Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Strategic Crisis Simulations

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 14 October 2015


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


Strategic Crisis Simulations

Strategic Crisis Simulations will be holding its next simulation, Rising Tides: A Simulation of Regional Crisis and Territorial Competition in the East China Sea, on 7 November 2015 at George Washington University:

The East China Sea is one of the most contested regions in the existing geopolitical climate. A small body of water, whose mass is dwarfed by the world’s oceans, the East China Sea is hotly divided, with overlapping claims by four different regional actors: Japan, China, Taiwan, and South Korea. Though the exact territorial claims vary from state to state, all actors have held firm in their demands, and recent aggressive expansionism has once more brought the East China Sea to the forefront of geopolitical focus. This tension is fueled by the immense strategic and economic value of the region: the East China Sea is home to an abundance of marine life, rich fishing grounds, vast natural gas reserves, and several highly strategic trade arteries, all of which are integral to the economies to the surrounding regional actors. These attributes combine to make the East China Sea one of the most economically valuable, and strategically advantageous, oceanic regions in the world.

This simulation will examine the complex maze that actors must negotiate when dealing with the tense social, political, and military dilemmas currently occurring in the East China Sea. Participants will assume the roles of influential policymakers, and must work with both state and non-state regional actors to execute comprehensive and multilateral government responses to issues ranging from great power politics, piracy, and natural resource conflicts; to state bargaining dilemmas, humanitarian assistance, and collective action problems. Participants will have the unique opportunity to grapple with serious questions of national interest through the eyes of the government of the United States and the People’s Republic of China as they are divided into teams in order to develop their respective policies and agendas. Participants will need to develop strategies in line with their team’s objectives to manage a variety of crises and react to actions from other teams. Whether through the Politburo or the National Security Council; the Pentagon or Central Military Commission; the Ministry of State Security or the Central Intelligence Agency; participants will be challenged to work together to develop policy solutions for the complex myriad of issues that will determine the fate of the East China Sea.


USIPAlso in Washington DC, the United States Institute of Peace will be offering a course United Nations Peacekeeping Today: Why it Matters on 2-4 November 2015:

By the end of this course, participants will understand:

  • The new and challenging environment that confronts UN peace operations, including asymmetrical warfare, terrorist operations, drone surveillance, and organized crime.
  • The planning and implementation of modern peace operations, including the roles played by the Security Council, NATO, EU, AU, troop contributing countries and the United States.
  • The key issues confronting UN peacekeeping and the recommendations of the High Level Panel’s Report and the Presidential Summit for going forward.
  • The planning of a peace operation through interactive role play with a diverse group of well-informed fellow professionals.

The course includes a simulation/role-play exercise on planning for a fictional UN Mission in Equatorial Kundu (UNIMEK). More information is available at the link above.


The latest (Summer/Fall 2015) newsletter of the American Political Science Association political science education section, The Political Science Educator, contains a short article on AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game:

After the earthquake that devastated the capital, aid was slow to reach the slums of District 3. Poor coordination resulted in duplication of effort in some areas, and shortages of essential aid supplies in others. The port and airport remained severely damaged, creating transportation bottlenecks. The latest reports suggested a cholera outbreak too. It was no surprise that social unrest was growing.

The vignette above is drawn from AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. AFTERSHOCK was developed for classroom use to highlight the challenges of multilateral coordination in the context of a natural disasters or complex humanitarian emergencies. The game has spread well beyond its initial use at McGill University, and has been taken adopted for professional training of aid workers, peacekeeping personnel, and military officers. This article briefly describes the genesis of the project, the development and production of the game, and some thoughts about using it in the classroom.

You read the whole thing here.



The NATO website briefly summarizes a North Atlantic Council crisis simulation for European university students held in Forli, Italy last week:

“How does the North Atlantic Council (NAC) respond to an emerging crisis situation?”

That was the question posed to 28 students from leading European Universities from throughout Europe, including Cork, Dublin, Bath, Lisbon, Palermo, Istanbul and Pavia, as well as the European University Institute in Florence, in a realistic re-enactment of a NAC session.

Based on the Memorandum of Understanding with NATO, the University of Bologna, School of Political Sciences, hosted the 9th North Atlantic Council Simulation (NATO Model Event) in Forli, Italy, 8-9 October 2015.

During the NAC simulation, the students explored, discussed and seek resolution to a fictitious scenario, led by Lieutenant Colonel Alfonso Alvarez, Commander Matteo Minelli and supported by Ms Tracey Cheasley, Mr Nicola Nasuti, Ms Cristina Siserman from Allied Command Transformation Strategic Plans & Policy Branch (ACT SPP) and Lieutenant Commander Dave Jones from ACT StratCom.

As an evaluation, the students participating to the event stressed that the realism of the discussions, decision-making and eventual consensus on actions, cannot be overstated and that they are very glad to be able to take part in this simulation.

Finally, Lieutenant Colonel Alvarez mentioned his gratitude to return to the University of Bologna to stage the NATO Model Event this year.”The Sala del Consiglio, Fondazione Cassa Dei Risparmi Di Forli is a perfect venue for the event and we are welcomed here with most gracious hospitality. It is a real honour to showcase our NAC simulation here at the university with such enthusiastic and well-prepared students.” he added.

As part of SACT’s Educational Outreach programme, NATO Model Events are held in Turkey, Italy and the USA throughout the year to help students and faculty members learn more about NATO and to understand more about the countries that they represent and that make up the Alliance.


A recent article by Quintin Smith in The Guardian highlights those aspects of the boardgaming experience that digital games cannot truly replicate.

Surely there’s nothing a board game can do that a video game can’t do better, right?

After all, board games are so limited. You have to fit them on a table, and make them out of real, tangible stuff. Video games can do whatever you can imagine!

And the best video games should already be stealing from board games. I think game designers ought to be out-and-out burglars, pausing their larceny only to remix and rethink the latest haul of ideas.

But there are also things that make board and card games great that can’t be stolen. At least, not yet. Those elements that exist only within the sphere of real-life cards, smiles and dining room tables.

He goes on to identify three characteristics of boardgames that are hard to replicate with artificial intelligence or in a digital environment: bluffing, physicality, and ownership. (Be sure to read the readers’ comments too for further thoughtful discussion on the topic.)


According to research highlighted in the New Scientist, the placebo effect works in videogames too:

Even in virtual worlds, life is what you make of it. A study has found that gamers have more fun when they think a video game has been updated with fancy new features – even when that’s not true.

Paul Cairns, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of York, UK, wondered if the placebo effect translates into the world of video games after watching a TV programme about how a sugar pill had improved cyclists’ performance.

“People have a preconception that a little round white pill that doesn’t taste nice will have a certain effect on their physiology,” says Cairns. “It’s changing your perceptions of the world around you in some profound way.”

To test their idea, he and colleague Alena Denisova asked 21 people to play two rounds of Don’t Starve, an adventure game in which the player must collect objects using a map in order to survive.

In the first round, the researchers told the players that the map would be randomly generated. In the second, they said it would be controlled by an “adaptive AI” that could change the map based on the player’s skill level. After each round, the players filled out a survey.

In fact, neither game used AI – both versions of the game were identically random. But when players thought that they were playing with AI, they rated the game as more immersive and more entertaining. Some thought the game was harder with AI, others found it easier – but no one found it equally challenging.

“The adaptive AI put me in a safer environment and seemed to present me with resources as needed,” said one player.

“It reduces the time of exploring the map, which makes the game more enjoyable,” said another.

A different experimental design, with 40 new subjects, confirmed the effect. This time, half of the players were put in a control group and told that the game was random, while the other half thought the game had built-in AI….


Ahmed Moussa is a controversial Egyptian television host known for his strong support for former Egyptian dictator Husni Mubarak. He’s also a strong supporter of Russian intervention in Syria, and recently broadcast apparent satellite images that showed Russian helicopters at work, hunting down terrorists…

…except that it was actually imagery from the 2010 video game Apache: Air Assault.


Pocket Tactics, which reviews  iOS and Android games, is taking over The Wargame. They also will soon be launching a new site, Strategy Gamer, devoted to stragey games on all digital platforms as well as tabletops. As a result, they’re looking for writers and game reviewers:

If you want to join Dave and Kelsey and the gang, now’s the time — the first call for writers we’ve put out since 2012. We’re looking for reviewers to do 2 to 3 (paid!) reviews per month. We’re also looking for another news writer, somebody who can write funny, insightful news posts most weekdays — also a paid gig.

You’ll find more on how to apply here.


V​eiled Ambition​: A Simulation of Iranian-American Relations in the Middle East

Strategic Crisis Simulations is a student organization affiliated with the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. They kindly provided PAXsims with this summary of their recent “Veiled Ambition” simulation.

Ryan Kuhns assisted with this report.

* * *


Scenario Overview

Veiled Ambition​is a simulation that examines the complex relationships in the Middle East in four distinct areas: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. In each of these countries, writers constructed plotlines which asked the participants to consider the question of Shi’a and Iranian influence throughout the Middle East, and the shifting posture of the United States in relation to that influence.

In Yemen, participants were challenged to deal with a humanitarian disaster when they were informed that disease was rampant throughout IDP camps in the nation. In addition, as the Saudi Arabian coalition continued its air campaign against the al-Houthi rebels, participants grappled with difficult questions of human rights when bombs struck civilian targets instead of military ones. For the military and intelligence communities, HUMINT reports were given to participants that indicated a potential link between some members of the al-Houthi rebellion and Iran. It remained up to participants whether they wanted to pursue those ties on the international level, or simply deal with the al-Houthi’s as non-state actors.

In Iraq, ISIL continued to make moderate advances throughout the simulation (see timeframe below). The main plotline focused on increased political involvement and action by Shi’a groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH). Power shortages shook Baghdad and citizens took to the streets, rioting and calling for jobs, power, and better governance as AAH increased their involvement and their message. Participants examined how to handle (and if it was their responsibility to handle) the internal domestic problems facing Iraq, and to what extent the United States could continue to be involved in the fight against ISIL.

In Syria, the story unfolded on two primary fronts. First, participants were contacted by representatives of a group calling themselves the Southern Front, who were willing to act as proxies for U.S. interests in the Syrian Civil War. It was up to participants to decide how involved they wanted to be with this potential partner. In the north, the Kurds continued to advance and Turkey landed a number of airstrikes on Turkish positions, prompting participants to open diplomatic channels to Turkey and ideally negotiate protection for the YPG, since the Kurds are one of the most effective fighting forces involved in the Syrian Civil War, and they typically align with U.S. interests. Finally, participants dealt with the presence of Russian influence and assistance in Syria: driven more by current events than anything else, participants struggled with an unfriendly United Nations Security Council and more support for the Assad regime than they had initially believed was present.

In Lebanon, participants examined the mounting refugee crisis and were tasked to work with the Lebanese government to support the humanitarian situation. In addition, Hezbollah is currently one of the most effective actors in the region, and also a prominent Iranian proxy. Participants were challenged to re-examine their conceptions of Iranian influence throughout the region as they sought stability and safety across Lebanon, rather than mounting economic and political crisis.

Game Format


How long did the simulation take? How much simulated time was passing?

  • The simulation was not projected into the future; it began on September 19, 2015
  • The simulation took 4 hours and 45 minutes of real time, and approximately 2 months of simulated time (September 19​– November 19​, 2015)
  • Participants were given a rough timeframe (i.e. 1 hour ~ 2 weeks) but no strict timeline was adhered to

P​articipant Positions

What roles were represented? How many participants were in each office? How many participants attended the simulation?

There were 111 total participants:

  • White House (​10)
    • Executive Office of the President (​4)
    • National Security Council (​6)
  • Defense Community (​35)
    • Office of the Secretary of Defense (​5)
      • Office of the Joint Staff (​7)
      • U.S. Central Command (​7)
      • U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (​6)
      • Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (​5)
      • Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (​5)
  • Diplomatic Community (​35)
    • Office of the Secretary of State (​4)
      • Bureau of Political Affairs (​4)
      • Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (​5)
      • Bureau of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Humanitarian Assistance (​4)
      • Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (​6)
      • Bureau of International Organization Affairs (​3)
      • Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (​5)
      • Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (​4)
  • Intelligence Community (​31)
    • Office of the Director of National Intelligence (​5)
    • Office of the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (​3)
      • Central Intelligence Agency National Clandestine Service Office of Middle East Operations (​4)
      • Central Intelligence Agency Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis (​7)
    • Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (​4)
      • Department of Defense Joint Intelligence Taskforce (​8)

Participants were placed in positions, within offices, within organizations. Represented above is the organizational and office structure, but not the individual positions. For example, a participant may be the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Overseas Operations in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations in the Diplomatic Community. In total for this simulation, 173 participants registered to attend and 111 participated on September 19​. 137 positions were prepared for the simulation.


Overall, the game ran exceptionally well. In Iraq, participants worked to build a regional deal to firm up electrical infrastructure. In addition, the U.S. continued to counter ISIL efforts to take territory and attack the Iraqi government.


In Syria, the participants worked with local forces to counter increasing Russian influence and support for the Assad regime. In addition, the U.S. government successfully rescued a colonel in the Syrian Air Force who wished to defect to the United States, and prevented a member of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara from defecting to ISIL in Syria.

In Lebanon, participants worked to alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis: they set up camps near the Syrian border, and provided humanitarian support when Lebanon faced a water shortage. In addition, participants examined the complex relationship between the internationally recognized government of Lebanon, and Hezbollah, which does much of the actual capacity building and support work within the nation.

In Yemen, the work was twofold. On one front, participants worked with Saudi Arabia to alleviate the Saudi naval blockade in order to bring in humanitarian supplies. On the other, the U.S. government worked to set up intelligence networks in order to determine if Iran was supplying the al-Houthi rebels with arms and other forms of military support. Participants also briefly dealt with a diplomatic crisis when a Kuwaiti pilot, flying in the Saudi coalition, was shot down by rebels and was subsequently captured by al-Qaeda fighters.

At the beginning of the simulation, the participants requested a set of existing presidential authorities within which they could operate. The mentor acting as President responded with the following:

The President has approved:

  • Continuation of the air campaign to destroy and degrade ISIL
  • Continuation of arms transfers to our allies in the region
  • Continuation of advising and training programs
  • Continuation of consultations, outreach, and meetings with foreign governments and non­state entities

Prior Presidential approval is required for:

  • Any ground operations
  • Additional deployments of personnel
  • Expenditures exceeding $50 mil
  • Any major change of relations with Iran, Syria, or Russia

The National Security Council and Executive Office of the President briefed the President at the end of the simulation on actions they had taken and policy recommendations for further action within the region. Participants appeared to be most concerned with the instability in Syria as a potential cause for future action by the U.S.



We are still processing our exit evaluations, so currently we can only comment on preliminary observations and anecdotal evidence. In this simulation there was an excellent adherence to chain of command and bureaucratic government structure, something Strategic Crisis Simulations has tried to encourage in our participants for a long time. One of our goals is to effectively model government, as efficient or inefficient as it may be. Many participants, especially those in roles such as Joint Special Operations Command, commented that they had plenty of time to prepare operations and plans, but it was difficult to work up the chain of command to actually get approval. In our view, this is a feature of the simulation, not a bug.

In addition, participants in this simulation struggled to distinguish between the operational-level challenges of crisis management and mitigation and the larger, strategic implications for actions within the region. Due to the timeframe the simulation was set in (over the course of two months), it was a delicate balancing act which some participant offices achieved more effectively than others.

Overall, V​eiled Ambition​was one of our most successful simulations to date. It was not only our largest simulation, but very diverse (with nearly equal male/female representation and participants ranging from freshmen to graduate students and young professionals). This confluence of experiences and skill sets allowed the participants to work together extremely effectively to challenge one of the most difficult geopolitical problems we face today: how to begin to tackle the myriad of problems currently facing the Middle East.

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