Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: simulation and gaming news

World Bank: Gaming for peace


The World Bank blog features a new article by Laura Bailey on how games can be used to explore the challenges of peacebuilding, stabilization, and reconstruction. Part of the piece discusses the Carana simulation used by the Bank to teach staff about fragile and conflicted countries.

The Carana simulation was a central element in the World Bank Group’s original Core Course on Fragility and Conflict for its staff around the world.  It did not only embed experiential – more engaging and interactive – learning as the core pillar of the Bank’s deepening focus on staff learning on fragile and conflict situations (FCS); it also took the accumulated wisdom of then-cutting-edge analytics on FCS and built those principles into the rules of the Carana game.

We’ve discussed Carana here at PAXsims too.

The second part of the article looks at the iOS game Rebel, Inc.

Enter mobile technology, with a deceptively simple proposition by a gaming studio called Ndemic Creations: make commercially successful games about wicked world problems – such as contagious disease and war – that can be played on your smartphone or tablet.  If the game is good enough, players around the world – as many as millions of them – can learn how to solve pressing development challenges while they’re busy having fun. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control were so interested in Ndemic’s first game Plague Inc. that they invited Ndemic founder and lead designer James Vaughn to chat with their scientists.

In May 2019, at the annual Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, I moderated a deluge of questions from a packed room in a conversation with James about Rebel Inc., a simulation game launched in December 2018 that is engaging over four million players worldwide on the issue of post-conflict stabilization.

It’s an excellent game too, as you can read in our PAXsims review.


The SIGNAL-to-noise ratio


At the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Heather Wuest offers some thoughts on the SIGNAL wargame-based research project on deterrence. We have previously mentioned some concerns about playability, and she expresses a similar view:

In an era where I can play complex dungeon crawlers on my iPhone, I was expecting more from the online version of SIGNAL (Strategic Interaction Game between Nuclear Armed Lands), the Project on Nuclear Gaming’s experimental wargame. In terms of playability, SIGNAL’s first big problem is the tutorial; it’s long and confusing. Second, you need to be matched with two other people on the server to play, but when I tried, no one else was playing. Admins are working around this problem by offering “Open Play Windows,” where they hope to have people online and waiting for you to play. But these windows all take place within in the 9-to-5 workday during the week, and SIGNAL just isn’t fun enough to risk getting fired over.

Don’t get me wrong; I was and am still excited about this game. SIGNAL was designed to collect data from as many people as possible, to study strategic interaction in wargaming scenarios. As a nuclear nerd, I found the implications for deterrence theory to be fascinating. Nuclear deterrence is hard to study because when it works, nothing happens, and it is difficult to identify exactly why nothing happened. When talking about nuclear weapons, the act of successfully deterring someone means that in the end, they didn’t nuke you. Not getting nuked is good, but hard to study because you can never be certain that the enemy intended to nuke you in the first place or what specific action or inaction or combination of both led the enemy to come to the decision that allowed your continued existence.

Anyway, I was excited for SIGNAL because it promised a game where people could practice nuclear deterrence, an experience practiced before only by armchair philosophers (like me) and policymakers. The game offers an environment in which data on decisions can be recorded and studied to grow academic understanding of how deterrence works and, hopefully, to be used later to help humans get better at not making nuclear war.

But the game does have playability problems. After making it through the tutorial (which I rage quit once, when my browser froze because I tried to nuke someone, apparently an unanticipated player action at that juncture), I quickly realized that I needed two other players if I were to play the game. Browsing the Open Play Windows, I found none scheduled for times when I was free to play, so I whipped out my short list of reliable and pliable friends to recruit some fellow wargamers. I will be honest; SIGNAL was a harder sell than I was expecting. After bribery (pizza and beer) and much whining as I helped speed them through the tutorial, we were ready to play.

I don’t know what this observation has to say about my friends or me, but gameplay went something like this: After we realized that one of the players did not have nuclear capabilities, that player got nuked, repeatedly, because it was an easy way to deny him/her resources. In the game, a nuke costs the same amount of money as a conventional missile, but predictably does a lot more damage. Once the poor, non-nuclear soul was shoved to the resource sidelines, the two remaining players duked it out over resources on the map. Game scoring is complicated, but having more resources makes more options available to you. The game lasts five rounds, so we just operated under the rule that he who has the most resources at the end of the fifth round wins. I am not sure that back end data collection got much of academic use out of our first couple rounds.

As the night wore on, and we better understood the advantages and disadvantages designated to each player at the start of the game, SIGNAL switched from an exercise in nuking to an exercise in avoiding being nuked. But it took quite some time to reach that deterrence focus….

h/t Stephen Downes-Martin

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 25 May 2019


PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers.



A new online wargame is intended to explore issues of signalling, deterrence, and escalation:

A first-of-its-kind online game, released publicly today, is poised to revolutionize the field of wargaming. Developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this new multi-player computer game was custom built to explore deterrence and decision-making in an escalating conflict.

Over the past century, military leaders and in the United States have sought to answer similar questions with seminar style discussions or table top exercises. These types of wargames typically involve convening high-ranking military and political officials to play through scenarios that are representative of real-world situations. Insights gathered from the game are then used to inform decisions about policies, strategies and tactics. However, this approach has key shortcomings that limit its usefulness.

“Because you have a limited player set and only play through a few scenarios, you don’t get enough data from these scenario-based discussions to draw statistical inference. You may only get an idea of how these specific people would react,” said Bethany Goldblum, a researcher in UC Berkeley’s Nuclear Engineering department. “This is why traditional wargaming is often described as an art rather than science.”

You’ll find more at the link above. The article rather overstates the novelty of online games as a research method to generate large-n findings—in fact, this method is a staple of experimental psychology and economics, and used in other social science fields too. However, these are almost always very much simpler games intended to explore a narrow range of hypotheses.

If you try the game, drop us a line and let us know what you think. So far, I’ve been unable to get past the consent form (possible browser compatibility issues–I’ll play around with it when I have more time), and a few others have encountered problems setting up, or find the game and interface a bit clunky. Obviously, ease of use is a key issue in experimental games, otherwise you run into problems of sample bias or interface-driven results.

Still, it is a great idea. We’ll be very interested to see the results.


DSTL arctic.png

Some of the folks at the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory have been busy wargaming in the Arctic.

It was -20°C, a blizzard was moving in fast, and the Marines were laughing at me as I’d fallen flat on my face in deep snow. As hilarious as they found my predicament, this was a perfect example of the kind of conditions that the Marines are trained to face as we quickly slid down a mountain to our waiting Viking armoured vehicles to avoid the incoming storm. Not necessarily what I was expecting when the Wargaming and Historical Analysis Team had sent Paul Strong and I to support C Company (Coy) from the Royal Navy’s 40 Commando Royal Marines by running a wargame for them….


As a Montrealer, I’ve got to say that -20C is just a regular winter day—although perhaps not so much in Dstl Portsdown West.


The Centre for Land Warfare Studies (New Delhi) and staff from the UK Ministry of Defence Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre recently conducted a matrix game.



The International Organization for Migration continues to hold crisis preparedness simulations in the Sahel region as well as West Africa. The latest were conducted in April

More than 300 people took part in a fifth cross-border crisis simulation exercise organized Thursday by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in partnership with the Government of Senegal in the eastern city of Bakel near the borders with Mauritania and Mali.

The exercises prepare local populations and border management actors to respond to potential security crises by testing and strengthening collaboration and communication between border communities, administrative authorities, security forces in Senegal and Mauritania, as well as health and relief services.

“Security is first and foremost an individual responsibility that extends to the community and then becomes a national interest,” said IOM Senegal Project Coordinator Massimo Ramanzin. “With this fifth exercise, IOM reiterates the important role of the community in safe and humane border management.”

The first pilot project “Engagement des communautés frontalières dans la gestion et la sécurisation des frontières au Sénégal” (Engaging border communities in border security and management in Senegal), was launched in 2015 by the Government of Senegal and IOM.

Four additional exercises were carried out in Matam (February 2016), Tambacounda (December 2017), and Saint-Louis (November 2016 and April 2018).

and in May:

In an effort to empower authorities to effectively respond to large-scale population movements, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) organized the first ever crisis simulation exercise along the Gambian-Senegalese border.

Held in Giboro, Gambia’s West Coast Region – which hosts the busiest border post with Senegal’s southern Casamance region – the exercise tested actors’ ability to effectively respond in times of crisis; in particular, to provide assistance to vulnerable migrants.

80 volunteers from The Gambia Red Cross Society (GRCS) simulated the migrants and first responders, with various state and nonstate actors called to the scene. Key to the simulation was the interaction between immigration, security, health and social welfare authorities to register arrivals, provide medical and psychosocial support and establish evacuation and shelter plans.

“Although it was good that we were able to control the situation in the border post early, we need to improve the coordination between all apparatuses” commented Edrisa Manneh, GRCS’ Volunteer Management Coordinator, in reflection of the exercise.

The exercise was meant to model the border turmoil brought by the political tension of 2016, in which over 45,000 Gambians fled to Senegal, as well as a 2011 upsurge of violence in Casamance, in which the region received 700 additional Senegalese asylum seekers, adding to the almost 8,000 in The Gambia.

“In 2016, we realized that West Coast is at the receiving point of movement between The Gambia and Senegal,” remarked Binta Sey, Secretary-General of the Regional Disaster Management Committee, highlighting the significance of emergency preparedness in the region. “In any crisis involving migration, Giboro bears the load more than any other town,” echoed Modou Jallow, community youth leader.

The exercise was preceded by a four-day workshop, where the committee updated its contingency plan, identifying population movement as one of the region’s top five hazards. The exercise was also followed by a debriefing with all stakeholders to document lessons learned. One key aim was to incorporate the Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster (MICIC) into the region’s contingency plan. IOM introduced the MICIC Guidelines to The Gambia in 2018 through a series of trainings. “You are successfully working together to increase the capacity of first responders to properly react in times of crises,” commended Carl Paschall, Ambassador of the US to The Gambia, at the workshop.


The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative held its most recent three day humanitarian training simulation/field exercise in April, involving more  than 250 students, faculty and volunteers .



Earlier this month, the International Academy of Astronautics Planetary Defense Conference undertook a simulation of an asteroid heading for Earth—ultimately impacting New York City.

A hypothetical asteroid impact scenario will be presented at the 2019 IAA Planetary Defense Conference (PDC), to be held in College Park, Maryland, USA, April 29 – May 3, 2019. Although this scenario is realistic in many ways, it is completely fictional and does NOT describe an actual potential asteroid impact. The scenario begins as follows:

  • An asteroid is discovered on March 26, 2019, at magnitude 21.1, and confirmed the following day. It is assigned the designation “2019 PDC” by the Minor Planet Center. (To reinforce the fact that this is not a real asteroid, we are using three letters in the designation, something that would never be done for an actual asteroid.)
  • Initial calculations indicate that the orbit of 2019 PDC approaches well within 0.05 au of the Earth’s orbit. (The unit “au” stands for “astronomical unit”, which is the mean distance of the Earth from the Sun, 149,597,870.7 km, or 92,955,807 miles.) Since the initial estimate of the asteroid’s absolute (intrinsic) magnitude H is 21.7, it qualifies as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA).
  • The asteroid’s orbit is eccentric, extending from a distance of 0.89 au from the Sun at its closest point to 2.94 au at its farthest point in the middle of the main asteroid belt. Its orbital period is 971 days (2.66 years), and its orbital plane is inclined 18 degrees to the Earth’s orbital plane.
  • The day after 2019 PDC is discovered, JPL’s Sentry impact monitoring system, as well as ESA’s similar CLOMON system, both identify several future dates when this asteroid could potentially impact the Earth. Both systems agree that the most likely potential impact occurs on April 29, 2027 – over eight years away – but the probability of that impact is very low, about 1 chance in 50,000. With only two days of tracking this object, no more definitive statement can be made.
  • When first detected, the asteroid is about 0.38 au (57 million kilometers or 35 million miles) from Earth, approaching our planet at about 14 km/s (8.5 mi/s or 31,000 mph), and slowly getting brighter. 2019 PDC is observed extensively for a few weeks after discovery, and as the observational dataset grows, the impact probability for 2027 increases. Three weeks after discovery, when observations pause during full moon, the impact probability has risen to nearly 0.4 percent, or about 1 chance in 250. The asteroid continues to brighten somewhat as it approaches, but it reaches a peak brightness of only 20.3 at the end of April.
  • Very little is known about the asteroid’s physical properties. Based on the apparent visual magnitude, its absolute (intrinsic) magnitude is estimated to be about H = 21.7 +/- 0.4. Since its albedo (reflectivity) is unknown, however, the asteroid’s mean size could be anywhere from roughly 100 meters to over 300 meters.
  • 2019 PDC approaches the Earth for well over a month after discovery, and it reaches its closest point of about 0.13 au on May 13. Unfortunately, the asteroid is too far away to be detected by radar, and it is not expected to pass close to the Earth again, until 2027.
  • Astronomers continue to track the asteroid almost every night, and the impact probability for 2027 continues to rise. As of April 29, 2019, the first day of the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference, the probability of impact has climbed to about 1%. The rest of the scenario will be played out at the conference.

You’ll find more at the conference website, and a summary of what happened at EarthSky.

PAXsimsAccording to Breaking Defence, the US Army War College is thinking about how to wargame advances in Artificial Intelligence:

ARMY WAR COLLEGE: Theater commanders around the world want weapons they can see and use right now, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs told the Army War College. It’s a lot harder, Gen. Joseph Dunford said, to sell experienced senior officers on an untested and intangible capability like Artificial Intelligence.

One week after Dunford’s visit, the Army War College convened two dozen officers and civilian experts to take on that challenge: How do you demonstrate the potential value of a military AI before you actually build it? (The conference was scheduled long before Dunford’s visit, but his words were very much on participants’ minds). The immediate objective: come up with ways to mimic the effects of an AI so the school’s in-house game designers could turn it into either a computer simulation or a table-top exercise within 10 months — without new money. The hope is that the 2020 game, in turn, will intrigue Army leadership enough that they’ll support a larger, longer-term AI effort….


Wargaming the future is difficult because predicting the future is difficult. In the June 2019 edition of The Atlantic, David Epstein briefly explores the some of the challenges involved—and what contemporary social science tells us about effective forecasting.

The pattern is by now familiar. In the 30 years since Ehrlich sent Simon a check, the track record of expert forecasters—in science, in economics, in politics—is as dismal as ever. In business, esteemed (and lavishly compensated) forecasters routinely are wildly wrong in their predictions of everything from the next stock-market correction to the next housing boom. Reliable insight into the future is possible, however. It just requires a style of thinking that’s uncommon among experts who are certain that their deep knowledge has granted them a special grasp of what is to come.

Much of the piece focuses on the work of Philip Tetlock and the Good Judgment Project.



In a recent edition of the Ludology podcast, Mikael Jakobsson and Rick Eberhardt from the MIT Game Lab discuss their research into colonial themes in board games, and the game design workshops they run in former colonial countries.



When you’ve finished listening to that, here’s another podcast for you: Armchair Dragoon, this time featuring a discussion with James Sterrett and Brian Train on Matt Caffrey’s new book, On Wargaming, as well as other essential reading on wargaming.



One more podcast: a recent edition of the War Studies podcast from King’s College London features an interview with Philip Sabin on wargaming.



In December 2018 a cybersecurity wargame was held at Teachers College, Columbia University to explore insider threats, using a modified matrix game.

Lawrence Furnival has a report at LinkedIn.



President Trump’s trade war with China—and the imposition of new tariffs on toys and games—could hit the US gaming industry hard:

President Donald Trump’s trade war with China is causing a panic inside the board game industry. A list of tariffs on Chinese imports proposed by the United States trade representative would raise the cost of virtually everything needed to produce modern tabletop games. John Stacy, executive director of the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA), says that tariffs could dramatically reduce the number of new games in production in the United States. Even worse, they could cost workers and business owners their livelihoods.

You’ll find more details at Polygon.


Finally, an item that isn’t new, but we hadn’t seen before: a 2017 research report by Lt Col Christopher R. DiNote (USAF) discussing the development of an ISR  (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) wargame (OPERATION AZURE OSPREY) based on AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game.

In a February 2015 memorandum, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work issued a call to the department and the military services to reinvigorate the use of wargaming across the defense enterprise. He connected wargaming directly to innovation in technology, as well as new operational and organizational concepts to avoid strategic surprise. The secretary’s guidance emphasized the urgency of this task, explaining that the United States faces an era of constrained resources and rapid global change. This essay contributes to the Air Force response to this call to action, including a game design-in-progress, from the perspective of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) strategic decision-making. The author contends that games designed with ISR central to their play can facilitate greatly needed, yet politically difficult discussions of force allocation, risk assessment, return on investment, prioritization, transregional threats, and the insatiable demand for ISR coverage in an increasingly disordered world of contested norms.6

Contemporary military wargames are expensive undertakings. They consume great amounts of time, personnel, and resources, and depend on classified computer models and simulations. Policy-making seminar games, featuring extensive roleplay, also make significant demands on the schedule of senior leaders, and the availability of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and adjudicators. Rarely will either format address or inform ISR aspects of strategy in a significant fashion. Therefore, the material presented here explores the latest academic research and wargaming innovations to demonstrate the utility of low cost, fast-play, tabletop manual games as tools to experiment, innovate, train, and analyze historical, contemporary and future defense problems from an ISR-centered lens. This project also aspires to foster an officially- sponsored “gaming culture” throughout the AF ISR enterprise.

Following an initial playtest of Aftershock held at the LeMay Center on Maxwell AFB, AFWGI personnel conducted analysis and began to conceive of modifications to the game to transform it into a global ISR-centric wargame. For Azure Osprey, the players will represent ISR producers and/or distributors, each with their own distinct player brief. The National Command Authority, representing the POTUS and executive branch, can drive priorities as well as has his or her own support requirements. The other players represent the NSA, NGA, and CIA. Originally, the author intended the players to represent various CCMDs, but the Aftershockplaytest, as well as the pointed analysis of AFWGI members showed no way around the zero- sum competition effect resident in real-world ISR allocation, in playing the game from that perspective. Therefore, the CCMDs will fill the role of the Districts in Aftershock. The CCMD “districts” host requirements for various types of ISR to meet their PIRs on stacks of cards. Failure to address these PIRs, which emulate those found in their AOR’s TCP, OPLANs, and CONPLANs, increases the risk over time of strategic surprise, attack against the US or its interests, or disastrous failure of US policy in that region. Azure Osprey will simulate USPACOM, USCENTCOM, USEUCOM, USTRATCOM, and USSOCOM. The other CCMDs will be simulated via event cards that drive their own cost requirements in ISR resources.

KCL: Lecturer/Senior Lecturer/Reader in War Studies (wargaming) wanted


The Department of War Studies at King’s College London is seeking a Senior Lecturer or Reader in War Studies (Wargaming):

The Department is seeking to appoint a Senior Lecturer/Reader in War Studies (Wargaming). In addition to possessing expertise in the field of wargaming, the post holder will be expected to teach and research broadly in War Studies and in particular to contribute to the delivery of modules, both core and optional, at undergraduate and taught post-graduate levels. They will also contribute to the supervision of doctoral students and undertake appropriate administrative duties.

The successful candidate will be expected to have a strong record of research and teaching within the sphere of wargaming/conflict simulation. They will be expected to promote actively the academic study and employment of wargaming within the department and across relevant professional networks externally, including the armed forces. In addition, they will be expected to maintain high quality research and publication and to seek out and bid for relevant academic research funding.

Applications are sought from candidates with a PhD and a strong research and teaching profile from within any relevant area within the broad remit of war studies. The Department welcomes applications from candidates from any disciplinary background, including mixed methods and quantitative approaches. The Department is also open to strong applications from promising, but more junior scholars, but whose current experience may not put them in the Senior Lecturer range.

You will find full information here. The closing date for applications is June 17.

Journal of Political Science Education special issue on simulations and games

Unknown.jpegA recent issue of the Journal of Political Science Education 15, 1 (2019) is devoted to the topic of simulations and games.


  • JPSE 15-1 Introduction

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 

  • Bet Out the Vote: Prediction Markets as a Tool to Promote Undergraduate Political Engagement
    • Lukas Berg & John Chambers
  • Teaching Judicial Politics Through a Supreme Court Simulation
    • Ryan J. Williams & Anthony J. Chergosky
  • Lecture Versus Simulation: Testing the Long-Term Effects
    • Adam Wunische
  • Zombies, Gender, and Student Active Learning
    • Kate Hunt
  • The Statecraft Effect: Assessment, Attitudes, and Academic Honesty
    • John Linantud & Joanna Kaftan
  • The Narrative History of the Chocolate Wars: A Short and Tasty Bargaining Game
    • James D. Fielder
  • Learning By Doing: The Long-Term Impact of Experiential Learning Programs on Student Success
    • Leigh A. Bradberry & Jennifer De Maio
  • Teaching Party Systems: A Culinary Demonstration
    • Andre P. Audette
  • Active Learning in Large Graduate Classes: Reflections on an “Attaining Citizenship” Simulation
    • Aleks Deejay, Maria Rost Rublee & Steven T. Zech

Books, Teaching Tools, and Educational Resources 

  • Model United Nations: Review for First-Time Instructors and Advisors
    • Timothy A. Hazen
  • Raising the Bar: Maximizing Engaged Student Learning Using the American Mock Trial Association Case State of Midlands v. Dylan Hendricks
    • Kyla K. Stepp & Jeremiah J. Castle


Back from Glasgow


I returned yesterday from a brief, but very productive, trip to Glasgow. The visit took place under the auspices of a cooperation agreement between McGill University and the University of Glasgow, supported by an EU Erasmus+ grant.

Much of my visit revolved around (war)gaming, and in response to several requests I’m posting (pdf) copies of my presentation slides here:

We also played a game of A Reckoning of Vultures, the coup-plotting game included in the Matrix Game Construction Kit.

I’m grateful for the extraordinary hospitality shown by Prof. Beatrice Heuser and her colleagues in the Scottish Centre for War Studies and the School of Social and Political Sciences. I look forward to future collaboration!


Armchair Dragoon: wargaming civilians


DragoonsLogoHEADER-1.pngThe latest edition of Armchair Dragoons’ Mentioned in Dispatches podcast features a discussion of how civil-military and non-kinetic factors are—or, more frequently, are not—represented in wargames.

Following up on an earlier episode of Mentioned in Dispatches, Doug & Jim are back to join guest Rex Brynen in talking about all those non-military considerations during armed conflict, as we cover games ranging from A Distant Plain to The Creature That Ate Sheboygan.

So if you’re curious about how block-by-block fighting in Mosul affected the city, what game lets NGOs use nukes, Canadian government zombies, and/or what flavor firefighters are, this is your podcast!

You’ll find it here.


On Twitter, a couple of users have recently tweeted images of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game being used as an educational game.

BA/BSc Geography students playing AFTERSHOCK at the University of Gloucestershire:

40 Commando Royal Marines playing AFTERSHOCK at the University of Exeter:

Brexit games

The most recent episode (107) of the WB40 podcast features Rina Atienza and Lynette Nusbacher (Nusbacher Associates) and Jim Wallman (Stone Paper Scissors) on the subject of Brexit games.


If you want to try your hand at a version of the Brexit Game, you can find it here.

An interview with “Rebel Inc.” designer James Vaughan (Ndemic Creations)


Rebel Inc. is a unique and immersive political/military strategic simulation with over 4 million players. It offers a deeply engaging, thought provoking look at the complexities and consequences of foreign intervention and counter insurgency as you work to stabilise a war torn country. We previously reviewed it at PAXsims here.

James Vaughan is Founder of Ndemic Creations, and creator of hit mobile game Plague Inc., Plague Inc: Evolved and Rebel Inc.

I had the pleasure of a quick interview with James before our upcoming Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development.  At the Forum we’ll have a lunchtime conversation with him and policymakers, diving deeper into some of the questions below.


How did you come up with the idea for Rebel Inc.?

I actually came up with the idea for Rebel Inc. back in 2011 before I made my first game Plague Inc. The core idea was about the game of cat and mouse between soldiers and insurgents – defeating insurgents just causes them to move to a neighbouring area – instead you need to carefully position soldiers to surround/contain them as well as considering broader civilian and military issues to ensure stability. After the runaway success of Plague Inc.  I was finally in a position to make Rebel Inc. as I’d planned all those years ago – a game that simulates insurgency, the failures and mistakes that have been made and how things might have gone differently.

What is it based on?   What kind of research did you do for this?


James Vaughan (Ndemic Creations)

Rebel Inc. is heavily inspired by events in Afghanistan but also by numerous other events including the Columbian peace process with FARC. As a former economist – I love getting my hands on all sorts of data sources to build my simulation models – one of my favourite books was Farewell Kabul by Christina Lamb, the quarterly SIGAR reports were extremely eye opening and I was lucky enough to talk with a huge number of experts, journalists and politicians to get their thoughts and experiences. Said T. Jawad, the Afghan Ambassador to the UK gave me a number of personal experiences / vignettes which I was able to put into the game including one about resolving an issue regarding the stop and search of women by female soldiers.

How did you build in realism but still try to keep it fun?

Developing a game based on real world issues is both extremely challenging and extremely rewarding. In order to make Rebel Inc. an engaging and sensitive game which makes people think, I had to find a balance between realism and fun. Too realistic and it would be overwhelming and too complicated to follow, not realistic enough and it risks sensationalising / exploiting serious situations – and losing credibility

Through my research – I identified a number of key themes that I wanted to capture in the game (e.g. corruption, inflation, the need for a peace process, foreign soldiers going home etc) and then spent years experimenting with different game mechanics. Trying different combinations and methods until all the pieces of the model finally game together and worked. Often it’s about finding the core part of a mechanic and displaying that rather than trying to cram in all sorts of tiny details which although important – can prevent people from understanding what they are being shown. The end result is something I’m extremely proud of – and discussions about where / why the game is not realistic can often be more educational than including them in the game in the first place.


Who plays Rebel Inc?

4 million plus people from all over the world – and more every day! (The most popular countries are the US, China and Russia). Our target audience are people who want to play intelligent games that make them think whilst still being accessible!

Are your players interested in stabilization, post-conflict development and international assistance?  

Yes – although not all of them will have realised this until they started playing! We get a lot of messages from people who have military / diplomatic / expert backgrounds saying how much the game resonates with them and their experiences which is always great to hear. On the other side of the coin (!) , we also get players telling us that they never really had any understanding of what is going on in places like Afghanistan until they played Rebel Inc. They say it helped them think about the complexities and compromises that are necessary in order to stabilise regions. “now I understand why we couldn’t just send lots of tanks to Afghanistan” etc.

We’re looking forward to having you at the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development – what are you hoping to get out of the Forum?

I’m really excited to engage with and hear from people who are experts in the field. It will give me all sorts of ideas for future Rebel Inc. updates as well as identify areas where we can improve the simulation. I want people to tell me what they like about the game but just as important – tell me where they think I got it wrong! Some of the best parts of Rebel Inc. are where I’ve included personal stories and experiences into the game in the form of decisions for the player to make – I want to add a lot more! There has also been quite a lot of interest in using Rebel Inc. for training and education purposes so I’m keen to see if something can be facilitated here.

What are you working on now and what do you have coming out next?

I’m currently working on the next update for Rebel Inc. as well as working out how to get it onto PC. I’m also busy working on updates for Plague Inc. and an expansion for my physical table top version – Plague Inc: The Board Game. No rest for the wicked!


Gaming at the University of Glasgow

uofg.jpgI’ll be at the University of Glasgow on May 9-14, to talk both serious gaming and Middle East politics with faculty and students there. If you’re in the vicinity and would like to touch base, drop me a line.

I’ll likely be bringing AFTERSHOCK, the Matrix Game Construction Kit, We Are Coming, Nineveh, and a few other things along with me too!

Registration open for Connections US 2019

A message from Tim Wilkie (National Defense University):

This year’s Connections conference will be hosted by the Army War College and held at the Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC) in Carlisle, PA, August 13-16.   Since 1993, Connections has brought together practitioners from all aspects of the wargaming field to learn from each other, share best practices, and grow the discipline.  We seek to “advance and preserve the art, science, and application of wargaming,” and we do so through a variety of events at each year’s conference, including speaker panels, workshops, working groups, game demonstrations and playtests, and more.  We welcome every background: military and civilian, educators and analysts, government and commercial hobbyist press, U.S. and international.  Our participants use gaming for research, analysis, education, and to inform policy, and there is much that we can learn from one another.

On behalf of my conference co-chair and the founder of the Connections conference, Matt Caffrey, I am pleased to announce that registration for Connections 2019 is now open.  You can reach the registration form from the conference website.

The website also contains additional information about the conference, including the draft agenda, directions, hotel information, and more.


McGill end-of-term gaming update 2019

Classes are now over for the Winter 2019 term at McGill University, and it is exam-and-grading season. I have also now had a chance to review the various projects produced in my conflict simulation course (POLI 422). There are many very interesting and well-executed game designs.

The course was supported this year by Dr. Ben Taylor from Defence Research and Development Canada. The students and I were very grateful for his assistance.



Advanced Operations is a two map blind/closed game of tactical urban operations at the platoon level. The map depicts an urban neighbourhood, including vantage points, doorways, fields of fire, street clutter, and multi-story buildings. The basic combat system is straight-forward, intuitive, and quite effective. The Blue player can equip themselves before a mission with a range of new technologies and capabilities in order to assess their impact on urban tactics, ranging from small drones to power-assisted armour to robots (all based on weapons in development of field-testing).

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Cartel is a multi-player game examining the drug trade in Mexico, focusing on the era of large criminal syndicates. Players generate money through smuggling drugs from Central/South America into the United States and from other illegal activities. To move drugs through the country, however, they need to establish control and influence over a chain of key cities, and once the drugs have been delivered need to launder their illicit proceeds. The winner is the drug lord who amasses the most luxury items. However, be careful: as your notoriety grows, you become more of a target (and might even be arrested and extradited to the United States).

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Fallen Republic is a semi-cooperative game in which South Korea, the United States and China struggle to stabilize North Korea after the collapse of the communist regime there. To do so they need to provide security, deliver food and medical supplies to needy populations, build local public administration, restart the economy, and win local popular support. Asymmetrical and semi-secret victory conditions can make it difficult to cooperate, while a fourth player—Chaos, representing all the fog, friction, and wicked problems of stabilization operations —wins by preventing the others from achieving their objectives.

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Intelligence Collection explores the ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance) and HUMINT requirements of counterinsurgency campaigns. It is a three map closed game, meaning that players only know the location of their own assets and enemy assets they have detected. Various Red actions, such as training insurgents, bomb-making, and smuggling—all have detection probabilities attached, which in turn are affected by patrolling, HUMINT collection, and other Blue actions. Interrogation of captured insurgents may also reveal information, such as who recruited them or where they were trained.

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Little Green Men examines the war in Ukraine, and Russian hybrid warfare. The game combines both map-based area movement/combat with card-based policy initiatives. Russia needs to be careful that it’ support for opposition forces doesn’t become too obvious, or it risks stepped-up NATO assistance to the Kiev government.

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As the Arctic ice slowly melts, Canada, the US, Russia, the Scandinavian countries, and China are faced with new challenges and threats. Should new oil, mining, and fisheries resources be exploited? How should this be balanced against environmental management? What are the implications of transpolar shipping? Meltdown is both competitive and semi-cooperative—at the end of the game, the more heavily the Arctic is being exploited, the larger the chance of ecological collapse. The game allows for players to collectively change the game rules during play, through the mechanism of the Arctic Council. The map mechanic is cool too—as the ice melts you remove blocs of it from the game board, revealing the now-accessible resources beneath.

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Mosul has been liberated by ISIS control, and the Baghdad government must reconstruct the areas of northern and western Iraq ravaged by the extremist group. However, ISIS seeks to disrupt such efforts, mobilize new recruits, rebuild its forces, and undermine local security. In MISSION RECONSTRUCTION the two sides each select their actions from a menu of options each turn. Event cards may also produce other crises that must be resolved if the stability of the country and the legitimacy of the government is to be enhanced.

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This is the first time I’ve taught the course as a lecture course, with 31 students—last year it was run as a seminar with only nine, which gave me more opportunity to work with a smaller number of game projects. It is also ambitious to fit it all into one term—Phil Sabin’s former wargaming module at King’s College London was a full year graduate course. Nevertheless, I think things generally worked well.

This year the teams were groups of five. Next year I think I’ll reduce that to four. While larger teams means more human resources to work on game design and playtesting, it also aggravates coordination and communication problems. I’ll also introduce a system whereby student evaluate the relative contribution of other team members. I have never been fond of these since they can be abused, but I think it will be worthwhile on balance. While most groups worked well, there were a few that generated complaints that a member wasn’t pulling their weight.

Despite constant nagging from me that the teams needed to move rapidly to prototyping and hence playtesting, I think all but one of the groups wished they had started on their project earlier than they did. Indeed, some did not do so until shortly before their interim “status report” was due. Next year I’ll require two such reports, with one of them even earlier in the term.

Finally, I’m pleased to announce that the 2019 Defence Research and Development Canada wargame design award (awarded by DRDC to the best project in the class) went to the team that produced ADVANCED OPERATIONS. Well done!


Simulation and gaming miscellany, 22 April 2019


PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious games that might be of interest to our viewers.



At War on the Rocks, James Lacey examines the use of wargames to explore contemporary great power politics:

The United States can win World War III, but it’s going to be ugly and it better end quick, or everyone starts looking for the nuclear trigger.

:That is the verdict of a Marine Corps War College wargame I organized that allowed students to fight a multiple great state conflict last week. To set the stage, the students were given an eight-year road-to-war, during which time Russia seized the Baltics and all of Ukraine. Consequently, the scenario starts with a surging Russia threatening Poland. Similar to 1939, Poland became the catalyst that finally focused NATO’s attention on the looming Russian threat, leading to a massing of both NATO and Russian forces on the new Eastern Front. China begins the scenario in the midst of a debt-related financial crisis and plans to use America’s distraction with Russia to grab Taiwan and focus popular discontent outward. And Kim Jong-un, ever the opportunist, decides that the time has arrived to unify the Korean peninsula under his rule. For purposes of the wargame, each of these events occurred simultaneously.

Teams were allowed to invest in advance in capabilities and emerging technologies:

The wargames were played by six student teams, or approximately five persons each. There were three red teams, representing Russia, China, and North Korea; combatting three blue teams representing Taiwan, Indo-Pacific Command (Korea conflict) and European Command. All of these teams were permitted to coordinate their activities both before the conflict and during. Interestingly, although it was not part of the original player organization the Blue side found it necessary to have a player take on the role of the Joint Staff, to better coordinate global activities.

Prior to the wargame, the students were given a list of approximately 75 items they could invest in that would give them certain advantages during the game. Nearly everything was on the table, from buying an additional carrier or brigade combat team, to taking a shot at getting quantum computing technology to work. Each team was given $200 billion dollars to invest, with the Russians and Chinese being forced to split their funding. Every team invested heavily in hypersonic technology, cyber (offensive and defensive), space, and lasers. The U.S. team also invested a large sum in directed diplomacy. If they had not done so, Germany and two other NATO nations would not have shown up for the fight in Poland. Showing a deepening understanding of the crucial importance of logistics, both red and blue teams used their limited lasers to defend ports and major logistical centers.


The games were adapted from GMT Games’ Next War series:

For those interested, the games used are all part of GMT’s Next War Series, designed by Mitchell Land and Greg Billingsley. I have found these commercial games are far more sophisticated and truer to what we expect future combat to look like than anything being used by RAND, which employs rules and methods designed for Simulations Publication, Inc. (SPI) games in the 1970s. But they are not alone in this, as most of the Department of Defense’s wargaming community is decades behind commercial game publishers when it comes to designing realistic games. In fact, if I was to fault the Next War series for anything, it is that it may be overly realistic and therefore very complex and difficult to master, and time consuming to play. Thankfully, the designer has agreed to produce a simplified rule-set that will allow for more student iterations without sacrificing realism.


At the Navy Times, David Banks (American University) discusses how “War games shed light on real strategies.”

War games are useful intellectual aids because they force players to make decisions under pressure. While people may intellectually understand a problem, gaming forces them to think even harder.

As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling put it, “one thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.”

By facing off against opponents over a well-designed war game, people can come to see how political and military structures interact and appreciate the trade-offs and complications that come with making decisions in a competitive environment.

He goes on to identify a few of his favourite games, ranking each for complexity and playing time: Washington’s War, 13 Days, Combat Commander: Europe, A Distant Plain, Twilight Struggle,



The latest Strategy Bridge podcast features Ellie Bartels (RAND) discussing wargaming and national security decision-making.

Over the past several years there has been a renewed interest in using gaming as a method to investigate national security decision making, explore policy and strategy options, and gain experience as practitioners. In this episode of the Strategy Bridge Podcast, we talk with Elizabeth Bartels about how wargames are designed, the differences in approaching gaming as an art and a science, and how games are used to think creatively about global competition. Bartels is a PhD candidate studying national security policy gaming at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. 



How can a simulation help students to better understand gender and interational relations? At the Active Learning in Political Science blog Susan Allen (University of Mississippi) has some ideas.

This semester I am teaching a course on gender and international politics for the first time. The first half of the course examines gender and representation, while the second half explores gender in international politics. I aimed to bridge these two sections with a simulation that I created on child marriage—something currently on the agenda of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and a likely topic at the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) this summer.

Students have been working in groups by regions of the world to expand their knowledge base beyond their own experiences. For the simulation, they became spokespersons for their designated regions. As additional preparation, students read about CEDAW and an excerpt from Women, Politics, and Power by Paxton and Hughes. I did not inform them beforehand of the particular issue that would be discussed as part of the simulation, other than to say that the activity would resemble a communication from CEDAW….


The mainstream media seems to have almost daily pieces these days on the resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons. One thing noted in most pieces is how much more inclusive the game has become, with a large and growing proportion of female players.

I’ve long argued that D&D is a terrific way of refining a broad range of creative, leadership, and team skills—including developing wargame design and facilitation.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 18 April 2019


PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers. Many thanks to Aaron Davis and others for suggesting material for this latest edition.



Poor Berylia. The country is under attack from hostile powers who “launch coordinated attacks against the country’s civilian communications infrastructure, causing disruptions in water purification systems, the power grid, 4G public safety networks and other essential services” —undermining recent elections and sparking civil unrest.


As an article in Fifth Domain notes, this was the scenario for Locked Shields 2019, a recent NATO cyber exercise:

The drill, dubbed Locked Shields 2019, is billed as a “live-fire” event, which means all actions by six teams of competing network defenders will have immediate effects in the game-like environment.

More than 1,000 cybersecurity experts are expected to participate in the exercise, coordinated from Tallinn, Estonia, by NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. The organization has its headquarters in the Estonian capital.

Additional government organizers include the Estonian Defence Forces, the Finnish Defense Forces, U.S. European Command and the National Security Research Institute of the Republic of Korea.

A NATO team built around the alliance’s Communications and Information Agency, NCI, is the defending champion at this year’s Locked Shields event.

Following a series of cyberattacks against Estonia’s financial sector and communications nodes in 2007, the country has become a leading cybersecurity force within the alliance. Estonian officials have blamed the Russian government for the attacks, which Moscow has denied.

According to a press release from the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, the team from France won the competition.




The North American Simulation and Gaming Association’s 2019 conference will be held in Chicago on 6-9 July 2019, on the theme of “PLAY TO PERFORM: Using Games, Simulations, and other Activities to Improve Performance.”

Our Conference begins with three pre-conference sessions. Each spearheads a certification program. Participants can just attend a pre-con or continue taking five additionally aligned break-out sessions and completing a post-program applied evaluation to earn a certificate of achievement.

  • GAMIFICATION: Turning the Everyday into Play
  • APPLIED IMPROV FACILITATION BOOTCAMP (Facilitated by our Friends from the Applied Improv Network)

The conference itself will have three thematic tracks, organizing each of the break-out sessions (33 planned sessions altogether). Track One focuses on DESIGNing games and activities. Track Two on DELIVERing games and activitiesand Track Three on EVALUATing how well they worked at driving performance.

You’ll find the conference website here.


July will be busy! Serious Play conferences will be held in Montréal on 10-12 July 2019, and in Orlando on 24-26 July 2019. More details here.



..and don’t forget, of course, that the Connections US professional wargaming conference will be held this year on 13-16 August 2019 at the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA. Details here.


At last month’s International Studies Association conference, Ellie Bartels presented a paper on an “Archetype of Information Produced by Analytical Games.”

This paper argues that for policy gaming to be more impactful in research communities, it must be better able to expose the logic of design and analysis to outside scrutiny. Because policy games differ in key ways from mainstream research techniques in the social sciences, we must develop a gaming-specific set of logics to do this work. This paper presents a set of archetypical types of information that can be generated from a game, based on an iterated expert validation approach. It then delves into the logic of each—detailing what differentiates each type from the others and discussing typical tradeoffs make in the design of games of each type.


GMT Games recently cancelled a game on their P500 preorder list, Scramble for Africa.


The decision soon sparked a heated debate. Some argued that the company acted appropriately, cancelling a potential game that failed to treat a sensitive subject with appropriate sensitivity. Others screamed censorship. At Board Game Geek, David Dockter (Herr Dr), summarized what was then 29 pages of sometimes angry postings. Several threads got locked down.


For a particularly thoughtful account of the game, debate, and broader issues, see Jon Bolding’s article at Waypoint, “A Cancelled Board Game Revealed How Colonialism Inspires and Haunts Games.”



Immersed is a gaming podcast with a  difference:

Immersed dives into board games and how they create unique experiences for players based on real-world settings. Each episode, we examine a single game and how that game’s mechanics reflect its theme. We talk to the games’ designers, but also to subject-matter experts who tell interesting stories about the games’ settings. We also incorporate live-play audio, but always in the service of a larger documentary-style story.

We aim to bring professional-level production quality to the show, with a storytelling style and polish that hasn’t been done in board game podcasting before. We’ve released three episodes so far on a monthly schedule, with our first season scheduled to last 10 episodes.

You’ll find it here, at Cardboard Edison.


1551897325538.jpgNorman Friedman’s book Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War (2018) is available as a free download from the US Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command.

Between 1919 and 1941, the U.S. Navy transformed itself from a powerful if unsophisticated force into the fleet that would win a two-ocean war, from a fleet in which the battleship dominated to one based on carrier strike groups. The great puzzle of U.S. naval history is how this was accomplished. Well-known naval analyst Norman Friedman trenchantly argues that war gaming at the U.S. Naval War College made an enormous, and perhaps decisive, contribution. For much of the inter-war period, the Naval War College was the Navy’s primary think tank. War gaming was the means the college used to test alternative strategies, tactics, evolving naval aviation, and warship types in a way that the Navy’s full-scale exercises could not. The think tank perspective taken by this book is a new way of looking at the inter-war Naval War College and the war games that formed the core of its curriculum. Although the influence of both the Naval War College’s gaming and of the college itself declined after 1933, most of the key decisions shaping the wartime U.S. Navy had already been taken. The two most important ones were on the role of naval aviation and the form the U.S. war plan against Japan ultimately assumed. As shown here, U.S. naval commanders successfully applied the lessons learned from war gaming to victorious operations in World War II.


A British soldier was charged last month for going rogue in a computer game, according to the Daily Telegraph:

A soldier has been formally charged after “losing his rag” during a virtual battlefield exercise and killing his comrades.

The Edinburgh-based Army rifleman is believed to be the first soldier to be punished under UK military law for offences in a virtual scenario rather than in real life.

He is said to have been fed-up with being stuck at a computer rather than training outside.

A source from 3rd Battalion, the Rifles told the Mail on Sunday: “We’d spent two weeks sitting in front of laptops pretending we were in a really hostile urban environment – I’d challenge anyone to take it seriously for that long.


How can boardgames help us better understand the possible effects of climate change?  Janette Kim has a few ideas:

Janette Kim started designing board games about climate change after working on scenario planning with her architecture students at Colombia University–and seeing that the typical process, which architects and many cities use to make decisions, was fairly boring. Board games brought the scenarios to life. “They’re great at mixing together a lot of complexity and making that visible,” says Kim, who now teaches at California College of the Arts and leads the Urban Works Agency, a research lab at the school that looks at the use of architectural design on social justice issues, sustainability, and economic resilience in cities. A series of the games developed by Kim and her students, called Win-Win, is now in an exhibit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

In a Monopoly-like game called The Other 99%, each player is a real estate developer, but one player starts with three times more money than the others–and as sea level rises, they can afford to build on higher ground. The other players have more votes; every other round, everyone discusses whether to build a levy and who will pay for it. “You basically see how risk associated with your properties influences your decision-making and your tendency to either seek short-term profit or long-term profit,” she says.

In Bartertown, a game that imagines a world without money, players trade favors and share resources to deal with the impacts of climate change. The game was commissioned by The Bay Area Conservation and Development Commission for use in public meetings and with agency partners; the commission wanted to explore the idea of social resilience. Each player starts out in a different part of the Bay with different everyday activities to accomplish, and then has to start collaborating with other players when things go wrong–say, you have to get to work, but flooding has taken out your commute, so you have to make a trade with another player to stay at their home, closer to your office. “You start to see how people’s lives entwine with each other,” Kim says.

Delirious D.C. looks at the challenge of relocating buildings because of sea level rise. One player represents the federal government, which has many buildings in risky floodplains in D.C., and the other represents local citizens in the city. The local player might want to build housing or create parks; the federal player might want to relocate the FBI or the Smithsonian. Each tries to build up as much territory as they can while blocking the other player, and can earn extra points by convincing the other player that new combined institutions–like the F.B.I.R.S.–make sense as a new way to make use of limited space.

n Flip This Hood, a checkers-like game based on East Oakland, neighbors are pitted against the owners of a sports stadium and major sports teams. “The game basically studied the way that the Coliseum either benefits or does not benefit the neighborhood of local residents,” says Kim. Each player tries to reach the other side of the board first, through actions that range from building a public art piece to eviction or squatting on the other player’s property.

A game called In It Together, also based on the East Bay, gives each player the identity of a different stakeholder–such as a developer, a resident, or local wildlife. As climate change impacts the community, they have to decide when to collaborate or compete….

You’ll find the full article at Fast Company.


Graduate students at the University of Stirling recently wargamed crisis escalation in the Ukraine—and NATO’s response.


You’ll find their conclusions at The Conversation.


What has the Serious Games Network been up to in France? Playing the ISIS CRISIS matrix game at the École Militaire!

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