Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and gaming ideas

Play with us, however you roll

You might be sat there thinking, the Derby House Principles look great, but in all honesty our organisation is a bunch of guys and nobody but guys apply to work with us, it would feel hypocritical to sign-up. Here’s a different way to think about it:

By putting out inclusive content—not just the characters and story, but the interface as well—a whole generation of diverse gamers and game-makers will come knocking at your door wanting a peice of the action.

Change begins with making content that says everyone is welcome here.

It’s the simple things, like allowing users to remap the controls in your game, that can make a huge difference

Microsoft’s approach to disability access is really interesting: There are (approximately) 100,000 people in America with an upper limb deficiency. That’s not a commercially viable market. But six million people break their arm every year in the US, putting them temporarily in the same category. And parents are juggling children and laptops every other second in lockdown, putting them situationally in the same category. When you frame it like that, something that allows you to drive Windows and your Xbox one-handed is a mainstream need.

Disability is mismatched human interactions. That’s all.

So here’s a public service announcement ahead of the Connections 2020 games fair:

The MacOS screen-reader can’t get hold of content in Google docs in safari, so all the distributed wargaming I’ve been doing in the pandemic has been with rules and player stats and shared intent slides that I can’t read.

It can’t be that hard, surely? You have a degree and everything!

Modern Armour Wargame mission briefing with the words broken in all the wrong places.
It’s English, I promise. Look harder.

Too easy? How about this:

Instructions for how the game will run, with the words broken in all the wrong places and not sitting neatly on the line.
(and I didn’t even jumble up the p/b/d/q like I usually do with this game…)

Sure, you can pick your way through it eventually, but do you remember anything you just read? How much gameplay will you miss wading through the mud to check a rule here and there? Could you even decipher that text while you have other players talking in your ear on Zoom?

Pop quiz: what’s provided in the slide deck…?

If you are running a distributed game at Connections please consider including a very simple statement on your sign-up sheet:

Please let us know if you have any accessibility needs so we can figure out what will work for you.


The personalities of miniature wargame players

Robert Körner, Jana Kammerhoff, and Astrid Schütz (Otto-Friedrich-University of Bamberg) have just published a fascinating article in the Journal of Individual Differences (2020) entitled “Who Commands the Little Soldiers? A Comparison of the Personality Traits of Miniature Wargame Players With Other Gamers and Non-Gamers.” The article is pay-walled, so you will need an individual or institutional subscription to access the full text.

The popularity of miniature wargames (MWGs) has recently been on the rise. We aimed to identify the personality characteristics of people who play MWGs. Whereas the popular media have suspected that fantasy role-playing and war-related games cause antisocial behavior, past research on tabletop role-playing has shown that gamers are creative and empathetic individuals. Previous studies have investigated pen-and-paper tabletop games, which require imagination and cooperation between players. Tabletop MWGs are somewhat different because players compete against each other, and there is a strong focus on war-related actions. Thus, people have voiced the suspicion that players of this type of game may be rather aggressive. In the present study, 250 male MWG players completed questionnaires on the Big Five, authoritarianism, risk-orientation, and motives as well as an intelligence test. The same measures were administered to non-gamers, tabletop role-playing gamers, and first-person shooter gamers.

Their findings? Tabletop wargamers are a lot like other gamers* and don’t fit the anti-social stereotype very well:

In the present study, we analyzed differences in intelligence, risk-orientation, authoritarianism, as well as other motives and personality traits between players of MWGs and comparison samples comprised of people who played other types of games and the general population. When compared with the GP, MWG players reported higher openness, higher extraversion, and lower conscientiousness. The same pattern was found when comparing tabletop RPG players with the GP, suggesting that MWG players and RPG players resemble each other. Both types of gamers also reported more openness than FPS gamers. MWG players and RPG players also reported lower conscientiousness than the GP, which may be surprising as painting little soldiers or familiarizing oneself with complex rule-sets are activities that require exactness and a focus on detail. It is possible that the gamers do not view themselves as conscientious in everyday life, but when they engage in gaming activities, they may be rather thorough. Hence, follow-up studies could compare how gamers describe themselves with respect to their everyday activities and their gaming behavior.

No differences between the groups were found for neuroticism and agreeableness. Thus, gamers cannot be regarded as emotionally unstable or disagreeable

individuals – as some stereotypes claim. With regard to rea- soning ability, all players scored higher than participants from the GP. Results also indicated significant differences with respect to conventionalism, authoritarian submission, and authoritarian aggression such that all three groups of gamers described themselves as less authoritarian than participants from the GP did. Of the groups of gamers, RPG players reported the least authoritarian attitude.

With respect to everyday risk-orientation, MWG players’ self-reports were similar to those of RPG players, and both types of gamers reported less risk-orientation than non- gamers. FPS gamers reported a similar risk-orientation as the GP. Interestingly, MWG (and RPG and FPS) players described themselves as acting in a significantly more risk-oriented way during gaming than in their everyday lives. Apparently, gaming behavior does not transfer to everyday behavior. Alternatively, gaming could actually compensate for everyday behavior (i.e., cautious people might like to take risks in a context where no real danger exists).

Regarding motives, MWG players had higher affiliation values than individuals from the GP and the RPG sample. No differences between MWG players and others were found on the power, achievement, and fear motives. With respect to intimacy motives, MWG players scored higher than RPG players did. Apparently, MWG players appreciate close interpersonal relationships.

To summarize, in line with our second hypothesis, MWG players may be seen as open-minded, empathetic, non authoritarian individuals. The competing hypothesis that described MWG players as war-loving, power-oriented, and irreconcilable was not supported by players’ self- reports.

Further, people will only engage in these games during their leisure time if they experience MWG activities as pleasant. The sample of MWG players was high in openness, intelligence, and affiliation. This suggests that the ludological concept of enjoying a pastime may well describe the background of MWGs. Only people who perceive these complex and sociable games that require strategic thinking as a pleasant pastime will be attracted by these games.

Overall, the stereotypes that gamers are antisocial (DeRenard & Kline, 1990) as claimed by the media from the 1980s and 1990s to the present day (Curran, 2011) were not supported. Instead, the present results fit into the RPG literature that portrays RPG gamers as empathetic and socially skilled (Curran, 2011; Meriläinen, 2012). However, the stereotype of gamers as nerdy and sharp-minded does seem to have a kernel of truth, and because reasoning scores were high in all three samples of gamers. And as reasoning ability is a key predictor of academic and occupational success (Kramer, 2009), MWG players cannot easily be dismissed as acting in a dysfunctional manner.

You’ll notice, however, that all of the subject sample (n=250) is male—underscoring the lack of diversity in hobby wargaming.

The sample group is also German-speaking, leaving open the possibility that their are differences across national gaming communities. Almost one-third of the sample were Warhammer 40K players. While the Warhammer community harbours a significant racist and misogynist subcommunity attracted by the dark dystopian militarism of the 40K game universe, other parts of it are also extremely diverse and open.

In terms of future research, the authors note:

This study provides initial insights into personality differences between MWG players and others. In future investi- gations, it will be fruitful to use experimental or longitudinal designs to draw conclusions about causality and answer questions such as: Can MWGs improve participants’ social skills? Can creativity and intelligence be enhanced by engaging in MWGs? Furthermore, observer ratings or infor- mant reports could be included to provide information beyond self-reports. Another interesting question would be whether personality traits predict certain motives to play MWGs (see Graham & Gosling, 2013). All in all, further psychological and transdisciplinary research in the field of MWGs may help us understand the roles of games and playing in forming psychological attitudes and abilities.

As we showed, MWG players are a distinct sample that has a specific personality pattern. Commanding little soldiers and fighting other gamers with the help of these soldiers seems to be an activity that is preferred by open, unconventional people with a high affiliation motive – and it is even possible that the activity may be suitable for developing social skills such as negotiating. Why not engage in MWGs?

*MWG: miniature wargame(rs) FPS: first-person shooters RPG: role-playing game(rs) GP: general population

“Soviet Military Thought”

Now that we are becoming interested again in the Russian Military, the collection of the “Soviet Military Thought” series of books translated by the US Air Force from Russian might be of interest. I have identified 22 books in the series and can find online texts for all (but two) of those on Some of the PDF versions are badly scanned and although readable by human eye, text search of the files is unreliable.

If you know of additional volumes beyond no 22, or if you have links or access to decent (OCR’d) versions, please respond to this post. Thanks.

I’ll update this list with clean OCR’d versions as I get to them.

  1. The Offensive
  2. Marxism—Leninism on War and Army
  3. Scientific—Technical Progress and the Revolution in Military Affairs
  4. The Basic Principles of Operational Art and Tactics
  5. The Philosophical Heritage of V. I. Lenin and Problems of Contemporary War
  6. Concept, Algorithm, Decision
  7. Military Pedagogy
  8. Military Psychology
  9. Dictionary of Basic Military Terms
  10. Civil Defense
  11. Selected Soviet Military Writings: 1970—1975
  12. The Armed Forces of the Soviet State
  13. The Officer’s Handbook
  14. The People, the Army, the Commander
  15. Long-Range Missile-Equipped
  16. Forecasting in Military Affairs
  17. The Command and Staff of the Soviet Army Air Force in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945
  18. Fundamentals of Tactical Command and Control
  19. The Soviet Armed Forces: A History of Their Organizational Development
  20. The Initial Period of War
  21. Tactics
  22. Camouflage

The kind of thing aspirational juniors will see on bookshelves and in briefcases

One of my aims here at PAXsims is to raise up the voices and experiences of professional gamers outside the “male and pale” majority. So here’s your starter for 10, from the Wavell Room:

If you want to be the best Armed Forces, then the only way to go is Feminist.  If you don’t believe me, there’s stacks of writing out there about the importance of diversity and inclusion to making the best decisions, and being the highest performing team.  And there’s also stacks of writing about the importance of feminist thought and analysis when it comes to conflict and peace. 

This post, however, is not about the necessity of Feminism.  This is about how men in Defence can start to change themselves and lead their conservative, homogeneous organisations into a better, more gender-equal future.

Nick P, So you want to be ‘Feminist AF’? at The Wavell Room

It’s worth reading the whole article, but I’ll pull out this one paragraph, and invite PAXsims readership to take up the challenge:

One small sign can be the sight of (particularly senior men) reading the kinds of books and articles that I recommend below.  It’s commonplace for someone like the General I originally wrote to to be reading a weighty, male-authored tome about strategy or leadership.  It’s the kind of thing aspirational juniors will always see on bookshelves and in briefcases etc. 

I asked him to take Soraya Chemaly’s “Rage Becomes Her” and make it something that he carries around with him, to be read as he goes from meeting to meeting, location to location, in the car, on the train, and that people see him reading and carrying, that he places on the table during meetings along with his notebook and briefing papers etc. 

People will see this, and it will send a sign to women in the room, and to men who are shy of being allies but want to participate, and it will begin conversations. 

Nick P, So you want to be ‘Feminist AF’? at The Wavell Room

h/t Louise Martingale at Dstl

Wargaming from home

The following piece was contributed to PAXsims by Dr. Jeremy Sepinsky, Lead Wargame Designer at CNA. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.

Professional wargaming is a critical tool in support of the safety and security of our nation. The technique is used regularly and often to help senior leaders align priorities, test courses of action, educate civilians and warfighters, and refine decision making. Regardless of the side you fall on the recent debates, we all agree that wargaming is important to the nation, that it needs to be done, and that it needs to be done well. Most serious gaming is done in-person and there is evidence of substantial value in this approach. Title 10 games routinely gather hundreds of participants for a week-long event. The CDC would still consider this unwise. While the defense industrial base is typically exempt from restrictions on gathering, many organizations are simply practicing good stewardship and postponing or cancelling wargames and supporting events. Social distancing efforts also make it hard to engage even in informal face-to-face gaming on a much smaller scale. So what do wargamers and their players do when governments restrict travel and even public gatherings due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, while they wait until normal operations can resume? Other authors have discussed how COVID-19 is impacting military training and exercises, as well as some of the solutions in place to bridge the gap. Here, I’d like to discuss some of the commercial games and wargames that can offer all of us – wargamers, warfighters, and analysts – some professional development while we physically distance ourselves. And perhaps some online games can bridge the physical gap and allow some productive socialization.

Of course, there is no substitute for professional wargames. The commercial games discussed here won’t give you the detailed, immersive, and educational experience that a professional wargame would have. These are, after all, designed for enjoyment, not training or analysis. However, these games can help develop operational and strategic thinking skills, contribute to professional military education by supplementing rigorous study, training, and practice, and help generate ideas to use in designing professional games.

With that in mind, I reached out to many of my professional wargaming colleagues and asked for their suggestions on wargames and board games that can be played either solo or virtually (online or by email). Since planning real military operations from home is typically frowned upon, we focus on commercial wargames that have professional development value for war planners and tacticians.

Electronic Gaming

While playing wargames electronically loses some of the tactile and social parts of the game, playing wargames remotely is certainly not new. Several game engines exist (both free and paid) to help facilitate that play. Many of the games referenced below might be available on these platforms.

VASSAL is a free, open-source application (for Mac OS, Windows, or Linux) that distant (or socially distant) players can use to play digital versions of board wargames against each other, either in real time over the internet or asynchronously by recording moves and exchanging them via email. There are downloadable VASSAL modules for more than a thousand published wargames and other strategy games available, including virtually all of the game releases of very recent years from many of the leading commercial wargame publishers such as MMP and GMT (but at least one of the players must own a copy of the physical game). VASSAL replicates the visual and intellectual experience of playing the boardgames, and even in normal times is a useful way to overcome not only an absence of face-to-face opponents but also the time-and-space challenges of setting up and playing games that are very large or very long. Playing VASSAL games by email can be particularly appealing for studious players who enjoy being able to wrestle with difficult tactical or strategic choices at length without trying the patience of an opponent across the table. (Karl P. Mueller, Political Scientist, RAND Corporation)

Tabletop Simulator (Berserk Games, 2015) – This does exactly what it advertises.  Available on gaming platforms like Steam, Tabletop Simulator (TTS) gives you the tools you need to recreate a multi-player physical game in a virtual environment. Standard game components such as playing cards, dice, chips, and other tokens are readily available to include into your game.  You can also upload your own graphics to create custom pieces, boards, and maps.  The Lua programming language can be used to create scripts to support game mechanics but is by no means necessary.  The built in physics engine lets you treat your game components like physical pieces so you do not have to create scripts to replicate game rules.  The best part of the physics engine though, is that it lets you flip the table when you rage quit. A large variety of boardgames are already programed and available in the game. The focus of this platform (and similarly Board Game Arena) is typically on commercial board games as opposed to wargame, but these can still have substantial value for strategists (Mr. Hyong Lee, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Applied Strategic Learning, National Defense University)

Steam is an online digital game distribution platform, hosting thousands of online games of various genres. Unsurprisingly, wargames are a popular category, which includes titles like the Total War series, Command: Modern OperationsArmor Brigade, and Flashpoint Campaigns. Due to advanced computing, digital wargames can incorporate a wide-range of factors such as weather, terrain, and morale, while maintaining accessible gameplay. Furthermore, by leveraging robust AI programs, digital wargames present increasingly robust and rich challenges, even in solo play. Some staunch traditionalists may disparage digital wargames as graphically appealing, yet substantively lacking. This may be true for some, but it is an unfair characterization for the entire genre. Admittedly, commercial wargames are no substitute for serious, well-researched wargames. However, when used correctly and under the right circumstances, commercial digital wargames can provide utility. For instance, Ben Jensen, a professor at the Marine Corps University, has demonstrated the value of Flashpoint Campaigns in educational wargaming. Likewise, Command: Professional Edition can be found in professional military courses on planning, operations, and wargaming. The appeal of these digital wargames lies in their distributed capability, customizable scenarios, and ease of access. (Sebastian J. Bae, Defense Analyst, RAND Corporation)

Rule the Waves 2 (Naval Warfare Simulations, 2019) – At the other end of the computer gaming spectrum from Command: Modern operations (CMO), in a host of ways, is Rule the Waves 2. It covers the timeframes between 1900 and 1950, so ends where CMO starts and uses an interface and graphics style more out of Microsoft Access than a Maritime Operations Center. But the good news is, if you are a professional Naval analyst, you will probably feel right at home! While it allows you to fight tactical battles from throughout the period, it puts you in the role of not just the Admiral in command of a fleet in a MahanianDecisive Battle, but also that of Fleet Architect. Make technology investment decisions, set engagement doctrine, then test them in Fleet Exercises. Your Government may make demands to build certain ship classes, despite their obsolescence, and events can cause tensions between nations to rise and fall. If you do go to war, you will face the old adage “you fight with the fleet you have, not the one you want”, stretched thin by requirements to deploy forces to areas across the globe. It has a fair learning curve, and is graphically austere, but with some suspension of disbelief it is a terrific sandbox for would be naval technology innovators! (Paul Vebber (

Manual Gaming

A Distant Plain, 3rd Printing (GMT Games, 2018) – Designed by two prominent and prolific wargame designers, Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train, A Distant Plain is a card-driven game (CDG) counter-insurgency (COIN) wargame. Players must navigate the dangerous and shifting power structures of modern-day Afghanistan. Building on the game engine from Andean Abyss, players must leverage unique capabilities and stratagems to pursue their individual goals. Reflective of the wider COIN series, players must make difficult choices with limited resources in a dynamic strategic environment. Normally accommodating four players, A Distant Plain also provides a solitaire mode where a procedural artificial intelligence, in the form of logic flowcharts, simulates the non-player factions. To those new to the COIN series, the game may seem daunting to learn and master. However, A Distant Plain and the rest of the COIN series provides a vibrant and rich gaming experience, reflected by its widespread commercial following. It is also important to note that GMT Games offers several wargames with solitaire modes, such as Pericles: The Peloponnesian Wars and Empire of the Sun, 3rd Printing. Furthermore, Labyrinth: The War on Terror, a CDG about global Islamic jihad, has an early access version available on Steam(Sebastian J. Bae, Defense Analyst, RAND Corporation)

Agricola (Z-man Games, Inc, 2007) – Not every professional development game needs to be about war. Agricola is a worker placement and resource management Eurogame. The rules are fairly simple, but the strategy is complex. Players are working a medieval family farm, balancing the need to crops, livestock, and other resources. The game has a set number of turns, and, to be competitive, players need to begin optimizing their strategy from the very start. As the game progresses, players are forced to choose between a lot of bad options (including the ability to make other player’s options even worse). This is best for people looking to practice long-term strategic thinking as well as how to balance in-the-moment decisions that may derail their plan. It can be played solo as well as online. (Jeremy Sepinsky, Lead Wargame Designer, CNA Corporation)

Algeria: The War of Independence 1954-1962 (Fiery Dragon Productions, 2006) – This is a grand operational – strategic game of the insurgency-counter insurgency war prosecuted by France against the National Liberation Front (FLN) forces in its colony of Algeria.  Highly abstracted, it focuses on most of the military, economic, intelligence, and information aspects found in this type of conflict.  While the hearts and minds of the Algerian population play a role, of more importance is the sustainment of French popular support as the FLN attempts to manipulate the French willingness to prosecute the war.  The mechanics are sufficiently detailed to permit the examination of several different strategic approaches to both insurgency and counter-insurgency (see Bard O’Neill ‘Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse’).  Algeria is available as a VASSALmodule for remote play. (Mike Ottenberg, Military Operations Research Society Wargame Community of Practice)

Close Action (Clash of Arms Games, Mark Campbell, designer, 1997) – Close Action is a game of tactical naval combat in the Age of Sail (1740-1815).  Each ship in a battle is represented by an individual counter (or ship model if you prefer) and a hex grid is used to regulate movement and combat between ships.  Rules cover ship sailing performance, gunnery combat, boarding actions, and the influence of skill and morale upon combat outcomes. Each player commands one or more ships and secretly plots their moves before each game turn, which represents 200 seconds of real time.  Moves are revealed simultaneously, ships are moved, and then the players direct them where to fire.  The hex grid and the plotted moves make Close Action an ideal game to play by email—players simply send in their moves before each game turn, to a referee or to each other, then resolve moves and direct and conduct gunfire according to the rules.  Ship moves can be tracked and presented to players with photo images or using purpose-designed software (like VASSAL).  Play by email allows players from literally anywhere to play in a game.  Where Close Action really shines, however, is in its command, control, and communication rules, which simulate the signaling limitations of ships from its era.  The rules limit communication between players on a side to messages of a few words each game turn.  Players must write messages before a turn and then deliver them only at the end of the turn, thus causing their information to decay and potentially creating confusion in the minds of their recipients.  If a game is played with one player per ship, which is facilitated by email play, players can experience the confusion (and frustration!) that occurred in historical battles.  In this respect, Close Action can be a valuable tool—even while we’re sheltering in place—for teaching players about the impact of command, control, and communication limitations on tactical combat. (Sean Barnett, Senior Engineer, RAND Corporation)

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! (Academy Games, 2012, 2nd Edition) –  Conflict of Heroes is a historical WWII Eastern European Theater wargame taking place at the squad level.  Its scenarios start out very simple and gradually add complexity to include vehicles, hidden movement, and artillery.  The player must make use of limited command resources to coordinate the movements and actions of the ground units.  While initially designed for two players, single player experiences abound.  As a means of learning basic rules, combat tactics, and game mechanics, a single player can develop and try out strategies on their own for many of the game’s missions.  More importantly, the 2nd Edition is supplemented by a Solo Expansion as well as a random Firefight Generator which allows continual single player experiences against an AI adversary.  The games AI system is based on core principles of agent based modelling and provides a good tactical challenge. A more recent 3rd edition reimplements and simplifies the ruleset, but is thus not directly compatible with the solo expansions.  (Johnathan Proctor, Analyst, Joint Staff)

Dunn-Kempf (John Curry,, 2008) – Dunn-Kempf is a professional miniatures wargame that was used to train and educate US Army military officers from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s.  Each alternating turn represents 30 seconds of combat.  Players maneuver single vehicles or stands of infantry representing fire teams on a terrain table where one inch equals 50 meters.  Direct fires, indirect fires, and other systems such as mines are adjudicated using pre-determined combat results tables using dice to represent the random effects of combat.  All elements of the game system are based in the weapons, tactics, techniques, and procedures used during that era.  Although there is no computer assisted version of this game, a play by e-mail MAPEX using PowerPoint and standard military tactical symbols is readily available for our current environment.  (Mike Ottenberg, Military Operations Research Society Wargame Community of Practice)

Enduring Freedom: US Operations in Afghanistan  (Ambush Alley Games, 2011) – Published as Issue #30 of Modern War (July-August 2017) this is a solitaire wargame of the invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Components include a sheet of 176 cardboard counters, a 22” x 34” map sheet and a 16-page rulebook. The player controls Coalition forces including brigades, battalions, FOBs, and air strikes (US, NATO, and the Northern Alliance). The game system controls opposing Islamist units and leaders  (Al Qaeda, Taliban, and Pakistani volunteers). The map is divided into regions that contain desert or mountain terrain, major cities, “Strongholds,” “Jihadi Centers” and airbases. The game objective is for the Coalition to destroy Al Qaeda and establish a stable Afghan government. The game covers October 2001 (initial US invasion) to March 2002 (conclusion of Operation Anaconda).  The complex sequence of play is organized according to doctrinal staff functions:  J-1 (Mobilization and Refit), J-2 (Information operations and intelligence), J-3 (Operations), J-4 (Sustainment), and J-5 (Civil-Military). This is a good example of solitaire wargame design for a contemporary joint Operational-level conflict at a fairly abstract level. (Michael Markowitz, Senior Research Specialist, CNA)

Foreign Legion Paratrooper (Decision Game, 2020) – This solitaire wargame is published as Issue #46 of Modern War (March – April 2020). Components include a sheet of 176 cardboard counters, a 22” x 34” map sheet and a 16-page rulebook. The player faces randomly generated crisis contemporary and near-future interventions in Africa and the Middle East, deploying platoon-sized ground and air units from a strategic display to mission maps (variously scaled at 500 meters to 5 km per hex) in desert, jungle, urban, mountain or oilfield terrain. A turn represents anything from 12 hours to a week.  A series of missions can be linked into an extended campaign game.  Possible missions include hostage rescue, counter terrorist operations, capture of high-value targets, and WMD interdiction, against randomly generated opposing forces.  The game system emphasizes planning and logistics, (factors often neglected in hobby wargames) using expenditure of “operations points” for various game functions. The game provides useful insight into the combat capabilities and limitations of modern French forces.  (Michael Markowitz, Senior Research Specialist, CNA)

Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations (Dan Verssen Games (DVG), 2010) – The entire library of DVG single player wargames provides isolated tabletop tacticians and strategists alike with a series of options spanning history.  Hornet Leader focuses on modern carrier air combat spanning from the first Gulf War in 1992 to modern day Syria. Players commit to an air campaign at both the squadron and flight tactical levels.  At the squadron level, players must select and manage a roster of aircrew and assets across multiple missions while selecting and prosecuting targets.  Since no plan survives contact, each mission includes random events that can change the adversary order of battle, impact available tactics and resources, or (rarely) provide an advantage to the player.  The ruleset is simple enough for beginners, but different campaign settings and associated resource limitations will provide difficult decision challenges for experts as well.  Additional titles that focus on Army and Air Force aviation include Thunderbolt Apache Leader and Phantom Leader respectively, which use similar setups and rulesets. (Johnathan Proctor, Analyst, Joint Staff)

Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game (Fantasy Flight Games, 2017) – Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) combines the decision-making in the face of uncertainty inherent in card games with a wargame set in a magical version of the Sengoku Period of Japanese  history. Players build and pilot decks from one of seven clans, each with a different theme. Some clans seek to quickly overrun opponents and break provinces militarily while others focus on controlling the political arena and slowly wearing down the honor of the opponent. Most games take roughly an hour to play. During gameplay, players must balance their resources across multiple phases; these decisions include playing more characters or playing specific actions. As in many card games, some of the information is revealed on the board to all players while other information is secretly held in each player’s hand. This game can be played online and is recommend for players who enjoy games with partial information and tradeoffs that effect future turns. (Justin Peachey, Research Scientist, CNA Corporation)

Napoleon, the Waterloo Campaign (4th edition Columbia Games, 2013) – This is a relatively uncomplicated wargame but one that employs wooden blocks rather than cardboard counters to represent the military units involved in the campaign. This physical system design easily introduces uncertainty and deception into play because the opposing players cannot see the real identity of opposing units until they engage in combat. Furthermore, the blocks allow easy implementation of a step-reduction system, allowing units to become attrited in combat while preventing the opponent from knowing which units have been damaged the most. The third major element of the game system is the use of point-to-point movement. Forces move between locations connected by roads and the capacity of the roads constrains how many units you can move from one town to another during a turn. This game is one of a handful of truly revolutionary designs, created in 1972 and spawning and entirely new genre of block games. It has much to teach professional wargamers. The mechanisms and components of the game are the most obvious innovations but there is far more to learn here. Perhaps most important lesson is the fundamental change in player perspective that the reduced information creates. Although not a complete “fog of war,” it is at least misty out there. But the game is also an object lesson in revolutionary innovation. It took the old paradigm of cardboard counters openly displayed on a hex grid and completely changed the model. The block-game model is of great interest, even today, for those trying to find a balance between the perceived (though often overstated) unreality of open, Igo-Hugo (i.e., “I go, then you go”) game systems and the perceived (though often questionable) realism of “double-blind” and simultaneous games. Not to mention the fundamental synthetic experience it creates by challenging players to devise a winning strategic approach and translate it into an effective operational plan. Napoleon can be played easily in person with or without a referee to create even more fog of war, or by using email- or text-based play using a referee to manage things. Unfortunately, there appear to be no dedicated resources for automated online play. (Peter Perla, Principal Research Scientist, CNA Corporation)

Pandemic (Z-man Games, Inc, 2008) – Pandemic is a family-friendly cooperative game where players together try to cure four different diseases while simultaneously controlling outbreaks around the world. It can serve as a very basic introduction to cooperative game mechanics and the types of conversations (and arguments) that a cooperative game may generate. While the topic is particularly timely in the age of COVID-19, the decisions have little bearing on how countries and international actors would deal with a real-life pandemic. Rigid rule-based games such as this have explicit connections between player actions and game effects, whereas serious games often serve as a mechanism to prompt real-world actors to figure out who needs to coordinate and when. That said, it is fun to play, and can certainly be considered part of your research into pandemic gaming. Pandemic may be also be played solo or on the iPhone/iPad. (Yuna Huh Wong, Policy Research, RAND Corporation)

Single Player Games – The ranks of purely or primarily solitaire board wargames that merit the attention of serious students of military affairs have grown remarkably in the past 15 years—John H. Butterfield alone has produced more than half a dozen during that time. Among the least conventional recent solitaire wargames, Brien J. Miller’s Silent War is an innovative and attractively-rendered simulation of the Allied submarine campaign against Japan. It captures WWII’s evolving and attritional nature in a level of detail that some players find highly immersive and others tedious, as the solo Allied player tries to sink millions of tons of shipping tracked in thousand-ton increments. (The sequel, Steel Wolves, does the same for the even larger WWII U-boat war against Britain.) The Fields of Fire games, by game designer and career U.S. Marine officer Ben Hull, simulate infantry combat at the company level from 1944 to Vietnam.  Fields of Fire uses a unique card-based system that illuminates things about small-unit combat that no other tactical boardgame has done, and has made some players fall out of love with better-known games that treat the topic more cinematically. Both series reward spending substantial time exploring them—one takes a long time to play and the other has rules that are challenging to master—so they might be just right for a period of prolonged social isolation. (Karl P. Mueller, Political Scientist, RAND Corporation)

Space Alert (Czech Games Edition, 2008)  – Decision-making under conditions of time constraint and uncertainty, while fostering teamwork, quick communication, and mental agility have become stock phrases associated with professional wargaming. Investment in professional wargaming centers that can put large groups through their paces in realistic scenarios developing these skills are in great demand and offer our warfighters crucial opportunities to hone those skills. But if you are a small group, sequestered from such facilities, or not lucky enough to get invites at all, fear not! You can get a taste of what those events are like in microcosm with this little gem of a game. Using Sci Fi tropes similar to computer games like Starship Artemis, players form a team in the roles of starship crewmen. They must face challenges from attacking aliens to defend the ship, and inevitably, repair it when damaged. The hook that draws you into the game is a set of 10 min audio files. These can be played on a CD or downloaded for your phone – the scripts are available to be read aloud if you need to save your tech for the real-world calamity! Between these encounters, you “jump to hyperspace” and can reset some aspects of the game to prepare for the next time you drop out into a new situation. It takes a few playings to get the mechanics down, but when players get in the flow of the game, its easy to picture yourself in a much higher stakes situation than a board game on your conference or dining room table. (Paul Vebber (

Star Wars Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2016) – Rebellion is an epic game of hide-and-seek set in the Star Wars universe while fully incorporating the DIME (Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic).  Diplomatic: Both Rebels and Imperials must convince unaligned systems to join their cause.  Informational: The Rebels have a hidden base, which the Empire is trying to find.  Military: Like most games with Star Wars, there is an emphasis on the war: the game includes both land- and ship-based combat.  Economic: To continue fighting (i.e., building more units, possibly replacing lost ones) both sides have to increase their production capabilities weighed against their ability to produce those units in a useful, timely fashion.  Additionally, the Empire has its own set on monstrous projects (e.g., the Death Star) which it must separately balance.  All of this is within a move-economy determined by the number of leaders each side has (and how effectively the player uses them).  Rebellion pits two players (or two teams) against in each other in asymmetric play ranging from the Strategic to Tactical, while fully incorporating DIME. (Nolan Noble, Research Data Scientist, CNA Corporation)

The Waterloo Campaign, 1815 (C3i Magazine, 2019) – This is a recent edition to the canon (or is that cannon?) of Waterloo games. While its mechanisms are relatively uncomplicated, so too are those of chess. Indeed, in many ways the game plays in a very chesslike way. As with chess, this is a two-sided, open-information contest in which the players alternate moving one of their small number of pieces—around 20 for each side—until one or both players choose to stop. One of the unique aspects of play is that pieces are not limited to a single movement or attack each half-day game turn, but rather can be pushed as far as the player may wish until coming into close contact with the enemy. It is a system based on the same design-production team’s earlier Gettysburg game. The biggest differences from that earlier game have to do with implementing the different realities of Napoleonic warfare when compared to the U.S. Civil War. Primary among these are the operational and battlefield roles of cavalry and the effects of elite units such as Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, as well as the Emperor’s penchant for massing a Grand Battery of Artillery to pound his opponent’s line. Unlike the Columbia version of the campaign, the players of The Waterloo Campaign, 1815 can see all the opposing forces on a standard hexagon map but maneuvering those forces is tricky because units must slow down as they approach the enemy and become fixed in place if they intend to attack them. It is a different view of strategy and an unusual form of game play. Its new ideas—and new implementation of old ideas—offer the professional wargamer both new tools and fresh inspiration. The small number of playing pieces belies the depth of game play. Although a short playing time of 60 to 90 minutes is claimed by the designer, my experience is that careful players, using chess-like care, can extend the duration to twice that. As of this writing there appear to be no electronic versions of the game available. However, the small number of pieces and alternating action make it an easy game to play using email or text chat. (Peter Perla, Principal Research Scientist, CNA Corporation)

Twilight Imperium (Fantasy Flight Games, 2017) – Twilight Imperium is a complex wargame. The rules are very involved and a game can take 8 or more hours with the maximum number of players. Each player controls one of seventeen different unique factions. While all factions use the same set of units, each faction may use them differently. The game board varies each playthrough as players build the galaxy they are conquering during the first phase of play. During the main portion of the game, all factions compete to achieve ten victory points. The first player to do so wins the game. Gameplay often involves tradeoffs between attacking other players to gain more territory, building more units to attack and defend territory already owned, and taking actions to gain victory points. This game is recommended for people who want to experience the role of setting and implementing a grand strategy and altering said strategy in the event of contact with an enemy. It can be played online, but not solo. (Justin Peachey, Research Scientist, CNA Corporation)

WotR: Gordon, Joyner and Benitez on “Competitive wargaming in a pandemic”

At War on the Rocks, Thomas J. Gordon IV, James Joyner, and Jorge Benitez address “May Madness: Competitive Wargaming In A Pandemic.”

What starts with the enemy sinking three of your amphibious assault ships, and ends with a toddler interrupting the outbrief to a three-star general? A successful wargame in the age of COVID-19.

When the Marine Corps Command and Staff College was forced to shift from in-person instruction to a distance-learning model in response to the outbreak, the faculty and staff were confident that we could make our seminars work. We were not so sanguine about the execution of our capstone exercise, Pacific Challenge X. The scale and complexity of running a 250-odd person wargame, remotely, seemed daunting, indeed.

The results exceeded even our highest expectations. What was thought to be a threat to execution turned out to be an incredible opportunity. The distributed virtual medium actually increased participation from a host of different agencies and stakeholders, who otherwise would not have been able to support the event. And the natural friction created by the distributed online format, to our pleasant surprise, increased realism.

Given the realization that disaggregation is not only possible but, in many ways, better, future exercises will capitalize on the insights of this event.

The article makes several interesting points, including this one:

The natural friction created by the distributed online format, to our pleasant surprise, increased realism. Students playing the role of headquarters staff officers could not simply walk next door to discuss targeting or collection with colleagues. The framework forced the students to communicate via various digital media to collaborate and produce products.

I made much the same point to a major humanitarian organization recently, in a discussion on how to shift some of their simulation-based training to a distributed, online environment.

McGrady: Pipelines, chokepoints, and what the heck are we doing?

The following article was written for PAXsims by ED McGrady. Dr. McGrady spent over 30 years at CNA where he built and directed teams on wargaming and other defense topics. He is currently a Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and Principal at Monks Hood Media LLC.

There has been some recent discussion within the community about how to move people from “not a game designer/controller” to “professional (paid) game designer/controller” in an effective, efficient, and inclusive way.  As someone who once upon a time had the ability to hire, mentor, and promote game designers (and analysts) I thought I’d weigh in a bit on this issue.  Since I now run classes on wargame design for the Military Operations Research Society I still have some stake in the problem.  

I’d like to talk about two questions:  how do people transition from “not game designer/controller” to “professional game designer/controller?” Why is it so darn hard to make the transition?  What would I say to someone looking to become the next Peter Perla?  (Other than “Oh, my!”)  I’d also like to talk about and “what, exactly, are we doing with all this education on wargaming?”  And are our classes building the next cadre of game designers, or are they building better consumers of games?   Or a little of the first and a lot of the second?

First of all, as usual, let’s play the definitions game.  I’m talking about games that investigate or explore important and complex issues in a professional context.  These games involve players who are familiar with the profession and context of the game and are often doing something that resembles the job they have outside of the game.  I do not mean games for education, training, or entertainment, or even games that address broad policy or conceptual subjects.  Specifically, I’m talking about detailed, technical, games, whether they involve military units, disaster response, law enforcement, or disease response.  For military operations we’d call these “force-on-force” games but the forces don’t have to be military units – figuring out how to respond to a pandemic can be just as challenging.  These are the games that involve the most technical detail to build, and the ones that people are coincidentally willing to pay the most for.  Note that I said “technical detail” as policy games can be just as difficult to build, requiring the designer to often extrapolate knowledge that no one, including the intelligence community, has.  

Because of this when hiring I gravitate toward people with technical degrees.  When you’re running a game and someone turns to you and says “I’m using an AI-enhanced, spread-spectrum, wideband, emitter/receiver to manage the EM spectrum of the warhead” you cannot stare blankly at the person or guess what the impact will be.  Even if you had never heard of it before.  You have to have the technical prowess and engineering knowledge to be able to understand the technology and make a split second assessment that someone from the program office will buy into.  Or at least meet them halfway in a conversation.  

The nature of modern joint warfare requires a baseline level of experience with science and technology.  That often comes from experience in the military.  But with technology and systems moving quickly military experience alone can be inadequate to assess things we don’t understand.    Without a mathematical and scientific background, it can be difficult to imagine scenario details and extrapolate outcomes in games of exploration.  It’s not that it is impossible to do it, it is just harder when you don’t have the scientific or engineering background.  

That means the first hurdle to becoming a professional game designer is having the technical chops to manage the kind of systems that we use in modern warfare (and disaster response and disease response and cyber response: the list could go on).   You can get that from experience, but mostly you get it from having a technical degree in science or engineering.  

It’s easier for me to teach someone with a technical degree how to design games, and how the military works, than for me to teach a game designer or military professional science or engineering.  For professionals with degrees in the liberal arts who want to be game designers – there are ways to make it work – but I can’t have only philosophers and political scientists on my team (I’ve had both working for me).

So that is the first hurdle.  You have to be familiar with engineering or science.  You have to be able to do good operations analysis because a lot of game design and control involves operations analysis.

You also have to understand how the military, and organizations, work.  This requires, in my opinion, no small amount of cynicism and experience.  Games are about people, and about organizations.  How the 3 doesn’t get along with the 5, how the CDC ignores HHS, and how everybody screws up the public information message.   Where I used to work we’d solve this problem by sticking a PhD with a physics degree out on an aircraft carrier for a year or so.  Problem solved.  They came back with a lot of appreciation for how the military works, and how staffs and complex organizations try to get things done despite all the people who work there.

I can’t have a game designer who doesn’t know the subject area in enough detail to build in the tricks and complexities of real life, but I also need someone with enough technical chops to stand up to the O-6 who has flown the aircraft all his career.  

So that’s another hurdle.  

Then there is the small, and really tertiary, problem of knowing how to design games.  I can probably teach you that if you fit all of the above criteria.  

But you have to be interested.  

That, frankly, is a huge challenge.  People who are good analysts and have knowledge of the subject area have lots of potential opportunities.  Watching me do the same force on force scenarios over and over again while getting fussed by the players is not necessarily an attractive advertisement for a long-haul career in gaming.  You have to be dedicated, which is something that hobby gamers have in abundance.     

Hobby gamers’ role in professional games also raises another issue: some groups not traditionally associated with hobby gaming can feel unwelcome due to hobby gaming’s culture.  That is not appropriate in a professional environment but it does happen.  In my opinion some of the fault lies in the blending of the hobby culture, which can be quite misogynistic, with the profession.  If you don’t believe me look around the next time you are at Con and note all of the magazine game book covers with buxom women on the front, or the “joke” minis of the same.  It’s a bit awkward and a lot embarrassing.  I tend to think we need to work on it by distancing ourselves from that culture, but that is another essay.  

But this is where we lose a lot of our best candidates:  the field is not that exciting once you get in the trenches.  It’s a lot of slogging through sponsor’s bureaucracies, same scenarios, and endless arguments about systems.  And pitching for new funding.  You can’t run a game unless someone pays for it.  But if you are a hobby gamer this is your life’s dream and all the nonsense is merely the pain that lets you appreciate the joy of your job.    

Unfortunately for hobby wargamers there is a fourth hurdle.  You have to actually know how to behave yourself in a modern, high-speed, progressive, organization (see my remark about Cons).  That can be a bit of a problem.  Organizations like to screen out the difficult and challenging during the interview process.  That screening works pretty well.

The upshot is that it’s really hard to hire a game designer/controller, and you are almost better off building them yourself instead of trying to hire one from outside your organization.  (But wait, you say, “I’m a hip hobby designer who majored in operations research twenty years ago.” kbye.)

The good news is that you really don’t need a heck of a lot of top-level designers.  You certainly need analysts and support personnel, but the amount of business probably supports one or two top level designers per FFRDC, and one or two per major staff element within the military.  That’s not a lot of people.  

And once they get established designers don’t tend to die very quickly (despite their lifestyle choices) and don’t tend to leave because – “I’m a freaking game designer why would I ever leave that job?”  (Other than the constant travel, need to work hard for funding, and dealing with all the unrelated organizational issues you have to deal with, like hiring people.)  This means that the pipeline is narrow, and long, which is even more discouraging to that new, highly educated, smart, and marketable analyst I’ve just hired to do wargaming.  

So, “why are we doing all these classes on designing professional games?”  Let’s ignore the obvious answer that staffs think if they train a couple of guys on staff they will be able to avoid the rather expensive cost of paying contractors or FFRDC’s to do it for them.  Or the pain of getting their commander to task another over-tasked, wargame-providing, command to do it.  Instead I’d say that we are not actually building a lot of high-speed game designers in our classes.  Rather we are teaching people to:

  • Be good consumers of games.
  • Be better players in games.
  • Be better sponsors and funders of games.

We do this by telling people about the basics of game design, and, I believe more importantly, helping people understand what games are and are not.  For designers that take our classes we can pass on pointers and tricks that we have learned from years of experience: but I don’t believe that in one or two weeks we can build a professional game designer that can hold their own against a crowd of unruly O-6’s.  Our classes may be a stepping off point for a long period of apprenticeship and learning to be a game designer.  But for the vast majority of people it will be a (hopefully) pleasant introduction to the things they should ask, task, and review when they encounter a game in their day jobs.  

Now I have outlined a somewhat unhappy and difficult path into game design.  It is one path and based on my experiences doing complex games for demanding sponsors.  There are other routes you can take, not the least of which is that you simply declare yourself a game designer and do what the last guy in the job did.  But I’m talking about building people who will move the field forward, will bring in considerable funding for their organization around gaming, and will build a cadre of new analysts who are capable of, and enjoy, doing gaming.  Analysts that will become insightful, creative, and critical game designers.  That is a narrow path which, unfortunately, can be quite discouraging.  

ED McGrady

USAWC War Room: How can wargaming improve government response to catastrophic events?

The US Army War College web journal War Room is featuring a series of short articles on (War)gaming: What is it good for? This week’s prompt is “How can wargaming improve government response to catastrophic events?” Seven scholars and practioners offer a response:

  • Kristan Wheaton (US Army War College)
  • Stephen Downes-Martin (US Naval War College and PAXsims)
  • Jim Lacey (Marine Corps University)
  • Rex Brynen (McGill University and PAXsims)
  • Sebastian Bae (Georgetown University and RAND)
  • Ken Gilliam (US Army War College)
  • Krisjand Rothweiler (US Army)

You can add thoughts of your own in the Comments section of the piece.

Distributed gaming in the pandemic era

With the COVID-19 pandemic making face-to-face gaming sessions more difficult, many of us are addressing how best to adapt our games for distributed play. Back in April, for example, PAXsims featured a piece by Tim Price in which he discussed how he had run the Flattening The Curve matrix game online using Zoom and Google Slides

A few others have let us know what they are doing. Ben Taylor (Defence Research and Development Canada) notes:

A matrix game can be played over a video chat system with something like a shared Google Slide being used to provide common visibility of some form of map or other game board (which could be a dashboard of indicators in something like an economics based game). Many other types of game can be played in this manner, including board games and miniatures games.

The difficulty comes with the lack of mechanisms for negotiation between players in multi-sided/multi-player games. Some apps provide text chat channels, but often they allow chat with either a single recipient or all. This is limiting if, say, three players want to develop a common strategy. The workaround for this is to use some form of collaborative working tool that allows for multiple chatrooms with defined memberships. 

The challenges become harder with games using teams. These will require team breakout rooms to allow for team private discussions. Some video apps allow for breakout rooms and allow moderators to move people between rooms. Such a solution is much smoother running than having players leave one room and then reconnect to another. It is important that players always have access to a member of the control team to ask questions about rules, timing and the use of the provided tool(s). This means having one members of the control team per room as a minimum (which would be one per team plus one in plenary). A technical support expert who can ensure that everything is set up in advance and to deal with player technical issues may also be useful, adding another member to the control team. Teams may need to discuss issues with other teams and that will lead to the need for a tool to support all possible team-to-team communicaton channels. 

Online games are very likely to move more slowly than face-to-face games because of the artificiality of text chat and video conversations, as well as the time taken up working with the technology to leave or enter rooms, connect audio and video etc. That speaks to keeping games as simple as possible in their design.

We also recognize the challenges of trying to deal with specific player hardware/software configurations. An exercise designed to work on a reasonably large monitor with multiple open windows may be fine on a big desktop but unplayable on a smartphone. You exclude people if you specify a “proper” computer display, but you will have a real lowest common denominator problem if you allow any cell phone user to take part and have to design around their capabilities.  Similarly some applications have downloadable app and browser versions which might look the same but which also might not work in exactly the same way, and you won’t know until its too late if your players are using the version that you haven’t tested…

As game organizers it is important for us to respect our players and to make their workload as low as possible. This will make them better, more engaged, players in our game and more likely to participate again. This means that we should select tools with the easiest interfaces to use and ones where we can do as much of the work as possible for the players. This also means that we should set up our technical configurations in advance and test them thoroughly before engaging with the real players. In this sense our players are unlike hobby gamers who are prepared to make the investment in time to learn how to use online playing tools and so while these may look promising other solutions may prove more suitable in practice.   

Anja van der Hulst (TNO) commented: 

Although I love the dynamics of on-site games, I think there is quite a bit of opportunity for us to be able to test and run our games on-online with an international knowledgeable community. Our main challenges are global, so, if we also get our games running properly on-line we might be moving our field a fair bit forward.

From the discussions, this is what we need to get our games to work-digitally.


•Communication platforms that can be shared amongst all parties to be involved; 
•When needed, communication-platforms that allow secure communication;
•Accessible/Low threshold platform that do not require hours to get to know;
•Different digital rooms for syndicate processes/break out (which also requires more technical support);
•Ample possibilities for the game facilitator to control the discussion process;
•Good quality screensharing for the ‘game board’
•Shared workspaces to be able to move things (indicators/capabilities etc).

Game design-for on-line:

Novel game-design concepts for on-line crisis/wargaming. Maybe we need to limit the number of players, and we might need to create smaller subgames that can be run within 2 hours to explore isolated issues within a limited time frame.  

Fitting designs for playboards, e.g.:

•smaller and more condensed to allow for screensharing,
•allowing for logging that is visible to participants during the game,
•for crisis gaming, probably a game board should be based on indicators rather than maps.


•Trained on-line gaming facilitator- knows to optimize on-line discussions and good use of all those controls.
•Good tech support.

I have run a COVID-19 matrix game online too, and found that that was satisfactory, but less dynamic and engaging. Part of the reason for this was the probably the scenario (the resilience of fresh fruit and vegetable supply chains), which was perhaps not as exciting as others I have facilitated. However, it was also the case that players found it a little more difficult to discuss and negotiate. As Ben notes, direct chat and digital breakout rooms can address this, but they’re simply not as fluid and efficient as multitasking game play and conversations in real time. It’s also harder for a game controller and facilitator “read the room” in a digital environment and adjust gameplay accordingly. This isn’t a problem in more informal setting or with colleagues one knows well, but could be a problem in other cases.

The Brynania civil war simulation at McGill University was cancelled this year, but usually that is about two-thirds online (email, chat groups, Skype, etc). I usually let students use any digital media they wish, although this can pose a challenge to my ability to fully monitor and capture all game actions. I have also taken part in online gaming using the ICONS Project’s browser-based simulation support software, plus Skype for audio communication.

Having switched to online teaching last term, I’m fairly confident of using similar techniques to host seminar games. Play needn’t be synchronous, either–this might be an ideal time to use traditional play-by-email techniques.

I also had the opportunity to watch a digital, distributed play of AFTERSHOCK, using a Vassal module developed by Curt Pangracs and facilitated by James Sterrett at the US Army Command and General Staff College. This went well, although I find Vassal to have a steep learning curve for those who haven’t used it before. Fortunately, AFTERSHOCK is a game which runs well when players simply tells the (experienced) facilitator what to do, and the latter takes responsibility for making things happen on the digital board. We’re hoping too to see a port of AFTERSHOCK to Tabletop Simulator too.

I had already done a lot of hobby (war)gaming online, and now do even more now with the lockdown, providing an additional point of comparison. I quite enjoy role-playing games via Roll20—what one loses in the immediacy and intimacy of player interaction one gains in the ability of the platform to provide real line-of-sight map displays and hence a degree of “fog of war” that is absent from a traditional in-person game. I have also been running six hours of zombie apocalypse skirmish games with my gaming group each week, using Zoom and (figure) eye-level web cameras (see below). This set-up works even better than the regular tabletop games by providing a really effective visual portrayal and, once again, fog-of-war, more akin to a digital first person shooter than an analogue game. It is hardly a serious application, but has offered some insight into the trade-offs involved in in-person versus online play of the same game.

Finally, I’ve done some traditional miniature (ancient) wargaming, with the host simply projecting a conventional tabletop via a webcam and Zoom. This was not as satisfying as playing in person, but very enjoyable nonetheless—and was quicker and easier to arrange than a visit to his house would have been in the pre-pandemic days.

Do you have experiences of online serious gaming to share? Post them below in the comments section!

Dorn: Peacekeeping games, anyone?

The following has been contributed to PAXsims by Walter Dorn. Dr. Dorn is a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College and the Canadian Forces College. He also serves as a consultant on technological innovation at the United Nations.The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.


So many people play online as warfighters but, in stark contrast, no one plays as peacekeepers. The immediate explanation is simple: there are no such games. But that is a mystery to me. Peacekeeping is more intellectually and ethically challenging, more deeply meaningful, more emotionally rewarding (saving people), and still includes the challenges (and excitement) of combat. So I began to explore the possibilities of peacekeeping gaming which led to publishing of a detailed paper recently: “From Wargaming to Peacekeeping: Digital Simulations with Peacekeeper Roles Needed” (pdf) in the journal International Peacekeeping.


I first asked myself and my research assistants, avid gamers who became my co-authors: what existing games come close to peacekeeping? A search online for “peacekeeping” games yielded some ridiculous results at first. For instance, the game Peacekeeper – Trench Defense describes itself this way:

Fight epic battles, slay endless waves of enemy hordes, and restore the peace! You’re the Peacekeeper, one of the world’s toughest elite soldiers. A relentless onslaught of enemy troops is invading your land. It’s up to you to restore the peace, and what better way to do that than with your huge arsenal of guns?!

Not exactly what we had in mind.

I took heart from PAXsims, which has the best reviews and descriptions of games involving realistic peace processes. Furthermore, the journal-Simulation & Gaming had a whole issue on peacebuilding in 2013, guest edited by Rex Brynen. So I felt that at least I was not alone; others were thinking about similar possibilities.  Rex’s Brynania game, in his eponymous territory, considers peacekeeping as part of the toolbox for conflict resolution. And, his survey shows that his student gamers strongly supported UN-led peacekeeping and mediation over all the other peace process options. But there are no games online to actually practice UN peacekeeping.

I have yet to find a commercial game, on a gameboard or digitally, where UN-style peacekeeping is the focus. Some militaries have experimented with peacekeeping training by reskinning warfighting games, like Arma3 and its more expensive (professional) platform Virtual Battlespace (now at VBS4 from Bohemia Interactive). But with a license fee of thousands per computer per year, VBS4 is beyond the reach of most individuals and peacekeeping training institutions. Besides, a wargame modified into a peacekeeping game will look like just that, not a product built from the ground up to realistically simulate peace operations.

There are a few relevant and exciting games for counter-terrorism and stability operations. But these are mostly US-style operations – think Iraq and Afghanistan, which have hardly proven to be successful models for creating peace. These operations are quite different from UN peace operations, which are based on a trinity of principles that are not usually present in US/NATO stability operations: consent of the main parties to the conflict for the UN deployment; impartiality so that the mission is guided by international law and any peace agreements between the conflicting parties (i.e., the UN should not side with one party and treat the other as the enemy); and the defensive use of force, unlike the frequently offensive character of most stability operations. Still, peace operations can require the use of force if an armed group poses an imminent threat to UN personnel or local civilians. And some elements can definitely be transferred from counter-insurgency (COIN) games like Rebel Inc: Escalation, e.g., learning about power-brokers, civ-mil relations, working with humanitarian actors (while giving them “humanitarian space”), using media coverage as leverage, etc.

We can also learn from the table-top exercises (TTX) that militaries so often play. However, in Canada and its NATO allies, the simulations are centered on a NATO-like alliance. These forces do not have the composition, spirit or integrated nature of the United Nations, where troops from the developed and developing world work alongside police and civilians, all under civilian international control. More importantly, the goal is to win the peace not to win the war. There are a few exercises with strong peacekeeping components, like the Viking multinational exercises held annually by the Swedish armed forces and the Folke Bernadotte Academy. In its day, the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre (1994–2013) in Canada also developed multiple exercises involving UN-led multidisciplinary peacekeeping missions, mostly based in the land of Fontinalis.


Screenshot from the Peacekeeper Game Project.

After searching, researching and writing about the idea of digital peacekeeping games, I wanted to start practicing what I was preaching. But moving from the general idea to even a demonstration game (proof of concept) necessitated a skilled game developer, who was generously provided by M7 Database Services. One game concept is now being developed – see, with explanation and video playthrough. A preliminary demonstration game is also available (upon request to This design and development work showed me the great power of agile object-based game development using assets from the Unity store – for more, see the peacekeeping gaming paper (pdf), specifically the section on “New and Emerging Methods of Game Design and Development.”


Screenshot from the Peacekeeper Game Project.

With this and similar initiatives in progress, it seems that peacekeeping gaming might be moving from vision to reality. Hopefully, game design companies will explore the field and the options. And I also urge the United Nations to explore them, not only for the training but also public education. Digital simulations allow for the easy production of videos to illustrate peacekeeping principles and practices. From my UN experience, I learned why “disruptive technologies” are given that name. Many UN officials recognized the exciting potential for peacekeeping simulation but did not want to disrupt their current work plans, overloaded as they were. Still, there is hope for UN digital innovation, especially as the COVID-affected world seeks to do more online, including peacekeeping training, during and after the crisis.


Screenshot from the Peacekeeper Game Project.

I know the Canadian and international officers I teach at the Canadian Forces College, especially those in my peace operations class, are enthusiastic to engage in peacekeeping simulations. Now would be the time to develop the games or encourage others to develop them. There are options to foster a new gaming genre: work with the gaming industry or with emerging game designers at colleges and universities in their gaming and design programmes.

Peacekeeping games, anyone?

And if the options to develop new games are few, and the development work with the United Nations proves too slow, then there’s more time to do the next best thing: producing more academic papers!


Walter Dorn 

Post-pandemic scenarios


What might the world look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control? A number of public agencies, research groups, and private companies have started to offer possible scenarios. All of these can be use in post-pandemic policy gaming, so I have started a list below. I will add to it as I come across new material (and please feel free to pass on suggestions). The abstract or summary is presented below for longer and more substantial analyses.

Be sure to also check out our other PAXsims COVID-19 serious gaming resources.


Sharon Begley, “Three potential futures for Covid-19: recurring small outbreaks, a monster wave, or a persistent crisis,” STAT, 1 May 2020.

Centre for Economic Policy Research, Economics in the Time of COVID-19 resource page (2020)

Tyler Cohen, “A Vision of Post-Pandemic New York,” Bloomberg, 31 March 2020.

Deloitte, The world remade by COVID-19: Planning scenarios for resilient leaders (6 April 2020).

The World Remade by COVID-19 offers a view of how businesses and society may develop over the next three to five years as the world navigates the potential long-term implications of the global pandemic.

Our view is based on scenarios—stories about the future designed to spark insight and spot opportunity—created by some of the world’s best-known scenario thinkers. The collaborative dialogue hosted by Deloitte and Salesforce continues the companies’ tradition of providing foresight and insight that inform resilient leaders:

  • Explore how trends we see during the pandemic could shape what the world may look like in the long-term
  • Have productive conversations around the lasting implications and impacts of the crisis
  • Identify decisions and actions that will improve resilience to the rapidly changing landscape
  • Move beyond “recovering” from the crisis, and towards “thriving” in the long run

We are in uncharted waters, yet leaders must take decisive action to ensure their organizations are resilient. We’ve outlined four COVID-19 scenarios for society and business that illustrate different ways we could emerge from the crisis—and what’s required to thrive in a world remade.

Uri Friedman, “I Have Seen the Future—And It’s Not the Life We Knew,” The Atlantic, 1 May 2020.

As the United States engages in its own agonizing debate about how far to go in easing lockdown measures, I’ve spoken with people in China, South Korea, Austria, and Denmark to get a sense of what they’re witnessing as their countries’ respective coronavirus curves flatten, their social-distancing restrictions abate, and they venture out into life again. And although that life doesn’t look like the present nightmare those still locked in coronavirus limbo are experiencing, it doesn’t look like the pre-COVID-19 past either.

Here are some of the common themes

Peter Gluckman and Anne Bardsley , The Future is Now: Implications of COVID-19 for New Zealand (Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland, April 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought such issues even more rapidly to the fore. The intent of this paper is to help catalyse important conversations that are needed in the wake of New Zealand’s response to the crisis. It is clear that we will not go back to a pre-COVID-19 normality, but instead will inhabit a new normal. Issues that might have taken years to consider, may now have to be considered over a much shorter time frame. New Zealand must take the opportunity from this pervasive and hugely disruptive crisis to shape its future in an informed and inclusive way.

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Recovery of the Austrian economy following the COVID-19 crisis can take up to three years, Policy Brief #26 (April 2020).

Collaboration between researchers from IIASA, WU, WIFO, and the IHS provides scenarios of the medium-run economic effects of the lockdown in Austria using the IIASA macroeconomic simulation model. The analysis suggests that the return to the business-as-usual trend may take up to three years after a steep initial economic downturn due to the lockdown, and a gradual recovery thereafter.

International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook (April 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic is inflicting high and rising human costs worldwide, and the necessary protection measures are severely impacting economic activity. As a result of the pandemic, the global economy is projected to contract sharply by –3 percent in 2020, much worse than during the 2008–09 financial crisis. In a baseline scenario–which assumes that the pandemic fades in the second half of 2020 and containment efforts can be gradually unwound—the global economy is projected to grow by 5.8 percent in 2021 as economic activity normalizes, helped by policy support. The risks for even more severe outcomes, however, are substantial. Effective policies are essential to forestall the possibility of worse outcomes, and the necessary measures to reduce contagion and protect lives are an important investment in long-term human and economic health. Because the economic fallout is acute in specific sectors, policymakers will need to implement substantial targeted fiscal, monetary, and financial market measures to support affected households and businesses domestically. And internationally, strong multilateral cooperation is essential to overcome the effects of the pandemic, including to help financially constrained countries facing twin health and funding shocks, and for channeling aid to countries with weak health care systems.

Warwick J. McKibbin and Roshen Fernando, The global macroeconomic impacts of COVID-19: Seven scenarios (Brookings Institution, 2 March 2020)

Tim Price, “Flattening the curve matrix game report,” PAXsims, 3 April 2020.

Stephen Kessler et al, “Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the postpandemic period,” Science, 14 April 2020.

It is urgent to understand the future of severe acute respiratory syndrome–coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) transmission. We used estimates of seasonality, immunity, and cross-immunity for betacoronaviruses OC43 and HKU1 from time series data from the USA to inform a model of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. We projected that recurrent wintertime outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 will probably occur after the initial, most severe pandemic wave. Absent other interventions, a key metric for the success of social distancing is whether critical care capacities are exceeded. To avoid this, prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022. Additional interventions, including expanded critical care capacity and an effective therapeutic, would improve the success of intermittent distancing and hasten the acquisition of herd immunity. Longitudinal serological studies are urgently needed to determine the extent and duration of immunity to SARS-CoV-2. Even in the event of apparent elimination, SARS-CoV-2 surveillance should be maintained since a resurgence in contagion could be possible as late as 2024.

Dennis Snower, “Awakening in the post-pandemic world,” (Brookings Institution, 27 March 2020)

William Wan and Carolyn Y. Johnson , “Coronavirus may never go away, even with a vaccine,” Washington Post, 27 May 2020.

There’s a good chance the coronavirus will never go away.

Even after a vaccine is discovered and deployed, the coronavirus will likely remain for decades to come, circulating among the world’s population.

Experts call such diseases endemic — stubbornly resisting efforts to stamp them out. Think measles, HIV, chickenpox.

It is a daunting proposition — a coronavirus-tinged world without a foreseeable end. But experts in epidemiology, disaster planning and vaccine development say embracing that reality is crucial to the next phase of America’s pandemic response. The long-term nature of covid-19, they say, should serve as a call to arms for the public, a road map for the trillions of dollars Congress is spending and a fixed navigational point for the nation’s current, chaotic state-by-state patchwork strategy.

Gaming the pandemic: Do No Harm


We at PAXsims believe that serious games are a very useful tool in the analytical or educational toolbox—if we didn’t, we wouldn’t put so much effort into this website and all of our other game-related activities. However, I often find myself warning about the limits of games too. They aren’t magic bullets. In some cases, moreover, they’re not even an especially useful tools.

I have been thinking about this quite a bit in relation to the current COVID-19 pandemic. PAXsims has tried to be helpful by making a number of gaming resources available. Others have done the same, notable the King’s Wargaming Network, which is offering to support appropriate gaming initiatives.

As we collectively grapple with the unfolding global crisis, however, I thought it prudent to also highlight some the risks of serious pandemic gaming. As I will argue below, while serious games have a great deal of utility, they can also be counterproductive. We thus all have a moral responsibility to make sure (as they say in the humanitarian aid community) that we DO NO HARM with our work.

First of all, there’s the modelling problem. We have to be very humble in assessing our ability to examine some issues when so little is known about key dynamics. Related to this is the “garbage in, garbage out” problem. Our data is often weak. The excellent epidemiological projections published by the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team have been very useful in spurring states to action, but in the interests of avoiding confirmation bias we also need to recognize that some epidemiologists are raising concerns about the adequacy of the data used in such models. We need to make the robustness of our game assumptions to clear to clients and partners. Be humble, avoid hubris, make assumptions and models explicit, caveat findings, and don’t over-sell.

Second, playing games with subject matter experts (SMEs) can pull them away from doing other, more important things. I’ve done a lot of work on interagency coordination, where there is a similar problem: coordination meetings are great, but when you add up the time that goes into them they can actually weaken capacity if you aren’t careful. Of course, you can run games with non-SME’s, but then the GIGO problem is exacerbated.

Any gaming generally needs to be client-driven. Do the end-users of the game actually find it worthwhile? What questions do they want answered? This isn’t a universal rule—it may be that gaming alerts them to something that they hadn’t considered. But do keep in mind the demands on their time, institutional resources, and analytical capacity.

We also have to recognized that the much-maligned BOGSAT (“bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table”) is sometimes preferable to a game, when the former is run well. For a game to be worth designing and running it has to be demonstrably superior to other methods, and worth the time and effort put into it. There is a reason, after all, why the CIA’s Tradecraft Primer: Structured Analytic Techniques for Improving Intelligence Analysis warns that gaming techniques “usually require substantial commitments of analyst time and corporate resources.”

We need to debrief and analyze games carefully. The DIRE STRAITS experiment at Connections UK (2017) highlighted that the analytical conclusions from games are often far from self-evident, and that different people can walk away from the same game with very different conclusions.

Messaging for these games matter. The public is on edge. Some are dangerously complacent. Some are on the verge of panic. One wrong word, and suddenly there’s no toilet paper in the shops. If you don’t consider communication issues, reports from a game could feed either a “don’t worry it’s not that bad” view or a “my god we’re all going to die” response in the media and general public.

We also have to beware of clients with agendas, of course [insert everything Stephen Downes-Martin has ever written here.]

We need to be careful of both uncritical game evangelism and rent seeking—that is the “it would be cool to a game/games solve everything” over-enthusiasm, or “here’s a pot of money, let’s apply for it.”

In short, in a time of international crisis, we need to do this well if we do it. In my view it generally needs to respond to an identified need by those currently dealing with the crisis—or, if it doesn’t, there needs to be a good reason for that. They’re busy folks at the moment, after all.

UPDATE: I did a short presentation on this for the recent King’s Wargaming Network online symposium. My slides can be found here: DoNoHarm.

For more on gaming the pandemic, see our COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

Crisis games during a crisis

The following piece was written for PAXsims by Patrick Dresch. Patrick is based in Salisbury (UK), and is interested in the application of board games as training tools for emergency and disaster response. In 2019 he completed an MSc in crisis and disaster management at the University of Portsmouth, supported by a dissertation investigating the potential for cooperative board games to be used to train emergency responders in interoperability. He has also had the opportunity to test the integration of game mechanisms with table top and live simulation exercises by designing and delivering exercises as a volunteer with the humanitarian response charity Serve On.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am not an epidemiologist or expert in public health. I do, however, train for water rescue and coordination support with a humanitarian response organisation in the UK. I also enjoy board games, particularly cooperative ones, and think they hold great potential as training tools. This has led me to look not only at using boardgames to train responders, but also to explore if game mechanisms can be incorporated into more traditional table-top exercises. Examples of this include using elements of chance to encourage participants to explore risk, a paced delivery of information to practice developing situational awareness, and using game pieces to encourage engagement and a playful approach to problem solving (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Serve On volunteers taking part in Exercise: Small World (Dresch, 2019).

I still enjoy playing games for fun, and still return regularly to Pandemic (Z-Man Games, 2008) which introduced me to the concept of cooperative board games (Figure 2). It is also a relatively easy game to teach, and I find I bring it out regularly with new gamers. Recently, as I have been following Covid-19 in the news I have been thinking more about the gameplay inPandemic and how well it reflects what is being reported with fairly simple mechanisms. Although Matt Leacock was inspired by Ebola, a disease with a much higher fatality rate than Covid-19, Pandemic is still able to demonstrate some of the difficulties faced by those planning the current response. For instance, although it is tempting to focus on the disease cubes in the game, this is only a time saving measure allowing players to collect the cards they need to find the “cures.” This may be likened to the use of quarantines and travel restrictions in the Covid-19 response, which slows the spread of the disease and gives epidemiologists and planners time to prepare.


Figure 2: Initial setup of Pandemic (Z-Man Games 2008).

Although I think Pandemic can be an engaging way to practice communication and coordination, I do not think it provides me, as a member of the public, with practical information on hygiene and self-isolation which may be of benefit in the current situation. I therefore wonder why I am drawn to play Pandemic at this time, while anecdotally I am aware that others find it off-putting. It should be noted that this is not merely disinterest on the part of others, but phrases such as “not sure if I could stomach playing it right now” could be considered as revulsion. Having not carried out a wider survey, I have no idea if I am an outlier or if people with an interest in emergency planning and response tend to have a different attitude than casual gamers.

Moreover, my renewed interest in Pandemic is not simply related to Covid-19 but similarly in encouraging my friends to play Pandemic: Rising Tide (Z-Man Games, 2017) in what has been reported as the wettest February in the UK since 1862 by the Met Office. If you are unaware, Pandemic: Rising Tide (Figure 3) uses similar mechanisms to Pandemic to simulate flooding in the Netherlands, requiring players to build dikes and pumping stations as they carry out civil engineering projects (requiring five cards of the same colour). The focus here is not on a water rescue response, although there is an optional population rule set, and therefore has limited similarity the flood response exercise I designed. Nonetheless, I find the theme and gameplay engaging, and am inspired to play it at the moment.


Figure 3: Initial setup of Pandemic: Rising Tide (2017).

In a year which has brought an almost weekly succession of storms to the UK (Ciara, Dennis, and Jorge) and associated flooding, I come back to wondering why I am drawn to these games at the moment rather than a more escapist, happy theme? Unlike with the Covid-19 response, I could potentially be involved in flood response work and have been on standby repeatedly, waiting to hear if I will be heading off to another part of the country. Both situations, however, involve waiting for news to find out how I may be affected by wider events. My speculation is that by playing these games I am, to some degree, re-affirming my own agency. That is to say, playing these games gives me a feeling of control which I am lacking in real life.

If this is the case, could playing suitably themed games be of benefit to the wider community of responders? I would certainly be interested to hear if others have had similar renewed interest in games with topical themes, and if there may also be a psychological benefit for responders playing these games after an incident. As noted earlier though, some people appear to feel a degree of revulsion at the idea and I am not advocating making people play games which make them feel uncomfortable or bring up trauma. Perhaps someone who works in psychology or counselling would like to comment and take this further?

Using games to explore potential conflicts between emotional reactions and analytical decision making

The following piece was written for PAXsims by Patrick Dresch. Patrick is based in Salisbury (UK), and is interested in the application of board games as training tools for emergency and disaster response. In 2019 he completed an MSc in crisis and disaster management at the University of Portsmouth, supported by a dissertation investigating the potential for cooperative board games to be used to train emergency responders in interoperability. He has also had the opportunity to test the integration of game mechanisms with table top and live simulation exercises by designing and delivering exercises as a volunteer with the humanitarian response charity Serve On.

I am a great believer in the potential for board games to be used as tools to supplement training and exercising for those working in emergency response and disaster relief. My interest in this field has mostly focused on using cooperative board games to practice interpersonal skills which can improve interoperability, including the potential to improve coordination and joint decision making. More recently, however, I have also been considering how this platform could be used to prompt emotional reactions which may be at odds with what might be called a rational solution.

In an abstract game it is often easy to focus on a game as a puzzle which needs to be solved. A player may have a personal aesthetic preference for the red tiles in Azul (2017), for instance, but this is unlikely to determine their strategy when playing the game. Other popular games use art and aesthetics to reinforce the theme of the game, and provide narrative structure to what could otherwise be an abstract puzzle. One example of this is the choice of illustrations on the adventure cards for The Lost Expedition (Osprey Games, 2017) (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Examples of adventure cards form The Lost Expedition.

Here we can see that the illustration choices not only reinforce the jungle survival theme, but also help players construct a narrative framework by showing dilemmas which work with the symbols and triggers. It should be recognised thatThe Lost Expedition was developed not as a serious game for training purposes, but as a popular game for general entertainment. Other popular games also use story telling and aesthetic choices to challenge players with moral choices, be it through the crossroads cards in the Dead of Winter (Plaid Hat Games, 2014) games, or asking players how far they would go to survive in This War of Mine (Awaken Realms, 2017) which is based on the Siege of Sarajevo. Other games are less explicit in this aspect of design choices, but may still choose to humanise what could otherwise be non-descript pawns to add extra weight to the implications of decisions. Days of Ire: Budapest 1956 (2016) for example, which is based on Hungarian revolution of the same year, includes historic names on each of the revolutionary markers, as well as historic background on the events cards in the manual. These elements add another layer of depth to a game which could otherwise simply be a strategic puzzle, and encourage players to consider what the human cost of their decisions would be.

In addition to using moral dilemmas as a way to encourage players buy into the universe of the game, designers also make aesthetic choices to prompt emotional reactions. This may range from using cute and cuddly imagery to encourage players to smile and laugh, or even quite the opposite. This is certainly the case in Raxxon (2017) which is set in the Dead of Winter universe during the early stages of a zombie outbreak, requiring players to manage a quarantine and separate the healthy population from the infected. Here, players are presented with cards which not only depict ravenous zombies, but also healthy individuals and various other groups such as uncooperative but healthy, violent individuals, and carriers who could spread the infection. Each of these different groups presents players with different issues to consider when managing a crowd formed of a mixed population, with the game employing push-your-luck and role specialisation mechanisms. Moreover, the illustration choices used on the cards can prompt a player to revel in calling in an airstrike to remove zombies from the crowd, or give them a moment’s pause when dealing with carriers who look like they may just have a bad cold. The design choice to use black and white images which focus on the characters’ facial expressions against a coloured background (Figure 2) starkly portray individuals at a moment of personal crisis as they await to find out if they will be taken to safety or left with the zombies. By doing so, this choice puts players in the role of a frontline responder who must deal directly with the public, once again adding a layer of depth to a problem-solving puzzle.


Figure 2: Examples of Raxxon crowd cards.

This is all very well for popular games focusing on entertainment, but is there also an opportunity for serious games to use similar design choices to create discussion points and teachable moments? It is arguable that the more limited market for serious games means that there may not be as much of a financial incentive to develop their aesthetics in the way that commercial entertainment games do. Many serious games also choose to focus on systems where emotional considerations do not have to be included in training, and a print and play approach is aesthetically acceptable. Some sectors, however, may find that including an emotional element is of great benefit to frontline staff who have to deal with the public. In the disaster response sector Thomas Fisher has commented that no matter how well players do in AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game (2015), thousands of people will die in the game. This provides an opportunity for those who are new to the sector to reflect on their own feelings to this simulated loss of life and consider whether a career doing this sort of work is really for them. It is also worth noting that Fisher has made the point that when considering design choices for AFTERSHOCK, a conscious decision was made to avoid gratuitous images. Nonetheless, it can be seen that there are some similarities between the illustrations used for Raxxon and some of the Images used in the “at risk” deck for AFTERSHOCK (Figure 3). Unsurprisingly perhaps, the image of children in distress could be considered an effective shorthand for provoking emotional turmoil among players.


Figure 3: Examples of images used in the AFTERSHOCK “at risk” deck.


If we agree that the design and story choices used in games can provoke emotional reactions and moral dilemmas, how can we develop these ideas as effective teaching tools? One possibility would be to use emotional triggers in games to help players become more aware of their own decision-making processes. With practice, this could also help them become more confident in their intuitive decision-making when there is limited time or opportunity for planning and analytical-decision making. In a game this might be done by using art and story to prompt an emotional or moral reaction which if acted upon would be considered irrational play in an athematic puzzle or even an abstract game. This might mean putting triggers on cards which are comparatively high risk and low reward in a game, and observing if they are acted on more frequently than low risk and high reward cards which have neutral imagery. As always, one should consider the learning objectives one is working towards when designing a game, and how different mechanisms can be used to foster different behaviours. The approach described here may be useful for addressing humanitarian principles, for instance and one could discuss the choice of helping an individual in obvious distress while ignoring a card with a higher value which could represent faceless masses. Furthermore, emotional triggers should not be simply limited to images of crying children but could instead be more subtle and nuanced. An example of this might be addressing the humanitarian principle of impartiality by depicting a diverse population and seeing if there is an expression of personal bias in the players’ choices.

In conclusion I think that use of design choices and story should be carefully considered as a game-based learning tool. Not only should aesthetics be considered as a way of making a product appealing to potential buyers, but careful choices have the potential to provide effective learning outcomes. I certainly hope that this will prompt further discussion and study to establish if these ideas can be developed further. Many of these ideas are already put into practice in live simulation disaster response exercises, for instance by using actors, moulage and prosthetics to provide responders with distressed casualties who may not be cooperative. I certainly think that incorporating story and push-your luck elements into exercises could also benefit them, for instance providing a threat to team safety which may influence deployment decisions. The social, face to face nature of board games also makes them an ideal platform in which to practice skills with a social element in a simulated dynamic and developing situation at relatively low cost and with potentially high engagement among participants.

Patrick Dresch

Fielder: Reflections on teaching wargame design


At War on the Rocks today, James “Pigeon” fielder discusses how to teach wargame design, drawing on his experience at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

I founded my course on three pillars: defining wargames, objective-based design, and learning outcomes over winning. First, I took a blend of James Dunnigan, John Curry and Peter Perla, Phil Sabin, and my own caffeinated madness to define wargaming as “a synthetic decision making test under conditions of uncertainty against thinking opponents, which generates insights but not proven outcomes, engages multiple learning types, and builds team cohesion in a risk-free environment.” Second, I enshrined the primacy of the objective. Put bluntly, without objectives you don’t have a professional game. Although we briefly discussed creating sandbox environments for generating ideas in the absence of objectives, sandbox design at best strays into teaching group facilitation (albeit game refereeing itself is a form of facilitation), and at worst enshrining poorly structured and long-winded BOGSATs as legitimate analysis tools. Finally, neither the U.S. Strategic Command wargame nor the National Reconnaissance wargame included absolute and predetermined winners. Both U.S. Strategic Command and the National Reconnaissance Office faced unmitigated disaster every time they bellied up to the table. The best learning comes from understanding failure, correcting mistakes, and revising strategies, not from sponsors patting themselves on the back. Summoning Millennium Challenge 2002’s chained and howling ghost, gaming with the sole intent to win, prove, and prop up ideas is an exercise in false future bargaining with real lives and materiel.

He cleverly had his cadets design games for real sponsors:

I divided the class into two eight-cadet teams respectively for U.S. Strategic Command and the National Reconnaissance Office. The sponsors and I initiated dialogue, but from that point the games were entirely cadet driven. The teams interviewed the sponsors for objectives, determined how to measure the objectives, prototyped and play-tested their games, and ultimately delivered effective tools for addressing sponsor requirements. Meaning, of course, the games generated more questions than answers: better to ask the questions at the table before bargaining with a real opponent or launching a new military service.

There’s a lot more besides that, including a discussion of the wargame design literature, as well as material on psychological roots and sociological narratives of gaming. James also discusses the importance of learning-through-play.

Go read the entire piece at the link at the top of the page.

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