Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: ISIS Crisis

Matrix game construction kit update #3

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


Tom examines the latest components at my dining room table.

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

You’ll find previous updates here:

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


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


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


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


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


Pssst, need some stickers for your next matrix game?


Gaming foreign policy (at the FSI)


On Monday I spent the day at the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Alexandria, VA, where the Foreign Service Institute trains State Department personnel and others.

The Institute’s programs include training for the professional development of Foreign Service administrative, consular, economic/commercial, political, and public diplomacy officers; for specialists in the fields of information management, office management, security, and medical practitioners and nurses; for Foreign Service Nationals who work at U.S. posts around the world; and for Civil Service employees of the State Department and other agencies. Ranging in length from one day to two years, courses are designed to promote successful performance in each professional assignment, to ease the adjustment to other countries and cultures, and to enhance the leadership and management capabilities of the U.S. foreign affairs community.

This is the second time in two months that I’ve had the opportunity to speak to foreign ministry personnel about the potential use of games-based methods for both training and analysis—in September, I also made a presentation at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This time I offered an overview of the why, what, and how of foreign policy simulation and gaming, and then took some of the participants through games of both AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game and the ISIS Crisis matrix game. You’ll find the slides I used in my presentation here..


In the game of AFTERSHOCK, the score initially plunged deep into the negatives. However,  effective priority-setting and coordination during mid-game play ultimately resulted in a  very solid victory (especially for the apparently very popular government of Carana).


The Government of Carana rushes large numbers of security personnel to District 2 to deal with mounting social unrest.

Our game of ISIS Crisis reflected the current situation, with Iraqi and Kurdish forces undertaking operations against ISIS in Mosul. These made gradual progress, but were slowed by ISIS use of chemical IEDs, a scandal over Iranian arms shipments to Iraq, and an Iraqi cabinet crisis that resulted in the return of Nouri al-Maliki to the position of Prime Minister of Iraq—much to the dismay of Iraqi Sunnis, Washington, and Tehran alike. Despite pledges that Shiite militias would not play a role in the Mosul campaign, they did so anyway—aggravating sectarian tensions. ISIS sought to organize simultaneous mass casualty attacks in the US, but the FBI managed to insert an informant among the plotters and arrested everyone involved before the attacks could be carried out. The game ended with ISIS still in Mosul, and military operations still underway. Afterwards much of the discussion focused on how best to debrief matrix games so as to best attain the desired learning outcomes.

Many thanks are due to Walker Hardy and the FSI for organizing and hosting my visit.

Duke University: “Gaming in support of the Middle East peace process” (October 20)

On October 20 I’ll be speaking at Duke University on the topic of gaming in support of the Middle East peace process. There’s not really a “Middle East peace process” any more, of course—but hopefully the gaming stuff will be interesting!


You’ll find additional details here. Among the games I will be discussing are:

I’ll also say a little about using gaming approaches to address other Middle East conflicts, including the ISIS Crisis matrix game, the  Syrian refugees in Lebanon educational simulation (2015), and the recent Atlantic Council crisis game on US engagement in the Middle East (2016).

Gaming foreign policy (at the FCO)

Today I spent an enjoyable day at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, running an abbreviated version of the ISIS Crisis matrix game and discussing how gaming approaches can contribute to policy analysis in a foreign ministry setting. About a dozen people participated, most of them FCO research analysts.

My notes for the session can be found here. I started by highlighting the ways in which serious games could be used to explore issues of crisis, conflict, foreign policy, and related issues. We then launched into ISIS Crisis. This proceeded rather more slowly than usual, partly because foreign ministry staff tend to more spend a little more time verbally framing their actions, but mainly because we devoted considerable time to discussing strengths, weakness, and possible variations in the game methodology as we went along.

ISIS started things off by organizing a successful terrorist attack against a cruise liner in Greece, which boosted their morale and reputation. Alleged civilian casualties from an unsuccessful US drone strike against a senior ISIS leader were also used in jihadist propaganda.

In Iraq, the Kurds tried to take advantage of Baghdad’s focus on Mosul to consolidate their control of the city of Kirkuk. The Iraqi government responded by bolstering its own forces in the Kirkuk area. This resulted in a tense stand-off that was eventually defused through Iranian mediation. The Kurds then sought to use the incident to reopen negotiations on a range of revenue-sharing and constitutional issues, but the central government showed little interest.

The incident also put the long-planned campaign to recapture Mosul behind schedule. When Iraqi forces sought to regain the initiative by pressing forward in a poorly-coordinated fashion they suffered heavy casualties from determined ISIS resistance.

Meanwhile, the failure of Baghdad to address Sunni grievances, coupled with a growing Iranian role and the continued presence of Shiite militias in Sunni areas only increased Sunni alienation. The Sunni opposition player was increasingly disinclined to cooperate with the central government in counter-ISIS actions, and successfully sought funding from Saudi Arabia (which only worsened relations between Baghdad and Riyadh).

We finished up with a discussion of the game and its methodology. I made the point that games need to be designed for their intended purpose, that they could be useful in generating questions and issues for further examination, and that they usually worked best when they formed part of a broader process of policy analysis.

I hope the participants found the day as useful as I did. Particular thanks are due to Owen ElliottHead of the FCO’s Africa Research Group, who arranged the session.

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


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

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

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



Further information on visiting the USAHEC can be found here.

Dstl wargaming trip report (or, I visited Portsdown West and all I got was this lousy mug)

Last month I visited the UK for a week of discussions on professional wargaming. My trip report has now been cleared for publication (public release identifier DSTL/PUB097079), and I’m pleased to present it below. It was a terrific visit as you’ll see!


 Dstl Day 1: Wargaming and its challenges

In late June I spent a week as a guest of Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), at their Portsdown West campus near Portsmouth. Dstl is an executive agency, sponsored by the Ministry of Defence. Dstl ensures that “innovative science and technology contribute to the defence and security of the UK.”

Dstl responsibilities include:

  • supplying sensitive and specialist science and technology services for MOD and wider government
  • providing and facilitating expert advice, analysis and assurance on defence procurement
  • leading on the MOD’s science and technology programme
  • understanding risks and opportunities through horizon-scanning
  • acting as a trusted interface between MOD, wider government, the private sector and academia to provide science and technology support to military operations by the UK and her allies
  • championing and developing science and technology skills across MOD

I was hosted by Dstl’s Wargaming Team, the team having recently been described in a memo to the UK MOD Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff as: “an MOD S&T asset responsible for enabling MOD’s wider wargaming activity”.

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Since WWII, Dstl and its predecessors have had a good track record of delivering wargames, mainly in support of decision support and operations. One of the current challenges for the team is determining how best to reinvigorate, and grow, a wargaming capability (a combination of people, processes, and tools) that can respond to the high levels of customer interest and demand. One of the ways that the team is tackling this problem is by capitalising on external expertise, in particular academic staff who specialise in, and have a passion for, topics such as political science coupled with game design.

They certainly kept me busy, with four and a half full days of lectures, workshops, and discussions on various aspects of wargaming.

I started on Monday with a presentation on The Social Science of Gaming in which I presented ten sets of findings from social science research that I thought had important implications for wargame design and implementation. Since this was a first draft of my September keynote address at the Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference, I won’t spoil the surprise by posting the lecture slides here—instead, you’ll have to come to King’s College London in a month’s time.


Next, I was asked to give a brief on A Personal Journey Through (Sometimes) Serious Gaming, in which I discussed may own background first as a wargaming hobbyist and later as a social scientists using serious games to support teaching and analysis. [slides here]. Among the highlights was a satellite photo of the exact location in a British schoolyard where, in the autumn of 1975, I met my first two fellow teen wargamers, David Knowles and Matthew Hayward. The legendary (to us) Lymington and District Wargames Club would be born soon thereafter.


In the afternoon attention turned to a presentation entitled Blessed are the Cheesemakers: The Challenges of Gaming Information Operations [slides here]. The title of the talk was a reference to a memorable scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and I was happy to be speaking in a place where most of the audience recognized it. I offered some thoughts on gaming IOs: either as an adjunct to another, generally, kinetic process, or as a primary focus (focusing either on their employment, as part a process, or in an effort to develop content).


Information and influence, I noted, were part of highly contextual social and political processes that were often poorly understood, so I was a bit dubious about placing a great deal of weight on the specific outputs of IO-focused games.

Instead, I suggested, such games should largely be valued for their heuristic value in generating greater critical awareness of the role, potential, limitations, and difficulties of information and influence operations. Members of the audience also offered a great deal of useful insight into the issue, based on their own experience. As with almost all my sessions at Dstl I may have taken away far more from the conversation than I ever contributed.

The final session was devoted to Managing Player and Client Engagement: Skeptics, Seekers, and Enthusiasts [slides here].


I had more to say on the player end than with regard to clients, since in many cases I’m my own client or have been given very free reign to design a game as I see fit. Much of the discussion ended up focusing on problems—such as unwillingness of players, especially senior players, to risk losing—and how they might be dealt with. Not for the first time I argued that managing players and game facilitation was a skill more closely related to roleplaying games than conventional hobby wargaming—a point that I really need to develop into a full PAXsims post sometime. I learned a lot from the experiences and approaches that were shared by members of Dstl, and there were certainly several ideas that I’ll add to my game design and facilitation toolkit.


Dstl Day 2: Daesh and matrix gaming

The second day of my visit involved a game of the ISIS Crisis matrix game, followed by an extended discussion of the potential use of matrix game methods for educational and analytical gaming. Major Tom Mouat—who developed most of the materials for the game—was there too.

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The game itself was insightful. The Iraqi government tried to launch a systematic campaign to advance north towards Mosul, but found itself stymied by poor coordination with supposed allies, ISIS terrorism, Iranian heavy-handedness, and internal tensions. The Kurds did well and finally manage to secure some extra heavy weapons from the US, but advanced little beyond their start positions. One US air strike in support of the Iraqi government went very wrong, exacerbating Sunni anger and causing a brief hiatus in the tempo of American operations. Iran, concerned that the Iraqi cabinet was insufficiently compliant, sponsored a proliferation of Shiite militias under its direct control. Although ISIS lost some of the territory under its control, it was able to use US and Iranian actions to spur additional recruitment. Finally, the Sunni opposition eventually rose up against ISIS and supported the central government’s military campaign, but at the cost of increasing tension with the Shiite militias. This finally erupted into open sectarian fighting when Iranian-backed militias undertook security operations in the capital against suspected Sunni insurgents.

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After lunch, the post-game session was perhaps the richest and most valuable discussion of matrix gaming methods and applications that I’ve ever participated in. Among the topics we collectively addressed were:

  • Variations in format, including larger games with team dynamics (as I used last month at MIGS), games where a team leader selects from multiple potential courses of action proposed by team members (thus increasing the number of possible COAs (Course Of Actions) generated), distributed games, interlinked games, and matrix games used as an element of other, more traditional wargames.
  • Facilitator skills and requirements for subject matter expertise.
  • Suitability for various audiences.
  • Variations in adjudication methods.
  • Representation of kinetic and non-kinetic activity in matrix games.
  • Suitability for various topics recently wargamed by Dstl.
  • The value of developing a generic “matrix game construction kit” with basic components.


Dstl Day 3: AFTERSHOCK , humanitarian assistance, aid, and stabilization

The third day of activities at Dstl revolved around gaming issues of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). We started with a game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis. The players secured a modest success in dealing with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in fictional Carana. The NGO team did particularly well in racking up “organization points” (reflecting public profile and political capital), although their single-minded focus on shelter projects caused some friction with other teams. The HADR Task Force had successfully withdrawn almost all their personnel by the time the game ended, and the government—although politically vulnerable to the end—utilized its informal aid distribution networks to good effect, while managing to contain or defuse any social discontent. Needs assessments proved particularly important in identifying emerging needs and challenges.

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Later that same day I made a presentation on the considerations that had informed the design of AFTERSHOCK, as well as the various ways in which in might be used [slides here].

My other presentation this day was on Aid, Stabilization, and COIN (COunter INsurgency) [slides here]. In it I warned that many of the key assumptions of COIN doctrine—namely that victory is about legitimacy; poverty and unemployment generates support for armed opposition; legitimacy is about the delivery of core government services; patronage and corruption is bad; and that we know what we’re doing—were contingent relationships. Because of this, COIN doctrine, while a useful guide to what might work most of the time in most places, does not always provide useful guidance all of the time in all places. This suggests a vital need to promote critical thinking and a willingness to modify views and approaches. I particularly stressed the importance of avoiding hubris, and the powerful (often overriding) effects that politics among local actors has on outcomes.


Dstl Day 4: Hybrid Warfare and Measures Short of War

Thursday was hybrid warfare day at Dstl. I offered some thoughts [slides] on the notion of hybrid warfare, arguing that most warfare was hybrid and that conflict activities across a broad spectrum were hardly new. (Later I suggested that the term had come to mean “challenges from opponents that we did not anticipate, plus things we once did that we’ve forgotten how to do.” We also identified some of the things that are commonly identified as part of hybrid warfare.

hybrid warfare

After this, we spent the rest of the day playing a few turns of three different games. Each of these explored the topic from different perspectives using a different gaming system: LTC David Barsness’ Kaliningrad 2017 (a matrix game), Brian Train’s Ukrainian Crisis (a more traditional rules/assets/area-movement wargame), and Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth (a card-driven game).

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Kaliningrad 2017

In the matrix game, players were limited only by real-world capabilities in taking potential actions across the diplomatic/information/military/economic (DIME) spectrum. This approach certainly encouraged greater innovation by players, although at the cost of a single action per turn. Kaliningrad 2017 uses a number of marker tracks to measure the game effects of global opinion, nuclear escalation, and a refugee crisis, and this sparked discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach compared to the simpler design of ISIS Crisis. Generally I’m of the view that “less is more” in matrix games, and that marker tracks can risk excessively focusing player activities in a certain area.

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Ukrainian Crisis

Ukrainian Crisis builds on more explicit models and assumptions than does a matrix game. Here the analytical value is not in thinking of new applications of power (since these are predetermined in the rules), but rather discovering how the subsystems and constituent parts of a conflict might interact. Labyrinth also contains an established game model, with the cards being used both to drive these and to insert various capabilities and events. Conventional wargames can certainly do a better job of modeling combat operations than an argument-based matrix games, although they may have difficulty addressing innovation adaptation, or complex political and economic consequences arising from kinetic actions.

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Because of this, I am of the view that a matrix game often offers the best way of exploring broad issues of hybrid warfare, although more detailed examination of particular domain areas could benefit from a more rigorous rules- and models-based approach. A matrix game could also be combined with another gaming approach, with the former perhaps best suited for the diplomatic/information/economic aspects, while the latter could address kinetic military activities. I also think the nature of the topic lends itself well to multimodal examination, whereby the same scenario is explored using several different gaming methodologies, each offering somewhat different insights.

Ironically, one of the problems of a matrix game approach is that it does not require a great deal of preparation, nor need it involve a great deal of materials and complexity. This makes it an unattractive proposition for defence contractors and consultants since product creation and delivery generates relatively few billable hours. Similarly, a sponsor may feel that it does not seem enough of a tangible product compared with a more complex, traditional wargame.


Dstl Day 5: Gaming wicked and messy problems

During my final day at Dstl we looked at gaming “wicked” and “messy” problems, with a particular emphasis on mass migration and refugee crises. The concept of wicked problems (first developed in 1973 by Rittel and Webber) addresses planning issues that are characterized by ten key characteristics:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

“Messy problems,” on the other hand, are rooted in complex adaptive systems wherein the key variables and the relationships between them are unclear or poorly understood, and in which adaptive subsystems seek to survive environmental change.

After a very brief introduction to the topic [slides], I highlighted a number of refugee and migration games I have either (co)designed or played:

Two of these (marked * above) were not really proper games or simulations, but rather had used game mechanisms to help motivate players.

Thereafter, we turned our attentions to identifying a migration-related topic that could be usefully gamed. After identifying the audience and purpose of such a game, we spent the duration of the session brainstorming game ideas. Some very good ideas emerged for a matrix game involving major European actors (Germany, Italy, the Balkan republics), possibly Turkey, the United Nations, an “other actors/subject matter expert” player, and the migrants themselves.

The migrant player would start the game with a “migrant deck “of economic migrants and refugees that they would seek to move into Europe. These would be played face down, with the identity of the migrant revealed only when they reached a final destination , were otherwise prevented from doing so, or died—the purpose being to personalize the otherwise faceless statistic of migrant numbers. (Tom Mouat subsequently made up a set of these, which you can download via PAXsims here.)


Source: Business Insider, 15 September 2015.

Other players would react to migrant flows in appropriate ways. National politics would be addressed by having each country played by a team representing political parties with differing interests and objectives, so that team members were essentially in competition with each other. Much like MIGS versions of ISIS Crisis, this would allow for a game-within-the-matrix-game approach.

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Left to Right: Ruby Tabner, Stephen Ho, Me, Colin Marston and Mike Bagwell

The final day ended with a visit to Southwick House to visit the D-Day map room, followed by a pub lunch.


All-in-all it was an absolutely terrific visit that generated some excellent discussions and ideas regarding (war)gaming methodologies. Colin Marston and the others at Dstl were excellent hosts, and I even got a Portsdown West Wargaming Suite coffee mug out of the deal! I’m very grateful to Tom Mouat for helping out too. I’ll certainly look forward to seeing many of my UK counterparts again at the Connections UK conference in September.


Back home, with my mug.


CKNW on ISIS Crisis


This morning I did an interview with Vancouver radio station CKNW about the ISIS CRISIS matrix game . We also briefly discussed AFTERSHOCK.

You can listen to the discussion here.



ISIS Crisis at RT


Following pieces by VICE News, France Info, Geeks & Sundry, CBC News, and RIA Novosti, Russia Today has now published a report about the ISIS Crisis matrix game.

With the help of a map and a pair of scissors, you can now print out and play a board game that simulates the conflict in Iraq. Invented by an academic, it is being used by Canada’s military staff to test real-life war strategies.

The brainchild of Rex Brynen, a political science professor at Montreal’s McGill University, ISIS Crisis is not a conventional board game, with elaborate rules and many-sided dice. Rather, it is a matrix game – a structured role-play simulation in which every player has to explain and justify his next move, while the others react, and an umpire adjudicates, sometimes using a simple die roll….

In some ways it is the most detailed report yet, with images of some of the counters and briefing materials. I wasn’t interviewed—the quotes are all taken from other reporting.

Also, the usual caveats apply: ISIS Crisis was developed in conjunction with Tom Mouat, building on the matrix gaming approach pioneered by Chris Engle. The Canadian DRDC games were played  to evaluate matrix gaming methodology, and were not intended to aid in planning for counter-ISIS operations in any way.



The CBC has published a report today examining the use of games by the Canadian government, including our work with Defence Research & Development Canada using both ISIS Crisis and AFTERSHOCK:

Canada’s military has been experimenting with a tabletop game inspired by the war against ISIS to help plan what tanks, planes, ships and people it needs to fight effectively in the coming decades.

The ISIS Crisis uses dice, markers and a large map of Iraq and Syria, and is the latest twist in a government-wide effort to use more games in the workplace for training and education.

“This certainly does have potential to add additional rigour to our process,” said Col. Ross Ermel, in charge of a directorate that plans how the Canadian Forces must evolve.

“It does show some promise.… It’s one of the things that we are certainly considering.”

The ISIS Crisis is known as a matrix-type game, a concept dating from the 1980s, with minimal rules and using debates and arguments, unlike traditional war games with complex rules and drawing on probabilities.

Matrix games allow complex, multi-sided issues to be explored, often by up to six players who don’t need particular expertise in the subject matter.

The ISIS Crisis was created by Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University, who developed the roles and scenario rules, and by a British major, Tom Mouat, who created the map and counters. Brynen also acted as a kind of referee for the Canadian military sessions.

Last month, Brynen ran another board-game session for the military to explore responses to a humanitarian crisis caused by an earthquake in the fictional country of Carana.

The game, called Aftershock, is designed for up to eight players and takes about two hours to play.

As always, Chris Engle should be credited for first developing the matrix game approach.

Those interested in looking at the game materials should check out Tom Moaut’s matrix gaming page. In addition, the latest version of the ISIS Crisis team (and role) briefings can be found here at PAXsims.


Exploring matrix games for mass atrocity prevention and response


Yesterday I was pleased to take part in the Professional Training Program on the Prevention of Mass Atrocities being offered by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS). MIGS is based at Concordia University in Montréal, and is widely recognized as Canada’s leading research and advocacy institute for genocide and mass atrocity crimes prevention. I was asked to demonstrate how conflict simulation might be used both for education/training purposes and as an analytical tool.

I did so by running a version of the ISIS Crisis matrix game. We had run this before at MIGS, but with a much smaller group. Indeed, typically the games we run involve only 6-12 players. This time, however, there would be almost three dozen participants. I had never run a matrix game with such a large group, so it was all a bit of an experiment on my part. Fortunately I think it went well.


I started with a brief (15 minute) overview of the value of serious gaming, and an introduction to the matrix game methods we were using. The slides for this are available here. We then started into the game.

As usual, we depicted the location of military forces, leaders, refugees, and critical infrastructure using markers and a map of Iraq (and Syria). However, with so many participants it was apparent that not everyone would be able to see, let alone access, the map table. Therefore I had brought along a camera and tripod, and an image of the map was projected onto a screen using my laptop and data projector. (Incidentally, the image is typically reversed when set up this way, but I use QCamera, a simple app that corrects for this.)


The map with the camera and tripod. Only one player from each team was allowed at the map table at any one time.


The camera-eye view of the map (screen capture of the projected image).

Players had been assigned to a role and team through the simple expedient of having one of the course organizers hand everyone a name-tag during the coffee break before the session. The eight teams were:

  • ISIS
  • Iraqi government
  • Sunni opposition
  • Kurds
  • Iran
  • United States
  • “Team MIGS” (representing the mass atrocity prevention community: human rights NGOs, humanitarian agencies, the media, the International Criminal Court)
  • Subject Matter Experts (representing all actors, effects, and consequences not otherwise represented in the game)

I hadn’t been sure exactly how many participants there would be, so the name-tags had been stacked in order of priority, thereby guaranteeing that the most necessary positions were assigned first.

The room was deliberately arranged with ISIS and the Sunni opposition on one side, Iraq, the Kurds and Iran on the other, the US at the back, and the SMEs and Team MIGS in the centre. It was my hope that the Sunni opposition would feel a bit remote from Baghdad and intimidated by nearby ISIS (they were), and the US would seem a bit disconnected at times from the local political intrigue (they were). It was a useful example of how the use of physical space can be used to shape a game experience.


The Iraqi government team debates what to do. Photo credit: MIGS.


The Sunni opposition realizes what a precarious situation they are in. Photo credit: MIGS.


“Team MIGS” contemplates how best to prevent mass atrocity. Photo credit: MIGS.

Each team was provided with a team briefing, as in previous games of ISIS Crisis. What was different this time, however, was that each player was also given a role assignment within their particular team. This had several effects:

  • Each team was given a particular procedure to follow for making group decisions. In some teams (Iran, ISIS) the leader had full power to decide on a course of action, with the other team members acting in advisory positions. In other teams, decisions were taken by majority vote (Iraq, Kurds) or some other procedure. The Iraq government’s procedures were especially complicated, and designed to maximize the risk of cabinet squabbles and deadlock. Similar the Sunni opposition had to agree on their action by consensus, or decision-making authority for that turn would be randomly allocated.
  • Many of the individual roles within teams had particular goals (for example, some of the Iraqi team wanted to replace the current Prime Minister), special abilities (such as the ability to veto certain types of team action), and/or areas of responsibility (each of the Sunni opposition players had a home region).
  • Finally, players each had restrictions on which other players they could meet and speak with. Iran and ISIS were not allowed to communicate directly, for example. Iran’s Supreme Leader could only speak with the Iraqi Prime Minister for protocol reasons. Defence Ministers mainly communicated with other Defence Ministers. The Caliph of ISIS was forbidden to speak with anyone outside their team—or even leave their team table—due to the ever-present risk of being killed or captured.

Teams were also provided with a  copy of the game map, plus a recent map from the Institute for the Study of War showing areas of ISIS operations. The situation was the current one, with Iraqi forces fighting to clear ISIS from the town of Fallujah.


The US team considers their options. Photo credit: MIGS.

And so the game started. The noise and excitement level in the room rapidly increased as teams debated their best course of action and began to meeting with other groups. I was positioned with a microphone at the map table, and would call up a representative of each team in turn to state their action, its intended effect, and the reasons why they thought they would be successful. The entire group was then canvassed for other arguments for and against, and—using our usual procedure—the dice were rolled and the outcome adjudicated.

Iraq started off by clearing the remaining ISIS fighters from Fallujah, and then preparing to advance northwards. Team MIGS, worried about possible  abuses by the government’s Shi’ite militias against the local Sunni population, introduced a human right monitoring programme (which Iraqi Defence Minister sought to block by barring NGOs and reporters from the area). The Sunni opposition sought money from Saudi Arabia, while the Kurds sought to resolve an internal political difference. Iran offered more military advisors to Baghdad, as well as arms and money for the Kurds—which didn’t go over well with the US, which delayed their own assistance package to the Kurds in response. ISIS, concerned that the Sunni opposition was considering supporting the Iraqi government, executed a prominent tribal leader as a warning to others.

ISIS also successfully carried out a suicide bombing against Iranian advisors in Baghdad. That led Iran to launch its first acknowledged direct air strikes of the campaign, against an ISIS training camp south of Mosul. Unfortunately either their information or their aim was poor, and —rolling double 1s—they instead hit a camp of internally-displaced Sunni civilians.

The bombing caused immediate Sunni outrage. An ISIS-inspired “lone wolf” in Paris tried to attack Charles De Gaulle airport, but was thwarted by French security. A subsequent plot against the US Embassy in Beirut was also unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the Sunni tribes armed themselves.

Team MIGS cooperated with the US in publicizing the Iranian attack, and Washington even raised the issue at the United Nations Security Council. It soon became apparent, however, that Iraq had authorized Iran to carry out airstrike, and China and Russia (played by Team SME) vetoed any possible response from the Council.

The SME team then reported that the Mosul Dam was at risk of collapse. Baghdad secured the assistance of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who averted a potential catastrophe.

Iraq had expended considerable effort securing US air support for a planned offensive towards Mosul and the Syrian border, although the US was reluctant to embed JTACs (forward observers) directly with Iraqi forces. ISIS sought to regain the initiative by launching a surprise attack against Ramadi, which failed disastrously. The Iraqi government ordered a hasty offensive against the retreating jihadists, but soon ran into a number of ambushes and fell back to their positions in Ramadi having also taken heavy casualties.

At this point I noticed that Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had left the ISIS table to take a look at the main map, something which his role assignment prohibited him from doing. The Central Intelligence Agency was given a fleeting opportunity to target a vehicle which might—or might not—be carrying a High Value Target. They took a chance, and against all odds (they needed a 6 on a D6), were successful. The leader of ISIS was dead in an American drone strike!

ISIS was thrown into temporary disarray as they chose a new leader. A prominent Sunni leader in Mosul seized on the occasion to launch a revolt against ISIS rule there. The Kurds advanced towards the city in support, but stopped short of entering the fray for fear of taking heavy casualties. Team MIGS, concerned at the potential human toll of the fighting,  worked with the Kurds to surge humanitarian assistance capacity to the area. The US conducted airstrikes against ISIS forces around Mosul, but were hampered by the urban terrain, the risk of collateral damage, and a lack of good intelligence.

Nevertheless, parts of the city were wrested from ISIS control by local Sunni leaders in what could well be a turning point for the campaign…

…and there the game ended. We had played for a little over two hours, during which time we had managed to cover a surprising amount. A 20 minute debrief session followed, in which we discussed both the events in the game and the value of the matrix gaming method more broadly for thinking and teaching about mass atrocity. Feedback seemed to be very positive. I was certainly pleased that the game had gone so well with so many players, and that an additional level of interaction had been successfully introduced through the individual role assignments and team decision rules. Indeed, apparently the Iraqis had  even come close to a cabinet crisis at one point.

For those who might interested you’ll find the materials here:



ISIS Crisis at Geek & Sundry


First it was VICE News, then France Info, and now Geek & Sundry has published a piece discussing work by PAXsims and Defence Research and Development Canada on the ISIS Crisis game and the serious application of matrix gaming techniques.

In late 2014, DRDC tried out a game meant to help demonstrate various aspects of certain strategies called ISIS Crisis in order to see how these types of games influence the knowledge of the players of various factors that go into a single scenario. To simplify it, ISIS Crisis can be used to demonstrate and increase understanding of the complexity of many world conflicts, which have numerous factors that need to be addressed rather than a single solution. DRDC then released a report on their findings.

Built by McGill University, ISIS Crisis was designed using aspects of the current (end of 2014) conditions in the Middle East crisis involving ISIS. As Professor Rex Brynen, who helped develop ISIS Crisis,notes on his blog, the game wasn’t meant to strategize an actual attack on ISIS, it “just happened to be the scenario/game that was used to explore the methodology.”

It should be noted that Tom Mouat designed the materials used in the games, and Tom Fisher produced our local copy of the game. Chris Engle is the originator of matrix gaming.

France Info reports on ISIS Crisis

IMG_1311First it was Vice News, and now it is France Info reporting on the ISIS Crisis games conducted by Defence Research and Development Canada last year.

Les hauts-gradés de l’armée canadienne ont pris l’habitude de tester leur stratégie via… des jeux de société. Le dernier en date s’inspire de l’actualité au Moyen-Orient.

La crise de Daech” se joue avec six équipes: Daech, le gouvernement irakien, le gouvernement régional du Kurdistan, les milices sunnites, l’Iran et les États-Unis. En début de chaque partie, les factions ou puissances étrangères élaborent un plan d’action et des stratégies. Elles peuvent aussi passer des accords secrets, sans que leurs adversaires ne soient au courant. C’est un professeur de science politique, Rex Brynen, enseignant à l’Université Mc Gill à Montréal qui a eu l’idée de ce jeu, en collaboration avec un commandant de l’armée britannique. Ils l’ont proposé cet automne à un centre de formation militaire aux Etats-Unis.

Ce jeu n’a pas d’application concrète sur le terrain et les théâtres d’opération. C’est plutôt une façon pour les militaires et les stratèges de réfléchir à des actions possibles, d’élaborer des scénarios, exactement comme ils le font déjà lors d’une réunion classique. Mais ces outils ludiques ne sont pas vraiment nouveaux. L’armée prussienne utilisait un jeu baptisé Kriegsspiel (Le Jeu de la Guerre) pour planifier ses campagnes militaires. Et il semble qu’Henry Kissinger, le célèbre secrétaire d’état américain, adorait jouer à Diplomatie, qui consiste à monter des alliances pour conquérir l’Europe.

Click the link above for the full audio report. This time AFTERSHOCK gets a shout-out too!

For a discussion of what the games were really about, see my earlier blog post on the subject, as well as the actual DRDC report that sparked all the interest.

For more in the ISIS Crisis game, have a look at these links.

h/t Tracy McNicoll‎  


Top scientists reveal shocking truth: amazing wargaming methodology makes wrinkles vanish in days!

Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_Image-7.jpgIt seems the words “methodology evaluation” don’t attract readers to online media, so sometimes you have to go with a more clickbait-y headline.

The appearance of a Defence Research and Development Canada paper on (matrix) wargaming to support strategic planning on the DRDC website led to me getting a couple of calls from reporters this week about ISIS Crisis. As I told them, none of this was about planning military operations against ISIS. Rather, that just happened to be the scenario/game that was used to explore the methodology and whether it might have something to contribute to capability-based planning in general.

Because “methodology” is rather dry, geeky stuff  VICE News has just run an article under the exciting headline “The Strategy Board Game the Canadian Military Could Use to Fight the Islamic State.”

It’s like Diplomacy meets Dungeons and Dragons meets Prussian military tactics.

That’s ‘ISIS Crisis’ in a nutshell, a Canadian-developed table-top war game that a wing of the Canadian military says could be useful in getting strategists thinking more broadly about fighting in Iraq and Syria.

The game, developed by a major in the British army and a professor at a Canadian university, was given a test run by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), the military’s in-house technology and research division.

The research body played the turn-based strategy game to see if it changed their way of thinking about any of the military, social, economic, or cultural problems facing the region….

Again—as is clear from the actual DRDC report—this isn’t at all why ISIS Crisis was played. It was used simply assess how this general type of game might be a useful analytical tool. The scenario was set in the Middle East, but might equally have been military response to the Great 1998 Ice Storm, the current forest fires in Fort McMurray, or a future hypothetical peacekeeping missions.

On this plus side, the article does at least highlight the value of serious gaming for analysis, and I do think ISIS Crisis does generate useful insight into the conflict with Daesh. Amazing but true!


(Matrix) wargaming to support strategic planning

Last year Murray Dixson, Michel Couillard, Thierry Gongora, and Paul Massel of Defence Research and Development Canada wrote a paper on “Wargaming to Support Strategic Planning” which describes DRDC’s study of matrix games as a tool to explore the Force Development Scenario Set used by the Canadian Armed Forces as part of their capability-based planning process:

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) capability based planning process uses a set of force planning scenarios to assess different options for the capability requirements of future forces. A good understanding of the key drivers of the scenario is important so that the subject matter experts can more fully understand and identify the capabilities required for success in it. A project is underway to investigate whether this capability identification can be enhanced through the use of various wargaming techniques. The Matrix game methodology is one that has been chosen for this research and was used in a recent series of research games. An ISIS conflict scenario was used as an explorative tool in all the games which were played out using several combinations of player types. Each iteration of the game was analysed using a set of metrics to help determine the utility of the games for the force planning application. The results are provided in this paper.

Readers of PAXsims will already know something about this, based on Ben Taylor’s thoughtful piece on serious matrix games, our game at the University of Ottawa, and our various other posts about the ISIS Crisis game that was used as a testbed for the study.

The study concludes:

As a result of these experiments a number of useful observations were obtained concerning the intricacies of organising and conducting a wargame; the value of participating in a wargame from the players’ perspective; and the potential applicability of augmenting Canada’s capability assessment efforts with one or more wargames. In terms of conducting a wargame, valuable experience in understanding the importance of the rules and structure of the game; of the principles and limits of keeping players involved in the game; and of the nature and key role that the GM or adjudicator plays in the conduct of a successful game. From the players’ perspective new players gained a greater understanding of the Matrix wargaming methodology, and more experienced gamers gained a greater appreciation of the many layers of complexity and dynamics that characterise this regional conflict. Finally, in terms of the relevance of Matrix wargaming methods to supporting Canada’s capability assessment effort, this experiment was limited by the nature of the game itself. The ISIS Matrix game is a replication of a complex, multiplayer, geo political situation. As such, it was observed to be a useful platform for introducing some of the region’s complexities to the assembled players. This would seem to have similar promise if this methodology were to be applied to one or more of Canada’s defence planning scenarios, but this clearly resides in the realm of future work.

I think Murray and the team are right that ISIS Crisis is a game heavily skewed towards political-military dynamics—in their test games, kinetic actions only accounted for slightly more than half of all player moves. Moreover, because military actions are dealt with at high level of generalization and abstraction, ISIS Crisis may not be very useful at teasing out questions of capability.


However, that is in large part a function of the scenario design: a better test of the matrix game method for capability-based planning would probably focus on military activities more narrowly, with units on the map representing clearly-defined assets rather than indicators of relative combat power, and a more rigorous time scale for player actions.

On the other hand, as DRDC’s RCAT playtest suggested, some of DND’s current Force Development Scenarios probably hinge far more on political and other non-kinetic actions than is intended. Political-military matrix games as useful for pretesting and refining planning scenarios, and could certainly be used to generate vignettes that could then be explored in greater detail through a capability-based matrix game, another type of wargame, or other forms of analysis.

The DRDC report also offers some interesting insight into the challenges of game adjudication (in the MAGIC 1 playtest they describe, where I was double-hatted as both facilitator and subject matter expert, left an impression among some of heavy-handed adjudication), compressed vs extended playtime, the ease of learning the rules, and other issues. It is very helpful reading for those considering using matrix games as an accessible method for wargaming complex problems.


ISIS Crisis at MIGS

1445365552992Yesterday, Tom Fisher and I ran a game of the ISIS Crisis matrix game at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University. Partly the purpose of the game was to explore the challenges involved in mass atrocity prevention in Iraq. Even more so, however, we wanted to give MIGS some experience with the method in case they found it of use in their training, research, or outreach activities.

Once again, the complex situation in Iraq was reduced to six key sets of actors:

  • “Islamic State”/ISIS
  • (Shi’ite-dominated) Iraqi central government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abidi (very ably played by Concordia colleague Ahmed al-Rawi)
  • Kurdish Regional Government (also, at times, playing the role of the Syrian Kurds/PYD)
  • Sunni “opposition” (representing tribal leaders and other non-ISIS Sunni political figures in Iraq)
  • Iran
  • United States

A lot went on during the game, almost all of it mirroring actual development in the region or options under active consideration by one or more of the parties.

Introducing the players to matrix gaming.

Introducing the players to matrix gaming.

Prime Minister al-Abidi sought to reach out to the Sunni minority, while seeking to build a Sunni “National Guard” to operate against ISIL in Sunni areas. While quite genuine in this, he faced serious constraints: the Sunni opposition was suspicious, and also faced the threat of ISIL reprisals. Efforts by the Prime Minister to deliver on promises were constrained by the machinations of rival Shiite politicians, most notably former Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki. The government’s attempt to modify current de-Baathification legislation failed in parliament, damaging the Prime Minister’s credibility with his Sunni interlocutors. Perhaps most damaging to his efforts was a decision to use Shiite militias to augment Iraqi Army units in the battle to regain control of Ramadi. While the militias substantially enhanced combat power and contributed to some military success, they also engaging in several atrocities against local Sunnis. The Iraqi army did ultimately succeed in mobilizing one Sunni National Guard “brigade,” but this was later shattered in further fighting around Ramadi.

Iraqi forces have taken Ramadi, but are demoralized and deterred from exerting effective control by a campaign of IEDs, snipers, and ambushes. ISIS would later recapture the city (again).

Iraqi forces have taken Ramadi, but are demoralized and deterred from exerting effective control by a campaign of IEDs, snipers, and ambushes. ISIS would later recapture the city (again).

The Sunni opposition decided quite early that they would tilt towards the government—provided that they received adequate rewards for doing so. The United States and Saudi Arabia offered arms and money. However, such moves led to a series of warnings from ISIS. Finally, when one tribe took a number of ISIS hostages and militias near Ramadi took action against local ISIS forces, the latter decided that it was time to make a very public demonstration of their power. Some tribal militias were crushed, and others joined ISIS out of self-preservation. Atrocities by Shiite militias and the Iraqi government’s close relations with Iran didn’t help the credibility of Sunni leaders trying to align with Baghdad.

The US announces stepped-up assistance for anti-ISIS Sunni tribes.

The US announces stepped-up assistance for anti-ISIS Sunni tribes.

The United States, concerned at the threat posed by ISIS, increased its assistance to local allies in an effort to push them back. This included the deployment of JTACs (forward air controllers), air support, and additional US special forces to buttress the Kurds. However, a premature Kurdish offensive towards Mosul went disastrously wrong, resulting in four American military personnel being captured by ISIS. This created pressure for US military escalation. One US prisoner was executed for a grisly ISIS propaganda video. However, the CIA managed to obtain information on where the remaining prisoners were being held in Raqqa, and a risky raid by US Navy Seals was successful in freeing them.

Iran provided arms, advisors, and other support for the Baghdad government and Kurds alike, matching the US as the two rivals sought to offset each other’s influence. The Kurds had initially been reluctant to take too much support from Tehran, but this attitude soon changed after their failed Mosul offensive. In one case Iran successfully conducted a covert attack against US advisors in Baghdad, which was then blamed on ISIS.

The KRG offensive goes badly wrong, and several US personnel embedded with Kurdish units are taken prisoner. ISIS recaptures Mosul dam. With KRG permission, Iran deploys some IRGC assets to Irbil to aid in the city's defence.

The KRG offensive goes badly wrong, and several US personnel embedded with Kurdish units are taken prisoner. ISIS recaptures Mosul dam. With KRG permission, Iran deploys some IRGC assets to Irbil to aid in the city’s defence.

ISIS had its most success in exploiting the mistakes or failures of others, or rapidly responding to their opponents’ initiatives and finding new vulnerabilities or courses of action. Throughout the game, there was frequent fighting on the Mosul-Irbil front (with control of Mosul Dam changing hands several times), and on the Raqqa-Hassakeh front in Syria. ISIS also made some effort to make gains in Aleppo at the expense of other Syrian opposition groups. It skillfully exploited US and Iranian support for Baghdad, the capture of US personnel, and the behaviour of the Shiite militias to rally support from both local Sunnis and foreign fighters. It also punished Sunni defectors harshly, crushing rebellious tribes when they showed too much willingness to work with the central government.

The ISIS player standing behind the Sunni opposition. Shortly thereafter he would unleash a punitive campaign against pro-Baghdad tribes.

The ISIS player standing behind the Sunni opposition. Shortly thereafter he would unleash a punitive campaign against pro-Baghdad tribes.

Overall, the game highlighted several key dynamics of the current situation in Iraq:

  • The constraints of Iraqi capacity and local politics, and the difficulty that the central government has in undertaking major reforms and military campaigns alike. The fight against ISIS is far from the only thing going on in the country.
  • The difficult position of Iraqi Sunnis, perched uncomfortably between an unpopular Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government and a brutal ISIS.
  • The risk to the Kurds of assuming a more assertive military role.
  • The difficulty that both Iran and the US face in using their assets and influence to affect substantial change on the ground—as well as the extent to which their rivalry affects the effectiveness of their support for allies. The US hostage crisis also highlighted the risk of more “boots on the ground.”
  • The intrinsic difficulty that the parties have in pursuing a sustained and coherent strategy, given the frequency and ease with which the actions of others or unanticipated events distract from campaign plans. In the game, efforts by the US and Iran to support a systematic Iraqi military effort towards Mosul with Kurdish and Sunni tribal support were constantly derailed by problems of coordination, US-Iranian rivalry, Shiite militia atrocities, Iraqi domestic politics, unreliable allies, and ISIS counterattacks in other areas (notably in Ramadi and towards Hassakeh in Syria).

Overall, the game ended with the Sunni opposition/tribes—a key pillar of US strategy—even weaker than they had started. The military situation was largely stalemated, with the offensive towards Mosul stalled. Ramadi was recaptured by the Iraqi Army, but they were unable to ever exert effective control. The US had stepped up its level of military engagement, but with little fundamental effect. ISIS faced severe difficulty in expanding its geographic control, but benefitted from a flow of local recruits and foreign fighters to offset its losses from Iraqi and coalition military activity—indeed, by the end it had actually augmented its capacity.

Most fundamentally, the game strongly suggested that there is no “magic bullet” in Iraq that delivers rapid victory over ISIS—only a difficult, costly, slogging campaign that mixes incremental gains with periodic reverses.

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