Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

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 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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