Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and game reports

Sky HISTORY: U-Boat Wargamers

U-Boat Wargamers is a new 6-part series being broadcast in the UK by Sky HISTORY. It tells the story of the Royal Navy’s Western Approaches Tactical Unit (located at Western Approaches HQ in Liverpool) during WWII.

Working out of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) in Liverpool, this hand-picked group of female mathematicians, forensic accountants and members of the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS) achieved what the top brass at the Admiralty could not – a set of tactics which would outwit the deadly U-Boat wolfpacks and set the Royal Navy and the Allies on the path to victory.

The year is 1943 and Admiral Karl Dönitz – head of the Nazis’ U-Boat fleet – has brought Britain to the brink of starvation by destroying their merchant ships. The Royal Navy turns to retired wargamer Gilbert Roberts who needs to find a team, but the Navy can’t spare any men. Instead, he turns to the Women’s Royal Navy Service (otherwise known as the WRENS) to wargame the U-Boats’ tactics.

In partnership with Jean Laidlaw, one of Britain’s first female chartered accountants, and a small team of resourceful female mathematicians, they decipher Dönitz’s tactics and develop a method by which the Navy’s destroyers infiltrate the wolfpacks and pick off the U-Boats one by one.

The WRENS were some of the greatest wargamers of their generation, but their legacy has largely been overlooked. Now, the story of these forgotten heroes can be properly and fully told.

Episode One: The Mastermind – Tuesday, 21 February

When WWII breaks out, an elite force of German U-Boat commanders, under the direct command of Vice-Admiral Karl Dönitz, attempt to starve Britain into submission by sinking hundreds of thousands of tonnes of their merchant shipping in the mid-Atlantic. Vera Laughton Mathews heads the newly reformed WRENS, and recruits bright, astute, and mathematically minded women into the service. Meanwhile retired naval commander Gilbert Roberts, who has been out of the service, is keen to return to his career and use wargaming to sink the U-Boats.

Episode Two: False Dawns – Tuesday, 28 February

After the fall of France in 1940, Dönitz’s trio of Kriegsmarine U-Boat aces embark on a race to send British merchant ships to the bottom of the ocean, converging on merchant convoys in co-ordinated wolfpack attacks. In Britain, an increasingly desperate Admiralty sends for Roberts, at last willing to entertain his newfangled wargaming ideas to try and identify ways of thwarting the deadly U-Boat wolfpacks.

Episode Three: The WRENS – Tuesday, 7 March

When Gilbert Roberts arrives to set up his proposed Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) for U-Boat wargaming, he receives a decidedly frosty reception from Admiral Sir Percy Noble who is convinced the Allies already possess the tactics and expertise to defeat the Kriegsmarine. Nevertheless, Roberts presses on and, enlisting the help of Jean Laidlaw and a small team of WRENS, based in Liverpool, begins the process of round-the-clock wargaming to devise tactics to outmanoeuvre the U-Boat attack formations.

Episode Four: The Game – Tuesday, 14 March

Roberts and Laidlaw have uncovered a fatal flaw in the Royal Navy’s existing anti-U-Boat tactic ‘Buttercup’. By wargaming different scenarios, they develop a countertactic of their own, codenamed ‘Raspberry’, in which a merchant convoy escorted by Royal Navy destroyers can lure in the wolfpack before surrounding and destroying it; in effect, playing the enemy at its own game. But the team now faces an uphill battle to try to convince Noble and his colleagues at the Admiralty that they hold the key to stopping the U-Boats in the Atlantic.

Episode Five: Stalemate – Tuesday, 21 March

Following a promotion to Grand Admiral of the Kriegsmarine, reporting directly to Hitler, Karl Dönitz fills the ocean with as many U-Boats as he can lay his hands on. In 1943, as the battle reaches a crisis point for the Allies, and supplies are spread more thinly than ever around the British Isles, pressure mounts on Roberts and the WRENS to prove their worth. When, in May 1943, convoy ONS 5 catches Dönitz’s attention, the stage is set for the battle that will turn the tide of the Atlantic war.

Episode Six: The End Game – Tuesday, 28 March

WATU’s tactics are tested to the limit in the final conflict for ONS 5, with over 50 Allied ships and their escorts facing off against 30 German U-Boats. In the end, it is the allies who win out and the remnant of the U-Boat fleet is left to try and limp back to its base at La Rochelle. As the Battle of the Atlantic reaches its crucial turning point, however, the work of the WATU is not yet over. Dönitz makes one last, desperate throw of the dice, unleashing an advanced torpedo to try and turn the tide back in favour of his remaining U-Boats. Roberts and Laidlaw must do everything in their power to counteract the new threat and recapture the seas in time for the impending Allied landings in Normandy.

CNN Academy journalism simulation

CNN Academy is a journalism training program run by CNN in collaboration with university programs around the world. In December, more than eighty of those students, together with a number of their instructors, travelled to Abu Dhabi to take part in an five day intensive news-gathering simulation. Although simulation has been used in journalism programmes before, this was an industry first in terms of scope, scale, and complexity.

As with most educational simulations, the intent here was to challenge participants to put to work the knowledge they had acquired in their studies in a “safe to fail” environment. We didn’t make it easy, either.

This wasn’t the first time I had supported journalism training using simulation methods, but those past efforts were an ancillary to a simulation largely designed for other purposes.

Below I’ll discuss the setting and scenario for the simulation, the simulation mechanisms we used, and some of the key lessons learned. There will be a few things I won’t reveal, however—we want to keep them a secret for future iterations! I was the primary simulation designer and game controller. CNN staff also contributed to the design (notably Alireza Hajihosseini, John Sanders, and Mohammed Abdelbary), and most of the roles in the simulation were played by CNN journalists. Jim Wallman (Stone Paper Scissors) codirected the simulation. The simulation was hosted at the Yas Creative Hub of twofour54, and we also made use of their Kizad movie production backlot.

Setting and Scenario

There were several important considerations in establishing the setting and scenario for the simulation. We decided early on that we wanted to use a fictional country. One reason for doing this was to allow us the freedom to craft a narrative that would fully engage a broad range of journalism skills. We also wanted to avoid an Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” -type situation where something in the simulation somehow leaked into the real world and generated confusion or concern.

The problem with a fictional country, however, is providing sufficient detail and depth to be useful and believable. Fortunately, we already had one such country setting available: a fictional conflict-affected country that had been used in my peacebuilding course at McGill for almost two decades. A tremendous amount of historical, political, economic, and cultural information had already been produced for this over the years, both by me and by generations of McGill students. That setting was modified and updated—McGill students will be pleased to know the civil war there is now finally over—for use by CNN Academy.

As for the precise scenario on which participants would be reporting, we needed something that was dramatic enough that it would credibly attract global media attention. We decided on a major environmental disaster. This had multiple elements to it: the immediate disaster, and its associated human and environmental cost; the broader social, political, and economic ramifications; and the complex web of crime, corruption, and politics that had allowed it to happen. This was not a simple plot or easy to unravel, and students had to use a broad range of investigative techniques to fully understand what was going on.

A summary of our rather complex story, rendered suitably murky in case we ever want to reuse some of it.

Everything about the scenario, setting, and simulation structure was written into a 24 page “master scenario guide,” which was updated as necessary as new elements were added.

Simulation Mechanics

Students arrived in Abu Dhabi having taken part in CNN Academy webinars and other instructional content, but with no information on the simulation other than that there might be one. It’s fair to say that none of them anticipated how intense it would be. We immediately grouped them into teams of four or five students (each made up of students from different universities) and threw them in the deep end: they were told there was breaking story and a forthcoming press conference to cover, given initial details about the situation, and provided with a detailed country brief. They only had a short time to get to know their team, consisting of students from two or three different journalism programmes, as well as read up the country where they had just been “sent” to report. Then they started news-gathering.

Surprise! You’re all about to take part in an intense, stressful simulation this week.

Participants were also given access to a team email address and to a Twitter-like social media platform populated by a constant stream of fictional social media posts about the disaster, mixed in with actual news items about the rest of the world harvested in real time from CNN and other media feeds. About four hundred of the social media posts had been pre-scripted and pre-timed before the simulation, but others were injected live while it was all going on. This assured that there were new potential developments regarding the story almost 24 hours a day. The teams also received both scripted and live emails during the sim, and could “reach back” to their producers for advice and information. Both the email and social media servers were closed so they couldn’t leak into the real world.

A team hard at work.

On the first four days (Monday-Thursday) students participated in five simulated press conferences and many one-on-one interviews. The various spokespersons and interviewees—more than two dozen in total—were played by CNN staff, as well as myself and Jim Wallman. Other online characters might interact via email or social media direct messages.

A press conference underway.

Each role had a role briefing written up, detailing the character’s identity, personality, motivation, and information, along with key talking points. All of our roleplayers had been provided with this in advance. In addition, I also held a series of online orientation session via Zoom for the simulation staff in the weeks running up to the simulation.

In any event, CNN journalists turned out to be terrific improvisational actors! Quite apart from their acting skills, all were well aware of the challenges in covering press conferences or interviewing sources and were able to use their professional experience to keep students on their toes. Teams that did a particularly good job of conducting interviews might be given additional information or contacted later with news tips.

Particularly memorable was a trip to the affected area—represented in this case by twofour54 Kizad movie backlot, much of which is constructed to look like a war-torn city. Here they were paired up with CNN photojournalists and were free to roam about and interview the “local inhabitants.” It was a remarkable experience.

Another “local resident” being interviewed—in this case me, in my stylish green PAXsims “game control” safety vest!

All of this simulation activity over the first four days was interspersed with a series of lectures on various aspects of modern journalism, including newsgathering best practices, mobile storytelling, commercial operations, and the art of the spectacle.

On Thursday students were expected to submit a pitch to their producer for a video report on the disaster. This took the form of a full “paper edit” of their proposed piece, including script and visuals. In addition to whatever video they had shot themselves or had been shot for them on location, we provided additional B-roll to use in these reports. No one got much sleep at this point.

Editing one of the video reports.

The top six submissions were given feedback, access to studio facilities, and an editor the next day to produce their report. The rest of the participants had a chance to relax and see some of the sights of Abu Dhabi. After lunch we all reassembled to screen the semi-finalist videos and announce a winner.

The winning team of student journalists with Becky Anderson (CNN).


It all went very well—better than expectations. No major mishaps were encountered. All of the tech (John Sanders) and logistics (Shivon Watson) ran brilliantly. The CNN folks were enthusiastic and engaged, as well as being terrific roleplayers. Maitha Khalifa and her team at the Yas Creative Hub were outstanding hosts and their facilities were top-notch.

A post-event participant survey indicated a very high evaluation of CNN Academy experience, the acquisition of relevant skills, engagement, and willingness to recommend the experience to others.

There were a great many teachable moments during the simulation. Some of the ones that most stood out to me were:

  • The pressure of the simulation caused some students to lose sight of the importance of soft skills. For all the changes in the media brought about by rapidly changing information and communication technologies, “people skills” remain at the center of good journalism. Journalists need to understand those they are reporting on and develop a rapport. They need to treat traumatized populations with sensitivity. They need to develop sources. They need to listen carefully as well as ask questions. They need to be able to follow leads in new directions, especially when an interview reveals new information. They also need to be able to tell a complex story in a way that is interesting and understandable to their audience. Technology changes some of the ways this is done, but most of these skills would have been immediately recognizable to a good reporter a century ago.
  • Teamwork is essential. Every team consisted of a mix of experiences, expertise, language skills—not to mention gender and national origin. The teams that did best worked hard on collaboration, information management, tasking, and generally getting the best out of everyone in a harmonious fashion.
  • The simulation also highlighted the importance of fact-checking and research. Not everything students were exposed to was true. Politicians and others spun the story in ways that made them look good, and all of the interviewees filtered their comments through their own perspectives and beliefs. Locals residents didn’t always know exactly what was going on,. There were lots of rumours online. And whenever you have more than eighty students talking amongst themselves they going to accidentally generate their own rumours through a sort of broken game of “telephone.” The best teams verified what they heard, and didn’t just run with it.
  • Media ethics matter. We sprinkled a few ethical challenges in the simulation (I won’t say what they were in case we reuse them). A few fell for the traps!

Although we did a short debrief at the end of the simulation (including a reveal of the full “plot” and how various elements could be discovered), and although the accompanying journalism professors were constantly providing advice and feedback to their students, it would have been nice to have had more time for this. CNN Academy plans to post a series of debrief “blog posts” for students to the CNN Academy hub in the near future to build on the immediate feedback they received in Abu Dhabi.

During one of the classroom sessions, CNN journalists share their insights with students.

For other coverage of the CNN Academy simulation, see:

CSIS: Wargaming a Chinese invasion of Taiwan

The Center for Strategic and International Studies has issued a major report on a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, using a wargame specially developed for the study.

China’s leaders have become increasingly strident about unifying Taiwan with the People’s Republic
of China (PRC).1 Senior U.S. officials and civilian experts alike have expressed concern about Chinese intentions and the possibility of conflict. Although Chinese plans are unclear, a military invasion is not out of the question and would constitute China’s most dangerous solution to its “Taiwan problem”; it has therefore justly become a focus of U.S. national security discourse.

Because “a Taiwan contingency is the pacing scenario” for the U.S. military, it is critical to have a shared, rigorous, and transparent understanding of the operational dynamics of such an invasion.2 Just as such an understanding was developed concerning the Cold War’s Fulda Gap, so too must analysts consider the Taiwan invasion scenario. This understanding is important because U.S. policy would be radically different if the defense were hopeless than if successful defense were achievable. If Taiwan can defend itself from China without U.S. assistance, then there is no reason to tailor U.S. strategy

to such a contingency. At the other extreme, if no amount of U.S. assistance can save Taiwan from
a Chinese invasion, then the United States should not mount a quixotic effort to defend the island. However, if U.S. intervention can thwart an invasion under certain conditions and by relying on certain key capabilities, then U.S. policy should be shaped accordingly. In this way, China would also be more likely to be deterred from an invasion in the first place. However, such shaping of U.S. strategy requires policymakers to have a shared understanding of the problem.

Yet, there is no rigorous, open-source analysis of the operational dynamics and outcomes of an invasion despite its critical nature. Previous unclassified analyses either focus on one aspect of an invasion, are not rigorously structured, or do not focus on military operations. Classified wargames are not transparent to the public. Without a suitable analysis, public debate will remain unanchored.

Therefore, this CSIS project designed a wargame using historical data and operations research to model a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan in 2026. Some rules were designed using analogies with
past military operations; for example, the Chinese amphibious lift was based on analysis of Normandy, Okinawa, and the Falklands. Other rules were based on theoretical weapons performance data, such as determining the number of ballistic missiles required to cover an airport. Most rules combined these two methods. In this way, the results of combat in the wargame were determined by analytically based rules instead of by personal judgment. The same set of rules applied to the first iteration and to the last iteration, ensuring consistency.

Based on interviews and a literature review, the project posited a “base scenario” that incorporated the most likely values for key assumptions. The project team ran that base scenario three times. A variety of excursion cases then explored the effects of varying assumptions.3 The impact of these varying assumptions on the likely outcome is depicted in a Taiwan Invasion Scorecard (see Figure 8). In all, 24 iterations of the game mapped the contours of the conflict and produced a coherent and rigorously derived picture of a major threat facing the United States.

The Results

The invasion always starts the same way: an opening bombardment destroys most of Taiwan’s navy and air force in the first hours of hostilities. Augmented by a powerful rocket force, the Chinese navy encircles Taiwan and interdicts any attempts to get ships and aircraft to the besieged island. Tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers cross the strait in a mix of military amphibious craft and civilian roll- on, roll-off ships, while air assault and airborne troops land behind the beachheads.

However, in the most likely “base scenario,” the Chinese invasion quickly founders. Despite massive Chinese bombardment, Taiwanese ground forces stream to the beachhead, where the invaders struggle to build up supplies and move inland. Meanwhile U.S. submarines, bombers, and fighter/attack aircraft, often reinforced by Japan Self-Defense Forces, rapidly cripple the Chinese amphibious fleet. China’s strikes on Japanese bases and U.S. surface ships cannot change the result: Taiwan remains autonomous.

There is one major assumption here: Taiwan must resist and not capitulate. If Taiwan surrenders before U.S. forces can be brought to bear, the rest is futile.

This defense comes at a high cost. The United States and Japan lose dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft, and thousands of servicemembers. Such losses would damage the U.S. global position
for many years. While Taiwan’s military is unbroken, it is severely degraded and left to defend a damaged economy on an island without electricity and basic services. China also suffers heavily. Its navy is in shambles, the core of its amphibious forces is broken, and tens of thousands of soldiers are prisoners of war.

You will find the full report at the link above, including its recommendations for US,Taiwan, and allies. The launch event was livestreamed on YouTube, and can be found below. Stacie Pettyjohn (CNAS) makes a particular good point about the value of multiple organizations undertaking multiple, different games (in both the public and classified spaces) to enhance the robustness of overall findings.

For press coverage of the report, see:

For other Taiwan invasion wargames, see this summary Drew Marriott published at PAXsims in December 2021.

Atlantic Council: Wargaming to Find a Safe Port in a Cyber Storm

The Atlantic Council has issued a new report by Daniel Grobarcik, William Loomis, Michael Poznansky, and Frank Smith exploring how wargaming can help to address threats to the maritime transportation system (MTS).

Global and national security depend on understanding and mitigating threats to the MTS. The US government has taken some steps in this direction, including the National Maritime Cybersecurity Plan released in December 2020. More needs to be done, however, and one approach is to study what’s necessary through cyber wargaming, a useful tool for examining the complex and confusing problems involved with cyber and physical threats to critical infrastructure.

Working with Ed McGrady, the Cyber & Innovation Policy Institute (CIPI) at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, hosted government officials, military service members, students, and academics to play Hacking Boundary: A Game of Maritime Cyber Operations.9This war game addresses a hypothetical cyberattack against a major US port facility, and the first iteration of the game was played at the CIPI Summer Workshop on Maritime Cybersecurity in June 2022.

The second iteration of the game, conducted in partnership with the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, was held at the Industrial Control Systems Village at the DefCon Hacking Conference in August 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This iteration featured participants from across the maritime ecosystem, including active duty US Navy and Coast Guard personnel,  penetration testers, private sector operators, and many more.

This brief describes Hacking Boundary, along with several strategic and policy implications illuminated by repeated game play. The core takeaways include: (1) understanding the large attack surfaces of port facilities and the lead times that may be required to attack them; (2) the difficulties of prioritizing how and when to spend scarce resources; and (3) understanding that the tensions between competition and coordination, if navigated wisely, may offer defenders marginal—but valuable—advantages when providing maritime cybersecurity.

The full report can be found at the link above.

1CMBG homebrew wargame development

LCol Cole Petersen, Chief of Staff at 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, recently took to Twitter to discuss the process whereby 1CMBG is producing its own home-brew wargame. The thread is well worth a read!

There’s also an update:

CNAS: Dangerous Straits

A new CNAS report by Stacie Pettyjohn, Becca Wasser, and Chris Dougherty outlines findings from Dangerous Straits, a recent strategic-operational wargame exploring a fictional 2027 war between China and the United States over Taiwan.

The wargame, hosted by the Gaming Lab at CNAS, in partnership with NBC’s Meet the Press, illuminated the dilemmas that U.S. and Chinese policymakers might face if China were to invade Taiwan, along with the strategies they might adopt to achieve their overarching objectives.

The wargame indicated a protracted conflict rather than a short war is likely if China decides to invade Taiwan. Neither side felt as though it had lost, but both had depleted their missile inventories, sustained significant losses, and still needed to resupply and rearm forces under attack. Preventing China from a quick triumph over Taipei did not equate to an American and Taiwanese victory.

Drawing from the findings of the wargame, the authors assert that the United States and its allies and partners must take several steps to change the Indo-Pacific military balance in their favor to deter China from invading Taiwan and prevent war. These steps include the following: 

The U.S. Department of Defense should make sustained investments in long-range precision-guided weapons and undersea capabilities, while also enhancing the resiliency of its posture in the Indo-Pacific region and deepening planning with key allies and partners.

The U.S. Department of Defense should plan for a protracted conflict and develop ways to reduce the risks of inadvertent escalation with a nuclear armed China.

The U.S. Congress should enable key improvements in the Indo-Pacific through the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and should help shape Taiwan’s military posture. 

Taiwan must improve its defensive capabilities by investing in asymmetric, resilient, and attritable capabilities; increasing training for its active and reserve forces; and by stockpiling key weapons and supplies.

The full report can be found here.

Beyond Deterrence: A Korea peace game

In February, the United States Institute of Peace, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, and the Sejong Institute in Seoul conducted a series of three interrelated peace games exploring confidence-building for the Korean Peninsula.

The peace game exercise employed three hypothetical interconnected scenarios that progressively and cumulatively moved toward a final and comprehensive peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula. The overarching purpose was to examine U.S., North Korean, South Korean, and Chinese responses to mostly conciliatory measures from the other sides and, in the process, encourage diplomatic risk-taking and uncover new challenges and opportunities that have been obscured by the current real-world stalemate. The scenarios were prescriptively established to advance exercise objectives, but participants’ agreements and positions from preceding scenarios were incorporated into subsequent ones as much as possible. The participants were provided with each scenario at least 12 hours before the start of that particular phase of the peace game.

Participants included 16 experts on security policy related to the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, including former diplomats, policymakers, academics, and think tank analysts. The participants were assigned to play the role of negotiators on four teams: the United States, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea), the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea), and China.

You’ll find the full report here.

MCU: Gaming the war in Ukraine, continued

The Marine Corps War College and the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at Marine Corps University have continued their recent wargame of the war in Ukraine to look at the months ahead. At the Modern War Institute website, James Lacey, Tim Barrick and Nathan Barrick tell us how it has been going:

Our wargame’s advisors came from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, including United States military officers, representatives from NATO countries, two experts on internal Russian decision-making, and a retired Ukrainian colonel with experience on the Ukrainian general staff. The second iteration’s most significant change to gameplay was a switch from each turn representing a single day to three-month turns. This was done to allow us to play out a full year of combat operations within the time allotted to complete the wargame. Lengthening the game turn duration required a higher degree of adjudication abstraction than our previous wargame, but it proved essential to enabling players to look at broader operational and strategic considerations over the duration of a protracted conflict.

After applying expected geostrategic and operational developments over the remainder of this year and into the start of 2023, we determined the Russians reached an operational culmination well-short of their maximal objectives. Given the combination of Ukraine’s proven will and its capabilities in a defensive fight, the prospects for Russian forces in heavy urban combat proved daunting. By the end of the summer, Russia no longer possessed the forces to pursue major simultaneous objectives nor the combat power to conquer a major city. All was not rosy for the Ukrainians, who lacked the combat power to go on the offensive and eject Russia from the occupied territories. With neither side able to achieve decisive military effects in the offense, without exception, the combined teams predicted that without a negotiated settlement the war is headed toward an indefinite stalemate.

The ramifications of such an outcome are immense. First, of course, is the toll in human suffering, as losses mount on both sides, and the refugee crisis remains unalleviated for a year or more. For the United States, a stalemate means that the ad-hoc defense-related resupply arrangements require systemization and the establishment of a quasi-permanent logistics infrastructure. Ukraine’s future success also requires the establishment of training centers that can regenerate Ukraine’s frontline combat power and allow these forces to reenter the fight.

As we conducted the wargame, the surprises came fast and furious. The first was we entered the wargame with a flawed assumption about Russia’s prospects. Initially, we assessed that over the next four months the weight of the Russian force would gradually wear down Ukraine’s military and allow for a complete occupation of the country. After conducting open-source analysis to develop a current operating picture and assessing losses since the start of the war, the team agreed to fast forward one month and assume the collapse of MariupolSumy, and Konotop. The wargamers were then tasked to determine the major operational movements for the summer 2022 campaign, using as the key decision how Russia would employ the maneuver forces freed up by these successes and the option to employ forces held in reserve. In weighing and then employing the wargame to test courses of action, it rapidly became clear that Russia lacks the combat power to collapse the Ukrainian military this summer.

Another surprise for the wargame was the validation of how national leaders’ political objectives trounce the best military advice provided by generals. As the summer campaign played out, the “generals” (wargamers) were forced to decide how best to employ military forces, and shift combat resources, including strategic reserves, to accomplish objectives. Political requirements dominated military decision-making, as the expert military advice on future operations was overruled in favor of seizing objectives deemed more politically important. In this case, our Vladimir Putin ordered spectacular victories were necessary to sustain his own power, repeatedly saying that the postwar condition of the army was of small consequence.

You can find the rest of the article here.

Lacey, Barrick, and Barrick: Wargaming a war in Ukraine

At War on the Rocks, James Lacey, Tim Barrick, and Nathan Barrick describe a wargame of a hypothetical Russian invasion of Ukraine, conducted at Marine Corps University two weeks before the actual invasion occurred:

In the two weeks prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Marine Corps University ran a four-day wargame to simulate the first several days of just such an invasion. One of us ran the wargame while the others played the Ukrainian and Russian forces. Despite a few stark differences, the current Russian offensive is playing out in ways eerily similar to that simulation.

By the time the wargame ended, the overall situation appeared very much as it does on the ground in Ukraine, with only two major deviations. First, the Russians have pushed harder out of Belarus to the west of the Dneiper  north of Kyiv  to strike the city from the rear.  And secondly, the Russian assault in Kherson was temporarily  halted, as the axis of advance in the south for a time turned northeast toward Mariupol. Both of these actions were, however, discussed by the players in the wargame.

Another difference was in the impact of the Russian air and missile campaign. In the game, Russian operations began with a series of missile and airstrikes, aimed at eliminating Ukraine’s air force and destroying the country’s integrated air defense system. Thus, the Russian players’ primary focus, during the first few days of the campaign, was aimed at gaining freedom of maneuver in the skies  air dominance  along with destroying Ukraine’s coastal defense systems. So, although the number of actual strikes made by the Russians in the conflict’s first 24-hours tracked almost exactly to what was employed by the Russians in the wargame, the impact was substantially different. In the wargame, every strike was focused on eliminating Ukraine’s air force and air defense network. In real life, the Russian strikes appear to have been more widely spread over a range of targets. Thus, the Russians employed far fewer munitions than required to cripple Ukraine’s air defenses or to significantly degrade their ability to control forces in the field. In short, unlike in the game, the Russian attacks were damaging but insufficient to overwhelm Ukraine’s defenses.

Our Ukraine wargame is part of a series of operational level wargames designed by Marine Corps University to support professional military education and help students develop an understanding of the many operational challenges associated with all domain warfare and Great Power conflict. The hope is that students will develop insights from these wargames that help them better understand joint warfighting. In the case of this particular wargame, its near concurrent use with the actual start of the war presents an opportunity to make constructive comparisons and contrasts. Actual events also highlight the importance of the human domain and how difficult it is to effectively model or assess prior to conflict. While the game does make allowance for aspects of the human domain, it is hard to factor in things like the courageous leadership being demonstrated by Zelenskyy and its impact on the will of the fighting forces and the Ukrainian people.

One must be very careful when using a wargame for predictive purposes. But, on the other hand, no one involved in this wargame has been much surprised by anything unfolding on the ground. Almost all of it took place within the game or was discussed at length among the players. This is in contrast with nearly every expert and pundit on the airwaves, who are expressing astonishment at how this conflict is unfolding. If this wargame had been played at the Pentagon or the White House in the weeks leading up to the war, no strategist or policymaker would be shocked by any event so far seen in the war.

The heroic resistance of the Ukrainians inspires awe and admiration. Still, their forces are greatly outnumbered, particularly in the air. Moreover, Russia’s capacity to concentrate vast ground fires — artillery, rockets, and missiles  still allows the Russian army to overwhelm the Ukrainians at any chosen point. If history provides any glimpse into the future, the Russian army will eventually uncoil, absorb the war’s early lessons, and renew its advance with grim determination. Russia was preparing to do precisely that when the wargame ended. Still, one hopes that Western pressure, and the infliction of unacceptable losses upon Putin’s legions will create an opening for a negotiated peace.

You can read the full report at the link above.

A virtual crisis in the South China Sea

Students at the Institute of World Politics recently completed a matrix game exploring geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea:

The stand-alone game was held by IWP adjunct professor Aaron Danis, with invaluable assistance from Professor Wayne Hugar, a China military expert and colleague of Prof. Danis at National Intelligence University, where Prof. Danis works in his day job.

Prof. Danis commented: “I use games in my IWP courses, and I have wanted to try this one on the South China Sea (SCS) for a while.  It required that the players do some read-ahead and research over the winter break, with unbelievable support and guidance from Wayne who has participated in such games in the Department of Defense and deployed to the SCS during his previous US Navy career.”

The two-month (four-turn) crisis scenario postulated that China had just moved sand dredgers and coast guard vessels to the contested (with the Philippines) Scarborough Shoal, threatening to turn it into an artificial island or military outpost.  “This is a real possibility,” said Prof. Hugar, “as China has had de facto control of the shoal since 2012 and could literally do this at any time.”  This threatened act to “change the facts on the ground” forced players into negotiations with allies and adversaries, while maneuvering military and non-military assets in the region.  This action occurred against the background of the annual Philippine-U.S.-Australia Balikatan military exercise in Luzon.  The Chinese simultaneously threatened Vietnamese fishing fleets using its People’s Maritime Militia and launched a global propaganda offensive.

The virtual nature of the game, brought on by bad weather and COVID restrictions, gave students a feel for the real-world difficulties of coordinating within their assigned country teams, let alone between countries thousands of miles away.  The U.S. Army War College gaming center let IWP borrow its virtual version of this game, which would normally be played in person on a board at IWP. The game was originally designed by an active-duty UK Army officer.

As suggested above, the original version of the game was designed by Tom Mouat, and can be found here at PAXsims.

Preparing for the doomsday variant

In confronting the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Israel has been moderately successful. Cumulative mortality is well below that of most OECD or G20 countries.

This is around the mid-point of those countries in the Middle East and North Africa for which reliable data exists.

Israel was among the earliest vaccinators in the world and among the first to introduce booster shots—although vaccine coverage is still a little lower than many comparable countries (due to hesitancy, not capacity).

But why raise all of this at PAXsims? Because Israel recently conducted an exercise to examine the challenges that would be posed by a “doomsday” variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, one that is more lethal to children yet not affected by current vaccines.

According to Haaretz (paywalled):

Last week, a national exercise code-named Omega was held, to examine how to cope with a fifth wave that would be caused, hypothetically, by the arrival of a new variant that was immune to vaccination.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took the possibility seriously and spent eight hours straight in the national management center. The exercise was planned by the special methods branch of the Defense Ministry, and it was led by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Ayash, formerly head of the IDF’s Operations Directorate.

The method of the simulation recalled a military exercise, which takes the scenario to the extreme to examine the true capability of the system to arrive at and implement decisions.

The fifth wave that was posited in the exercise was a doomsday affair: the penetration of a vaccine-immune variant that strikes hard at children and causes large-scale death among children and teenagers. In the past year, and more decisively under the Bennett government, Israeli strategy has relied on vaccination as the chief response to the virus. Here, then, the carpet was pulled from under the feet of the decision-makers and they were compelled to look for other solutions.

One method that is meant to improve the situation is the purchase of a large quantity of medications against COVID-19, which are now in the final stages of approval in the United States. Prior acquisition of such medications, on the assumption that they will prove effective against the next variant, too, could reduce deaths and perhaps allow the continued partial opening of the economy.

he economic damage from one week of closure is estimated at between 2 billion and 4 billion shekels ($650 million-$1.3 billion). No medicines or vaccinations will be anywhere near as costly.

On the other hand, Bennett leans to hermetically closing Ben-Gurion airport to non-Israelis in the event a new variant appears, and to conducting stringent control and quarantine of returning Israelis.

The exercise turned up other points of weakness: the difficulty of the civilian system to move from routine into emergency mode, the feeble ability of the public information system and holes in the coordination between government ministries. (The National Security Council, on which the Netanyahu government pinned its hopes, is not up to the task.)

One of Israel’s problems – again, contrary to the boasts of the former prime minister – is the absence of an orderly mechanism capable of tracking and analyzing the spread of the virus abroad. Thus, the Foreign Ministry is barely mobilized in the national effort, even though it has representatives in almost every country.

The Guardian provides further details on some of the issues that were explored:

Restrictions on gatherings and movement, quarantine policy, lockdowns, curfews and tourism.

Oversight and warnings issued during the development of a new and dangerous variant, testing vaccine protection, epidemiological investigations, hospital capacity and the carrying out of mass-testing and vaccination programmes.

The legality of local or regional lockdowns and curfews, and other restrictions.

Economic support for the population.

Public security in enforcing quarantine, lockdowns and curfews.

Closing schools in outbreak centres, reducing class sizes and remote learning.

Departure and arrival policy at borders including Ben Gurion airport.

Informing the public and responding to “discourse on the internet”.

You can also find additional details from Reuters and the Jerusalem Post.

CNAS: Wargaming Chinese seizure of Taiwanese islands

The Centre for New American Security has just released a new report, which examines what might happen were China to seize outlying Taiwanese islands:

How could Taiwan and the United States respond if China seized one of Taiwan’s outlying islands, such as Pratas/Dongsha (hereafter Dongsha) in the South China Sea? Whereas the U.S. national security community has focused on defending Taiwan against Chinese invasion, China’s recent military activities suggest that this kind of coercion and limited aggression might be an equally urgent question. More worryingly, such a scenario could be a prelude or pathway to war involving China, Taiwan, and the United States.

To explore potential policy and strategy options to prevent such a calamity, the Gaming Lab at CNAS wargamed this scenario with Taiwanese, American, and regional experts. Worryingly, the game found few credible options for pushing China to abandon Dongsha and return to the status quo. However, the game found numerous areas where preparation and multilateral coordination—particularly in concert with Japan—could deter limited Chinese aggression against Taiwan. 

During the game, the teams representing the United States and Taiwan struggled to compel a Chinese withdrawal from Dongsha without escalating the crisis. The team representing China avoided further escalation given its first-mover advantage, constrained territorial gains, and geographic proximity. In contrast, the U.S. team had to push its forces far forward in ways that were risky and would be difficult to sustain.1 Punitive non-military options, such as economic sanctions or information campaigns, took too long to produce effects and appeared too weak to compel China to abandon its gains.2 More aggressive military responses risked escalation to war, which both the U.S. and Taiwan teams wished to avoid. With few viable coercive options and the onus of escalation falling on the U.S. and Taiwan teams, the game reaffirmed the difficulty of rolling back territorial aggression of this kind. 

Indeed, discouraging China from seizing Taiwanese territory before it happens is the most salient lesson of the game. The United States and Taiwan must begin coordinating today to build a credible deterrent against limited Chinese aggression or coercion toward Taiwan.3Doing so will help identify ways to make a territorial fait accompli by China—such as the seizure of Dongsha—too unpalatable to consider, while also communicating the U.S. commitment to defending Taiwan. This strategy will require advance planning and communication of joint responses and defenses against coercion and territorial aggression. Rather than scrambling to respond to a fait accompli, as occurred in this game, the United States and Taiwan should prepare to implement coordinated, whole-of-government deterrent measures quickly and ensure immediate consequences for Chinese coercion or aggression short of war.

The methodology used for the game is briefly described in the report:

Players consisted of multinational defense and policy experts as well as subject matter experts. These players comprised three teams: the Blue Team, representing the United States; the Green Team, representing Taiwan; and the White Cell/Red Team, which combined China experts, the adjudicators, and other important international actors. The game consisted of three moves over the course of two three-hour sessions. Each move required all teams to take at least one diplomatic, military, information, and economic action. Players were free to take any reasonable action, but they had to explain why they had chosen one specific action over another and what they expected the outcomes of each action to be. Although the teams were given objectives to prioritize, they had freedom to build and determine their actions. The three teams were divided into separate virtual rooms but encouraged to coordinate with one another as desired.

You will find a link to the full report here.

Commenting on the report, the Washington Post writes:

Chris Dougherty, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said U.S. officials have scrutinized what a full Chinese invasion of Taiwan might look like. For this exercise, he and his colleagues wanted to examine a scenario that was on a magnitude similar to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Dougherty, a former Army Ranger who served as a strategic adviser in the Pentagon for four years spanning the Obama and Trump administrations, said that seizing the land — also known as the Dongsha islands — would allow China to gauge the reaction of the international community. China’s status as an economic power, he said, makes it difficult for the United States to sanction Beijing on an open-ended basis.

“You either can play the game of the chicken and you can say, ‘I’m willing to get into a contest of risk-taking with you over Dongsha,’ which — let’s be honest — I don’t know that we are. Or, you can do this pillow-fighting policy, and you’re going to hit them, but not hard enough to deter them from doing what you want them to do,” Dougherty said.

The war game found that the best option was warning the Chinese ahead of time of consequences they would face for moving on the islands, with Japan playing a significant role, the report says.

“The U.S. and Taiwan teams made repeated inquiries about Japan’s position, suggesting that without Japan’s backing, the U.S. and Taiwanese negotiating position was weakened,” the report said. “In a potential conflict, a lack of unambiguous Japanese support for Taiwan in this context would undermine efforts to urge Chinese withdrawal and could set a precedent for future unchecked Chinese aggression in other territorial disputes, including those over Japanese territory, such as the Senkaku Islands.”

Conducting a multi-week remote simulation: Reflections from the (simulated) Republic of China

The following report was prepared for PAXsims by Elizabeth Thomson, a MLitt candidate at St Andrews. Elizabeth is currently writing her dissertation On the Security Implications of Australia’s Discretionary Power as it Exists Between China and America’s Strategic Competition. She has a background in South-East Asian studies and Political Philosophy.  

For more detail on the simulation design, see this earlier post by by Felipe Cruvinel (St. Andrews).

Part I- Context

In the simulation, a shipwreck off the reefs of Pratas Island triggered territorial dispute between the People’ Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (RoC, or Taiwan). Both governments wished to coordinate the search and rescue operations to maintain and assert authority over the territory in question. As the claims on sovereignty could shift Asia-Pacific politics and security the USA was interested in being an arbiter and equalizer to managing PRC and RoC relations. 

Three teams represented ‘active’ nations throughout the gameplay: PRC, RoC and USA. Each team of four players need to divide their team to fill specific roles (each team had a different number of players assigned each role to reflect the importance or dominance of that aspect within the different states): economic, executive, and military. Subsequently each position had its own debrief sheet of the role. In the RoC team, we distributed roles according to interest and background of the players. 

Part II- Bias

In this simulation I played the executive role for Taiwan, my objective was to achieve independence from the PRC. 

My team was comprised of individuals from Western (‘Global North’) nations.  I believe this impacted our play, as it was more ‘gung-ho’ in policy and policy execution than the current government in Taipei. We were more focused on achieving our objectives than considering long-term diplomatic relations with the PRC. This was possible due to the one-month timeframe of the simulation, and willingness to see ourselves as completely separate to mainland China. This attitude is culturally inaccurate,[1] as PRC and RoC both consider themselves Chinese. 

Furthermore, our team had a fair bit of leeway, which from a gaming perspective made the experience much more enjoyable as you will see in the following section. Yet, I wonder if we would have had the same scope of indulgence as a democratic state has. Whilst I know that the securitisation of situations can provide a sort of blank check to the government, I believe that we would have had to ultimately petition to the elected representatives in parliament for certain actions to be approved.  I have played simulations where actions were given a probability and Game Control would roll a pair of dice which dictated the success of a move.  A third-party factor to influence the game could have curbed some of the more ‘gung-ho’ actions, making the simulation more reflective of the state and its administrative structure. 

Part III- Play 

What was our policy? Our policy was to secure authority over the Pratas territory by sea, land, and air. What was our aim? Sovereignty. Sovereignty at all costs, for without sovereignty there is no survival.[2]

Throughout the simulation we reacted quickly to updates in order to control the narrative(s). To push back against the PRC’s enthusiastic attempts to collaborate in Search and Rescue missions, the RoC military established a Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ). This was made possible by negotiations with the USA to deploy minimal naval support. RoC and USA agreed that a physical reminder of the RoC-USA friendship was necessary to promote peaceful negotiations between PRC and RoC. 

Throughout the simulation the RoC was conscious of USA’s Taiwanese Relations Act 1979 (TRA79) Section 2b.1.[3]  We worked within the scope of this Act, negotiating USA military presence in RoC territorial waters to disincentives any PRC trespassing and subsequent occupation of RoC territory.

Additionally, while our military were engaged with securing the area, our economic representative engaged in Track II Diplomacy with the USA. They discussed a potential oil drilling partnership. This included converting some of our PRC imports/exports to the USA.   The economic department established a deal where the USA would compensate any loss of PRC. Additionally, the USA would provide infrastructure to drill and as compensation, they had claim to the first ‘x’ amount of dollars in oil, then the profits would be split evenly. In the event of PRC joining the oil deal, the percentages of cost of infrastructure would be reassessed and a deal would reflect individual contribution.

Yet, to avoid sharing profits and being coerced into a diplomatic relationship with the PRC, the RoC’s internal policy was to provoke the PRC into triggering the TRA79. Thus, creating ‘legitimate’ reasons to declare independence.

We [RoC] began by framing the PRC as the rogue government through phrasing such as ‘our mainland provinces…’. We devised initiatives such as a ‘National Democracy Day’ inviting the Dalai Lama as the recognised leader of Tibet to join. To place pressure on PRC resources and distract their concentration we attempted to open a second front. For this we sought a bilateral military training agreement with India to train in the Himalayan Mountains on the Tibetan border. 

Finally, Operation Oppenheimer[4], was crafted but not launched to reopen the nuclear facilities on Taiwan. RoC would have operated under the protection that they aren’t officially recognised by the United Nations[5]. By abusing a grey area concerning nuclear development programs, RoC hoped to initiate UN recognition. 

Part IV- Communications 

 The format of the game benefited not only the pandemic circumstances but contributed to the overall feel of the simulation.  Owing to the high-level security nature of the simulation it felt realistic to separate into our teams and negotiate strategy among members which could be communicated to the control in a ‘real time’, which is how governments would operate. 

Additionally, the freedom to negotiate between teams (sans The Control) allowed the players to benefit from track II diplomacy. This was beneficial as The Control, could exacerbate announcements much like the media discourses. Having another avenue to discuss hypotheticals and discuss terms made our progress towards a peaceful resolution possible.

Part V- Replay?

From an economic point of view, it could have been more challenging to face budgetary realities, such as a cap on the military spending on operations. The budget of each state could reflect the extent of the grey zone commitment each state was willing to be bound by. Additionally, it could have made the diplomacy much more creative within and between the teams. As the PRC objective to not fall into conflict meant that they chose to remain silent and ignored our (RoC) taunts which blatantly undermined the CCP. I am quite sure that Chairman Xi would have been more proactive towards our strategies. In addition to incorporating a dimension of chance, I believe that game would gain depth that could provoke the creative solutions to the regional context.  

Nevertheless, I would recommend the simulation as it provides an effective learning tool of the regional dynamic of the Asia-Pacific.  


[1] Hayton, B. 2020.Chapter 7, Territory, (in) The Invention of China. New Haven; London: Yale University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv17z8490.1

[2] Inspired by Sir Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons, 10 May 1940.

[3] Taiwanese Relations Act (1979).

[4] Named after US nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the US atomic bomb.”

[5] 26th Session of the UN General Assembly, 25 October 1971.

Conducting a multi-week, remote crisis simulation

This article was written for PAXsims by Felipe Cruvinel, a PhD candidate at St Andrews. He is currently writing a thesis on applying data analysis to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. He designs and produces wargames and simulations for the school and undertakes tabletop design and hobby gaming in his own time. Find Felipe on Twitter at @FCruvi 

Building on the work already carried out on a simulation in early 2020 (previously described at PAXsims by John Hart), a further simulation, to build on the lessons learned from the first was carried out in February of this year. While seeking to provide students with a practical, engaging, and immersive experience, the reality of the substantial changes that have taken place in the year since due to the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated additional redesign work to carry out the simulation in an entirely online environment. 

Map 1: The Disputed Islands in the Scenario

While remaining within the geographic Eastern Hemisphere, the new scenario was centred on China-Taiwan-US dynamics rather than on the multipolar tensions of the South China Sea. The reduced number of groups and players was leveraged by a new design structure, whereby each Country Team is divided into three distinct “Departments”: Executive, Defence, and Economic (thereby applying a finding of the previous multiweek simulation and the previous one day event). These three distinct inter-team groups provided not only a distinction between responsibilities and capabilities, but further provided a real source of inter-team friction through the use of public and secret objectives. 

Figure 1: Country and Department Structure for a 12 Player Simulation 

Each department is thus provided with a public and open objective which they may share openly, whether with other members of their team or with other participants within the game. These are meant to reflect real-world stances and policies which states publicly acknowledge and advocate for. Defence and economic departments, however, were also provided with secret objectives. These consistent of considerations and concerns which when addressed, are likely to come in conflict with their own public objective, or with that of the Executive department. The Executive department was not provided with such a secret objective in order to serve as the centre of gravity and pivot point for the team to focus on. Their objective is the state’s objective, and they must rally their teammates in order to effectively accomplish their objective and prevent them from letting their secret objectives endanger more important goals. 

Design Aims and Structure

The primary objective for this simulation was to gather insight on intra and inter-team friction in an international crisis setting. Fundamentally, this iteration on our previous simulation was meant to assess whether the added inter-team friction made conflict and resolution more or less likely. Understanding the processes and challenges of negotiations between disparate group of actors while subjecting them to internal pressures covers the majority of the secondary aims guiding our design choices. Given such constraints and objectives, three country teams were settled on rather than the previous four, in order to avoid stalemates through static alliances or overwhelming advantages.  

Figure 2: Likely Balance Outcomes in a Three Country Scenario

The task of maintaining a dynamic environment is rendered much simpler in a three country scenario given that only likely outcome #1 has to be avoided. Secret objectives conflicting with one’s own public and state level ones were meant to induce internal drift and tension which would make any stable alliance and bloc harder to maintain. Beyond this, the design of the objectives themselves, both public and secret, also made sure to highlight and stress the differences in strategic and political outlook between Taiwan and the United States. 

For the purposes of running and conducting the Simulation itself, MS Teams was used as both a meeting point for general weekly meetings and intra-country meetings, and as a repository and delivery channel for intelligence reports, breaking news, and any additional information or noise to be conveyed by the control team. While we initially began with 12 participants, external factors reduced the total participant count to 10 over the course of the four weeks during which the simulation was carried out. A two-hour bloc from 4pm to 6pm on Wednesday afternoons was settled on as the general meeting time for every week, during which teams were provided with new information and opportunities to communicate in official or unofficial settings within the scenario. Participants were still allowed to carry out actions and communications outside of the general meeting time, and information was received and provided on a 24/7 basis for the first week of the simulation. This information took the form of reports from civilian and state agencies, communications from other states, fabricated news articles and fabricated breaking news videos. A curfew on information provision and new developments was implemented from week 2 onwards to reduce workload on participants. 

Challenges Faced

The central challenge that emerged was that the ongoing process of engaging with and between participants throughout a timeframe of several weeks increases the commitment requirements of both those participating and members of the control team. There is certainly greater realism in such a 24/7 approach, but its demands in terms of time commitment can quickly grow to become unsustainable for both participants and the control cell. As a solution to this particular issue, proper expectation setting is of the utmost importance. Participants must be made fully aware of the time and involvement demands to be expected, and when or how such commitments might change. 

Additional observations were made throughout the course of this simulation will certainly inform future iterations. Behind the scenes negotiations for instance, took place far more frequently than in our previous simulation. It is unclear if this was a consequence of the ease of secret and informal communication in an online environment versus in-person, or because the division of responsibilities, means, and objectives in our structure also incentivizes individual team members to explore options away from their country team. 

The added friction from team divisions and separate objectives was also seen to have an effect on the control team’s role, necessitating far more engagement in order to keep track of various lines of argument and both public and underhanded agendas. It further increases the “black box” of inter-participant discussion which sits outside the control team’s vision, as it is virtually impossible to control every exchange between participants in an informal setting, and it may in any case be undesirable. Establishing that such behind the scenes conversations are indeed acceptable within the simulation boundaries may be a useful preparatory step in the future. 

The final conclusion to be carried forward was that competitive interaction between and within teams improved engagement and participant experience while providing learning motivation. Participants appeared highly receptive to new information and often made their own independent plans for action in both cooperative and competitive methods, while taking the opportunity during debriefing to express their interest in future simulations.  

International relations crisis simulation at the University of St Andrews

The following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by John Hart.

John is part-time PhD candidate at the University whose research is titled ‘What Band of Brothers? An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis into the Meaning of Individual Motivation and Group Cohesion in Non-flying Royal Air Force Personnel.’ He previously served had a 25 year career in the British Army and Royal Air Force during which his role required his participation in both the management of, or participation in, many military exercises and simulation events. 


Crisis simulations have been run in recent years in the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews, one form was based on an exercise model that has been run previously in the United States.[1] This took a scenario based on a contemporary international issue – the proliferation of WMD – and allowed the teams, representing 3 major countries, to seek resolution to this crisis through internal decision making as well as interactions with other teams. This simulation was a one-day event with each of the 3 country teams themselves subdivided into leadership, diplomatic and military sub-teams. Supervision of teams was undertaken by staff mentors and outside subject matter experts, whilst the exercise play, including intelligence feeds and scenario development, was managed by a PhD candidate-led simulation Control Cell.

Since this one-day event, the team developed a different format in running a game. Instead of an intensive one day the event was split over four weeks and combined in-person and online (remote) engagement. It is the design, outcomes and challenges that I reflect on here. 

Background: Design Aims

The South China Sea Crisis simulation was held in early 2019 with the scenario being a fishing vessel disappearing in mysterious circumstances in the region. This crisis simulation was an evolution from the previous simulation, but differed from the one-day events in 4 key respects:

  • it was held largely remotely;
  • played over a longer period (4 weeks);
  • more state teams (4 countries: Vietnam, Philippines, China, the US) and,
  • no division into internal sub-teams  (diplomatic, military or executive).

The design aim of the simulation was largely identical to that previously, with the overarching objective being to expose the teams to the complex environment of international crises. This included their use of intelligence and media sources of information, managing risk, negotiation and decision making. In addition to the simulated interactions of competition and/or cooperation with other states, the simulation also replicated the internal challenges of managing internal decision making within states. However, the four key differences in structure of the game meant slightly different objectives/skill could be sought. The remote/in-person structure, meant that managing information, arranging meetings and overall team management was largely down to the teams’ own control. The absence of rigid internal divisions in the cells (between diplomatic, military and the executive) meant that the teams didn’t generated the same in-group frictions.

A key feature of the simulated crisis was the use of uncertainty. The use of multiple teams, and other 3rd party states, provided each other with opportunities or limitations to achieve their aims via negotiation. Also, multiple information/intelligence sources were used to inject a degree of complexity into the simulation.

Structure and Game Mechanics

The simulation was largely run remotely, with a single in-person session per week. The Control Cell consisted of 2 staff and 2 PhD-candidates overseeing 15 players. Gmail accounts were set up for each team and Control to facilitate group communications. This ensured that there were clearly understood mechanisms of communication to facilitate intelligence/information feed to teams. The design also included specified forms and processes for teams to request information or communicate actions to the Control Cell. 

With an outline of the crisis scenario was agreed within the Control Cell, this permitted generation of supporting simulated intelligence, diplomatic reporting or media stories on the crisis to teams. This feed included added ‘public’ noise – e.g., information provided that may have been, true and relevant; relevant possibly not true; not relevant. This was to allow participants to distil the relevant and true information from the stream of incoming material. Notably, the Control Cell capitalised on contemporary social media feeds – with Trump then in power – using his Tweets.

It was entirely left up to the players to self-organised internal or bilateral meetings. Once a week, however, a Control Cell-organised session was conducted to wrap-up the week’s round of play. This was held under the auspices of a meeting of an international organisation e.g., UN or ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). This weekly session was often enhanced by simulated 3rd party nations, using pre-briefed additional participants.

Simulation Challenges

The teams’ internal dynamics were inherently more difficult to monitor during this simulation than the previous one-day, on-site exercise. The remoteness of the simulation gave more autonomy for organisation and internal decision making to team members, but this also gave the Control Cell fewer insights into the internal dynamics.[1] Anecdotally, there were fewer intra-team interactions, but the Control Cell did facilitate an opportunity during the weekly meeting. The Control Cell did possess, however, a good sense of inter-team dynamics and discussions due to access to teams’ email accounts.

A key difference (that may be considered a challenge) was that in the remote setting teams preferred to seek to defuse tension through accommodation and negotiation. One possible explanation is the time pressures of the single simulation induced greater tension and uncertainty into play. Another explanation is that the  participants in the multi-week simulations were composed of teams that were naturally more risk adverse. 

Future Design Considerations

A future consideration is to re-establish the internal elements within each country team. In the remote simulation, each team acted as a unitary actor, setting collective objectives and a common strategy negotiated between the players. However, this does not make it possible to understand the friction between various groups internal to states.[2] This reduced the agency of individual players replicating the internal ‘friction’ of domestic policy formulation and decision making. Separate sub-teams should induce greater internal ‘behind the scenes’ negotiations.

The use of pre-briefed contributors/participants/third parties to multilateral meetings – e.g., UN meetings, was a good enhancement. It injected another dynamic into the 3-country game and permitted the Control Cell another lever to obtain responses from teams, or to test their policy decisions. The weekly UN/ARF meeting was also a good forum to resolve a week’s play, create a realistic ‘arena’ for disputes and permitted insight for the Control Cell to prepare the following week’s development.


[1] Hunzeker, Michael A., and Kristen A. Harkness. “The Strategy Project: Teaching Strategic Thinking through Crisis Simulation.” PS: Political Science & Politics 47, no. 2 (2014): 513-517.

[2]  Such was the internal friction during a previous, in-person exercise that the on military team conducted a ‘coup d’état’ against its own executive.

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