Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Philip Sabin

Sabin on strategic wargaming

Earlier this month, Prof. Philip Sabin delivered a presentation on “what strategic wargaming can teach us” to the German Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies. The text of that presentation is now available online.

MORS: Sabin on simultaneity of action in rigidly adjudicated wargames

On Wednesday, January 27, Prof. Philip Sabin will be speaking to the MORS wargaming community of interest on “How to Achieve Simultaneity of Action in Rigidly Adjudicated Wargames.” The session starts at 1130 ET.

Philip Sabin retired a year ago as Professor of Strategic Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and is now Emeritus Professor. He worked closely with the UK military for many years, especially through the University of London Military Education Committee, the Chief of the Air Staff’s Air Power Workshop, and KCL’s academic links with the Defence Academy and the Royal College of Defence Studies. Professor Sabin specialises in strategic and tactical analysis of conflict dynamics, with a particular focus on ancient warfare and modern air power. He makes extensive use of conflict simulation techniques to model the dynamics of various conflicts, and since 2003 he taught a highly innovative MA option module in which students design their own simulations of past conflicts. He has written or edited 15 books and monographs and several dozen chapters and articles on a wide variety of military topics. His books Lost Battles (2007) and Simulating War (2012) both make major contributions to the scholarly application of conflict simulation techniques. Besides co-organising the annual Connections UK conference at KCL, he has taken part in several defence wargaming projects, and he worked with the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research on the initial design of the Camberley Kriegsspiel with which officers may practise battlegroup tactics. Professor Sabin was also co-director of the King’s Wargaming Network, which is taking forward KCL’s leading role in the academic study of wargaming after his retirement. He is continuing to design a succession of innovative games modelling the grand tactics of combat (especially air combat), and to lecture internationally on aspects of wargaming and airpower.

See the link above for more details. A copy of Prof. Sabin’s paper can be found here:

KWN: Sabin on “The Future of Wargaming to Innovate and Educate”


On November 22 (16:30-20:00) at King’s College London, Professor Philip Sabin (Department of War Studies, KCL) will address “The Future of Wargaming to Innovate and Educate.”

The lecture marks the first anniversary of the King’s Wargaming Network and Professor Sabin’s retirement after 35 years of service to the university.

Professor Brooke Rogers, Deputy Head, Department of War Studies, will deliver welcome remarks. Ms Ivanka Barzashka, Co-Director of the Wargaming Network, will chair the discussion.

Additional information and (complimentary) tickets can be obtained here.

Sabin: Wargames as an academic instrument

Professor Philip Sabin (King’s College London) recently delivered a lecture at the University of Edinburgh on “Wargames as an academic instrument.” You’ll find the video at this link.


Sabin: The continuing role of manual conflict simulation

Recently, as part part of a class he ran for Prof. Armin Fuegenschuh at the German Armed Forces University in Hamburg, Prof. Philip Sabin (KCL) gave an illustrated talk on the Continuing Role of Manual Conflict Simulation.  This has now been posted on the HSU website.  It offers a general introduction to the subject, making reference to many of his current activities, while in the Q&A he addresses some important nuances of designing and using manual conflict simulations. PAXsims and AFTERSHOCK even get a shout-out (43:07).

Sabin on wargaming in higher education

AHHEIn a forthcoming article in the academic journal Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, Prof. Philip Sabin (King’s College London) offers his thoughts on “Wargaming in higher education: Contributions and challenges:”

Wargames, especially on historical conflicts, do not currently play much part in the booming academic use of simulation and gaming techniques. This is despite the fact that they offer rich vehicles for active learning and interactive exploration of conflict dynamics. Constraints of time, expertise and resources do make it challenging to employ wargames in academia, but a greater problem is the stigma which wargaming attracts due to its association with childish enthusiasts and its perceived deficiencies as a modelling technique. This article builds on my many years of teaching and research experience with wargames to show how playing and designing them can benefit students and scholars alike.

In his conclusion he strongly argues the case for adding wargames to the toolkit of scholars and educators:

Wargame modelling is an incredibly ambitious enterprise. In theory, a completely accurate wargame would allow players to experiment with different strategies and contingencies and obtain reliable insights into the workings of the real past or future conflict represented. The trouble is that such accuracy would require encyclopaedic research not only into the military factors involved but also into the wider political, cultural, social and economic factors which are so crucial in shaping human conflicts. Even if such daunting levels of knowledge and understanding could be gained in the first place, incorporating all this detail into the game would make it unplayably complex and time-consuming, and hence unworkable as an experimental tool after all (Sabin, 2012, chs.2, 4).

The key to wider acceptance of wargames within academia is to realise that they are not unique in facing this pernicious trade-off between accuracy and simplicity. There are certainly plenty of poorly researched and simplistic wargames, but the same applies to the majority of student essays and to many scholarly books and articles. Wargaming is simply one more technique, one more complementary perspective, with which to try to come to grips with the intractable problem of understanding the dynamics of human conflict. Rather than providing reliable answers, it is best at highlighting neglected questions. Rather than offering secure predictions, it is most helpful when it produces flawed or unexpected outcomes, since these force users to re-examine the assumptions programmed into the model and think about how it could be improved.

The most effective way of persuading people of the value of wargames is through direct hands-on experience. That was how the initially sceptical Prussian Chief of Staff became so convinced of the value of Kriegsspiel that he famously exclaimed, ‘This is not a game! This is training for war! I must recommend it to the whole army’ (Perla, 1990: 26). A consistent request of my MA students over the years has been for more time playing games, since only through such practical experience does the abstract theory start to make sense. I have now introduced several hundred students and other individuals at all levels to the academic insights which wargames can provide. The more people who are directly exposed to serious but accessible wargames, the less pervasive will be their image as trivial and childish diversions or impossibly complex and time-consuming pastimes for obsessive nerds. Playing wargames more widely offers the best chance of inspiring more use of this currently neglected approach to the study and understanding of war.

We couldn’t agree more.

“Gaming the non-kinetic” at KCL

On Thursday I had the very great pleasure of lecturing to Prof. Philip Sabin’s conflict simulation course in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. The lecture drew upon material from a chapter on “Gaming the Non-Kinetic” that I have contributed to a forthcoming volume edited by Pat Harrigan and Matthew Kirschenbaum, Zones of Control: Wargaming in Analog and Digital Worlds (MIT Press).


In the lecture I addressed various so-called “non-kinetic” aspects of modern (and not-so-modern) warfare, and highlighted some of the ways that wargame designers have addressed these. Those who might be interested will find the powerpoint slides for the presentation here (although they aren’t entirely self-explanatory without me lecturing alongside them). Those who attended the lecture might also be interested in the following links to PAXsims games I mentioned during the talk:

See also my general post on gaming political science. For details of the commercial games mentioned in the presentation, see BoardGameGeek as well as the various publishers’ websites—in many cases rules are available online.

Wargaming at King’s College London

Prof. Philip Sabin (Department of War Studies, King’s College London) has put together a short video that offers an overview of both the recent Connections UK 2014 professional wargaming conference and his own MA module on conflict simulation at KCL.

You’ll even see a brief glimpse of PAXsim’s own Humanitarian Crisis Game being played at 1:32!

Counterfactualism, wargaming, and historical analysis

Paths of Glory (GMT Games)

WWI as depicted in Paths of Glory (GMT Games)

In the pages of today’s Guardian, historian Richard Evans unleashes a blast against the popular and academic use of counterfactual history:

Too much of the current debate about 1914 and the outbreak of the first world war focuses not on why it happened, but how things might have been if Britain hadn’t entered it.

…this kind of fantasising is now all the rage, and threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it in favour of a futile and misguided attempt to decide whether the decisions taken in August 1914 were right or wrong. For that way, of course, leads not to historical understanding but to all kinds of wishful thinking, every hypothesis political in motivation. “We” – the identification is telling – were right to fight the continental despot; “we” were wrong to involve ourselves in the continent’s conflicts; you pays your money and you makes your Eurosceptic choice.

“Counterfactuals”, as such “what-if” speculations are generally termed by the aficionados, are often claimed to open up the past by demonstrating the myriad possibilities, thus freeing history from the straitjacket of determinism and restoring agency to the people. But in fact they imprison the past in an even tighter web: one tiny change in the timeline – Archduke Franz Ferdinand escapes assassination in Sarajevo, the British cabinet decides not to enter the war – leads inevitably to a whole series of much larger changes, sometimes stretching over decades almost up to the present day. Yet this ignores, of course, an infinite number of chances that might have deflected the predicted course of events along the way – Franz Ferdinand might have fallen victim to another assassin’s bullet, or died in a hunting accident; Britain might have entered the war later on; the US might have come into the conflict on the side of the French; Austria-Hungary might have collapsed in the face of nationalist revolts; and so on.

If counterfactuals really did restore chance and contingency to history, then we wouldn’t actually be able to extrapolate any consequences at all from changes in the timeline such as a British decision not to enter the war in 1914. In practice, of course, every historian tries to balance out the elements of chance on the one hand, and larger historical forces (economic, cultural, social, international) on the other, and come to some kind of explanation that makes sense. The problem with counterfactuals is that they almost always treat individual human actors – generals or politicians, in the main – as completely unfettered by these larger forces, able to make decisions without regard to them in any way. And yet this simply isn’t the case, as many a tyrant in history, from Napoleon to Hitler, has found to his cost. To suppose otherwise is to regress into a “great man” view of history that the historical profession abandoned decades ago.

It’s also a form of intellectual atavism in another sense: “what-ifs” are almost invariably applied to political, military and diplomatic history: they represent a “kings-and-battles” view of the past…


Wargaming even gets a particular swipe, as Evans dismissively notes that “Armchair generals refight hundreds of battles to show they could have done better than Napoleon or Montgomery.” A similar swipe appears in the blurb for his new bookAltered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History (emphasis added):

Alternative history has long been the stuff of parlor games, war-gaming, and science fiction, but over the past few decades it has become a popular stomping ground for serious historians. The historian Richard J. Evans now turns a critical, slightly jaundiced eye on a subject typically the purview of armchair historians. The book’s main concern is examining the intellectual fallout from historical counterfactuals, which the author defines as “alternative versions of the past in which one alteration in the timeline leads to a different outcome from the one we know actually occurred.” What if Britain had stood at the sidelines during the First World War? What if the Wehrmacht had taken Moscow? The author offers an engaging and insightful introduction to the genre, while discussing the reasons for its revival in popularity, the role of historical determinism, and the often hidden agendas of the counterfactual historian. Most important, Evans takes counterfactual history seriously, looking at the insights, pitfalls, and intellectual implications of changing one thread in the weave of history.

It is an important topic, and one hopes that it receives more thoughtful attention in the book than Evans offers in his op-ed. This, unfortunately, gives every appearance (whether intended or not) of petulant annoyance that the mainstream media and fellow-travelling academics have sought to engage the public imagination through informed speculation on alternative history.

In responding, I would first note that all social science theorizing—without exception—involves implied counterfactuals. When scholars argue, for example, that certain types of constitutional arrangements are more or less conducive to containing  ethnic strife, they are suggesting that different constitutional outcomes are likely to have produced different outcomes had they been adopted. Certainly, the variables embedded in such theories may not be the sorts upon which human agency can easily operate, but rather may be structural characteristics of a broader and more complex system. However, a great deal of theorizing does involve the effects of policy choices (like constitutional structures) that were, in fact, constrained choices among several possible alternatives.

Second, a great deal of policy-making—including almost all foreign-policy making that I have ever observed—involves the explicit (if often unstructured) use of alternative future scenarios, whereby decision-makers examine the chain of consequences that seem likely to arise from doing X or Y. Similarly, intelligence analysis not only involves exploring the branch-points of possible future events, identifying the drivers associated with multiple future possibilities and even the predicted probabilities of these taking  place. All of this is a sort of pre-counterfactualism whereby future history is assumed to be contingent.

51eGL+7O5iL._SY445_Third, the piece seems to harbour a particular animus for an excessive focus on the historical role of  individuals and the conduct of warfare. Pointing to the straw man of “kings and battles” history is hardly helpful, though: most historians (and political scientists) would argue that both structure and agency matter, and that good analysis involves finding the appropriate balance. With regard to the conduct of war, it presumably matters, for example, that German offensive of August 1914, based on a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan, failed to defeat the French and allied armies or capture Paris. Given that, it seems to me that understanding what strategic and operational decisions shaped  battlefield outcomes (and vice-versa)  is a useful set of questions for historical enquiry. Was German failure inevitable? If so, why? If not, what alternative actions by Germany, France, Britain, Belgium, or others might have made a difference? It is probably also helpful to know what difference military capabilities and their tactical employment made too. As Philip Sabin has argued, wargaming provides a lens, through a sort of structured counterfactualism, that allows for the manipulation of key variables to enable exploration of such questions.

Answering such questions, moreover, does not imply a narrow focus on battlefields, generals, and military hardware. It inevitably raises questions about logistics (and hence road and rail networks), communications, men and materiel (and hence labour force structure, industrialization, and economic development), ideology, and politics.

k9206.gifFinally, and perhaps most importantly, Evans seems to ignore the increasing amount of sophisticated scholarly work (like this, this, this, and this, among many, many others) that has been done on counterfactualism as a methodology for exploring historical contingency.

In fairness, of course, his piece a pithy one intended for a popular audience. He is engaging contemporary political controversies in the UK over commemoration of World War One rather than genuinely addressing the state of the art in the scholarly field. He seems upset by a parochial focus by politicians and the press on Britain’s impact on the war, rather than the broader historical context within which the war took place.

That being said, however, it is a shame that one would decry shallow populist counterfactualism in  history by offering such a shallow critique.

In his closing paragraphs, Evans tries—rather speculatively— to link all of this to broader social trends:

Why are we so prone in the early 21st century to approaching history in this way? The fashion for counterfactuals, after all, only began around the mid 90s: before that, they were few and far between, and seldom taken seriously even by those who indulged in them. Now you find them everywhere….

Perhaps it’s because we’re living in a postmodern age where the idea of progress has largely disappeared, to be replaced by uncertainty and doubt, and where linear notions of time have become blurred; or because truth and fiction no longer seem such polar opposites as they once did; or because historians now have more licence to be subjective than they used to. But it’s time to be sceptical about this trend. We need, in this year especially, to start to try to understand why the first world war happened, not to wish that it hadn’t, or argue about whether it was “right” or “wrong”. In the effort to understand, counterfactuals aren’t any real use at all.

Ironically, the very statement embeds some apparently counterfactual assumptions: namely that great prior skepticism among professional historians might have blunted this trend, and that our understanding of the causes and consequences of WWI would be all the richer for having done so.

Serious Games at Work interview with Phil Sabin


In his latest Serious Games at Work podcast, Tom Grant interviews Prof. Philip Sabin (King’s College London) about the use of wargaming as a tool for both analysis and teaching.

Our guest is Philip Sabin, Professor Of Strategic Studies at King’s College, London, and author of Lost Battles and Simulating War. Professor Sabin talks about how to use wargames as a tool of historical inquiry, in the classroom, and in other contexts. He also talks about the games he designed for these purposes, including Lost Battles, which simulates ancient warfare. Stay tuned during the podcast for a fascinating description of a recent serious game at Windsor Castle.

simulations miscellany, 8 December 2012

We’re pleased to present the latest news on conflict simulation and serious gaming, gathered by our world-wide PAXsims network of reporters (that is, the two of us). Suggestions for other items to include in the future are always welcome!

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guns_dice_butter_small_logoThe latest edition of the excellent gaming podcast Gun, Dice and Butter features a panel discussion on gaming insurgencies with some of the biggest names in the field:

Welcome to Episode X of Guns, Dice, Butter.

0:01 Intro

0:06 Conversation with Mercury Games: Richard Diosi (Doc Stryder) and Kevin Nesbitt

0:32 Panel discussion with Mark Herman, Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke regarding insurgencies and wargames: Wide ranging discussion examining wargames that model insurgencies (see website for link to games on insurgencies and national/strategic will games), political dynamics of insurgencies and insurgency games in the pipeline from this group of designers (A Distant Plan {Afghanistan}, Fire on the Lake {Vietnam}, etc).

2:18 Wrap up

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Defense News reports that an old boardgame is making a new comeback:

ORLANDO — In the midst of a flashy I/ITSEC floor full of simulators running high-definition visuals, one product hearkened back to a simpler era of wargaming.

“Ranger,” a 30-year-old solitaire board game based on the tactics and techniques used by the Army’s elite soldiers, is being turned into a computer game for laptops and tablets.

The game’s inventor, Bill Gibbs, is working with the Orlando-based company Engineering and Computer Simulations on the application, which is slated to be available by download in early 2013.

The original “Ranger — Modern Patrolling Operations: Swamp Terrain” included two maps, 24 missions, and, for those who haven’t attended Ranger training, a booklet on tactics and procedures.

Gibbs said he has extensively researched and revamped the tactics to reflect changing times, and the gear now matches contemporary loadouts. But he said he was surprised to find few other necessary changes.

“The actual concepts and doctrine and principles were all still the same,” Gibbs said.

The digital version will let users control and plan for a mission, including squad reconnaissance, platoon ambushes or raid patrols. While a player might flip through pages of the play booklet in the board game, the digital version pops the information up on the screen.

Other features will include a patrol record log, tactical and map views, and a way to freeze the patrol during the mission.

Future editions of the game will include a downed-pilot mission and gameplay set in different terrains such as mountains and deserts.

Gibbs is also working with ECS to change the interface and adapt the game for the iPhone; that version should be available in April.

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Red Team Journal has started to compile a somewhat tongue-in cheek (but oh-so-true) list of the “Laws of Red Teaming.” They’ll all be very familiar to professional pol-mil gamers.

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According to the Washington Post, the US and Chinese militaries held a tabletop exercise on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief last month.

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The blog War Studies Publications recently featured an interview with Prof. Philip Sabin (King’s College London) on “conflict simulations, ancient warfare, and airpower. You’ll find it here.

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The folks at Wikistrat have posted to their website a summary of their latest “Wikistrat crowdsourced simulation” on “Pakistani Nukes Go Loose.” Despite the name, there really isn’t much simulation here—rather, it is simply an analytical summary of crowd-sourced discussion and scenario-generation on the topic, all wrapped up with some flashy jargon and graphics. Analytically, that might well be a very good way of generating some interesting thinking. However, it also highlights the use of the term “simulation” itself as a marketing tool, something we’ve commented on before here and here.


New KCL simulations available online

Each year, graduate students in Phil Sabin’s conflict simulation course in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London create a wargame as a central part of the module. Several downloadable, playable examples from the most recent (2011-12) class have now been added to the large and ever-growing list on Phil’s website, including simulations of the Battle of Freeman’s Farm (1777), Singapore, Vietnam, Lebanon, the Falklands, Georgia, and Robert Hossal’s Fardh al-Qanoon game of security operations in Baghdad (map below).

Conference report: games in the teaching of politics, IR, and related fields

Phil Sabin (King’s College London) has kindly allowed me to repost his report below on the recent workshop on “The Use of Simulations, Board Games and Virtual games in the teaching of politics, international relations and related fields,” held at the University Of Westminster on 8 June 2012. The item was originally posted to Phil’s Simulating War Yahoo group.

The picture below (of games made by the staff and students of KCL) is taken from Richard Barbrook‘s Facebook album on the conference.

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The Higher Education Academy workshop I mentioned at Westminster University took place on Friday, and proved very interesting. Around 30 people came (mainly academics from Britain and overseas), and there were 10 presentations during the day.

Simon Usherwood from Surrey University talked about how to overcome common problems with political simulations in politics classes. See his site at:

Frands Pedersen from Wesminster (one of the organisers) then gave some examples based on his modules on Diplomacy and EU Governance. See his very useful repository of political sims at:

Malin Stegmann-McCallion from Karlstad talked about Swedish political sims, especially one on the vexed issue of wolf hunting. A lady from Lund University gave more details from the floor of their own gaming

The morning ended with an inspirational keynote address by Professor Mary Flanagan of Dartmouth College NY, in which she described her own many projects in gaming and game-based art, all focused on public engagement. She described the use of simple games to get people thinking and to challenge entrenched prejudices about issues like race, unemployment and immunisation. She suggested that the simpler the game, the richer the discussion, and she made the very interesting point that introducing fantasy elements (eg by converting the immunisation game Pox into Zombiepox) often increases the game’s popularity by appearing less earnest and worthy, while still achieving the central aim. For more, see:

The afternoon started with my own introduction to Simulating War. This led neatly into Richard Barbrook’s talk about how they have begun their own BA module at Westminster in which students play and critique board wargames and then design their own simple board games on subjects like the IRA bombings in Belfast or last year’s London riots, based heavily on my own MA option course. See:

Richard also described his continued championing of Guy Debord’s ‘Game of War’, as laid out at:

Our panel finished with a very lively presentation by Russell King from the Royal Free Hospital on his use of games as a training medium in the National Health Service. He ended by getting us to make a decision about freeing up beds in the face of a reported plane crash, with lives depending on us striking the right balance.

The final session began with Nick Robinson from Leeds describing his work on the social and cultural dimension of mass market videogames, and the ‘possibility spaces’ which their virtual words create. His website is:

Daphne Economou from Multimedia Computing at Westminster then gave a richly illustrated presentation on how they are trying to create templates which will allow non-programmers to build their own virtual games instead of falling back on the greater design accessibility of board games. The workshop finished with Govinda Clayton from Kent reporting on research to provide stronger empirical support for the alleged effectiveness of simulations as a teaching tool compared to traditional lectures and seminars. This very important research is available in his paper at:

Overall, the workshop was a great opportunity to get together, exchange ideas, and realise the sheer diversity of the use of simulations and games in education. As Rex and Bill have pointed out here repeatedly, wargames are only one of the many ways in which games are being used educationally, and they are currently very much the poor relation compared to ‘talking games’ and very simple abstract games which make a serious point. (Mary Flanagan, for example, discussed the value of something as simple as a pair of card decks which in combination produced pairings such as ‘female scientist’, with players then having to name someone falling into the category concerned.)

This all has a lot of bearing on the issues we have been discussing already in this group, and I hope that it will spark further discussion, especially when you get a chance to follow up some of the web links I have given above.

Philip Sabin
King’s College London

simulations miscellany, 28 April 2012

A few recent items that might be of interest to PAXsims readers:

  • Drew Hamilton has reviewd Phil Sabin’s recent book Simulating War at Times Higher Education. It is good to see the book getting notice outside the wargaming community, since it has much to offer to both teachers and historians.
  • Robert Hossal—a student in Phil’s conflict simulation course at King’s College London—has finished his class assignment/wargame of the 2007 Baghdad security plan, Fardh al-Qanoon. You’ll find both the game and his reflections on the design process over at his Smart War blog.
  • Strategy & Tactics Press will be launching a new war-game magazine on the modern era, Modern War, in June.
  • There’s been loads of excellent discussion lately at both the Simulating War Yahoo group, and over at the Wargaming Connection website.
  • Earlier this month, Catalysts for Change—a “48-hour online game to engage people around the world to reimagine the future of poverty and global well-being”—was held. The game (which is more of a crowd-sourcing/social media tool) was produced using the Foresight Engine platform designed by Jane McGonigal and developed by Institute for the Future (it all looks very MMOWGLI-like). I’m afraid that I was rather underwhelmed by the general quality of the discussion. Measuring the impact on social engagement is a a trickier issue, though—do initiatives like this lead to social activism, or digital slacktivism?
  • NATO recently released its first serious training game app for mobile devices, an Android version of Boarders Ahoy! The game is designed to improve maritime interdiction skills, or more precisely boarding and search procedures. You can read about the game’s development on the Caspian Learning website, and the game itself can be downloaded from the Google Play marketplace.

NDU: Phil Sabin on “The Continuing Merits of Manual Wargaming” (9/5/2012)

Professor Philip Sabin (King’s College London) will be giving a talk on “The Continuing Merits of Manual Wargaming” at National Defense University in Washington DC on 9 May 2012. PAXsims recently reviewed Phil’s excellent new book, Simulating War.

For further information, contact Ellie Bartels or Tim Wilkie.

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