisis, the focus here is on urban space. Additional markers are used to indicate unit status, in this case the influence that rival factions seek to exert over actors, institutions, and assets. The game has three distinct phases—As Vultures Circle, By Beak and Talon, and The Buzzards’ Banquet—each with its own rules and game dynamics. Moreover, most of the final part of the game does not use matrix game-type interaction at all—thereby highlighting the ways in which a matrix game may be linked into another game system by generating scenarios, situations, or contexts.

Five factions compete for power in A RECKONING OF VULTURES:

  1. The Central Security and Intelligence Directorate (CSID) are Matrixia’s shadowy—and much-feared—secret police, responsible for maintaining a close watch on both dissidents and potential rival power centres within the regime. Although lacking large numbers of armed personnel, covert CSID operatives are well-placed to blackmail, influence, sabotage, subvert, or spy.
  2. The Matrixian Armed Forces (MAF) can call upon large numbers of military personnel located in three major military bases around the capital. Inter-service rivalries and the influence of other factions may mean, however, that not all MAF units are loyal or obey orders.
  3. The Ministry of the Interior (MoI) has authority over police and emergency services personnel in the capital. Although MoI units are well-positioned across the city, most are inferior in combat capability to those of the regular military.
  4. Much of what happens in Matrixia is controlled or influenced by a group of rich and powerful Oligarchs, who control much of the business sector. Although they have only a few private security guards and mercenaries to safeguard their positioned, they have considerable wealth that can be used further their political ambitions—as well as ties to the country’s major criminal syndicates.
  5. The National Union of Toilers (NUT) represents the downtrodden workers of the country. NUT hopes to mobilize the workers and their allies and advance their political agenda  through strikes, demonstrations, and direct action. If they are able to arm some of their followers into a workers’ militia, they could become very powerful indeed.

Last night Tom Fisher and I playtested with the game with five volunteers from McGill University, plus a generous supply of pizza. None of the players were professional or serious hobby wargamers, although four had previously played ISIS CRISIS, and the other had taken part in some of our other political-military games.


Setting up the game. Unlike the playtest version shown here, the final version of the game will include a fictional tiled urban map that can be assembled in many different ways.

All in all, the game went very well. It was certainly very close right up to the end.

Phase 1: As Vultures Circle

In the first phase of the game it looked as if CSID were establishing a commanding lead, having heavily infiltrated army units at the main military barracks. The Matrixia Armed Forces commander responded by redeploying suspect units away from key locations. The Ministry of Interior sought to purge CSID agents from among the ranks of the police. The wealthy Oligarchs focused on raising new funds, as did the National Union of Toilers.


Much plotting (and pizza) underway.

Phase 2: By Beak and Talon

When the President-for-Life died on turn 3, however, everything was thrown into turmoil. The loyalty of most Army units held. Moreover, the Army had secured influence in the forces guarding the CSID HQ, setting the stage for an extended battle for control there. The Oligarchs hired private security forces/mercenaries, and tried to seize the national airport—but were decimated by the MoI police units there.

presidential palace.jpeg

The President-for-Life is dead. Police units have blocked the nearest bridge, while rogue CSID and MAF units fight for control of the Intelligence Directorate. The colour of the token indicates (original) unit ownership, the adhesive graphic indicates unit type (police, infantry, leader, secret files, etc), and the smaller disks indicate units that have been subverted by another player.

MAF marines stormed the Presidential Palace, while MAF helicopter-borne paratroopers took control  of parliament. MAF aircraft also bombed the police units holding the Ruling Party headquarters, but to little effect. In retaliation MoI prison guards released NUT prisoners from the central prison, and together they sought to seize the main airforce base. They were unsuccessful.


Tom Fisher looks on as MAF Marines storm the Presidential Palace and Paratroopers seize Parliament.

Phase 3: The Buzzards Feast

The final phase of the game began when the Ruling Party finally met (despite delays due to MoI control of the airport) to choose a new President-for-Life. The MAF Chief of Staff started with a slight advantage due to control of strategic locations in the capital, although MoI control of the Ruling Party headquarters would prove useful when the various rounds of voting were tallied.

The Oligarchs and CSID were quickly eliminated from competition, although the former’s superior financial resources allowed them to survive the game intact and place second overall. In Matrixia, money talks!

The leader of the National Union of Toilers fell out of consideration next.  Due to the workers’ having seized control of the main port earlier in the game, however, he was able to escape the country. The proletarian struggle is not yet dead!

In the final round of voting the Minister of the Interior managed to narrowly beat the MAF Chief-of-Staff, who promptly fled the country.

However the head of CSID was less fortunate. The former secret police chief was arrested, executed, and found guilty of treason—in that order.

Next Steps

The game was a lot of fun. We also had some very useful feedback, and in particular we’ll be adjusting some of the rules, especially regarding influence and subversion. Everyone thought the three phases of the game worked well together, and nicely illustrated the different ways matrix game mechanisms could be used.

In the coming weeks and months we’ll be writing and modifying rules, finalizing graphics, and doing some more playtesting. Watch this space!

IMPACT: A Foresight Game is now on Kickstarter


IMPACT: A Foresight Game, which we recently discussed here at PAXsims, has now launched a Kickstarter campaign.

IMPACT: A Foresight Game


Policy Horizons Canada  (“an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.”) is working with Idea Couture to develop IMPACT: A Foresight Game. According to a piece in the Huffington Post by Robert Bolton of Idea Couture:

The objective of foresight is not to predict the future, but to prepare for many futures. That’s what makes a game such an ideal medium for learning foresight thinking. In more linear formats, such as a films or novels, the narrative is static. But board games are dynamic and can generate a new scenario every time you play.

In Impact, each player takes on the role of a character with a unique job from the future and a set of preferred future conditions that will make their job secure and prosperous. Players compete to achieve their character’s preferred future world by playing Impact cards, which trigger events influencing the various domains of society. The roleplaying aspect of the game also encourages empathy as players embody characters and think from different perspectives about what it means to create a preferable future.

Like the discipline of foresight in general, Impact brings to light the rates and trajectories of change, and the potential second order effects and disruptions that might occur. For organizations, maintaining a competitive intelligence practice that formally tracks rates of social, technological, environmental, economic, and political change is part of ensuring your own resilience.

The content of the game is based on Policy Horizons Canada’s report, MetaScan 3, a foresight study that explores how disruptive technologies may shape the economy and society. So, when you’re playing Impact, you’re engaging with real life technological events that are unfolding today (such as a recent scientific discovery or the formation of a new kind of tech startup) and imagining the possible ways these events could influence society tomorrow.

Players learn about developments in fields like nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, biotechnology, and robotics; and are prompted to consider their industry, environment, and policy implications.

Robert tells me they hope to launch a Kickstarter for the game in the fall. If so we’ll announce it here—and we hope to be offer a PAXsims playtest review of the game too.


US AWC: Wargaming in the classroom— panel discussion and demo games


In an effort to explore the benefits of bringing wargaming into the classroom, the US Army War College’s Strategic Simulations Department is conducting a discussion panel and game play event on 27 August, 2016, at the US Army Heritage and Education Center, in Carlisle, PA.  The panel will open with discussion from academia and military institutions. Game play will follow the panel and drive home the theories covered by the panelists.  The event is open to anyone, educator, gamer, and hobbyist.  The event will run from 10:00 A.M until 4:00 P.M.

Speakers (10:30-11:00) will include: Peter Perla (CNA), Rex Brynen (McGill University/PAXsims), James Lacey (Marine Corps War College) and James Sterrett (US Army Command & General Staff College).

Demonstration games (11:00-16:00) will include: FriedrichHanabi1944 Race to the Rhine, AFTERSHOCK, ISIS Crisis, Triumph and Tragedy, Axis & Allies (modified/blind play), Guerilla Checkers, Kaliningrad 2017, and Artemis.



Further information on visiting the USAHEC can be found here.

The approaching dawn of the New World Order

There are just three more weeks left until the New World Order 2035 is upon us. Montreal-area folks: if you haven’t registered for the megagame, you had better do so soon—tickets are selling out fast.


“New World Order 2035” megagame at McGill


On February 20th, McGill University will be hosting New World Order 2035, a day-long megagame in Montréal by none other than (infamous) game designer Jim Wallman:

It is the year 2035… and it is no longer the Earth that we once knew. Countries around the world face resource shortages, the social and political challenges presented by new technologies, population pressures, migration and refugee crises, and rapidly accelerating global warming—as well as an alarming breakdown of international cooperation.

Up to one hundred participants will assume the roles of national decisionmakers, international organizations, scientists,  corporations, journalists, rebels, organized crime, and others. While they may or may not chart the future course of human civilization, it is sure to be a engaging day full of political intrigue, conspiracies, and crisis.

For those new to megagaming you’ll find a report on one such game in the British newspaper The Independent here, and a video report at the blog Shut Up & Sit Down here (and here and here). No prior experience is required, beyond a willingness to enjoy yourself with 100 scheming people in several large rooms while confronting the most pressing global issues of the 21st century

Space is limited, so you’ll need to buy your tickets soon via Eventbrite. Registration costs $35 for McGill students, and $60 for others (+ticketing fee). Boxed meals are available to those who purchase one in advance, or participants are welcome to bring their own lunches.

New World Order 2035 is coorganized by PAXsims and the International Relations Students’ Association of McGill, and cosponsored by the Political Science Students’ Association and International Development Studies Students Association.

The NWO2035 Facebook page can be found here.





Today we received the first production copy of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game from Game Crafter. As you can see from the video below, it came out very well indeed–all of the components are crisp, clear, and nicely printed on good-quality stock.

The game will be available for order in the next few days. We will, of course, announce that here on PAXsims—then you’ll all be able to buy your own copy!

All net proceeds from the sale of AFTERSHOCK go the the World Food Programme and other UN humanitarian agencies.


Forthcoming AFTERSHOCK demonstrations

AFTERSHOCKlargeWe currently have the following demonstration games of AFTERSHOCK planned. If you are professional involved in teaching about humanitarian crisis and disaster response and would be interested in participating, email me for further information. Space is limited. I’ll update this list as new demonstration games are planned. (Updated: 11 April 2017)

  • Washington DC: 28 July 2015 (National Defense University/Connections)  eca065a7abdfdf65e4d086835a755cf4
  • Washington DC: 30 July 2015 (US State Department)
  • Washington DC: 31 July 2015 (National Defense University)
  • London, UK: 9 September 2015 (King’s College London/Connections UK)
  • Fairfax, VA: 29 September 2015 (MORS professional gaming workshop)
  • Washington DC: 2 October 2015 (USAID)
  • Kingston, ON: 19 October (Royal Military College of Canada)
  • Springfield, MO: 30 October 2015 (Missouri State University)
  • Lennoxville, QC: 13 November 2015 (Bishop’s University)
  • Montreal, QC: 2 December 2015 (McGill University)
  • Melbourne, Australia: 15 December 2015 (University of Melbourne/Connections Australia).
  • Washington DC: 3 February 2015 (National Defense University)
  • Ottawa, ON: 22 February 2016 (Connections North)
  • Ottawa, ON: 20 May 2016 (DRDC)
  • Ottawa, ON: 22 May 2016 (CANGAMES)
  • Portsmouth, UK: 29 June 2016 (Dstl)
  • Carlisle, PA: 27 August 2016 (US Army War College)
  • London, UK: 7 September 2016 (King’s College London/Connections UK)
  • Durham, NC: 20 October 2016 (Duke University)
  • Washington, DC: 24 October 2016 (Foreign Service Institute, US State Department)
  • Montreal, QC: 25 January 2017 (McGill University)
  • Montreal, QC: 1 February 2017 (McGill University)
  • Montreal, QC: 8 February 2017 (McGill University)


If you aren’t in one of these locations but are interested in seeing AFTERSHOCK in action for possible adoption by your organization, contact me—if I’m in the neighbourhood, I would be pleased to oblige.

You can also play AFTERSHOCK at the Draughts boardgame café in London (UK).


Build Peace 2015 and UN PeaceApp winners

On April 25-26 the Build Peace 2015 – Peace through Technology: By Whom, For Whom? conference will be held in Nicosia. Build Peace “explores art and cultural works as tools for conflict mediation, reconciliation and rebuilding, storytelling, heritage, and education, with a specific focus on the impact and increasing relevance of technology on all aspects of artistic and cultural work.” Parts of the conference will be livestreamed.


At that time, awards will also be given to the winners of UN PEACEApp competition, which were announced back in December:

The winners of this year’s PEACEapp competition are five highly innovative approaches to building peace: a global conflict simulation platform, a mobile game to educate voters about the violent Kenyan elections, a mobile app that enables users to empathize with victims of racism, a game that connects youth to challenge prejudice and promote collaboration, and a fantasy game that uses peace superheroes to teach children about non-violent engagement with conflict. Congratulations to the teams and thank you to everyone who participated!

PEACEapp is organised by the UNAOC and UNDP, in collaboration with Build Up, in order to promote digital games and gamified apps as venues for cultural dialogue and conflict management.The diversity of our winners this year reflects the incredible number of entries we received. Over 100 submissions from 42 different countries tackled different aspects of peacebuilding and cross-cultural dialogue in engaging and innovative ways. Our international jury of experts, drawn from the fields of peacebuilding, technology and international development, reviewed the entries and chose the winners.

Winners of completed projects will be awarded $5,000 (US) in recognition of their work, and winners of projects in development will receive expert mentorship from Games for Change and Build Up, together with a series of other partners. One member from each team will also be invited, all costs covered, to present at the Build Peace conference in Cyprus in April 2015, where the PEACEapp awards ceremony will also take place.

The winners were:

Completed Projects

Conflict Simulation Platform (Germany)

This project is about expanding an existing browser-based multiplayer gaming platform to simulate political conflicts on a wide range of peace-related issues, such as terrorism, migration, as well as international and domestic conflict. Players take on the role of key stakeholders in the negotiations, which can be played synchronously in a few hours or asynchronously over several weeks. You can find more information on their website.

Haki 2: Chaguo Ni Lako (Kenya)

As a response to the violent Kenyan elections, Haki: Chaguo Ni Lako (the choice is yours), is a mobile-phone game that was designed to educate new voters, inspire a commitment to peace and tolerance in time for the 2013 Kenyan elections. Haki 2 is available to download for free from the Google Play app store.

Everyday Racism (Australia)

Everyday Racism is the world’s first mobile phone app that challenges users to live in the shoes of someone who frequently experiences racism. It is based on a seven-day challenge to live a week in the life of an Aboriginal man, a Muslim woman, an Indian student or just as yourself, getting immersed in a world where people interact with you based on the way you look, the way you speak and the way you behave. Everyday Racism can be downloaded for free from the App Store or Google play.

Projects in development

Kokoro: A virtual global community (Switzerland)

Kokoro is a place that connects children and youth, challenges prejudices, encourages reflection and inspires action. A game and online platform that fosters ethical values and collaboration. Watch Kokoro’s demo video.

Peace Superheroes (Brazil)

Peace Superheroes is a digital game in which players don’t even realize they’re learning about peace building because they’re so enthralled, yet they’re in fact acquiring relevant and applicable skills to positively transform real life conflicts. Watch the Peace Superheroes introductory video.

PEACEApp also listed a number of honourable mentions:

Completed Projects

  • Ibn Nattuta App (Spain): aimed at improving coexistence between citizens of Arab / Muslim cultural background and the rest of the population, is aimed to improve, through knowledge, the self-esteem of ones and respect from the others, especially young.

  • BREAKAWAY Initiative (USA): an online soccer game to help end violence against women & girls wherein players confront challenges modeled after real-world violence and bullying, requires funding to make updates to the game for upcoming youth camps in El Salvador.

  • Janjaruka GBV Maze Game (Kenya): the game was developed to work towards empowering children to recognize, prevent and take action against sexual abuse.

  • Stereowipe (Pakistan): StereoWipe aims at enhancing social cohesion by raising awareness around stereotypes and setting the stage for a dialogue on the potential damages from social biases.

  • TF-CBT: Triangle of Life  (USA): a game that teaches children how to distinguish between thoughts, feelings and behaviours; and helps them understand their interconnected relationship.

Projects in development

  • Training Peace Practitioners through Serious Games (The Netherlands): a virtual training experience to prepare peace practitioners to better contribute to peace and dialogue developed by a consortium of peacebuilding training organisations

  • @Stake (USA): a role-playing card game designed to foster empathy and collaboration in democratic decision-making processes.

  • Peace Park (Georgia): a game that challenges players to restore peace in a communal park and make all visitors get along, by understanding their interests and making wise decisions.

  • The Journey (Sweden): The root cause of violence and misunderstanding of migrants is a lack of empathy and the project tries to make people aware why people migrate and what they have to go through to do it.

  • iLU: Cross-cultural social media networking (Colombia): a cross-cultural social media networking based on emotion sharing and global citizenship for peace building. iLU allows users to interact with people around the world via photo sharing.

PAXsims Goes to Carlisle

Barracks-e1376937377369I will be attending the upcoming China Futures Wargame at the USArmy War College Feb. 18-19. The game is unclassified and will focus on a strategic look at the US-China relationship outside the traditional Asia Pacific AOR (i.e. Africa and latin America). The event should be interesting, and there will be high quality attendees including some of my China expert colleagues Michael Swaine from the Carnegie Endowment and Will Norris from Texas A&M, as well as NIC wargame master Dan Flynn. I will plan to report as appropriate.


Simulations miscellany, 16 January 2015

Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious games that may be of interest to PAXsims readers.

* * *


On January 31, Strategic Crisis Simulations at George Washington University will be  holding a crisis simulation of “Sino-African Relations in the Heart of Africa“:

Since the late 1990’s, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been entangled in a harsh civil war which has claimed millions of lives, displaced hundreds of thousands, and led to the formation of the “United Nations Peacekeeping Brigade”, the first UN mission authorized to use proactive force. Many prominent scholars have called this conflict “the worst conflict since World War II”, and is fueled by over $24 trillion US worth of untapped natural resources, including cobalt, copper, and diamonds. International aid to the heart of Africa has increased at an exponential rate in recent years in an effort to quell the conflict and gain access to its resources, with both western companies and Chinese firms taking a strong interest in promoting welfare in the region.

This simulation will look at the long-term steps policymakers must take to facilitate social, economic, military, and political development in the region, and to negotiate the complex diplomatic challenges posed by Sino-African interactions. Participants will work with all state and non-state regional actors to develop a comprehensive and multilateral government response to issues as disparate as internally displaced persons, civil war, humanitarian aid, government reform and elections, natural resource conflict, corruption, and war crimes. They will grapple with serious questions of United States national interest, develop policies to pursue based upon their decided objectives, and attempt to determine optimal responses to a variety of crisis situations. Other participants may find themselves planning and potentially implementing humanitarian assistance and development programs, or executing complex military operations.

Participants will represent policy actors and practitioners from the United States government, including the Departments of State and Defense, United States Embassies, the United States Agency of International Development, and the Intelligence Community. Over the course of the simulation, participants will work together in order to develop policy solutions for the complex and challenging issues which face the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Register to participate on a team here.

Those interested in observing the simulation or serving as a mentor to a team, please contact Scott Chambers at

* * *


Red Team Journal is now available in a handy monthly digest format. You’ll find the first issue here.

* * *

The latest issue of the international studies journal Millennium 43, 2 (January 2015) contains an article by Nick Robinson entitled “Have You Won the War on Terror? Military Videogames and the State of American Exceptionalism.”

Videogames matter and they matter for international politics. With popular culture increasingly acknowledged as a valuable site for opening up new ways of interrogating theory, this article argues that important insights for the critical understanding of American exceptionalism can be developed through the study of military videogames. At one level, military videogames illustrate a number of prominent themes within American exceptionalism: they offer the perception that a threatening and hostile environment confronts the USA, thus situating America as an innocent victim, justified in using force in response; they allow exploration of the link between American exceptionalism and debates on the competence of political leadership, and they open up space to analyse the temporal dimension of international relations. Yet videogames also help expose the foundations (what Weber terms ‘the myths’) upon which American exceptionalism is based, here shown to be centred on the importance of the military industrial complex as a source of exceptionalism.

* * *

pic361592At the data and analysis blog FiveThirtyEight, Oliver Roeder examines “Designing The Best Board Game on the Planet“—namely Twilight Struggle, which continues to hold #1 position in the rankings at BoardGameGeek:

We may now find ourselves in the middle of a golden age of serious board gaming. The number of titles, and their average ratings by players, increase each year. Impressively, amid this renaissance, Twilight Struggle maintains its No. 1 spot despite having been published in 2005.4

So, how do you design the world’s best board game? The first lesson is persistence.

Twilight Struggle traces its roots to the early 2000s and a board gaming club at George Washington University. That’s where Gupta and co-designer Jason Matthews met. Not GW students themselves, they were friends with some, and would go to the school to play and also to bemoan the increasing complexity of historical games — a genre especially dear to them. The rulebooks were overlong, the game mechanics baroque.

Simplification, to Gupta and Matthews, was the name of their design philosophy. Rather than overwhelm players with a fat rulebook at the start, the designers spread the information required throughout the gameplay, on cards. A typical Twilight Struggle card reads, “Truman Doctrine: Remove all USSR Influence from a single uncontrolled country in Europe.” The Twilight Struggle rulebook is a relatively slender 24 pages.

They originally intended to do a game about the Spanish Civil War but realized they’d been scooped by a guy in Spain. “We’re probably not going to do a better job than he is,” Gupta joked. They eventually settled on the Cold War. Most games on the topic had focused on when the Cold War got hot. But thermonuclear war is depressing. Gupta and Matthews instead designed a game about the geopolitics, rather than a hypothetical military conflict.

Matthews, of Alexandria, Virginia, is an American history expert and was the legislative director for Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Gupta, a history buff, was doing policy work at a think tank, then was in school for computer science, before dropping out after he landed his first job in the video-game industry. The two would discuss key aspects of the Cold War — the domino theory, the arms race, the space race — and these would make their way into the game.

But publishers balked. “The Cold War? Why would anyone want to play a game about the Cold War?” Gupta recalled being asked.

Salvation came in the form of the company GMT Games, and its Project 500— a kind of Kickstarter before Kickstarter was cool. Interested gamers would pledge money, and GMT would print the game if enough capital was raised. Even then, it took a grinding 18 months for Twilight Struggle to generate enough pledges to warrant a printing.

That first printing sold out in 20 minutes. It has gone on to amass 17,781 ratings on BoardGameGeek, as I write, with an average rating of 8.33.

Being FiveThirtyEight, the author crunches some BoardGameGeek numbers to try to identify the characteristics of a successful and popular game.

Gupta has a few theories about why his game has done so well. For one, it’s a two-player game — the Americans vs. the Soviets. Two-player games are attractive for a couple of reasons. First, by definition, half the players win. People like winning, and are likely to replay and rate highly a game they think they have a chance to win. Also, with just one opponent, there is little downtime. You don’t have to wait while the turn gets passed around the table to three, four or five other players. That’s boring.

Here are games’ average ratings by the number of players a game supports.


The data offers some evidence for Gupta’s hypothesis. Games that support three players rate highest, with an average of 6.58. But two-player games are a close second, with an average rating of 6.55. Next closest are five-player games, which average 6.39.

Another element working in Twilight Struggle’s favor is its length. BoardGameGeek lists its playing time at three hours, but Gupta said it’s more like two and a half. (When designing, he was aiming for two.) Games’ lengths need to strike a balance.

“You have to feel like something meaningful has been done in the game. You have to feel like the game had a beginning and had a middle and had an end, and that you were engaged,” Gupta said. You don’t, however, want to get burned out.


Again, Gupta’s suspicion seems borne out, empirically. The shortest games are the lowest rated, on average. But players don’t favor length without bounds. Three hours seems to be right around the point of diminishing marginal returns.

See the article for further analysis of why Twilight Struggle is considered such a good game.

* * *

For more analysis of what makes a game successful, see the May 2014 paper of Christian Jensen, Emil Jacobsen, Martin Marcher and Rasmus Greve on “Data Mining Board Game Geek.”

Board game data fetched from the website is presented, described and summarized. Two questions; “What constitutes the perfect board game?” and “Can we predict Spiel des Jahres nominees?” are presented and attempted answered using classication and frequent pattern mining techniques. The rst is achieved with a decent result by J48 decision tree classication and rules for popular board games are extracted. For Spiel des Jahres several techniques are tried, but the class imbalance between nominees and the remaining severely complicates the results. With some dimensionality reduction, based on frequent patterns in the nominees, SVM generates a much better classication than an Artificial Neural-Network with backpropagation

* * *

Marco Arnaudo—well known for his video reviews of wargames—has issued his list of the top ten wargames of 2014:

* * *

Apparently the Green Bay Packers have become fanatical off-field players of Settlers of Catan:

The weekly schedule of an NFL player is jam-packed and controlled to the millisecond. There are appointments that cannot be missed. There’s practice, film study and time in the cold tub. In the case of the Green Bay Packers, there’s also board-game night.

You can read the full article at the Wall Street Journal.



MMOWGLI, the massive multiplayer online simulation experience developed by the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), begins its next interactive program on January 20. This iteration is based on the impact of black swan events. Below, the write-up from the team. If you are interested in signing up to participate, go here. For PAXsims coverage of the previous 2011 and 2012 MMOWGLI Piracy games, check out Rex’s previous posts

The future is here – today’s trends and uncertainties are laying a foundation for tomorrow’s events. Innovation is at the forefront of the Department of Defense’s new technology strategy, as outlined in Better Buying Power 3.0. The blackswan Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI) is a tool designed to foster innovation, and challenges individuals to adopt a new way of thinking about the future global landscape. blackswan MMOWGLI wants to explore this “futurescape” and determine how best to ensure our success.

Black Swan refers to events that are unexpected and have the potential for major impact, but with the benefit of hindsight, post-analysis can often lead to an “it was bound to happen” moment. The blackswan MMOWGLI is a massive multiplayer online wargame aimed at identifying potential black swans and technology ideas and/or concepts to mitigate them, should they become a reality. Over the next 30 years, we will experience new challenges on frontiers that exceed our current understanding and imagination of the world in which we live. The exploration and adaptation of new “mental models” will be essential to envisioning this space and devising strategies that help us prepare for the future.

We would like YOUR IDEAS: from your professional knowledge to your wildest imaginings. All of these could help us anticipate the next black swan event, challenge our core assumptions and beliefs, and examine transformative technologies that will shape our future.

What if you could…
…collaborate across borders?
…explore the potential of game-changing innovations?
…play the idea that sparks a hundred more?
Participation in blackswan MMOWGLI will be limited.
Join us now at to sign up to play. Also follow us on Twitter @MMOWGLI to stay updated.
Every idea counts. We hope you’ll join us. How will you play the game, change the game?
— The blackswan MMOWGLI team

%d bloggers like this: