Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Brian Train

Review: Chile ’73

Chile ’73. Tiny Battle Publishing, 2018. Game designer: Brian Train. USD$20.00 (print-and-play edition $10.00)

pic4026703.jpgBrian Train has long had a thing for a good military coup d’état—not so much carrying them out (as far as we know), but rather reading about them, playing them, and designing games about them. Indeed, he likes coups so much that he wrote a piece on the game design challenges involved several years ago for PAXsims.

His latest game, Chile ’73, is on exactly that subject. This low complexity game is playable in around one hour, by two to four (or more) players.

Coup d’etats are a messy business.  Far from carefully orchestrated military precision, when various factions of a populace overthrow a government (especially when they did so before the age of internet), operations are strung together in secrecy, with limited communication between even likeminded factions.  Veteran game designer Brian Train’s brand new thriller of a game, Chile ’73, brings the secrecy, the suspense, and then the all-out battle of the coup to your game table.  In the first portion of the game, two to four players plot secretly to carry out their own plans to gain or maintain rule of Chile, plotting and scrambling to position their forces to best advantage.  Once the coup begins, the entire game shifts to open warfare.  Loyalties are revealed, and players battle to the finish.

Civilian and paramilitary units face off against military ground forces, aided by tactical air units and transport aircraft.  Do you have what it takes to elevate your cause to supremacy?

The game first involves a pre-coup phase (during which players try to bring various military, paramilitary, and civilian assets under their control) of several turns, and then a coup phase (when loyalists and opposition battle to control key locations around the city). During the pre-coup period, players aren’t entirely sure who is who (that is, whether others represent military, police, or civilian leaders), what their agenda is (seeking soft power, hard power, or a coalition), who is on which side, and what the loyalties of most units are. Each may recruit new assets, investigate the loyalties of other units, neutralize a rival player’s influence over a unit, block a rival player’s action, or move units. During the coup phase, units may move and fight. Some locations on the map yield particular bonuses or other game effects.


Picture via BGG (Beck Snyder), because we were too busy plotting to take one.

The rules are straight-forward and clear, and game-play is smooth and elegant. There is a great deal of fun to be had in plotting, building shaky alliances, and trying to work out what others are up to—especially with more than two players. Indeed, we were having so much fun that I forgot to take pictures, and instead we all watched President Salvador Allende be quickly overthrown as military units moved against him.

Chile ’73 is not intended as a high-fidelity simulation of the bloody events of September 1973. Although played on a zonal map of Santiago with units drawn from those that were present in real life, there’s no attempt to simulate the actual leaders and factions that shaped events. In this sense it might be thought of more as a Chile-themed coup game. I’m not sure I would ever use it to teach about Latin American history. It is, however, a terrific design with very different pre- and post-phase phases, and it does get at the uncertainties and strategic considerations characteristics of successful and unsuccessful military takeovers.

Indeed, I would quite happy to see it as the first of a series. Turkey ’16, anyone?

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 8 October 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers. Nikola Adamus, Ryan Kuhns, Christian Palmer, and Swen Stoop contributed items to this latest edition.


Vol48 N3The current (September 2015) issue of Phalanx—the journal of the Military Operations Research Society—has an article by Virginia “Robbin” Beall (Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations) on “Defense innovation through wargaming.” Highlighting the recent US DoD emphasis on reinvigorating wargaming, she warns that “some of the wargaming in the Department of Defense is not done well and has no or little lasting impact.” She goes on to highlight three areas for improvement: game design, game adjudication, and appropriate application of analytic techniques. I’ve excerpted some of her key comments below.

Game Design

Many games appear to depend upon the notion that if you just get the right players together in a room, you will achieve the desired intellectual breakthroughs. This approach underestimates the importance of game design and does the players a disservice.

If the objectives of the game are too broad or ill defined, the likely game outcomes are either vague generalities or obvious solutions, no matter how talented the players may be. It may not be apparent to players or stakeholders that the game was poorly designed until it is too late to recover.

Rigorous attention to game design in a manner that forces the players to confront one or two essential dilemmas can focus that talent on specific areas of deficiency that may lead to innovative strategic or operational approaches or technological solutions.

Game Adjudication

Some form of adjudication is often necessary to keep games progressing, and a game timeline is generally not compatible with the real-time use of rigorous quantitative modeling and simulation. For that reason, most games are adjudicated either through simpler quantitative methods or by BOGSAT (bunch of guys and gals sitting around a table). Both of those approaches, like any other analytic endeavor, need to begin with the basic tenets of good research:

  • a review best performed by reaching out to an extensive network of analysts to understand what previous work has been conducted; and
  • unyielding technical rigor in fully understanding the technical capabilities of assets or technologies examined.

Too often these basic research steps are shortchanged.

I would suggest that an overarching principle for adjudication is, as with the Hippocratic Oath, to above all else, do no harm. Players may be taking a single day away from commanding the same units that are represented in the game. Decision makers may be formulating the arguments for or against an investment. Poorly conducted adjudication creates a risk of leaving players with a fundamentally mistaken belief in the viability of a CONOPS, tactic, system, or technology and in doing so, fails to advance the state-of-the-art of our knowledge base or support good decisions.

Appropriate Application of Analytic Techniques

It will be tempting in an environment where there is an intense focus on wargaming to assume that it is always the analytic technique of choice.

However, as analysts we should realize that no single technique is suited to addressing all problems or questions. As the members of the defense community with the most comprehensive training and knowledge in analytic techniques, it is up to us to lead the discussion on what the appropriate analytic technique should be for a given application.

Her article is very similar to the presentation she made at the recent MORS special meeting on professional gaming, and is well worth reading in full.



Although PAXsims wasn’t able to attend the recent Connections Netherlands interdisciplinary wargaming conference last month, Swen Stoop has kindly passed on a summary prepared by the organizers (as well as some artistic impressions by Yuen Yen).

You’ll find further details at the Connections NL website, including a few of the conference presentations.




My PAXsims coeditor Devin Ellis quite literally posted a report on JadedAid while I was typing this, so go see what he said. You’ll find more on the game at Foreign Policy, The Guardian, and WhyDev. Via YouTube you can also hear co-creater Jessica Heinzelman talk about the genesis of the game at Nerd Night Phnom Penh.


At Nautilus, Jonathon Keats asks “Could war games replace the real thing?” His starting point is Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for a global peace game as a tool for conflict resolution and international cooperation:

As the Vietnam conflict spiraled out of control, Fuller had a solution. His idea was simple: Instead of playing secret war games deep inside the Pentagon, the United States should host a world peace game out in the open. The concept was an elaboration on his proposal to build a geoscope inside the U.S. Pavilion of the 1964 World’s Fair. An animated Dymaxion world map would show all the resources on the planet, as well as all human and natural activity, from troop deployment to ocean currents. On this map, the world’s leaders and citizens of all nations would be invited to publicly wage peace. He cast the world game as a political system, a completely democratic alternative to voting in which people collectively played out potential solutions to shared problems.

“The objective of the game would be to explore for ways to make it possible for anybody and everybody in the human family to enjoy the total earth without any human interfering with any other human and without any human gaining advantage at the expense of another,” Fuller wrote. “To win the World Game everybody must be made physically successful. Everybody must win.”

He then offers a broader overview of the development of modern wargaming, ultimately suggesting that modern synthetic and digital worlds might now make Fuller’s dream possible:

Crucially, these virtual worlds would not be neutral backdrops in the vein of Second Life. Like SimCity and war games, they’d be logically rigorous and internally consistent. There’d be causality and consequences, and there’d be tension, drawn out by constraints such as limited resources and time pressure. Also like SimCity and war games, these virtual worlds would be simplified, model worlds with deliberate and explicit compromises tailored to the topics being gamed. There could be many permutations, so that none inadvertently becomes authoritative. The only real guideline for setting variables would be to adjust them to breed what Wright has described as “life at the edge of chaos.”

Within these worlds, scenarios could be played out by the massive multiplicity of globally networked gamers. Players wouldn’t need to be designated red or blue, but could simply be themselves, self-organizing into larger factions as happens in many MMOs. Scenarios could be crises and opportunities. Imagine a global financial meltdown that destroys the value of all government-issued currencies, provoking the United Nations to issue a “globo” as an emergency unit of exchange. Would the globo be adopted, or would private currencies quash it? And what would be the consequences as the economy got rebuilt? A single universal currency might be a stabilizing force, binding the economic interests of people and nations, or it could be destabilizing on account of its scale and complexity. It could promote peace or provoke war. Games allowing players to collaborate and compete their way out of crisis would serve as crowdsourced simulations, each different, none decisive, all informative.

As the number of players increased through the evolution of world gaming, the outcomes of these games would inform an increasingly large proportion of the planet. At a certain stage, if the numbers became great enough, gameplay would verge on reality—and even merge into reality—because players would collectively accumulate sufficient anticipatory experience to play their part in the real world more wisely. Whole aspects of game-generated infrastructure—such as in-game non-governmental organizations and businesses—could be readily exported since the essential relationships would have already been built. Games would also serve as richly informative polls, revealing public opinion to politicians.

Or they could play a more direct goal in governance. One of Fuller’s ideas—that gaming could serve as an alternative to voting—could potentially be realized with a plurality of people gaming national and global eventualities. For any given issue, different proposals could be gamed in parallel. As some games collapsed, gamers would be able to join more viable games until the most gameable proposal was played through by all. That game would be a surrogate ballot, the majority position within the game serving as a legislatively or diplomatically binding decision. Provided that citizens consented from the start, it would be fully compatible with democratic principles—and could break the gridlock undermining modern democracies.

When Fuller presented the world game as a method of reckoning how to achieve world peace, he wasn’t ambitious enough. The act of gaming must make peace in its own right. Operating at the scale of reality, the game that everybody wins must build our future world.



One of the challenges we encountered when publishing AFTERSHOCK was finding images for the game that weren’t restricted by copyright or the need to pay royalties. In our case the folks at the UN photo archives, United Nations Development Programme, and World Food Programme helped us out by making photographs available.

Another new and useful source for game images would be Konflictkam:

Konflictcam is a free and independent new media site dedicated to curating and archiving images related to human conflict and presenting them to the public in a transparent and accessible manner. We were founded in the summer of 2014 by a group of young professionals passionate about history, politics, human rights and conflict resolution. Recognizing the absence of a platform dedicated to the systematic curation of global conflict imagery, past and present, the Konflictcam platform was developed with the aim of filling that void. In our capacity as a non-profit, apolitical public archive, we hope to build awareness of the critical events shaping our world and encourage users to gain a broader understanding of human conflict.

Many of the images are covered by a Creative Commons license, and are available for reuse within the terms specified by the original image owner.


This is the Police is a game being developed by Weappy Studio in which you try to survive as a corrupt chief of police amid a morass of crime and seedy local politics.

This Is the Police is a strategy/adventure game set in a city spiraling the drain. You’ll come face to face with the ugly underbelly of Freeburg, taking the role of gritty Police Chief Jack Boyd (portrayed by Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem).

Immerse yourself in a controversial tale of corruption, crime, and political intrigue. Manage your staff, respond to emergencies, and investigate crimes in a city on the brink of chaos. The mafia underworld maneuvers behind the scenes, sinking their claws ever deeper into the city, even as the mayor is ready to exploit every situation to his political advantage — even if it means hanging his police chief out to dry, or plunging the city into riots and protest. Choose your approach to each situation as it unfolds. Sometimes you’ll be responding to a developing crisis at a crime scene, or negotiating with Freeburg’s crime bosses. Sometimes you’ll find yourself dodging questions in the press room, or even the occasional cross-examination in the witness box. Can you keep this pressure cooker from exploding, at least for long enough to stash away a nice retirement nest egg? Or will you land yourself behind bars — or worse?

It seems to be intended more as a (Sim City-meets Tropico-meets Grand Theft Auto) game than social commentary, but it is an unusual project nonetheless.


economistMeanwhile in the yet-another-mainstream-media-article-on-the-renaissance-of-boardgaming department, The Economist (3 October 2015) features an article on, well, the renaissance of boardgaming:

The market for such “hobby games” is booming. ICv2, a consulting firm, reckons it is worth $880m a year in America and Canada alone. “We’ve seen double-digit annual growth for the past half-decade,” says Milton Griepp, ICv2’s boss. Some of the games at Spiel will be aimed at children, but grown-ups are doing most of the buying. There is something for every taste, from “Fluxx”, a lighthearted card game whose rules change with every card played, to “Power Grid”, a fiendishly tricky business game featuring aspiring electricity tycoons, to all-day chin-scratchers such as “Twilight Imperium” (pictured), a game of galactic civilisation-building.

Steve Buckmaster of Esdevium Games, a British distributor, says that far from diverting people, video games—especially ones on smartphones—have brought gaming to a larger audience. App versions of popular games often boost sales of their physical counterparts. The internet has helped fans organise get-togethers, tournaments and the like, while crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter have made life easier for aspiring designers. They, in turn, are integrating computers into their games. “X-COM”, a board-game tie-in to a popular video-game series, uses a smartphone app that takes the role of the incoming aliens which players must battle on the table top.

Meanwhile bricks-and-mortar game stores have adapted, running tournaments and providing the face-to-face sociability that online gaming lacks. And with “Game of Thrones” on TVs everywhere and cinemas packed with superhero films, the general triumph of what used to be mocked as “nerd culture” has made the fantasy and sci-fi themes featured in many games less of a turn-off. Not every analogue pastime is suffering in the digital age.


In a not entirely dissimilar vein, Wired magazine thinks the media still owes Dungeons & Dragons an apology:

TODAY DUNGEONS & Dragons is flying high, gushed over by movie stars like Vin Diesel and Wil WheatonDan Harmon plays D&D live onstage, and popular podcasts like Nerd PokerCritical Hit, and The Adventure Zone take listeners on regular D&D adventures.

But David Ewalt, author of the recent book Of Dice and Men, remembers when things were different. When he first started gaming, back in the early ’80s, the very idea of fantasy role-playing terrified parents and teachers.


Want to know what Brian Train is working on? It’s not all counterinsurgency! Check out his summary of forthcoming wargame designs at Ludic Futurism.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 18 September 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to PAXsims readers. Christian Palmer assisted with this latest edition.


A recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests “Games Can Make You a Better Strategist.”

Play has long infused the language of business: we talk of players, moves, end games, play books and so on. And now we hear often about the “gamification” of work—using elements of competition, feedback and point scoring to better engage employees and even track performance. Even so, actual games are still taboo in most organizations—the stereotype of the work-avoiding employee cracking new high scores in Minesweeper has given gaming a bad name. And the corporate executive playing games to improve his or her strategy-making skills is still rare. This is unfortunate. We think that games have an important place in cultivating good strategists, and that now more than ever games can give executives an edge over their competition.


Further evidence that board games are (re)entering the cultural mainstream: The Independent features an article on the classic game Diplomacy.

Diplomacy is a board game in which players compete to achieve world domination, taking on the role of various countries in the lead-up to the First World War. The board is a map of Europe; each player (England, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Turkey, and Russia) starts off with a certain number of territories, or supply centres, and the winner is the first to expand to 18. It’s a game of intrigue and aggression, which has achieved cult status, complete with tournaments, postal games and dedicated webzines. Henry Kissinger apparently used to play it as practise for the real thing and, inverting this, I’ve started paying more attention to real life diplomatic flashpoints – the negotiations over a Greek bailout, say.

A distinctive feature of the game, as conceived by its creator, Allan B Calhamer – a Harvard educated postman – is that there is no element of chance. Unlike with Risk, there are no dice; an attack succeeds based solely on whether the units attacking a territory outnumber those defending it. Because you are simultaneously trying to expand into other players’ territories and defend your own, you need to strike deals with your fellow Great Powers….


Earlier this month, the Three Moves Ahead podcast featured an interview with game designer Brian Train:

September 3, 2015 This week Bruce sits down with prolific game designer Brian Train. Brian’s games span a wide range of conflicts and scenarios, including Greek civil war, fighting in Algeria, and Special Forces actions in Vietnam. His predilection for asymmetric warfare and non-traditional combat modeling have brought his games to the attention of US military simulation experts and wargame fans throughout the world.



Although the game isn’t new—it was first released in 2014—all the current attention to illegal immigration in the current US Republican primary race makes this an apt time to mention The Migrant Trail.

“THE MIGRANT TRAIL  presents a first-person journey through Arizona’s desert borderlands.  Play as  an undocumented immigrant attempting to cross the Arizona desert and/or a border patrol agent attempting to secure the border.  Playing the game offers an alternative  platform to further engage conversation, investigation and inquiry, into the themes and questions raised by the documentary.Migrant Mode Intro

Every year an unknown number of migrants cross through the harsh Sonoran desert from Mexico into Arizona.   They pay $1500-$2500 to join a crossing party, that is led by for hire guides referred to as Coyotes.   If one cannot keep up, twists ankle or runs out of water, he or she is left behind and many die.  On average, the remains of 200 dead migrants are found each year.  It’s not known how many are never found.Border Patrol Mode Intro

Every day U.S. Border Patrol agents patrol the Sonoran Desert along the Arizona-Mexico border. Their job is to apprehend undocumented border crossers, provide first aid to the injured, and locate the remains of dead migrants.

The game was produced to accompany release of the film The Undocumented.


The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune features a report on a recent humanitarian crisis simulation conducted by the University of Minnesota:

The refugee camp that sprung up in Minnesota last weekend was much like others in conflicts across the globe. Exhausted refugees cried out for food. Camp doctors struggled to aid the sick. Soldiers toting M16s tried to keep peace.

But this camp had one big difference. The roughly 170 people in its drama were volunteer actors in an elaborate “humanitarian crisis simulation” that sprawled across woods and fields at a Boy Scout camp near Cannon Falls, Minn. It is a weekend class offered by the University of Minnesota, with help from a half-dozen nonprofit organizations and the Minnesota National Guard — whose soldiers act as not-so-friendly foreign government troops.

One of a handful of such hands-on training camps in the nation, it is designed to give individuals considering humanitarian aid work a realistic look at the complexities ahead. Given the migrant and refugee crisis exploding in Europe, it is timely instruction.


The American Political Science Association has issued a call for papers for its 2016 Teaching and Learning Conference, to be held in Portland OR on February 12-14. Submissions are due by September 25.

The theme for the 13th Annual APSA Teaching and Learning Conference is, “Rethinking the Way We Teach: High-Impact Methods in the Classroom,” which focuses on gaining a greater understanding of high-impact practices and innovative methodologies in the political science classroom. Panels and workshops will offer a forum to share pedagogical techniques and discuss trends in political science education.

As in the past, simulations and games will be among the main conference tracks:

Simulations and games can immerse students in an environment that enables them to experience the decision-making processes of real-world political actors. Examples include in-person and online role-play scenarios like the Model European Union and ICONS, off-the-shelf board games, Reacting to the Past, and exercises that model subjects like poverty, institutions of government, and ethnic conflict. Papers in this track will examine topics such as the effects of gamification of course content on student motivation and engagement, cognitive and affective outcomes from simulations and games in comparison to other teaching techniques, and the contexts in which the use of simulations and games makes sense for the instructor.

Click the image below for more information.


Simulation and gaming miscellany, 7 June 2015


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

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FS03K01One Small Step Games has started shipping the Brian Train-designed game Kandahar. The game examines the conflict in southern Afghanistan in 2008-10:

This game began life as a redesign of a game I designed in 2010. This game was similar to other games I had designed in the past, dealing with 20th Century counterinsurgencies in Uruguay, Peru, Algeria, Greece and Cyprus. The point of central interest in these games was the notion of the Political Support Level, in short the level of support, legitimacy, commitment or patience the non-military people involved in the conflict were willing to extend to the forces commanded by the players. The level was affected by many things, and games ended when one player ran out of political wherewithal and his level reached zero, signifying some kind of forced non-military conclusion to the conflict. The notion that the “hearts and minds” of the civilian population must be wooed, or at any point not blown out of a cannon, is conventional wisdom now and the Political Support Level was my way to model it.

As I worked on the design, I also started thinking about the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan. It seemed to me that the main dynamic of the conflict was not that of fighting for the allegiance of the civilian population, with one side representing the recognized and legitimated administration of the country as a whole and the other side a guerrilla movement with an ideological, or at any rate basically political grudge. I felt that after thirty years of constant internal violence abetted by frequent foreign interventions, with the addition of great social dislocation and rampant crime, the civilian population could no longer relate to its government in the same way as it did in my game models of conflicts in South America or the Mediterranean. Not only that, traditionally the Afghan people have never accepted a central government emanating from Kabul, still less a Jeffersonian-model democratic one such as the United States has tried to cultivate. On the other hand, no more than a small fraction of Afghans are willing to return to the days when the Taliban held power in the country. Finally, my aim was to present only part of the larger conflict for Afghanistan, where the other games had been models of national-level struggles.

I therefore thought it appropriate to drop the idea of the Political Support Level, replacing the main unit of “game currency” with the Support Point (SP). To the players, who now play the role of regional commanders and not national-level decision makers, SP are an abstraction of the amount of support the higher authorities to which the players are responsible are prepared to provide, representing both material and intangible resources. Players use SP to earn Victory Points, which are granted in accordance with objectives set them by the same higher authorities that provide them with those SP. Players will frequently find themselves in the position of having, if they wish to continue to get high levels of support, to follow courses of action that are not the most effective in opposing the enemy but are more valued by their superiors. Therefore, the Objective Cards contain some seemingly perverse incentives, where engaging the enemy in kinetic operations may actually take second place (especially for the Government player).

The game can end in several ways: at a fixed point in time, or if one player has demonstrated a significant and sustained lead in Victory Points, or when either player’s SP level reaches zero. In the last case it is assumed that some crisis or decision point has been reached, play stops and players compare their respective totals of Victory Points (VP) to determine a winner. In truth, the war (and game) would go on, in the latter case with a different commander replacing the one who had exhausted the patience and resources of his superiors. It might be interesting, if players had time, not to end the game when an SP level zeroes out but instead switch roles, to see how they like it on the other side! (In this case, “reset” the zeroed-out player with an SP total rolled from the Random Game Setup Chart (14.2) but do not change his units, deployments or Objective Card.)

It may also seem very cynical to allow Government forces to conduct Expropriation missions. Documentation and examples of ANA and ANP units selling equipment, taking kickbacks and bribes, and shaking down the local populace are one quick Google search away. And what about the opium harvest? It’s no secret that both sides profit enormously from it, as do the peasants who plant and harvest the poppies, and so have at least as great an incentive to let it continue as the criminal gangs do. Consider the SP gained from this procedure as not only personal enrichment by the personnel involved, but also the tacit encouragement by higher echelons to let it continue (as they profit from it too). Yet this comes at a price, reflected in the loss of Morale by players.

You’ll find more on Brian’s design in his April article at GrogHeads.

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image4David Romano–who contributed a five part series on teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations to PAXsims last year—has been at it again. According the the Department of Political Science blog at Missouri State University, he adapted a game of RISK to examine the conflict in Syria and Iraq with students last term:

This year’s Foreign Policies of Middle Eastern States simulation, David Romano and his students focused on the Islamic State and the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Students took on the roles of the Assad regime, the Baghdad government, Iran, Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Islamic State and other actors. Using a giant “Middle East RISK board” and pieces, those who failed to secure their objectives via negotiation could try “diplomacy by other means.” To help them, “Special Action Cards” were also available — which allowed students to do things such as accusing their enemies of being Zionist spies, launching terrorist attacks, getting positive al Jazeera news coverage or hosting U.N. monitoring teams in order to secure a lull in the fighting.

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The History of Wargaming Project blog discusses two recent games on the resilience of future cities.

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Can video (or other) games teach you empathy? Cecilia D’Anastasio explores the issue at Motherboard.

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Entries to the Third International Competition on Educational Games will close on 16 June. The finals of the competition this year will be held in conjunction with the European Conference on Game-Based Learning (ECGBL), which is being held in Steinkjer, Norway on 8 -9 October. You’ll find further details here.

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 20 February 2015


Some recent items on conflict simulations and serious (or not-so-serious) games that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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UPSEA recent issue of the Journal of Political Science Education 10, 4 (December 2014) has an article by Mary McCarthy on  “The Role of Games and Simulations to Teach Abstract Concepts of Anarchy, Cooperation, and Conflict in World Politics“:

Games and simulations are increasingly used in courses on international politics. This study explores the hypothesis that games are better than simulations (as well as only reading and lectures) in introducing students to abstract concepts integral to an understanding of world politics. The study compares a two-level Prisoner’s Dilemma game created by Joseph K. Young with a role-play simulation of India-Pakistan negotiations over nuclear disarmament in the 1990s. The study subjects are 149 undergraduate students. The findings suggest that, although an active-learning activity (game or simulation) promotes greater student learning than reading and lecture alone, whether the activity is a game or a simulation generally does not make a statistically significant difference with regard to knowledge gained. This is with the exception of the importance of regime type, which was understood better by those who played the game, and the effect of anarchy, which was better understood by those who were part of the simulation. Student perceptions of learning also tended to be higher among those who played the game.

I’m not at all convinced, however, that it is possible with this sort of research design to evaluate the question of abstract games versus immersive simulations—the findings simply show the relative impact of this game, and this simulation, embedded in this particular curriculum with this particular player group. there are good games and bad ones, as well as effective and ineffective course integration.

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In PS: Political Science & Politics 48, 1 (January 2015), Richard Arnold examines “Where’s the Diplomacy in Diplomacy? Using a Classic Board Game in ‘Introduction to International Relations’“:

One of the challenges of teaching American undergraduates in an “Introduction to International Relations” course is finding a way to make topics and themes seem relevant to students. This article recounts the author’s experiences using the board game “Diplomacy” in his course. The game places students in the role of decision makers in the international arena and simulates the international politics of pre-World War I Europe. In addition to being a powerful simulation of the difficulties of international relations, the game teaches students about one of the most debated wars in the history of the discipline.

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TUHH2015On 26 March 2015 a one-day conference on “Simulation in der Ausbildung erfolgreich anwenden”[Successfully applying simulation in education] will be held in Hamburg, coorganized by the Technische Universität Hamburg-Harburg and the General Staff College of the German armed forces. With apologies for the Google translation:

Managers must often make decisions in a very short time. In addition, a networked environment ensures that not all the consequences of a decision are immediately visible. Experience proves to be a decisive advantage in such situations, sometimes is even necessary for a successful action. An increasingly important opportunity to build this wealth of experience to provide simulations. These teach, in a virtual environment, the contexts and consequences of decisions – risk for decision-makers and their environment, buth with no impact on real processes. This method is increasingly recognized as a key technology in education.

While training with simulations have become indispensable in aviation or medicine, there is still a lot of potential in the economy. This event offers the opportunity to experience simulation as a training method in various fields of application and experience as well as to share expertise in successful application.

You’ll find additional details here.

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763px-Lucas_van_Leyden_-_The_Game_of_Chess_-_WGA12919Following on from Connections, Connections UK, and Connections Australia, a Connections Netherlands is in the work—possibly to be held in October 2015. PAXsims will bring you additional details when they are available.

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The second issue of YAAH! magazine (from Flying Pig Games) will feature tow Brian Train abstract game designs, Army of Shadows and Uprising. Read more about it at Brian’s blog.

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Brian has also posted his impressions of the Connections 2014 interdisciplinary wargaming conference, held at Quantico in July. You’ll also find that at his blog.

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Matt Kirschenbaum (University of Maryland) is interested in learning a lot more about sandtables: their origins and history, design and construction, and current usage in both recreational and professional gaming. If you have anecdotes of insights to share with him, email him.

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Settlers of Catan as a Hollywood movie? Apparently that’s exactly what could be happening. According to Time magazine:

Producer Gail Katz has acquired the movie and television rights

The popular board game The Settlers of Catan could actually hit the big screen.

Gail Katz, a producer known for Air Force One and The Perfect Storm, has acquired the movie and television rights to adapt the strategy game, according to Deadline. In the game, players are tasked with developing strong communities and outwitting competitors for natural resources on the make-believe island of Catan.

Katz said in a statement that she was introduced to the game by her college-aged kids and called Catan “a vivid, visual, exciting and timeless world with classic themes that resonate today.” More than 22 million versions of Settlers have been sold, and downloads have topped 1.6 billion.

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In Quebec, board games meet the politics of language:

The Game of Life is usually fairly simple — unless, it seems, you’re the owner of a store specializing in board games that does business in the province in Quebec.

The owner of Chez Geeks on St. Denis St. received a letter from Quebec’s language authorities about the way he does business.

Giancarlo Caltabiano says the OQLF is faulting his store on several points, including for speaking to his customers in English.

Caltabiano also says the OQLF has a problem with what he’s selling, and how he’s selling it. He was told that any board game he sells must have a French equivalent — otherwise it can’t be sold. And, it seems, he also isn’t able to keep versions of an English board game in stock if the French versions are all sold out.

“Some of my board games come from the United States, so they don’t have a French equivalent. I have flyers up explaining the game. Apparently, that’s not allowed.”

You’ll find more on the story here and here.

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Some more red teaming wisdom from the folks at Red Team Journal:


Gaming the crisis in the Ukraine


UPDATED 29 December 2015.

I’ve pulled together a summary of recent and current wargame on the Ukraine, which I will update from time to time as new material becomes available. . If any readers have material to suggest, I would certainly welcome suggestions via the comments section, or by email.

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Game designer Brian Train has quickly put together a small print-and-play political-military of the Ukrainian crisis, entitled—appropriately enough—Ukrainian Crisis.

It is a fairly simple, free-form pol-mil game for two players that concentrates on the buildup and resolution of threatened territorial annexation by Russia.

An overt military invasion of Eastern Ukraine is possible and perhaps profitable, but not necessary for the Russian player to win the game. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian player desperately mobilizes to defend himself and build a coalition of allies to support him.

You can download it at Brian’s Ludic Futurism website here. He also discusses the Russian and Ukrainian order of battle in a subsequent post. There’s  a lively discussion of the game and possible revisions at ConSimWorld.

Brian’s game  has also generated some discussion among gamers in the region about the ethics and practicalities opt designing a game about a conflict that is still current (and which could go “hot”). See, for example, the discussion of the Russian gaming site Tesera (Google translated version here). Some seem to think that his game is more than a game, and indicative of broader policy or popular thinking on the crisis.

Brian has also posted (24/11/2014) updated rules to his website.

He has now (02/12/2015) posted completed new rules:

The game now concentrates specifically on the first 6 months of the crisis, from Yanukovytch’s departure in late February 2014 to about the time of the adoption of the first Minsk Protocol in September. This was the period in which a large and overt Russian military intervention might have taken place, and while violence continues in Ukraine, the main threat of a military invasion seems to have passed.

Two important changes to the game include: game is lengthened to 8 turns, and instead of there being a pre-invasion and invasion phase of the game either player can declare a Combat or a Strategic turn . This gives players a bit more time to fill out strategies, and fits with the stop-and-start nature of how the crisis played out militarily. Following on from this, the map has been revised slightly and the cards also have additional or changed functions.

Still no NATO units.

The latest files for the game are here, and links are also on the original page:


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Even before the crisis, Brant Guillory was (rather presciently!) in the process of producing an operational-level wargame of civil war in a future Ukraine, Next War I: Orange Crush – Civil War in the Ukraine . You can follow its development on BoardGameGeek or at the Bayonet Games website .


Following a series of contentious elections in which both sides accused the other of support from outside the country, the Ukraine began to fracture.   What started as competing protest marches in the streets rapidly escalated into a shooting war between the different factions.   When the President of the Ukraine finally ordered the Army to restore order, several units revolted, and the President appealed to NATO for assistance.

Ignoring Russian warnings against intervening, NATO provided a small UK-led force, which the Russians countered with a reinforced mechanized corps, plus reinforcements from their Belorussian allies.   The US sent their available forces to the Polish frontier, hoping that their deterrent effect would stabilize the situation.

The Ukrainian “Interventionists” (so named for their favorability toward Russian “intervention”) had organized their own fighting force around the two mechanized brigades (and assorted smaller units) that mutinied against the national command.   Russian operatives assisted in arming and organizing the “101 Brigade” from provinces near the border; other partisans throughout the Ukraine also took up arms on the Interventionist side.

The Ukrainian government incorporated their volunteers into the standing army, hoping to avoid any public relations backlash from having irregular forces on the battlefield, as they attempted to paint the conflict as a civil war in which the Russians were meddling and NATO were invited peacekeepers.

The first battles were joined near Lvov, as the Interventionists bypassed Kiev and pushed as far west as possible, hoping to prevent the NATO forces from establishing a bridgehead in the Ukraine. Russian and Belorussian reinforcements arrived from the north to try and flank the existing Ukrainian national forces before NATO could join the fight. The Americans were moving through Poland, but had concerns about the security of their supply lines.

Earlier this month Michael Peck gave a preproduction version of the game a try at Foreign Policy magazine.

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Finally, there is one already-published  game on the area set in the modern era, Millennium Wars: Ukraine, This was designed by Joe Miranda and published by One Small Step games in 2003:

Millennium Wars: Ukraine presents a possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia later this decade. Scenarios put the Russians in the roles of seizing oil, driving to the Black Sea, or pursuing fleeing rebels while NATO forces move to aid Ukraine. External political events can impact the ability of both sides to prosecute their desired strategies.

The BoardGameGeek page for the game can be found here. A 2014 update for the game will be available shortly from the publisher at the end of September 2014.


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Digital wargamers have been examining military conflict in the Crimea too. For example, have a look at Flashpoint Ukraine 2014, an impressively detailed current order of battle and scenario depicted by the Baloogan Campaign (@BalooganCamp) using the Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations platform by Matrix games.

OPERATION TIGER RIFLE examines an attempted NATO amphibious landing in the Crimea:

The Russian Federation has taken Crimea by force and within 48 hours a major NATO assault is planned. You must clear the way for the HW Bush to lead an amphibious assault group. Destruction of the 11th Anti-submarine Ship Brigade and (most importantly) the S-400 and Bastion ASM located near Sevastopol is required for the amphibious landing.

There is a lengthy discussion thread on this at the Matrix Games website.

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Tom Mouat has put together his own quick wargame of the Crisis in Crimea, which he has kindly passed on to PAXsims. This takes the form of a free-form “matrix game”:

Matrix games are different to normal Wargames. In most of those games you compare lists of statistics and peer at complicated books of rules containing someone else’s idea about what things are important, before rolling a dice. It takes a long time and can be very difficult to explain to a newcomer. Instead, in a Matrix Game you simply use words to describe why something should happen, the Umpire or the players (or both) decide how likely it is and you roll a dice. If you can say “This happens, for the following reasons…” you can play a Matrix Game.

The game involves up to six-players: Olexander Turchynov, Victor Yanukovych, Barak Obama, Vladimir Putin, the European Union and China

You’ll find the map here, and the guidelines, roles, and other supporting materials here. You’ll find it an interesting introduction to how a matrix game works (although you really need to see one in action to get a full understanding).

UkraineMap* * *

Kickstarter features a proposal for a tactical boardgame based on the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests in Kiev, pitting demonstrators against the authorities. You’ll find more details here. (The game has since been withdrawn.)

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Majdan is a game of the Euromaidan protests by the Polish game company Symeo Games. According to the game summary at BoardGameGeek:

Majdan is trying to simulate events which took place in Ukraine in January and February 2014 during what is called an “Euromaidan”. The players create the political situation of this state on their own. Depending on their strategy, the paths of Ukrainians future may develop in many different ways. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the moral loser will always be a faction which decided for the force solution fighting for control over districts as the first and allowing the blood to be spoiled.

The goal of each faction is to gain as many Victory Points as possible, i.e. retain the power in hands of Government and his supporters or to create a new government by the opposition.

Victory Points are scored by taking Control or getting Support in 25 districts, which differs in value. When two factions meet in one district there is a Struggle (for Support or Control). To win a Struggle, players use Cards which portrays means used to win: Masses (supporters of Government or Euromaidan), Militia, Berkut, Army, Specnaz, Media or Titushki. Cards have different values (value part of them is defined by a dice roll). For example, Media has value 5 in Struggle for Support, and 0 in Struggle for Control.

Players has several types of action to choose: get a Card, initiate a Struggle, influence a district, make an peace offer. 5 Actions made an Action Round. 6 Action Rounds makes an complete game (unless someone get to automatic victory earlier).

Majdan reimplements Pomarańczowa Rewolucja game – mechanics was slightly changed, as district values on the map. Cards was changed (new images and its quantity).

All changes were fit to the 2013/2014 political situation on Ukraine.

h/t Volko Ruhnke


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abrams-0_tnBattlefront has introduced Combat Mission: Black Sea, as part of its Combat Mission series:

Combat Mission: Black Sea is a military simulation depicting a fictional 2017 conflict between NATO and Russia in Ukraine. Following the events in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Kiev government and Russia continue to clash over the status of the contested regions. This culminates several years later in a dramatic announcement by Ukraine that they will be joining NATO and the EU. Tensions explode as Russia perceives a direct threat to Russian citizens and deploy troops to the Ukrainian border again, while Western governments, welcoming a chance to expand NATO and EU influence eastward, mobilize as well. The escalation continues until the summer of 2017, when a large firefight erupts between Ukrainian and Russian troops in the Donetsk region. The next day fighting flares up on the border, and on a dark early morning in June 2017, pre-positioned Russian and NATO forces roll forward into Ukraine.

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The private sector intelligence and analysis firm Stratfor will be unveiling the results of a series of analytical wargames of the Ukraine crisis in March. You’ll find the introductory video to the series here, and some initial PAXsims thoughts here.

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The Polish gaming magazine Tactics & Strategy might be producing a game of the Ukraine crisis, Mariupol 2014-15. Their website is here.

1907590_807293999340390_6849495475835347588_n-2* * *

In an article in Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy 21, 2 (April 2015), Richard E. Ericson and Lester A. Zeageroffer an analysis of strategic interaction in the Ukraine crisis through a game theoretic lens.

Review: A Distant Plain

A Distant Plain: Insurgency in Afghanistan. GMT Games, 2013. Game designers: Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke. $78.00.

416Earlier this year PAXsims reviewed Andean Abyss (2012), a game of Colombian insurgency and counterinsurgency—and we liked it very much. Two other games using the same general  system have since been since been published as part GMT Games’ COIN series: Cuba Libre (the Cuban revolution), and A Distant Plain (insurgency and counterinsurgency in contemporary Afghanistan). A fourth game, Fire in the Lake (the Vietnam War), is currently in development.

A Distant Plain was codesigned by Volko Ruhnke (architect of the COIN series, and designer of the Charles S. Roberts Award-winning games Andean Abyss and Labyrinth) and Brian Train (well-known among both hobbyists and professional wargamers for his counterinsurgency games, notably Algeria). Expectations were thus high. Our expert playtest group at McGill University included an academic who works on fragile and conflicted-affected countries (me), a professional game designer who works on simulations for anti-corruption and financial intelligence analysts (Tom), and three graduate students (June, Alejandra, and Sean) interested in complex humanitarian operations, war crimes, insurgency/counterinsurgency, and related issues.

As you’ll see below, we certainly weren’t disappointed. A Distant Plain is a highly enjoyable and engaging game that gives a real sense of the strategic challenges and trade-offs of the Afghan conflict.

Playing the Game

As noted above, the core game system in A Distant Plain is similar to that of its predecessors. Once again there are up to four players, in this case the Afghan Government, the Coalition, the Taliban, and the Warlords. Extensive rules for 1-, 2- and 3- player versions are also included. Each turn, players can choose to either play event cards or undertake one of a series of possible operations, with the sequencing of initiative determined both by the event card and by who acted in the previous turn. Most of the primary operations are similar to Andean Abyss: counterinsurgents can train, patrol, sweep, or assault, while the insurgents can rally, march, attack, or terrorize. Some of the special activities allowed to each faction have been customized to the Afghan setting, however. The Coalition may thus “surge” its troops in or out of the country, the Government may “govern” (or misgovern, since this often involves converting aid into patronage), the Taliban may “infiltrate” and subvert non-Coalition forces, and the Warlords may “suborn” enemy units, using resources to buy off government or Taliban troops.


Indeed, despite a similar core game system, A Distant Plain should not be seen as Andean Abyss in the Hindu Kush—it plays and feels rather different. Perhaps most notable of all is the subtle relationship between the Afghan government and the Coalition. Neither side can win without considerable help from the other, but in the end only one player can win. Neither side can attack the other. Their interests and victory conditions overlap but differ: while the government cares about establishing patronage and bringing the country under COIN (Government + Coalition) control, the Coalition is, in a reflection of population-centric COIN doctrine, more anxious to establish positive legitimacy (“support”) for the Afghan political system, avoid casualties, and eventually go home. The Coalition has unlimited resources, but joint operations draw upon the scarce resources of the Afghan player, who can quickly grow resentful at the having his/her priorities determined by a bunch of foreigners.

For the Taliban, on the other hand, Pakistan looms large in their strategic calculations. Its stance is determined both by player actions (such as Coalition drone strikes) and the play of event cards. When supportive, the Taliban are able to use Pakistani border areas as a sanctuary in which to build up and move their forces.

Game play is also very  shaped by the quite different, Afghanistan-specific event cards, and the options they present. The COIN game system creates both interesting trade-offs (do I conduct operations, or invest time and resources in building longer-term capabilities?) and it tends to generate an interesting sort of path dependency, whereby acquiring a capability often leads a player to reshape their strategy to make best use of it—a point I’ll return to later.

The game now includes an optional  “deception” rule whereby players start the game with hidden assets, possibly augmenting their actions or scores. I strongly recommend using this, since it makes it much more difficult to know exactly what a player might do next turn, or exactly how close each is to winning.

In our game, Alejandra and I jointly played the Coalition. Our strategy looked much like that of the US since 2001: initially we tried to maintain a light footprint, but when this failed we undertook a major surge of troops in the hopes of shifting the momentum of the war against the Taliban. While our cooperation with the government was good at first, relations soon frayed as they grew to resent our heavy-handed tendency to expect them to meekly follow our campaign and state-building plans. For much of the game (and unlike real life) we had the Taliban struggling under pressure, and we also managed to avoid any significant casualties. However, this came at the cost of letting the Warlords establish militias and criminal networks in much of the country. Ultimately they would narrowly win the game.

Player Reactions

In keeping with the importance of patronage in A Distant Plain, in this playtest I used my control over the supply of Angela’s pizza to force the other players to agree to send in some post-game thoughts for inclusion in this review.

The Afghan Government (Tom) confirmed the problematic nature of its relations with the Coalition:

I was afforded the opportunity to represent the Afghan government in A Distant Plain.  Following my first, utterly enjoyable, GMT COIN experience with Andean Abyss, I was very eager for this game.  It did not disappoint. The game mechanics, much like Andean Abyss, are smooth and simple to understand, but very complex in their effect.

As the government I quite quickly discovered I was tied too closely to the Coalition forces.  I wanted to accrue patronage  and bring the Afghan population under control—whether they supported the government or not.  This differed from the Coalition somewhat, in that they wanted enough government support that there was no longer any need for Coalition forces to remain in Afghanistan.  While these goals are parallel, government  patronage often comes at the cost of legitimacy and good governance.  The Coalition could also determine much of my spending.  While coalition forces are extremely effective at eliminating insurgents, my own ability to attract more aid was partly dependent on doing it by myself. However, my initial strategy of single-handedly assaulting Taliban bases to increase aid was thrown out the window when the Coalition decided it was their solemn duty to eliminate the Taliban with drones.  So I had to play along, and try to build up police strength in outlying provinces to eradicate Warlord bases which, unfortunately for the Coalition, eroded support while providing me with a small boost in aid. Eventually I also started to redeploying (or withholding) my police in such a way as to limit the Coalition’s ability to use “civic action” to build support. This led, of course, to some very interesting negotiations when the Coalition realized what I was doing. If this game set out to illustrate the frustrations and complications of the Afghan government – Coalition alliance, it certainly succeeded!

The government was further hindered by the warlords’ ability to suborn troops and police and the Taliban’s ability to infiltrate (and hence “turn” government units).

The game also captures, in exceptional fashion, the consequences of certain actions or events on the course of the conflict through the event cards.  The cards provide such a fluid, unpredictable dynamic that necessitate rethinking one’s plan.

The Taliban player (June) commented:

I had enjoyed the game mechanics present in Andean Abyss and was especially excited to see them applied in a historical and geographical context that I was more familiar with. A Distant Plain absolutely did not disappoint. All of my favorite aspects from Andean Abyss were present in the new installment along with some new dynamics that arose as a consequence of the actors involved.

During our game of A Distant Plain, I played the Taliban. Immediately, it was clear from the victory conditions that I would need not only to build popular support in provinces with significant populations, but I would also have to get some insurgent bases on the board. Unfortunately, for a great deal of the first quarter of the game, I had to spend my turns “burying” event cards to keep them away from the Coalition. Nevertheless the Coalition soon obtained the Predator drones card, and their inclination to use them led me to spend my available ops rallying in my safe havens across the border in Pakistan instead of marching or rallying a small numbers of guerrillas into a province. I feared that spreading my forces out wouldn’t have much strategic purpose if they would be met with barrage of Hellfire missiles.  The Coalition also snagged several other capabilities over the course of the game, some of them directly limited my actions while others changed how I thought I should play. In the end, I had a huge insurgent build-up in Pakistan but hadn’t managed to do enough terror in populated areas.

One of the most interesting aspects of this series of games is the depiction, through the event cards, of actual historical events. These certainly appeal to history buffs and political science geeks. Many of the events depicted were major junctures in the conflict and the real effects of these changes can demonstrated in the game as well. For me, maintaining my relationship with Pakistan was critical to my ability to rally guerrillas without a high resource cost. Cards like “US-Pakistan talks” thus had the potential to help or hurt the Taliban a great deal.

The only aspect that we did not utilize to its full extent were the Lines of Communication. Although the Government, Taliban, and Warlords could all benefit from using or sabotaging them, it wasn’t clear to us initially how important they could be. I think the next time I play A Distant Plain I will have to be more aware how LoCs affect gameplay. Certainly the Taliban could have interdicted government movement and resources to a much greater extent through sabotage.

Overall, A Distant Plain managed to be fun for everyone while simulating the power dynamics and strategies of the different parties involved in the war in Afghanistan. I think it is a strong installment to the series and a great contribution to the genre of modern warfare board games.

Finally, the Warlords (Sean) enjoyed themselves too, and not just because they won:

I had a great time with A Distant Plain and am glad the game mechanics and card system are being employed in multiple settings. Having studied and lived in Colombia, I had really enjoyed Andean AbyssA Distant Plain really effectively translated that game system into the Afghani context. As the Warlords, it was fascinating to try to contest control of provinces without garnering too much attention from the other players. I initially pushed too hard by building many bases, but quickly learned I had to be more subtle. The game’s balance worked really well. It successfully demonstrated the complexity and difficulty of successful coordination between the Afghani Government and Coalition in the face of constant pressure from the insurgents. Once I discovered the power of the “suborn” special activity, I became a much more effective threat. It allowed me to buy off the opposition in order to relieve military pressure or remove an opponent’s control in a province. It ended up being vital in stopping a wave of government forces from attacking my Northern strongholds. I also thought the cards worked well in terms of pushing strategy in certain directions (e.g. Predator or Reaper drones) while not being overpowered. Overall, I really enjoyed the game and it was great to see firsthand the power-dynamics in that context. I am looking forward to playing Cuba Libre sometime soon.

Final Thoughts

There are a number of minor quibbles I could raise about A Distant Plain. Although I was pleased to see patronage built into the game,  I’m not entirely sure the system fully captures its complex effects. I might have designed the operations and special activities slightly different. It might also be interesting to tweak the win conditions in many of the COIN series games to allow narrow conditions under which two players might win.

These, however, are rather trivial objections, and are really testimony to the degree of interest the game generates than criticisms of how it plays. Let’s face it, this game is fun. I have no idea what play time for the COIN series is supposed to be, but our games (pizza included) easily go on for six hours or more—largely because of the political banter and negotiation the game generates. In the playtest, for example, we Coalition players developed the annoying habit (annoying to the insurgents that is—not to us) of making constant droning noises during periods of critical insurgent decision-making just to remind them of the death circling above. The Taliban seemed to get genuinely Talibanesque in its growing hatred for the foreign presence in Afghanistan (the drone noises didn’t help win any hearts and minds either), and both the Afghan Government and Warlords were even more duplicitous and cunning than usual.

As I noted with Andean Abyss, this isn’t a game well-suited to classroom use, in part because of the length of game play. However it could be used as a facilitated optional activity.

reapersAt the end of the game, I think two things most stood out. One was the difficulty of maintaining a consistent strategy in a dynamic, multi-actor environment. No matter how much one tried to plan several turns out, things would simply happen that altered your calculations. When they did, one was forced with an often difficult decision whether it would be better to stay the course (despite changed circumstances), or revise one’s approach (thereby having possibly wasted a turn or two of preparation). This is a useful antidote to those who see political-military strategy, whether in wargames or real wars, as something akin to a cake recipe. It is far more uncertain than that, at times as much Kenny Rogers as Clausewitz.

The second real take-away from the game was the path-dependency noted earlier, and the ways in which capabilities influenced strategy and tactics. Both of the insurgent players clearly feared the Coalition’s growing ability to use drones and airstrikes, a capability into which we had invested considerable effort through acquiring the relevant event cards. However, in retrospect, I am painfully aware of the ways in which our low-risk counter-insurgency-by-remote-control tactics came at the expense of other actions. We had been slow to push a Coalition presence out into the countryside. We had been slow to train the Afghan military. We had depended too much, perhaps, on UAVs in the sky rather than boots on the ground. We had done too much on behalf of our allies, instead of building their capacity to do more themselves. Cognitively, we had somewhat fallen prey to the “law of the tool”: “if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”— or, in this remotely-piloted case, “if you have a Reaper, every problem looks like a target”. True, we had done well in the game—had we been able to pull our troops out quickly, we might have even won. But could we have done even better if we had been less seduced by new gadgets?

I suppose answering that question will have to await our next game of A Distant Plain.

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Want this review in Russian? Here’s a translation, courtesy of StairsGames.

Simulations miscellany, 6 August 2013


Some recent simulation and gaming items that may be of interest to our readers:

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The May/June 2013 issue of the US Department of Defense Modeling and Simulation Coordination Office (M&SCO) M&S Newsletter is now out. You’ll find it here.

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Brian Train (insurgency simulation designer par excellence) has a thoughtful discussion with Tom Grant (of the I’ve Been Diced game blog, whose PhD was on insurgency before he turned to other things) on the challenges of designing counter-insurgency wargames via Brian’s own Ludic Futurism blog.

Brian will be among those presenting at the Connections UK wargaming conference at King’s College London next month.

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According to the Washington Times, US Republican politician Newt Gingrich has growing doubts about the US ability to export democracy:

Mr. Gingrich supported the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but he said he has increasingly doubted the strategy of attempting to export democracy by force to countries where the religion and culture are not hospitable to Western values.

“It may be that our capacity to export democracy is a lot more limited than we thought,” he said.

Mr. Gingrich at times has expressed doubts about the U.S. capacity for nation-building, but he said he now has formed his own conclusions about their failures in light of the experiences of the past decade.

“My worry about all this is not new,” Mr. Gingrich said. “But my willingness to reach a conclusion is new.”

Mr. Gingrich said it is time for Republicans to heed some of the anti-interventionist ideas offered by the libertarian-minded Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, tea party favorite and foreign policy skeptic.

I think it would be healthy to go back and war-game what alternative strategies would have been better...” [emphasis added]

It is nice that Gingrich has such confidence in the ability of professional wargaming to deliver such answers, but here’s the thing: they can’t. It might be possible to use policy games to explore some of the things that might go wrong in democracy-promotion—although you can probably do that even more effectively in a simple seminar-style BOGSAT discussion. We certainly can’t wargame what would definitively “work,” however, because the social science just isn’t there to support unambiguous judgments. On the contrary, both scholars and the intelligence community are still searching for greater clarity as to how complex political processes like regime change and political transition unfold.

Any wargame requires an underlying model of cause and effect. If our knowledge of cause and effect is fuzzy—as it so often is with social and political processes—one needs to treat with considerable caution any predictions derived therefrom.  (h/t Red Team Journal)

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MW7The September/October 2013 issue of Modern War magazine is out. There are articles on the Vietnam War, the Second Congo War, Robert Thompson’s work on counterinsurgency, and the US Army National Training Center, as well as shorter pieces on game design, weapons systems, and other topics.

The  wargames included in this issues are designed by Eric Harvey, and examine two 1967 Vietnam War operations: “Snoopy’s Nose” (riverine action in the Mekong Delta) and “The Iron Triangle” (an offensive against Viet Cong bases and tunnels northwest of Saigon).

Virtual MORS: Train on “Developments in Commercial Insurgency Wargames”

It is the second day of the Military Operations Research Society (MORS) 81.1 Virtual Symposium , and Brian Train has just delivered a very useful overview of recent developments in the wargaming of insurgency and counterinsurgency within the commercial/hobby sector.

Ploughing in the COIN Field: Developments in Commercial Insurgency Wargames  

COINfieldWhatever their medium, wargames produced for a professional military audience are different in their intention, focus and execution from those produced for the civilian market. And yet, professional military gaming, which started 200 years ago as a training aid, did spawn the “commercial” market for civilian hobby gamers in the 1960s. There has always been a certain level of overlap between the two worlds, with examples both of comercial games used by the military, and of civilianized versions of military games repackaged and released onto the open market. The purpose of this presentation is to talk about manual wargames on irregular warfare topics that have appeared on the commercial market, the challenges of designing and playing them (and getting them played), and the possible uses and insights they may hold for the professional wargaming community.

In the presentation, Brian suggested that COIN games had not historically been very popular among hobbyists, because the topic itself was morally ambiguous and unglamorous; variables are difficult to quantify; both the conflicts themselves and the games that address them involve asymmetric situations with unfamiliar  mechanics; and because such wars involve abstracted play of a nebulous conflict with no clear endpoint. HE suggested that hobby gamers can be quite conservative in accepting the new and unusual game mechanics necessary to model irregular warfare.

He also highlighted what he saw as the main elements of a good COIN game design, namely that the game show the relative importance of the various factors shaping outcomes; that it feature asymmetry of means, methods, objectives and information; that there be transparent assumptions and mechanisms (one of the shortcomings of computer games, in Brian’s view); and that it be mutable. He emphasized that such games are not meant to be strongly definitive or predictive, but ideally they should stimulate discussion.

The presentation generated some interesting questions from the audience.

  • What is the social science body of knowledge embodied in these games? Wargames encode a framework and body of knowledge about the domain, but if the assumptions are wrong, mistraining may result.  Immersive training is known to especially bad in this regard, as wrong lessons are learned very vividly.
  • DoD has struggle to build COIN operations research models. The general conclusion is that the responses and impacts are almost completely depend on the situation. Do you agree? Can wargames help fill the lack of quantitative COIN models?
  • The games can engage some reward mechanisms, and so they can train a person towards rewarded behaivors. What are the advantages and dangers in terms of counter insurgency games with red team option?
  •  Do agent-based models have a role in conducting analysis or ability to be utilized as part of a COIN game?
  • Can you expand a bit on the game design trade-offs between playability versus accuracy in the commercial sector?

You can download Brian’s presentation slides here. Much of the presentation involved analysis of the various games featured on the slides. That analysis isn’t in the slides themselves, however, so we’ll post the recording if and when it becomes available. In the meantime, you can also check out Brian’s useful list of links at

COIN in Afghanistan: A Distant Plain

Dudes, this is a major happening! For those interested in wargaming insurgency and counterinsurgency, the coming together of game designers Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train to produce a new board game on contemporary Afghanistan is great news—something akin to the Rolling Stones and Green Day touring together. Many thanks to Brian for providing the information below—we’ve already volunteered to help with the play-testing!

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Now it can be told: Volko Ruhnke, designer of Andean Abyss, Labyrinth – The War on Terror, and Wilderness War, has teamed up with Brian Train, perpetrator of numerous designs on irregular warfare, to produce what could be the Grail of modern COIN games: a workable design on the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

The game is called “A Distant Plain – Insurgency in Afghanistan” and it comprises another entry in the COIN series of games by GMT Games, following the just-released Andean Abyss and Cuba Libre! (still in
playtesting). The basic system draws heavily from Andean Abyss, but features some important differences due to the changed dynamics of the situation: there are four player factions, but they actually form two pairs of antagonists, each in a very uneasy alliance of alternating convenience and necessity. With each turn cards are drawn from a deck of 72, forcing difficult decisions among shaping the larger
battlefield, exploiting short-term opportunities and pursuing local operations.

Just as in the actual conflict, the four player factions have dissimilar abilities, vulnerabilities and war aims. They include:

  • The Coalition – representing the Western interventionist forces of NATO. Their troops are highly capable and mobile, but few in number and their sponsoring governments are sensitive to casualties. The Coalition forces cannot do all the fighting; the Afghan government’s security forces must be trained to assume ever-increasing degrees of responsibility in order to keep the country stable once they leave. Meanwhile, how to build popular support for a central government that often seems more interested in enriching its patrons and friends?
  • The Government – Acutely aware of its own limitations, both in force capability and legitimacy, the Government must try to stabilize itself and extend its power outward from Kabul – the Taliban insurgency is only one of an impressive array of obstacles blocking its progress. The Government is simultaneously dependent on and frustrated by the  actions of the Coalition, which means well but has no understanding of how things need to be done in Afghanistan.
  • The Taliban – driven into its sanctuaries in Pakistan in 2002, the insurgency began to build and make inroads on Afghan society. The Taliban brought stability, order and righteousness to Afghanistan once; they can do it again.They have numerous tactical advantages, but their main task of solidifying opposition to the government while establishing a “shadow government” throughout the country is a difficult one.
  • The Warlords – this faction represents the many and varied tribal powers, local authorities, and criminal gangs in Afghanistan. As such, they represent the traditional atomized political structure of Afghanistan and their objective is to resist the efforts of the other three factions to bring the population under their respective centralizing authorities, all while securing wealth and power for themselves.

Features of the game include:

  • the difficult nature of joint Coalition-Government operations
  •  Pakistan’s variable position towards support of the Taliban
  • evolution of both side’s tactics and technology through “capabilities” cards
  • multiple scenarios to depict different phases of the conflict
  • graft, desertion, foreign aid, Coalition casualties, returning
  • refugees, drug trafficking and eradication, highway robbery, drone
  • strikes, bribery
  • and many more!

Finally, the game will feature a set of flow charts to handle the operations of the various factions, so the game is equally playable by one, two, three or four players.

The game has entered playtesting – the above shot was taken at the recent Consimworld Expo in Tempe AZ – and this will continue throughout 2012 as pre-orders accumulate (hopefully quickly) towards the magic P500 point. If all goes well, the game could come out well in advance of NATO’s final withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.

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UPDATE: Frankly, it is spooky how fast Rodger MacGowan/GMT Games/C3i News turns these things into graphics…

UPDATE 2: A Distant Plain is now available for preorder on the GMT Games P500 list. Click the image below.


UPDATE: The game has now been published–see the PAXsims review here.

Brian Train at BoardGameGeek

One of our favourite insurgency/counterinsurgency game designers, Brian Train, is Wargame Designer of the Month over at BoardGameGeek—go join the conversation.

Live from Nairobi, it’s… simulations miscellany!

We’ve been a bit lax on posts the past few days because both PAXsims editors are currently in Kenya. One of them is doing loads of work as part of the team delivering the World Bank’s core operations course on fragility and conflict (including the Carana simulation). The other one is watching everyone else do loads of work while in the comfortable role of observer.

Selfless global humanitarians that we both are, we also found time to save most of the world from the scourge of global Pandemic, aided by Tusker beer (pic right). Note that if you live in North America and aren’t genetically immune to the “blue virus,” you might want to consider selling up and moving.

Despite that, we do have a few bits of simulation-related news:

1. Online registration is now open for the Connections 2011 wargaming conference, to be held on 1-4 August  at the National Defense University in Washington DC. You’ll also find the provisional conference agenda online too. Both Gary and I should be there. (If folks with a .gov or .mil address are having trouble with the first link, try this one instead.)

2. MMOWGLI is now undergoing a prelaunch playtest of Turn 2, when participants are asked to develop action plans to combat Somali piracy. I’m not sure whether time and a dodgy internet connection will allow me to participate, but if so I’ll try to bring you another report. Given that I’m actually 500km from the Somali border at the moment, any action plan I do develop really ought to get bonus “thumbs up,” don’t you think?

3. The Military Operations Research Society is currently holding 79th MORS Symposium (June 20-23rd) at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California. There will certainly be lost of interesting wargaming and simulation stuff discussed there, but you have to be a US national with a SECRET clearance to attend. Hypothetical Canadians with a TS/SCI are right out, of course, either because Washington still secretly harbours ambitions to implement War Plan Red, and/or because they know that Brian Train and Brian McFarlane were asked to update our very own Defence Scheme No. 1.

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