Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Syria

Gaming the strike on Syria?


On 14 April 2018, US, French, and British military forces launched missiles against Syria, in response to a chemical weapon attack by the Asad regime against the rebel-held town of Douma a week earlier. This followed a pattern of repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military, despite a previous US retaliatory attack in 2017. Three sites, all associated with the regime’s chemical weapons programme, were hit.


This led Graham Longley-Brown to ask whether the British government had conducted a wargame of the proposed attack before carrying it out:

  1. Did anyone wargame the geo-political situation? Were expert players and decision-makers engaged to represent Syria, Russia, Iran, China, The Arab nations et al to elicit plausible reactions and risks, various categories of ‘unknowns’, and maybe even a Black Swan or two circling just out of sight… Having just re-read Tom Schelling’s Zones of Control chapter ‘Red vs Blue’, it struck me that something at the pol-mil level along the lines of his games would have delivered significant benefits to our decision-makers, both in terms of an enhanced understanding of the situation and their actual decision-making process.

  2. If no wargaming occurred, why not? The answer to that question might shed light on the attitudes to wargaming within the MOD, despite the recent success of the second VCDS Wargame. There was time to put some combination of matrix/seminar game on the table, possibly informed by M&S and/or other wargame results. Rex Brynen suggested that even a well-facilitated and well-moderated BOGSAT would have been useful. There was time to design and play such games, either in parallel, in sequence, or both. While not quite a cycle of research, some sort of triangulation or cross-pollination would have reinforced insights arising and shaped more detailed analysis. This would all have been TBD during whatever rapid design process would have been implemented. If no gaming occurred because ‘it takes too long to develop these games’, do we need to have a bank of Schelling/matrix-like games developed for identified trouble-spots and waiting to be pulled off the shelf? This along with a wargaming ‘rapid response team’ to tweak these and then facilitate rapid gaming?

  3. If wargaming did occur, did someone in the MOD reach for a phone and speed-dial ‘wargamers’?  If ‘yes’, who was at the other end of the speed dial number? It should be (certainly include) Dstl’s Wargaming Team and Tom Mouat. Did this happen, and is the process formalised? If not, why not? Did the call recipients respond by putting a series of appropriate games on the table within hours (Mark Herman-like)? Was Dstl involved? If not, why not? Crucially, what lessons were identified with the process of rapidly designing and executing a wargame, and how will these be captured and turned into lessons learned?

  4. Did anyone model the attack in detail? It would have taken Jeremy Smith about 2 minutes to ‘RCAT’ this using open source data, playing tunes with variables such as Russian SAMs engaging or not engaging and different permutations on Syrian AD. I suspect this would have been insightful. However, computerised sims would have been far more important. Were any used?

  5. Finally, how might the non-MOD professional wargaming community (e.g. Cranfield) get hold of classified data from the attacks to further validate their sims? We have previously used open source data from real-world examples such as Mosul and Sirte – before, during and after those events – to validate and refine our irregular warfare RCAT models. Doing the same with near-peer, peer and peer + adversaries in a high-intensity warfighting context, will become increasingly important. What AD engaged? What was the success rate of the missiles launched? What are the BDA results? How was targeting conducted, and how effective was it? What Collateral Damage was caused? Etc. If the results are too highly classified to release then we are missing the opportunity to improve the simulations we all espouse the utility of and use for actual Defence planning. Access to real-world data such as this is crucial. Let’s hope examples remain rare, but we should leverage them when they occur.

Any such wargame would have been classified, so there’s a chance we wouldn’t know. However the consensus among UK wargamers was that no, they probably didn’t. Should they have?

One experienced UK wargamer replied:

I’ve had a think about this (with some help) and we need to be careful. There is no way we will get the great and the good to spend half a day away, in the middle of a crisis, to play a wargame.

We need them to play wargames regularly to get an appreciation of what wargames offer, but in a crisis we need a parallel process to run alongside the crisis planning. It needs someone with a trusted ear to the commander (VCDS?) who heads off and gets us lot together and then reports back with what we found…

We then need somewhere we can do that, at the right classification, that is available (like the JFC Battlelab).

As for validating our sims – I think I’m looking at a higher level (the Pol/Mil implications or the crisis and subsequent reactions, rather than the detail of the military action), so I’m less worried about building a better mousetrap, as getting insights to the commander.

The important observation here was that crisis wargaming might not (for reasons on time, among other things) be a central part of the process, but it could be a useful adjunct. To do that, however, there has to be an existing on-call capability to design, populate, run, and assess a game—quickly enough that it can raise issues for planners to consider, and with a solid enough track record that any such inputs were welcomed by planners and decision-makers. One experienced observer questioned whether the UK would ever be in a position to deploy a wargaming team quickly enough to support this sort of compressed decision-making cycle.

My own response was that this might be a case where digital simulation and modelling would be far more useful than manual games, since much hinges on the interaction of really technical variables (topography and radar shadow generated by the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, the exact placement of Syrian and Russian EW and target acquisition radars, SAM effectiveness against low flying targets amid considerable ground-clutter, and the hit (Ph) and kill (Pk) probabilities of Tomahawk/JASSM/Storm Shadow/SCAMP, and so forth).

Regarding the political dimensions of the attack, I may be a wargamer but I am not convinced this would best be explored in a wargame at all. Instead, based on my own experience, a  well-moderated BOGSAT (bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table) might work better, Much would depend, of course, on the BOGAT form, the expertise at the table, and the skill of the facilitator. It is also possible that a relatively quick wargame might provide input into those discussions, something we had previously noted in our various matrix games of the counter-ISIS campaign in Iraq.

For what it is worth regarding the attack itself, I think the target set was way too narrow, and that the regime was genuinely pleasantly surprised that so little of so little value was hit: a research facility and a few bunkers. No key regime assets or capabilities were struck. None of the units or facilities involved in the Douma attack were attacked. Nothing that signals any significant cost to Asad was destroyed—indeed, the regime secured the Douma area and almost all the Damascus suburbs in the meantime. One American contributor to the discussion similarly noted “The aparent dearth of notable results makes me suspect that no one cared over much about militarily effective action but rather focused on ‘doing something’ that looked like ‘punishing Assad’ without risking a serious confrontation with [Russia]” A wargame might have brought all that out, but so too would a half hour conversation with a reasonably competent Syria analyst.

An experienced American wargamer commented that if the strike had been wargamed, the most useful insights might be in the area of coordination and process:

The real war-game here is the inter-coalition coordination of the strikes, how the C3, legalities, and permissions worked, and how the planning process leading up to the strikes would work across the different coalition partners.  Who was in charge?  How was the coordination done (NATO or multi-lateral)?  What C3 systems were used and how did they interoperate?  How did authorization flow and deconfliction occur?  The technical side of the strikes is, as I believe someone said, pretty much physics and targeteering, which affects C3 but is not necessarily an interesting game in itself.  I’m sure there have been many games done that look at coalition strike C3 in both a NATO and a multi-/bi-lateral context amongst the countries involved.  That gaming probably informed some of the experiences and decisions of the officers making the call as to how to organized the event.

Further thoughts are welcomed in the comments section.

Matrix gaming chaos: the Syria conflict

The following report was contributed by Anja van der Hulst (TNO) and Shai Ginsberg (Duke), with photos by Leo Ching (Duke). None of the opinions expressed here necessarily reflect those of TNO or Duke University.


ISIS was expelled from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa and for now has failed to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, but has it been defeated? Will the struggle for the Afrin region open up opportunities for ISIS to re-emerge?

For the second time in five months, we have designed and played a matrix game, exploring the conflict in Syria, at the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University.

Time and again, we are amazed by how powerful the matrix game format is.  The game format is surprisingly easy to explain, which allows us to get right into strategizing and debating outcomes. Also, the Syria conflict is fought with hybrid means: it is as much a war of narratives as of military combats; there is deception, diplomacy, political and economic means, and more.  Besides matrix games, there are very few formats that are both so easy to play and that enable the use of so diverse means, taking advantage of the full spectrum of DIMEFIL (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic, Financial, Intelligence and Law Enforcement).


This is where the easy part ends. In preparation for the version of last week, we realized how much has changed. In October 2017, we named the game the “ISIS aftermath,” as ISIS was just expelled from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa and we wanted to explore the consequences of its recent defeats. The main question to be answered from this game was how would the parties engaged in the civil war in Syria respond to this development: Would ISIS rise again? Would it attempt to organize a terrorist campaign in Europe? Would there be a major power struggle with Al Qaida? And what about the Kurds, who had played such a major role in the defeat of ISIS? At the time, they just held their referendum for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, and we wondered whether a century-long quest for an independent Kurdistan might finally succeed. We also felt the civil war was winding down somewhat, and thus, our final question was whether there could be a stabilisation of the situation in Syria.


So much has changed in just five months, and the set of questions we posed last week was entirely different; we even had to rename of the game: we chose the unimaginative name, “the Syria conflict.” In the past 5 months, we have seen twists that have produced more complexity and even more chaos in the region. The Syria conflict was already a proxy war between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia but it is turning more and more into a major power struggle. The U.S.- and Russia backed forces had a common enemy is ISIS, but with ISIS losing ground those actors appear to turn ever more against each other. Interestingly, the US-led coalition started training of a 30,000-strong, Kurdish-led border force in Syria, a move which Turkey said “it could never accept.” Conveniently, Russia removed its forces from the west Syrian Province of Afrin and thus allowed Turkey to attack the Kurds in Afrin. With Turkish forces gaining ground, the Kurds in East Syria and Iraq that were holding positions previously captured from ISIS are now moving to Afrin to support their fellow Kurds. As a result, the US-backed coalition will now be fighting fellow NATO member Turkey and now, as I write this, news comes in that ISIS gangs have began to reappear around many villages in east Syria.

But that wasn’t all, between Oct 2017 and March 2018, Iran became more assertive. Israel, which until now has before a rather low profile in this war (in the October version it was not even a playable actor), now had carried out a ‘major aerial attack’ in Syria, targeting 12 military sites, four of which were said to be Iranian. And just this past week, it finally took responsibility for the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, sending a clear message to Iran, Syria (and possibly Saudi Arabia) about its red lines. Neither side can be expected to back down.

Gaming Syria Oct 2017

Our starting point in the October version was that Assad was winning over rebel forces and ISIS had been marginalised. Back then, there seemed to be open roads that might lead to stabilisation of the current situation. However, our brilliant ISIS-playing syndicate managed to enhance chaos both in the Damascus region and along the Israeli-Syrian border: they kidnapped and murdered an Assad family member and attacked Israeli targets; an Israeli harsh response forced Assad’s counter-measures. In the game, Assad actually attacked Israel and became entangled in a new front, which gave ISIS some opportunities to rise again.


Our ISIS player on Skype on her way to New York to cheerlead the Duke Blue Devils.


Gaming Syria March 2018


Turkey trying to convince the US, all in vain.

In the March version, as said, we had a totally different starting point. In game, our Russia players worked hard to marginalize the US and EU presence and influence in the region and, ultimately had great success in asserting Russia’s position in its place as the key superpower and powerbroker between the warring parties. The US and the EU’s hesitant manoeuvring and reluctance to use military force—for instance, they backed down on the US support of Kurdish forces in Syria—played into Russia’s hand and made its task easier. In response Turkey, who initially tried to work with the US and the EU, switched its alliance and established much tighter relationship with Russia. Assad, Iran and Hizbollah likewise benefitted from the growing Russian presence in the region (though not to the extent one would imagine), while ISIS attempts to reassert itself all felt flat: its attempts to initiate a terrorist campaign, targeting both Assad and Iranian forces fell short. Ultimately, Russia and Turkey engineered a cease fire to be enforced by, among others, Russian forces on the ground and would formal and internationally legitimate continued Russian presence in Syria. Interestingly, the game made it patently clear to our students how complicated the position of the US-led coalition in Syria is. The Russian success in striking a ceasefire agreement, made US military intervention in Afrin unnecessary (and unwelcomed), solving the dicey issue of pitting US forces against their NATO ally Turkey. It also relieved Kurdish forces in Afrin; Kurdish forces in the East of Syria might now stay put, buttressing their positions against a re-emergent ISIS. Still, condoning an enlarged Russian presence in Syria might create a severe strategic disadvantage to the US in the Middle East.

Insights on learning

How well does gaming contribute to learning? If we wish to make students truly understand the dynamics in the Middle East, a number of insights on learning from such gaming sessions emerge. Students were engaged: it was obvious that they studied hard to master their own role as well as the interests of other players in a regional conflict so complex.  Given its complexity, we’re still amazed how well students manage to strategically act in the shoes of regional actors after just a couple of hours of going through background materials. The resulting debates were fierce and lively, and misconceptions were usually corrected by the group. There were also a lot of laughter, serving as yet another proof that they were both engaged and thoroughly enjoyed participating in such games.  As one of them remarked, “This is so cool, we get to play the real version of dungeons and dragons in class.”


Two aspects of the game demand additional consideration. First is that the more introvert students have a hard time participating fully. Roleplay and arguing relies partly on debating skills and here we see large differences in participation. One should remember, however, that matrix games is not only about debates: it also involves havey strategizing, which relies in turn on a deep understanding of the domain and the conflict. Besides improving debating skills, we might work on a division of labour where some students mostly strategize while others debate more. In the comprehensive approach game we played at McGill, syndicates had 4-5 people, and there such division of labour usually emerged.

Second is that the students who played the US and EU found it impossible to pursue tactics and strategies they deemed immoral. Whereas they were well aware of the history of the US military, political and economic engagement with the rest of the world (and in the case of these particular students, in Asia in particular), they still could not bring themselves to take actions that would cast a negative light on the US and its allies. Players who played other parties found it much easier to identify interest and pursue them with all means at their possession, questions of morality and ethics notwithstanding. It seems, then, that matrix games pose a particular problem if the players truly identify with the party they are playing.

Some final words: our own experience shows that games form one of the best tools we have in developing an understanding of the current regional dynamic. To do so requires good materials that expounds the interests of actors in the region, their historical ties and traumas. Still, the more one delves into the issue and the more one learns about the participant actors, the more difficult it is to actually comprehend the situation in general. The history of the region is made up of so many traumas, conflicting interests, shifting alliances, and radical changes in leadership. In particular, we (and players) are overwhelmed by the intensity of emotions and entrenchment in beliefs and ideologies. Next time, we’ll just game the tensions in the Korean region…

Insights on analytical value

Then, are such matrix games useful for analytical purposes? Does the game play have any predictive value?  First of all, we noticed many time that the argumentation within matrix games for analytical purposes improves substantially with true regional experts playing the roles.

In these sessions, I assume that the future courses of action we created at Duke were of little value for forecasting. Evidently, in the October version we hadn’t foreseen many of the events that happened in the past five months. Likewise, we do not hold our breath for the events played in the March version to ultimately unfold.

Two observations here:

  1. Lack of malice: We noticed a bias towards mostly “nice” actions on the part of students, such as negotiating ceasefires and alliances. They made this explicit: our students basically did not wish to risk killing people, which cannot be said for most of the current actors in the Middle East.  Although our students seemed to understand the actors and their interests, they refrained from turning truly Machiavellian. This made the courses of action insufficiently realistic for analytical purposes.  For conflict games to have realistic outcomes, we need the will to act against morality and received norms. We have there considered brainwashing our players…
  2. Lack of true future forward thinking: It is a feeling that in roleplaying into the future, we tend to stay very close to the present situation and the dynamics as we understand them, probably far too close. We are sort of linearly thinking into the future. For example, our experiences being that when e.g. gaming, 15 years into the future, one notices that our players tend to look e.g. at Russia as governed by a centralised autocratic regime. As illustrated by all those twists in Syria, in 15 years, a lot can (and will) happen. In 15 years, Russia may fall into utter chaos, disintegrate locally, or be divided between neighbouring countries, but no-one really envisions that in long term strategy-wargames.  We tend to work too much on the basis of our assumptions from today- and assume they will still hold true in the future. It requires a more advanced systems thinking approach to step back from the current situation and to identify and understand the sources of tensions, the polarities existent, and to work from there.  How to get there? We don’t know, but are convinced that we will have to work on improving the predictive value of the less kinetic conflict-games to support meaningful strategizing.

Still, the matrix games we played helped tremendously in educating students about the conflict, and in relatively short time.

To end this report, let us hope that in the next 6 months things take some turns for the better, and that we will not have to rename the next version of our Syria matrix game into “The Middle East War”.

Anja van der Hulst and Shai Ginsberg


Review of Islamic State: The Syria War

Islamic State: The Syria War. Game designer: Javier Romero. Game developer: Ty Bomba. One Small Step/CounterFact magazine, 2017. USD$32.00 (including magazine).

Islamic State is a two-player game included as part of CounterFact magazine #7. It examines the struggle against Daesh (also known as ISIS or the Islamic State) in Syria. Game play is semi-cooperative, in that the Syrian/Russian/Iranian side and the US/Coalition/SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, including the Syrian Kurds/YPG) side are both fighting against non-player Daesh, and neither can win unless the Islamic State is defeated. However, if Daesh is sufficiently weakened, the game reverts to being full competitive, in that only one of the two players can ultimately triumph. The game is similar in general design to Islamic State: Libya War, published in 2016. The rules can be downloaded for free here.


Image credit: Javier Romero (via BGG).

Islamic State: Syria War uses point-to-point movement, which is appropriate given the geography, population distribution, and transportation network found in Syria. Indeed, a very similar system was used in the Countering ISIL game designed by the rapid prototyping working group at the 2015 MORS special meeting on wargaming. That game was later developed by RAND for use in professional settings.

Players have a number of combat options to choose from each turn, ranging from movement/ground combat to reconnaissance, air/artillery strikes, snatch-and-grab operations, and targeted killings, The actions of Daesh are largely determined by chit draw, and might include military offensives, infiltration, subversion, kidnappings, and smuggling. From time to time, other Syrian rebel factions or Turkey might also take action through a similar mechanism. When combat occurs, Daesh forces are randomly drawn, with some units having particular characteristics such as limited anti-tank or anti-air capability, or use of IEDs and human shields.

Islamic State: The Syria War has some rough edges. Some game mechanisms could be a little more elegant, and the rules have some gaps or areas where they could be clearer. It also very much focuses on Syria through the prism of Daesh, and rather than the struggle between the Syrian opposition and the Asad regime. Nevertheless, for a small magazine game it features some interesting elements, and it nicely captures many key aspects of the conflict. I particularly liked the portrayal of special operations forces, the role that intelligence collection plays in the game, and the way in which Daesh activity can be slowed by eliminating leaders or sealing the northern (Turkish) border.

Simulating mass atrocity prevention in Syria


Back in May, students at Stanford Law School took part in a day-long policy simulation that explored the challenges of mass atrocity prevention in Syria. Beth Van Schaack offers an account of the exercise at the school’s Law and Policy Lab blog.

The scenario was as follows:

It is February 2015, and the conflict in Syria is at a violent stalemate, with civilians comprising approximately a third of the over 200,000 casualties to date. Half of Syria’s civilian population is living in refugee camps around the region or is internally displaced.  Many of the latter are trapped in pockets of contested territory where they face starvation and other damaging consequences of combat. The third U.N. Special Envoy for Syria has determined that a political solution in Syria is unlikely, as prior efforts to mediate between warring parties have been fruitless. Although the U.S. Government has engaged in limited air strikes against ISIL targets in the region, there are few prospects for more extensive military engagement.

President Obama has directed his National Security Staff to reassess the situation and provide options to prevent further atrocities in Syria. He intends to announce a new U.S. policy in this regard during a major speech in the next two weeks.  Individuals from across the inter-agency have convened a subordinate Interagency Policy Committee (sub-IPC) to assist in the policy formulation process, beginning with the review of preliminary ideas generated by lower-level working groups.

The participants soon encountered some of the many challenges presented by crisis:

Although the simulation began as a collective discussion, agencies broke into small groups to devise concrete policy suggestions around three broad categories of tools: suasion, compellence, and intervention.  A fourth group was invited to think outside the proverbial box for cross-cutting options.  Participants then presented and defended their ideas before the full sub-IPC.  While several agencies called for more robust sanctions against Assad and his inner circle, Tres Thompson, SLS ’16 representing the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department, insisted that the sanctions programs were already at maximum capacity. The counter-terrorism specialists insisted that more could be done to delegitimize ISIL in order to stave off new recruits and emphasized that U.S. refugee policy cannot be divorced from its counter-terrorism efforts given that refugee camps offer prime recruitment opportunities.  It was suggested that Turkey should be provided technical assistance aimed at securing its borders, perhaps from the Department of Homeland Security, against the reverse flow of radicals. Swain Uber, SLS and IPS ’17, assigned the role of Deputy in the Office of Global Criminal Justice within the U.S. Department of State—my former position—emphasized that whatever the United States does on the diplomatic, military, or humanitarian front should not jeopardize the ability to continue to collect evidence of the commission of international crimes and eventually hold perpetrators accountable, either within a domestic judicial system or an international tribunal with jurisdiction over the events in question.

A major dilemma that emerged in the discussions concerned whether or not the United States should engage with President Assad to counter the ISIL threat. Participants were split. Some argued that the Syrian regime is beyond redemption and that appeasing Assad now would threaten the West’s relationship with moderate rebel groups, be inconsistent with persistent calls for accountability, and undermine President Obama’s demands that “Assad must go.”  Others insisted that the emergence of ISIL meant that the United States must identify willing partners of all stripes. They acknowledged that there is value to consistency in foreign policy, lest an administration open itself up to criticism that it is feckless, but insisted that consistency should not be valued over efficacy. Participants explored how the United States might work through back channels and Syrian allies, including Russia, to enlist Assad’s assistance in countering ISIL as a common foe. Participants questioned the role that Iran might play in this effort; again, opinions were divided. Some saw the situation as an opportunity to further normalize relations with Iran whereas others insisted that Iran would condition any cooperation on unacceptable concessions on the nuclear front or a relaxing of sanctions.

You’ll find a much fuller write-up, including a discussion of learning outcomes and of the general challenges of atrocity prevention, at the link above.

h/t Corinne Goldberger 

Simulated refugees spark tabloid outrage!

A few days ago PAXsims mentioned Syrian Journey, the BBC’s interactive exploration of the challenges facing Syrian refugees trying to reach asylum in Europe. We thought it was a “simple but effective example of how interactive fiction can be used to explore difficult humanitarian challenges in a way that makes them readily understandable to a broader audience.”

Apparently not everyone thought so. The British tabloid The Sun—well-known for its sensitivity to migrants, refugees, Muslims, and the Middle Eastran a story about the “fury” that the BBC’s “sick” game had (allegedly) generated:



The Sun cited “Middle East expert” Christopher Walker as saying “In the midst of probably the bloodiest Syrian crisis this century, the decision of the BBC to transform the human suffering of literally millions into a children’s game beggars belief.” (Walker is a former reporter who periodically also does interviews with those other bastions of the quality media, Russia Today and Iran’s Press TV. I wouldn’t personally consider him an expert on either Syria or refugees.)

The Daily Mail—which, like the Sun, is well-known for its sensitivity to migrants, refugees, Muslims, and the Middle East—then jumped aboard the outrage bandwagon:

mailonline_logoDailyMailThe Daily Mail even cited a few people on Twitter to buttress its case—because, you know, if a couple of people on Twitter are upset it must be a real story.

As Keith Stuart notes at The Guardian, all this outrage is misplaced:

Mostly, of course, this is down to a misunderstanding about what games are – or can be. It’s telling that the Mail’s expert refers to Syrian Journey as a “children’s game” despite the fact that no such claim is made on the game’s home page. Indeed, it is placed in the site’s news section, and is clearly labeled as a news-based interactive experience.

The inference is that all games are for children, and that this is not a medium that can support or explore serious subject matter. It is, in short, an old-fashioned moral panic, a dated reaction to a medium that has been maturing for over 40 years. Indeed, interactive news games have been around for over a decade, ever since web-based platforms like Flash have allowed developers to quickly develop and distribute topical interactive experiences. A glimpse at the work of studios like Molleindustria and Persuasive Games shows how subjects like fast food production and airport security can be effectively analysed and expressed in game form.

He goes on to explore more fully how “news games” and interactivity can be used to inform and engage, thereby making important news stories more accessible.

The BBC has defended the approach, which has been praised by refugee advocates. Most of the response on Twitter—including by those who work directly on Syrian and refugee issues—has been positive too. The game has received more than a million views.

As for me, I too continue to view Syrian Journey as a valuable and very positive effort by the BBC. And, while it is true I have never been interviewed by Russia Today, Press TV,  or The Sun, I do write books about both refugees and the contemporary Middle East, as well as teach on the subject—all of which might give me some modest claim to be a “Middle East expert” as well.

The BBC’s interactive “Syrian journey”

beirutBBC News today features a short interactive simulation in which the player assumes the role of a Syrian refugee trying to find asylum in Europe:

The Syrian conflict has torn the country apart, leaving thousands dead and driving millions to flee their homes. Many seek refuge in neighbouring countries but others pay traffickers to take them to Europe – risking death, capture and deportation.

If you were fleeing Syria for Europe, what choices would you make for you and your family? Take our journey to understand the real dilemmas the migrants face. This journey is based on extensive research and real stories of Syrians who have made the journey.

It includes links to personal stories, background information, and further discussion on social media. Overall, it is a simple but effective example of how interactive fiction can be used to explore difficult humanitarian challenges in a way that makes them readily understandable to a broader audience.

Updated ISIS Crisis materials

Syrian refugees in Lebanon simulation — the video

Abigail Grace has produced an excellent video of January’s refugee simulation at the University of Exeter. You’ll find it below.

Simulating the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon


Last month I had the pleasure of running a classroom simulation on the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon at the University of Exeter with Prof. Mick Dumper for his POL 2046 course on The Refugee Crisis in the Modern World. Gamers extraordinaire Tom Mouat and Jim Wallman came down for the day to assist, along with graduate student Abigail Grace. Today I ran the same simulation at McGill University for some of the students in Prof. Megan Bradley‘s POLI 359 course on the international refugee regime, together with a few from my own POLI 450 course on peacebuilding. This time ICAMES graduate research fellow (and teaching assistant) Ecem Oskay was there to help.


The Exeter Control team, complete with empty sack of goat food.

Both simulations involved around two dozen students. Both simulations went very well, I thought.

A variety of roles were represented in the simulation:

  • The Lebanese Prime Minister, plus various cabinet ministers (from the Future Movement, Phalange, Hizbullah, Free Patriotic Movement, Progressive Socialist Party) and the Lebanese Armed Forces. This gave some differentiation in terms of portfolios and responsibilities, and also recreated some of the political and sectarian tensions between the “March 8” and “March 14” coalitions within the Lebanese government.
  • Various UN agencies (UNHCR, UNRWA, UNICEF, and World Food Programme)
  • A (fictional) local charitable association.
  • Human Rights Watch.
  • The European Union ambassador (representing the donor community more broadly).
  • The refugees themselves. Each of these had a different back story in terms of geographic origin, occupation/social class, family needs and situation, sectarian affiliation, and political views. One was a female-headed household.  Two of the refugees were secretly opposition organizers, for the Free Syrian Army and ISIS. Some were Palestinian refugees from Syria, rather than Syrian citizens.

The Lebanese cabinet makes a joint announcement, hoping to dampen down sectarian tensions. (Exeter)

In designing the simulation I wanted to avoid a simple seminar-type negotiation exercise in which the stakeholders all sit down around a table and try to achieve an agreement on something. For a start, such an approach wouldn’t generate the sense of overbearing crisis that Lebanon feels, a small country hosting some 1.2 million refugees from the bloody and dangerous civil war in neighbouring Syria. In addition, it would also misrepresent the dynamics whereby refugee policy emerges. Refugees do not, as a rule, play any sort of direct role in policy formulation. Instead, their actions and coping strategies provide the context.

Consequently, this simulation was really two linked simulations in one.


The Lebanese Armed Forces questions refugees, looking for evidence of militants and paramilitary activities. (McGill)

At one level, refugees were tasked with simply trying to survive. Each hour they would have to make choices about how to try to earn money (beg? work illegally in Lebanon? try to cross back into Syria?), where to live (a squatter camp? a squalid flat? a middle class apartment?), and what additional goods did they want to buy (basic durables? medicine? forged papers?) Choices had consequences–they might be arrested, deported, or shot crossing the border, or their children might get ill from poor accommodations.

The refugees sit in their make-shift shelters while aid workers undertake a needs assessment. (Exeter)

The refugees sit in their make-shift shelters while aid workers undertake a needs assessment. (Exeter)

The refugees were also given tarps, ropes, cardboard, old carpets, and other materials and were required to construct their own makeshift shelters in the classroom—which at one point were then torn down by angry Lebanese farmers seeking to reclaim their fields. They were required to undertake manual labour, representing the sort of unskilled jobs refugees typically take: in Exeter this consisted of endlessly moving furniture from one end of the classroom to the other and back again, while at McGill they had to carry heavy bags up and down four flights of steps. In their spare time they might beg, or protest, or even smuggle weapons.


Refugees build shelters near the United Nations compound as a member of the Control team looks on. (McGill)

Each hour a random event card would be drawn. Some of these were good: relatives in Europe might send money, or a refugee might reconnect with old friends. Many others were negative: agonizing moral choices, sexual assault, sickness. Refugee resiliency was tracked with tokens. If refugees ran out of these their coping skills were sharply diminished, or they were instructed to just sit and sob in their shelters until someone offered them some help. Throughout, all of the refugees kept handwritten diaries of their experiences.


The Lebanese Army arrests a refugee. (Exeter)

Everyone in the simulation was provided with lunch—except the refugees, who were expected to “buy” it with their meagre simulation income. Depending on their luck and decisions, some didn’t eat for hours, and others not at all. Refugees were also prohibited from sitting in chairs or accessing their telephones or laptops unless they “paid” to use these too. Their rooms were often plunged into darkness, unless they illegally connected to the Lebanese power grid. In Exeter we opened the windows on what was a cold and damp day to increase the refugee discomfort level (it was -18C in Montreal, which didn’t really make that a viable option).

This unfortunate refugee didn't make it—shot by Syrian border guards. (McGill)

This unfortunate refugee didn’t make it—shot by Syrian border guards. (McGill)

The aid actors had some resources (cash, food, other items), but not enough. The UN in particular had to register the refugees and undertake a needs assessment to make sure that the most vulnerable received priority.


Angry refugees protest their treatment. (McGill)

At another level, this was a more traditional policy simulation. The UN team was tasked with drawing up a comprehensive refugee strategy to which the Lebanese government might agree. The Lebanese government was concerned not only with this, but also with a number of other challenges that cropped up (a bomb attack, jihadist suspects hiding in a Palestinian refugee camp, complaints that the Syrians were pushing Lebanese workers out of jobs, crime, illegal electrical connections, a measles outbreak among the refugees—among others). The EU sought to promote a more effective response to the refugee crisis, and had some funds to support this. Human Rights Watch tried to raise human rights issues with Lebanese policymakers and the international community. The refugees were largely absent in any direct sense from these discussions and negotiations, although their choices or even protests fundamentally shaped the policy environment.

All of the policy actors were expected to take notes and minutes, and prepare formal presentations or reports that were submitted during the simulation.


Officials listen to a presentation by Human Rights Watch. (Exeter)

In both the Exeter and McGill simulation runs, the Lebanese grew increasingly concerned at the economic, political, and security challenges presented by the refugees. The UN proposed an integrated refugee strategy after several hours of consultation, but in both cases the Lebanese government rejected the proposal and called for further discussions.


The Lebanese cabinet poses for a photograph, shortly after rejecting UN proposals and calling for further discussions. (McGill)

In both simulations, despite significant local and international aid, the refugees felt they largely had to fend for themselves, and grew resentful that more wasn’t done to help them. In the debrief, many of the well-meaning internationals were rather surprised to hear this.

In the debrief session we were careful to identify the artificial aspects of the simulation—for example, more simulated than real refugees were involved in paramilitary skullduggery, and real refugees would be less likely to organize protests for fear of arrest or deportation. But there were also many, many realistic outcomes that we could point to and discuss. The refugees in particular got a sense of marginalization and vulnerability, but also how refugee communities could organize to help each other in sometimes small but important ways.

This was not a simple simulation—it was 6-7 hours of intense activity, involving a 3-4 person control team. However, those who participated seem to find it well worth the time spent.

Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 4

Alex Langer is a McGill University political science undergraduate student who designing a wargame of the current Syrian civil war as a course project. He’ll be posting his ideas on PAXsims from time to time as a sort of “developer diary.” You can access all of the parts of the series here.

* * *

What a ride it’s been! I started this semester knowing almost nothing about game design, and now I think about games –other peoples’ games, Road to Damascus, and ideas for new political science problems to simulate– all the time. Making Road to Damascus has been an amazing experience, in many ways the highlight of my four years at McGill. I’d like to thank Professor Brynen for the opportunity to work on this project, as well as endless guidance and enthusiasm. I’d also like to thank all of the playtesters (Tom, June, Eric, Ecem, Jason, Vanessa, and others) who volunteered their time and energy to work through this game with me.

With term coming to an end this will be my final post about my game. I will go through our second playtest, discussing some of the tweaked game mechanics and what still needs to be perfected. Then, I will talk about how my game ‘fits’ the Syrian conflict as a simulation and possibly as a learning tool.

The Second Playtest

We held another playtest last Friday, which went well. The rule changes from last time had been implemented, and a new map made things much easier to see. While due to my own errors the player aid cards were distinctly unhelpful, the game still ran fairly smoothly.

Early in the game. Kurdish nationalist (white) are building up in strength al-Hasakah, the nucleus of what they hope will be their future autonomous area or independent state. The FSA and Islamic Front focus on Aleppo and Hama.

Early in the game. Kurdish nationalists (white) are building up in strength al-Hasakah, the nucleus of what they hope will be their future autonomous area or independent state. Later they will forge very close relations with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, allowing them to recruit from among refugees there. The FSA and Islamic Front initially focus on Aleppo, Idlib, and Hama.

The game started with a regime offensive, supported by airstrikes, which cleared out the city of Aleppo and degraded rebel capacity in the surrounding province. In the face of a major government buildup, rebel players withdrew or were wiped out. Heavy fighting there and in Idlib province, combined with harsh winter weather, cause immense damage and forced tens of thousands of Syrians across the border into Turkey. This was represented by Refugee counters, which now appear in neighbouring countries when Death and Destruction occurs are placed in border provinces. These countries become ‘playable’ spaces for Rebel factions with Supporting relations, enabling rebel commanders to slip across the border and recruit an army among the refugees, as each Refugee counter counts as an independent rebel unit.

Unlike in our first playtest, the rebel players –particularly the Kurdish Nationalists- made an effort to court international and domestic actors for support; this was made easier by the reduced threshold necessary to change opinion. Mobilization of Syria’s Kurds against the regime caused the quiet emergence of a large rebel force in Aleppo, which had major impacts later in the game. By contrast, repeated regime attempts to court Sunnis failed; had they succeeded, the opposition would have rapidly begun to run out of forces.

Initially, it appeared as though the regime was headed for victory: rebel forces controlled a number of provinces, particularly in the northeast, but remained weak in the most populated and important areas near Damascus and Aleppo. A new Revolution! card, “Geneva Conference”, allowed the government to manipulate peace talks (which prevented fighting without paying a price in international support) to steady itself, then mount an air campaign to reduce rebel forces in Hama.

Eventually though, as an alliance between the FSA and Islamic Front was struck, the tide began to turn. Syrian forces lost control over Idlib, then Homs province. Indoctrinated and heavily armed FSA forces advanced south into Rif Damascus, while Islamist guerrillas cut the main highway in Homs province. This prevented the capital from being reinforced by troops from Aleppo, leaving Damascus to fend for itself. As the regime lost control over the capital city itself, the desperate Government player unleashed chemical weapons, slaughtering rebel forces but depopulating the country’s most valuable city. Islamist forces soon arrived in Rif Damascus, reinforcing the rebel offensive.

The Syrian Army (red) and National Defence Force militias (orange, yellow) have regained control of Damascus—but at the cost of considerable collateral damage (grey rubble).

The Syrian Army (red), led by the elite Presidential Guard (star) and supported by National Defence Force militias (orange, yellow) have regained control of Damascus—but at the cost of considerable collateral damage (grey rubble).

As the game drew to a close though, the most dramatic events were about to occur. The FSA and Islamic Front, quiet in the country’s south until now, marched in and seized control, recruiting independent rebel forces to consolidate their power. Rebel forces marched over the mountains into the Alawi-dominated coastal strip, taking advantage of weak government preparation. In the north, Kurdish forces, planning for months and recruiting Kurdish refugees from Iraqi Kurdistan, mounted a lighting assault into the city of Aleppo. There, they recruited independent rebel brigades and seized control of the country’s now-largest city, raising the Kurdish Rising Sun banner from the captured city hall. With this final move, the Kurdish Nationalists –due to their bonuses for controlling territories with Kurdish populations and a victory points card for ‘Kurdish Self-Rule’, won the game.

Famed Kurdish commander Vanessa Sunahara leads her forces into Aleppo to challenge the regime garrison there. A growing number of refugees can be seen over the border in Turkey.

Famed commander Vanessa leads Kurdish forces and local allies in Aleppo to challenge the regime garrison there. A growing number of refugees can be seen over the border in Turkey.

Conclusions: Modeling the Syrian Civil War

I believe that Road to Damascus, while stylized and simplified, fits the dynamics of the Syrian Civil War quite well. It captures the messiness, grinding attrition and sudden bursts of activity that characterize the war. Combat tends to take the form of harassment and ambushes from rebels, with the government relying on airstrikes and shifting their capable combat units from province to province to mop up rebel fighters. Combat also realistically produces immense destruction: multiple players over both playtests referenced the much-mocked Vietnam War saying, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” The tragic nature of the Syrian Civil War, with regime and rebel forces fighting over a devastated, broken and partially depopulated land, was sadly (but accurately) reproduced by the game.

Road to Damascus also effectively simulates the struggles that both sides in the war face. Diplomacy, both with the Syrian people and the international community, is difficult. In both playtests, rebel players struggled to mobilize the population against the regime, while the regime struggled to convince Sunnis to side with the Ba’ath Party and Assad family. The FSA twice gained the momentary support of the Western Powers in the second playtest, before the West lost interest in its cause due to atrocities by rebel fighters or the beginning of a crisis in Ukraine. The frustration with these events was palpable from the FSA player. All rebel players grew to fear airstrikes, dreading the government turn. Meanwhile, the government player appeared beleaguered and complained of feeling under siege. While putting someone in the place of Bashar al-Assad or Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi may have ethical consequences, the psychological dynamics of the game, with its grinding warfare and constant shortage of military resources on all sides, seemed to work well.

While Road to Damascus works well as a simulation of the conflict, there are likely some issues of its use as a learning tool. First are the ethical ramifications of simulating an ongoing conflict. While I have enjoyed this project, I recognize that playing a ‘game’ of a war people are currently dying in and suffering through may be seen as in poor taste or unethical. Additionally, while the game simulates the war well, it is built as a simulation and fun wargame first and a learning tool second: there is not a ton of informational content in the game. While it might be useful for people already learning about the war, it is probably not ideal as a tool on its own.

In conclusion, Road to Damascus has been a great learning experience, and something I plan to continue working on and perfecting. I hope you have all enjoyed following my journey in gaming the Syrian Civil War.

Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 3

Alex Langer is a McGill University political science undergraduate student who designing a wargame of the current Syrian civil war as a course project. He’ll be posting his ideas on PAXsims from time to time as a sort of “developer diary.” You can access all of the parts of the series here.

* * *

Last Thursday, we held the first playtest of my game, provisionally titled Road To Damascus. While the game needs changes, the core game system seems to work well, and it was a ton of fun to play. Some rules needed major tweaks, and the diplomacy system needs an overhaul. As well, a new map would make gameplay much easier. However, the combat system worked nearly perfectly.

The Board

For the board, I used a standard roadmap of Syria, with lines drawn onto it to demarcate provincial boundaries in black and Lines of Communication (LoCs) highlighted in red. Units are placed in ‘stacks’, with the government, each rebel player and the independent rebels each having their own stack. LoCs were separate map spaces, with only one unit total allowed there.

Using a modified commercial map for the initial game board. The large red disks are Syrian airfields and divisional bases; the smaller red risks are regular Syrian army units (elite units denoted by a star); the red aircraft indicate airstrikes; and the orange disks denote shabiha, National Defence Force, and other pro-regime militias. The black, green and white disks denote FSA, Islamist, and Kurdish militias, while the avatars represent key opposition commanders. The remaining disks (yellow, blue) represent unaffiliated guerillas. Each province is a separate zone for movement and combat, with each of the major cities (Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo) also comprising a zone unto itself. The red lines mark key lines of communication, and the Syrian desert is a separate zone with restrictions on movement.

Using a modified commercial map for the initial game board. The large red disks are Syrian airfields and divisional bases; the smaller red risks are regular Syrian army units (elite units denoted by a star); the red aircraft indicate airstrikes; and the orange disks denote shabiha, National Defence Force, and other pro-regime militias. The black, green and white disks denote FSA, Islamist, and Kurdish militias, while the avatars represent key opposition commanders. The remaining disks (yellow, blue) represent unaffiliated guerillas. Each province is a separate zone for movement and combat, with each of the major cities (Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo) also comprising a zone unto itself. The red lines mark key lines of communication, and the Syrian desert is a separate zone with restrictions on movement.

The board made the game somewhat confusing: (LoCs) were sometimes difficult to distinguish from the surrounding provinces, and it was difficult to fit all of the necessary units into the smaller southern provinces of Daraa and As-Suwayda. For future playtests, we will be using a different game board.

Provinces/zones and lines of communication on the new map.

Provinces/zones and lines of communication on the new map.

The Setup

The game was set up to follow a historical scenario beginning in May 2012, with the collapse of a limited ceasefire between the Assad regime and rebels. Government forces are concentrated in Damascus, Aleppo and the cities of southern and central Syria, where they maintain relatively firm control. Meanwhile, rebels increasingly control rural areas and northeastern Syria, with regime forces restricted to protecting their military base infrastructure. The three rebel players represent the FSA (Military Defectors), the Islamic Front (Islamists) and the PYD (Kurdish Nationalists).

The Gameplay

Generally, the game went well. While there was some rules confusion on the first turn, people picked up the basic structure –as described in previous posts– pretty quickly. Players’ actions began to mirror the dynamics of the Syrian Civil War: the rebel players consistently failed to cooperate with each other, while the government player rapidly began to abandon eastern Syria to the rebels in favour of holding onto major population centers. After an early rule change drastically increased the effectiveness of airstrike operations, rebel players –particularly the FSA player– openly began to voice dread at the government player’s placement of airstrike markers.

Revolution! Cards, the game’s way of generating new independent rebels and representing historical events, needed some changes. After some discussion, we decided that in future games, the number of rebels generated by each card would be decreased. However, rather than the government player drawing one card per game turn, each player would draw a card at the beginning of their player turn. A lot of card tweaking happened over the course of the game as well. Notably, a reserve-play card meant to simulate rebel fighters hiding among the population was miswritten to allow all players to use its effects, allowing a large regime garrison in Aleppo to hide amongst the city’s Christian population to avoid a rebel assault. When FSA units arrived, they were apparently unable to find the Syrian military among crowds of nuns and ringing church bells.

Another feature that needs work was the diplomacy system. While the Islamists courted foreign actors for income, eventually managing to build a broad coalition of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Salafist donor networks, other players neglected foreign actors and ignored Syria’s domestic communities. The expensive tradeoff (an operations point), uncertainty (a 5+ die roll to shift opinion) and the lack of short-term rewards of diplomatic action were cited as reasons for why the diplomatic track was largely overlooked. The next version of the rules will make Influence operations easier.

However, some recent additions to the game worked out well. IDPs and the steady disintegration of Syria are represented in a simple way, through Death and Destruction markers. These appear both through card play and when triples are rolled during Assault operations, to represent the effects of heavy fighting. Death and Destruction markers reduce the population value of a province, including for recruitment, taxation and victory points. While I am considering adding a Refugee marker, I am worried that this could be a finicky mechanism. Meanwhile, income is now gained through a Tax operation, which proved quite effective.

Victory Conditions

The win/loss system was the last part of my game I needed to develop. Victory points are calculated based on the population value of the provinces under player Control or Influence, as well as through some reserve-play cards and captured Government Bases. The Government player only wins if their victory point score is greater than the three rebel players combined. Otherwise, the rebel player with the highest score wins the game. There are no overriding conditions for victory, although some players, particularly Kurdish Nationalists, receive substantial bonuses for holding certain territories.

Plans for the Future

I am currently modifying cards and the rules as well as constructing a better game board for the next playtest. After that, testing, testing and more testing will be necessary, something which I’m looking forward to!

Alex Langer

* * *

Having played the game as the Kurdish player, let me add a few thoughts of my own.

As a first playtest of a rough design, Road to Damascus was excellent. A similar view expressed by all of the other playtesters too. Indeed, it is shaping up to be my favourite insurgency/counter-insurgency games of all time—no small accomplishment, given how many COIN games I’ve played.

In our own game, a joint rebel offensive succeeded in largely pushing the regime out of city of Aleppo. A sustained fight then erupted for control of the rest of the province, with the opposition seeking to sever north-south lines of communication. My own Kurdish troops were generally active only in the north and east of the country, seizing control of al-Hasakah province. This led to a short-lived conflict with the Islamists, who had lured several unaffiliated guerrilla units there to their jihadist banner. In al-Haskah, Dar-az-Zawr, Raqqa, and Aleppo major government military installations were overrun. From time to time there was also fighting in Hama and Rif Damascus, although the regime was able to keep the capital generally rebel-free. Dar’a was relatively quiet until near the end of the game. The game ended with a narrow regime victory.

The change to the airstrikes rule involved an interesting trade-off. On the one hand, the revised rules make them somewhat ore powerful and predictable than in the real world. On the other hand, it does generate exactly the right sort of psychological tension in the game, with the rebels soon becoming desperate for MANPADS or a no-fly zone. On balance, the latter effect is worth the minor distortion of operational effectiveness.

The game very much captures the fluid nature of rebel cohesion, alliances, and organization. Many of the rebel units in the game are unaffiliated, and effort must be made to bring them under your command–and keep them there. Local commanders are essential to both military and political activities. Guerrilla players only partially cooperate, making a coherent opposition strategy difficult.

Because a rebel player usually only plays one card per turn, and because most opposition units are incapable of anything beyond harassment operations unless stiffened with veteran troops, much of the conflict consists of grinding war of slow attrition. However it is possible to bank certain cards and play them later, leading to episodic (but short-lived) campaigns. This too is very much in keeping with the nature of the fighting.

Aleppo. There's a serious educational purpose to this game design--but it is worth also remembering the real death and destruction in Syria.

Aleppo. There’s a serious educational purpose to this game design–but it is worth also remembering the real death and destruction in Syria.


Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 2

Alex Langer is a McGill University political science undergraduate student who designing a wargame of the current Syrian civil war as a course project. He’ll be posting his ideas on PAXsims from time to time as a sort of “developer diary.” You can access all of the parts of the series here.

* * *

maxresdefaultFollowing up on my first post, defining the actors, time period and general purpose of the game, Professor Brynen and I moved on to discussions about the combat system. At the core of the game, combat in the Syrian Civil War need to be modeled with enough complexity to be realistic, while also maintaining a level of simplicity to prevent the game from becoming unplayable. This post will cover basic game mechanics, with a particular focus on combat and the dynamics of domestic and foreign support.

Basic Game Mechanics

Un-syriaThe Syrian Civil War’s map covers the whole of the country, broken down approximately into Syria’s 13 provinces. Major disputed cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs will be represented with their own game-regions; particularly during the beginning of the game period (mid-2012), the Syrian regime often held control over key urban areas, with the countryside under the effective control of rebel forces. In addition, Lines of Communication (LoCs, major arterial roads and highways) will be represented as their own special regions, with particular rules governing their control and bonuses for control over contiguous regions

Each region will be coded for two primary characteristics: terrain type and dominant ethno-sectarian identity. Rough terrain, like mountains or dense forest, give rebel fighters advantages in certain types of combat. Ethno-sectarian identity plays a greater role, governing who can recruit there, providing shelter to friendly rebels, giving combat bonuses to factions favoured by the ethno-sectarian group, and restricting what cards can be played where. The game’s identities will be elaborated on in the Domestic and Foreign Actors section.

After defining the players and the board, what tools each player has to work with was the next challenge. Players in the game perform actions mostly through the use of Operations Points (OPs). OPs allow the player to perform a wide variety of actions. These include: diplomacy, recruitment, training and equipment, movement between regions, covert operations and attacks.

OPs are accrued by playing cards. I decided that a largely card-driven game was the best way to move forward. Cards allow a higher degree of detail and nuance without needing a long, complicated rulebook, and will add flavor and fun to gameplay. Each player will hold a hand of five cards at a time, and are allow to play up to two per turn. Each card has both a special action and a numeric value: by playing a card, the player is either given that number of OPs to spend on that turn (OPs do not carry over from turn to turn), or may instead use the special action on the card. More powerful special actions will have a higher number of points, to incentivize use of both features.

The game will include three types of card: single-play, hidden-play, and permanent play. Single-play cards allow the player to perform a particular action, for example recruiting foreign fighters or launching a diplomatic offensive to change another player’s foreign relations, rather than their own. Hidden-play cards may be played “in reserve”, slipped under the side of the board for instant play later on, including as an instant-interrupt. For example, a rebel player may place a “MANPADS” card on one turn, then reveal it during a government air attack in order to cause casualties among air units. Some of these cards will counter one another. This introduces ‘the fog of war’ and deeper strategic play into the game without major complication. Finally, permanent-play cards, once played, remain active unless another card or special rule reverses their effects. These cards will be rare, powerful and require a set of pre-conditions to use. For example, a jihadist player will have the option, if they control a certain number of contiguous provinces, to play the ‘Declare the Caliphate Restored’, severely damaging their relations with foreign actors while providing a major buff to their troops.


Finding a balance between realism and complexity for the game’s military system took much discussion and the exploration of a variety of options. The first major choice was between counters and blocks. While counters would allow a greater degree of complexity, a game including multitude of troop types on each side and lifelike combat formations was too complex for the educational purposes or casual gamers. With blocks, each side has a highly limited number of troop types, with complexity depending on other factors and rules.

4736350-3x4-700x933The government player has three main types of military unit: elite, regular, and irregular. Elite units represent regime-protection forces such as the Republican Guard and 4th Armoured Division; regulars represent the mainstay units of the Syrian military; and irregulars represent police, pro-government militias and remnant cadres of other units used by the Syrian regime for defense and patrol but not offensive operations. In addition, the government player controls Division HQ units, representing Syrian military bases and the command structure. These immobile units allow recruitment and reinforcement of government forces, but if destroyed are a major loss. Finally, the government player also has air units. Operating in provinces with HQs only, air units provide (usually) untouchable firepower to government attacks with the tradeoff of being expensive to move around and irreplaceable if destroyed.

Opposition factions have only two unit types: rebels and veterans. Rebels represent the wide variety of rebel brigades operating in Syria, while veterans represent more experienced forces and those brigades that have captured or purchased heavier equipment such as anti-tank missiles and MANPADS. Weapons can be purchased on the international market, captured from the battlefield or overrunning government bases, or supplied by international partners. Rebel players also have Commanders, who do not fight on their own but are necessary for most rebel operations, from recruitment to assaults to the movement of non-aligned units.


The combat system itself works as follows. Each province and city may have units from multiple players contesting it. The player with the most units in the province controls that province. Players may only move through provinces they control, although they may move units in and out. Movement of troops from one province to another requires the expenditure of an OP, and, in the case of rebel forces, a Commander. Movement along a LoC is much faster, but requires the expenditure of more points. The government may use Strategic Airlift from any province with a Division HQ to another other with the same, but may only move one unit at a time.


In these contested provinces, with the expenditure of an OP, players may launch one of two types of attack: Harassment and Assault. Harassment represents the frequent low-level attacks and raids by rebel forces against government positions and checkpoints, as well as government sorties and artillery strikes against rebel positions. Harassment causes no risk of damage to your own forces, although it requires the roll of 6 to score a hit. Assaults are more risky, with the chance of damage to your forces, but are more likely to cause damage to the enemy. The dice rolls required to do damage during an assault are dependent on the ratio between attacking and defending forces, with bonuses for heavily outnumbering your opponent and severe penalties for foolhardy assaults against superior numbers. Assaults require an elite or veteran unit among the troops in the attack, as well as a Commander in the case of rebel factions.

When attacking, players must choose their target. Rebel players may come to another player’s defense, contributing both their own and unaligned rebel units to that combat; this can stiffen up an otherwise weak player, but allows the defender to remove another player’s forces from the board.

Unlike normal provinces, only one player at a time may occupy a LoC. This means that Harassment of troops on a LoC is impossible, requiring a risky Assault to push them off. This means that the government player, who starts with control over the LoCs at the beginning of the game, will likely continue to control them well into the game, even as provinces around the roads fall. However, as control over LoCs allows for rapid movement, reinforcement and economic strength, control over these vital roads will be hotly contested.

When hit, government forces and rebel factions react differently. Rebel forces are simply destroyed when hit, going back into the available recruitment pool. If the government side sustains hits, the player has one of three choices. The player may destroy an irregular, downgrade an elite or regular unit to the next step down, or, in the presence of an HQ, remove them from the board temporarily. Downgrading units (i.e., replacing an elite unit with a regular) represents the steady degradation and fragmentation of Syria’s armed forces, particularly among elite units. Removal from the board represents placing these units in bunkers or in reserve, awaiting reinforcement, and costs OPs to bring them back into the game. This allows the government player to replenish their scarce elite forces. However, if the Division HQ is captured while the forces are off-board, they are automatically destroyed, making this a risky proposition.

Domestic and Foreign Support

Fought in a vacuum without ideology, identity or foreign influence, the Syrian civil war would likely have ended in the victory of one side or another by this point. However, international intervention and the complex ethno-sectarian web of Syria’s population have had major effects on the dynamics of the war. While discussions about this issue were extensive, including talk of whether or not to include a discrete domestic opinion tracker at all, we finally settled on the following, reasonably simple, system.

International opinion, influenced by a range of games including Liberia: Descent into Hell, is played out on a tracking card. There are five positions that can be held by each foreign actor: Hostile, Opposed, Neutral, Friendly and Supporting. Moving an actor’s opinion requires the expenditure of one or more OPs and a successful die roll. A player can only attempt to influence a particular actor once per turn, although the player may attempt to influence multiple actors. More points are needed to move support to more extreme positions: for example, moving from Neutral to Friendly costs only one OP to make an attempt, while moving from Friendly to Supporting costs two. As well, the government and each rebel faction will have advantages in gaining support from some actors and disadvantages at gaining support from others: for example, jihadists will suffer a penalty (-1 to their die roll) when engaging with the Western Powers or Russia, while gaining +1 when engaging Salafist Donors in the Gulf


Gaining the support of a foreign actor has major benefits. Friendly actors provide some income every turn, and if they border Syria will allow you to recruit units in their territory. Supporting actors provide more income, may provide arms and more opportunities. As well, the special actions on some cards may only be used with a Supporting foreign actor. The foreign actors represented in the game will likely include: The Western Powers (the United States and NATO allies), Russia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government and Salafist Donors.

Domestic actors use a similar system, with the same degrees of support and same method of moving support. However, domestic support gives different effects. As mentioned above, each region is coded for one of several ethno-sectarian groups: Rural/Poor Sunni, Urban/Wealthy Sunni, Alawi, Druze, Christian, and Kurdish. Rural and Urban Sunnis are coded separately due to their differing allegiances during the war and distinctive political behavior. Players may only recruit troops in regions with a Supporting dominant ethno-sectarian group. Groups may support or be friendly to more than one player at a time, representing communal division. Meanwhile, Opposed or Hostile groups may generate unaffiliated rebel brigades to fight against the dastardly regime, and influence whether or not these groups side with one rebel faction or another in intra-rebel fighting.

Next Steps

My next steps involve firmly defining win conditions for each player, working out the economic system, figuring out a way to represent refugee and IDP movements, and finalizing a system of intelligence, covert operations and terrorism. After that, on the writing a first draft of the rules, writing the myriad cards needed for play, and finally on to play-testing.

Alex Langer 

Gaming the Syrian Civil War, Part 1

Last term one of my political science undergraduate students, Cori Goldberger, tried her hand at designing a game about the “Arab Spring.” The result was very successful, capturing the domino effect of regime overthrow, the uneasy relations between Islamist and secularist forces, the use of patronage and repression, and the possibilities of both counterrevolution and descent into civil war.

This term, another McGill University student is working on a game design project with me. Alex Langer hopes to design a game that examines the current Syrian civil war. He’ll be posting his ideas on PAXsims from time to time as a sort of “developer diary.” You can access the other parts in the series here.


Introduction and Initial Thoughts

Over the past three years, I have been introduced to the world of gaming and simulation in political science through courses taught by Professor Brynen, from an hour-long colonization game to the infamous Brynanian civil war. While my own personal interest in wargaming goes back to my adolescent Warhammer 40K career playing as the faceless hordes of the Imperial Guard, classes at McGill have shown me how engaging, fun and useful games can be in teaching and modeling complex concepts and systems. After my friend and colleague Corinne Goldberger successfully produced a game of the Arab Spring last year, I approached Professor Brynen to see if I could do something similar.

My name is Alexander Langer, and I am a fourth-year student at McGill University. I am in my last year in a Joint Honours Political Science and History program, with a focus on the sociopolitical dynamics of nationalism, ethno-sectarian conflict and civil war in the Middle East and Southeastern Europe. My academic interests and love of gaming intersect nicely in the subject of the ongoing Syrian civil war.


The board game will attempt to simulate the Syrian civil war from mid-2012 onwards, with the resumption of combat following the collapse of an UN-brokered ceasefire in May of that year. The conflict in Syria is complicated and constantly shifting, particularly with the emergence of a new front in Iraq and the swift rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), so I anticipate that many of my current thoughts will shift. I hope to create a game that is entertaining and educational, appropriate for both hobby gamers looking for a realistic depiction of the civil war and students looking to learn about the dynamics of the conflict in a fun, unconventional way. The game should be playable in the span of an evening, and accessible to people without a huge amount of knowledge of the Syrian conflict.


The first major necessary choice in designing this game is how many players to have and how to successfully model both the ‘regime vs. opposition’ and intra-opposition conflict dynamics of the Syrian civil war. In conversations with Professor Brynen, we quickly ruled out a two-player game with opposition and the regime on each side. We discussed a number of other options, from a three-player game (regime, opposition and ISIS) to a five-player game including a discrete Kurdish player.

We finally decided on a four-player game, with one regime player and three general opposition players, each following a discrete ‘ideology’. These factions will definitely include secular democrats, Islamists (‘moderate Islamists’ such as the Muslim Brotherhood) and jihadists (Jahbat al-Nusra and ISIS). Additional ideological factions may include Kurdish nationalists, military defectors, non-ideological regional warlords or even Arab nationalists. Opposition players will select their ideology at the start of the game, with the potential to change their ideological track mid-game, albeit at a real cost.

With this formulation, I hope to be able to show the shifting ideologies and internal conflicts of the opposition without overwhelming the players with unnecessary complexity. The ways that these differences will be represented is not fully developed, but will involve different characteristics and victory conditions for the regime and each rebel faction; for example, the secular democrats may have an easier time of working with Western actors, but may struggle to gain the absolute loyalty of its fighters. The game could be easily expanded to include additional players on each team.

Rebel Brigades

A key feature of the Syrian civil war thus far has been the fragmentation of the opposition’s military forces into thousands of individual rebel ‘brigades’, often based on ideological, communal or regional loyalties. Brigades have fluidly traded allegiances between umbrella organizations, and are rarely willing to sign on to large-scale campaigns that take them far away from their homes. Simulating this is key to developing a realistic depiction of the Syrian civil war. Professor Brynen and I discussed this in detail, eventually settling on a creative way of representing this pattern.

In the game, rebel units are divided into two types: loyalist and independent. Loyalist units are flexible: they can be moved at will, require some maintenance and often fight better than their counterparts. Conversely, independent rebel units begin the game under the control of no single rebel faction, with each region containing a number of rebel units already in place. The loyalty of these units can be purchased with money, weapons, or diplomatic maneuvering, which must be continually paid or else they will revert to their unaligned status or switch allegiance to another faction. Doing so, or recruiting new units, requires the presence of a faction ‘commander’, something that will be discussed further in a post about the combat system. Independent rebel forces also might incur additional costs to move outside their home province. However, independent rebel units will fight with rebel factions under attack by government troops, and can be ‘converted’ into loyalist forces by some ideological factions through further expenditures.

Aspects of the Game

Thus far, few of the game mechanics have been fully developed. However, there are a number of important aspects of the Syrian civil war that I hope to model and simulate in the game. These include:

  • The involvement of foreign actors
  • Ideology, particularly Islamism
  • Regime repression and overstretched forces
  • The Kurdish question
  • Asymmetric Warfare
  • IDP and refugee movement
  • Assassination, terrorism and covert operations
  • The political economy of the Syrian civil war
  • Internal regime dynamics

Future Plans

The next step is figuring out exactly how to simulate the brutal, grinding conflict of the Syrian civil war, while including as many of the above issues in the game without making it overly complicated.

Alex Langer 

Syrian refugee crisis simulation

The following guest post is contributed by Prof. Mick Dumper, Department of Political Science, University of Exeter.

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This was a simulation I ran in February 2014 for my 3rd year module – Refugee Crisis and the Modern World– in which students study the international refugee regime, international refugee law, the durable solutions framework, refugees in post-conflict agreements and with plenty of case studies. For this simulation on the Syrian Refugee crisis, the class of 25 students was divided into 8 teams of approximately 3 students in each. Five teams were country actors including Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Free Syria Army. The other three teams were UNHCR strategy planning teams who competed against each other.  As module convenor, I acted as the US, Russia, and the EU.

There were two sets of complimentary objectives.  Country and opposition actors were asked to compile a paper entitled Interests and Strategy Position on Syrian Refugees, taking into account the need to cooperate with other countries and international agencies. The paper would need to identify the main concerns of their state and plan a strategy that will involve cooperation with UNHCR and other actors to implement it. They would engage in bilateral meetings with the UNHCR teams and with other actors and offer some preliminary ideas at a press conference before formulating a set of proposals which will be presented at the final plenary.

The UNHCR strategy planning teams were asked to draw up the fundamentals of an Article that would be included in any future peace plan which addressed the issue of refugees and other displaced people. Working separately and in competition, they interviewed decision-makers through a combination of bilateral meetings with country actors and press conferences.  They presented their proposals at a final plenary session.

All the teams were provided with the same set of scenarios, a reading list and list of useful websites, a 4 week timeline and a simulation diary (see below) in which they would make appointments and prepare for meetings and press conferences.



At the final plenary, the teams not presenting were given a score sheet which accorded marks to aspects of their proposals.  These included possible views of the donor community, time line for implementation, degree of cooperation required with other actors etc.

The winning Country Actor team was the Syrian government! They came up with a credible and quite feasible, given the circumstances, set of proposals for limited repatriation of Shi’ite refugees and extensive resettlement and local integration.  The Syrian team actors wereElisabetta D’Addario, Christina Gannon and Amy Pryce.  The winning UNHCR team comprised: Ursula Heywood, Emma Rosen and Cordelia Wyche.  Their proposed Refugee Article managed to incorporate some of the more generic features found in other post-conflict negotiations concerning refugees with the specificities of the Syrian case, although the fast moving situation obliged certain aspects to be vaguer than they had intended.

In the main, the simulation worked well in providing an engaging vehicle for the students to apply the knowledge and understandings they had built up over the previous few months of studying refugee situations. The simulation took place over 4 weeks in 2 hour seminar sessions and was designed in this way in order to fit into the Exeter teaching timetable.  This was a major constraint and it broke up the continuity of discussion which led to a drop in numbers. Student feedback strongly recommended that in future the bulk of the activity should take place over one day and that they would be happy to give up a Saturday to participate. The simulation also coincided at a point in the academic cycle when students were focussing on assessed work deadlines and, as the simulation was not assessed, they were frank that, however enjoyable and instructive it may have been, it took a lesser place in their scale of priorities.  My concern that there would not be enough “activity” and competition between the teams over the course of the simulation was not reflected in the student comments, who felt the structure of bilateral meetings punctuated press conferences etc., by provided for enough change, dynamism and momentum in the simulation.

Mick Dumper 

Comments from the gallery on the Syria PeaceGame

On December 9, the United States Institute of Peace and Foreign Policy magazine conducted a “PeaceGame” on the conflict in Syria. Most of the day’s discussions were livestreamed by USIP, and those not in attendance could also follow along via the #PeaceGame hashtag on Twitter.

Ellie Bartels (National Defence University) and I were among those following along from afar, and much like Statler and Waldorf of the Muppet Show, we couldn’t resist offering some comments along the way. Ellie has kindly contributed some more detailed thoughts on the methodology of the “game” for PAXsims below, and also included some recommendations for future iterations. I’ve appended some of my own thoughts at the end.

In addition to the recorded video which will be posted to the USIP website, you’ll also find a summary of the day’s events at Storify, as well as an op ed on Syria and the PeaceGame by PJ Crowley on BBC News.

Ellie Bartel

Ellie Bartels

Yesterday, USIP and Foreign Policy put together the first of what promises to be an important series of PeaceGames, which seek to “bring together the leading minds in national security policy, international affairs, academia, business, and media to “game” out how we can achieve peace in Syria.  USIP and FP intend for the game to redefine how leaders think about conflict resolution and the possibility of peace.” The game produced a lively conversation, with some very interesting findings about the potential paths to peace in Syria.  However, this post is looks at the event from a slightly different angle: how the first PeaceGame worked as a game, and what may be the analytical consequences of the design choices that were made.

But first a few quick caveats: I was in no way involved with the design or execution of this exercise, and thus some of my analysis is based on assumptions about the intent of the team that put the event together.

Furthermore, I was not at USIP in person, so my observations are limited to the livestream feed of the event, as well as Twitter conversations I had with other observers and participants. Thus, my observations are based on limited data – I couldn’t see side conversations or non-verbal responses of players off screen, or eavesdrop on conversations during the break.  I tried to supplement this information by asking questions of the participants who were active on Twitter during the game.

Last, but perhaps most importantly, I am a professional gamer who is paid to run this type of event.  I have the job I do because I believe that gaming can be a rigorous, insightful tool to create shared understandings within or between communities, and that creating this type of understanding on foreign policy issues can lead to better national security policy.  Thus, this post isn’t a critique of the use of games to address “serious” problems (which some observers did raise during the event) — it is a response aimed at promoting good design and analysis in this and future public games.

Overview of the first Syrian PeaceGame

The stated objective of the game was to lay out the conditions for a “best possible peace” to end the Syrian conflict.  45 experts, ranging from retired ambassadors to academics to Arab activists, role-played 19 different actors selected for their influence on the war. These also ranged widely from nation states, to sub-national actors within Syria, to the global media.   All teams sat around a single table for discussion, which was directed by a moderator.

Because of impending weather in DC, the event was shortened from a planned four sessions of discussion, billed as “Achieving a Near-Term Political Solution,” “Establishing the Peace,” “Challenges to Peace Emerge,” and “Establishing a Sustainable Peace” to only cover the first, second, and fourth topics. Each discussion session started with several scene-setter slides on the current state on the ground in Syria, followed by anonymous voting on the importance of different issues, which was then used by the moderator as the jumping-off point for discussion.

The first session’s discussion was dominated by views on the potential of various processes for negotiating a peace.  The majority view by the end of the session was that for negotiated peace to occur, key actors (most participants identified a combination of Russia, Iran and the Alawites) would need to sign off for the deal, or an alternative process would be needed.  There was also a tension identified between outside stakeholders who were capable of reaching a negotiated deal, and internal actors who likely could not.

The second session, scheduled to be about establishing the peace, instead returned to the issue of what a peace deal might look like in Syria.  However, in contrast to the focus on negotiations in the first session, here conversation focused on what the final deal would look like, with a limited discussion of implementation.  In general, those with a strongly nation-state view tended to see a powersharing government or division along sectarian lines as the only viable options.  In contrast, participants focused on non-state actors suggested that informal governance and local dealmaking could be empowered to form a peace with characteristics of both of the state-centric models.

The third session focused on what each group would need to see for peace to work, as well as last words from the participants. Again, a strong undercurrent in the discussion was the split between participants that focused on the role of non-state actors, and those who tended to take the perspective of nation-states. Non-state actors could often offer specific things they wanted to see prior to peace; those who saw states as the dominant actors were often reduced to talking about how conditions weren’t “ripe” for peace. There was also more of a focus on this round about the needs of Syria’s neighbors to avoid conflict spillover.

Notes on Design

Based on my observations, I think there are four areas where design choices had substantial effect on what we can and cannot conclude from the first PeaceGame.  In the rest of this post, I describe the choices made about the audience, objectives, format, and moderations of the exercise, and discuss the potential impacts.  I offer recommendations both for mitigating the impact of these choices on game analysis, and suggest alternative choices that may be worth exploring in future PeaceGame exercises.

Audience. The first thing worth noting is that PeaceGame was very public event, with a very high level of quality in participants.  I (like many other analysts) was able to follow along with the event on a very well done live stream, with an active Twitter conversation running in virtual space (after the first session, the moderator mentioned that there had already been 1300 tweets using the event hashtag, which is more than many conferences ever get).  Participants were well-established experts, with deep knowledge of the subject.  That is not an easy combination to pull off, particularly when talking about a topic as politically sensitive as Syria, and I applaud the PeaceGame team for building a space safe enough for so many to participate.  However, it is also reasonable to assume that had the same conversation been held in a private space with only a few select analysts listening in, discussion may well have included facts and opinions that were not included in the public forum.

Recommendation. Public game findings can be supplemented with more private, post-game interviews to allow participants to raise important issues that may not have been discussed in the PeaceGame forum.

Objectives.  Unsurprisingly for the flagship event of a new program, PeaceGame had an ambitious set of objectives.  In addition to the frequently repeated tasking to consider what a “best possible peace” would be, the program’s website added broader ideas like “redefine how leaders think about conflict resolution and the possibility of peace.”  These broad objectives translated into a very broad conversation that sometimes sacrificed discussion on specific issues like spoiler, veto points, and second-order effects in order to cover wide ground.

Recommendation. Analysts should understand that the broad and sometime shallow conversations of the Syria PeaceGame were caused by the broad objectives, and should be seen as a feature and not a bug of the exercise. However, future games might consider laying out narrower objectives in order to guide deeper discussion of some of the issues of interest identified in this game.

Format. The most consequential choice the game designers made was to have the entire game take place at a single table with all 19 teams.  While this choice is logical given the requirements of a public event, it also meant that any discussion of small negotiating teams, partnerships, and side deals could only be discussed “out in the open.”  This seemed to make discussion about process somewhat more hypothetical in tone, because there was little ability to explore through the game what the dynamics of efficacy of such a tactic might be.

Recommendations. In future PeaceGames, consider allowing opportunities for smaller breakout sessions in order to play out specific combinations of actors at negotiations. This seems particularly helpful when studying issues like back channel negotiations that are often not legible to observers, since the game will allow for clearer observation than is likely to be possible for analysis in real life.

The lack of defined operating space in the game outside the large table also made for some interesting dynamics involving the violent non-state actors, who are relatively unlikely to be included the type of formal negotiations that the game format mirrors.  Non-state actor players often asserted (either in their speaking time or on Twitter) that they were focusing on campaigns on the ground that made the negotiations irrelevant, going so far as to declare that they were “winning” the game.  However, the format of PeaceGame did not have a clear way to connect these “independent” game actions with the broader discussion in a consistent manner.

Recommendations. Future games with more emphasis on implementation may benefit from a mechanism to incorporate unilateral actions, particularly by potential spoilers and veto points.  This likely will require a more formal adjudication process than was used in the PeaceGame to reconcile different types of events into a narrative about the outcomes of player decisions.

Finally, despite the moderators’ efforts, participants often dropped out of role to speak in their professional capacity, particularly during the third session. This added good information to the discussion, but likely limited the game’s ability to reproduce emotional or psychological dimensions of peacemaking that might have been explored with stronger role playing.

Recommendations. Game analysts might consider impact of level of role play in different portions of the discussion as an important variable driving the tone and content of the discussion.

Moderation. FP Group CEO and Editor David Rothkopf had the superhuman job of corralling 45 engaged experts to keep them on topic, on time, and decorous.  Having experienced trying to get this big a group to just not talk over top of one another, I was very impressed by his ability to hold and direct the group.

However, Mr. Rothkopt’s moderation style included many injections of his own opinions, which is generally frowned upon in the gaming community.  Many gamers would argue that the best practice is for the moderator in a game to facilitate the participants, by ensuring everyone is able to move through the event in accordance with the rules.  Our concern is that if you as the moderator are seen to be driving the discussion based on your understanding of what the content should be, you exclude participants whose views might differ, stifling the discussion.

In this case, some Twitter commenters noted that Mr. Rothkopt seemed to “have his own agenda,”even noting that he seemed dismissive of some of the non-state centric solutions which participants proposed.  If participants felt the same way, this tendency may have biased which ideas were considered and even who spoke, and how much.

Recommendation. Analysis of the game may want to look at the role of the moderator and consider how the moderator’s contributions may have changed the discussion.

Ellie Bartels

Rex Brynen

Rex Brynen

I very much enjoyed listened to the USIP/FP Syria “PeaceGame.” There was a remarkable degree of talent in the room for the day, and as expected their contributions were informed and insightful. Unfortunately, because of the format and large number of participants, many in attendance only managed to speak only a very limited number of times. Although a few  offered comments via Twitter, I often found myself wishing for more of their input and analysis.

Recommendation. Find a mechanism whereby participants are able to express their views other than via the main microphone. Twitter is an imperfect mechanism for this, since it forces complex issues to be addressed in 140 characters or less. Instead, participants might be permitted to liveblog on a central website (or provide comments for support staff to post on their behalf), or given a period in which they summarize thoughts and recommendations mid-game for public distribution.

For the most part, the Peacegame wasn’t a “game” at all. Participants didn’t get a chance to “do” anything, and the role-playing (which, as Ellie notes, was only partial) was used more as a device to facilitate discussion than as part of some iterative, strategic process. Given that the purpose of the exercise was to explore aspects of the problem space in a way that caught the attention of the media, policy-makers, and the broader public, that’s fine by me.

That being said, introducing more game or “game-ish” elements could have been useful. The different phases of discussion might have been introduced with detailed, updated scenarios in the style of a classic three-move seminar game. Without these, some of the later discussion on stabilization and reconstruction foundered because it wasn’t entirely clear what would be the contextual environment for such activities. Also, introducing events as injects would have been useful, whether to provide atmosphere (and a sense of crisis), or to nudge participants to address key aspects of the problem that appear to have been overlooked or bypassed in the discussion.

Recommendation. The “PeaceGame” doesn’t need to operate like a wargame or crisis simulation. However, there are some game mechanisms that might enhance the process (many of them also identified by Ellie above).

While the “PeaceGame” angle did help generate buzz for the event, it did have one unfortunate side-effect: it was clear from the Twitter discussion that some Syrians and others felt that the participants were simply “playing” while real Syrians died. The occasional levity or gallows humour from the participants contributed to that alienation.

This is hard to address. Even when discussing deadly serious issues like the Syrian civil war (with its 125,000 dead), humour can make a conference run more smoothly and productively for those engaged in the meeting. Indeed it may be especially helpful at times when handling a topic that, after all, is rather dark and depressing. However, it can look  rather different for those not in the room, or who do not usually participate in such meetings.

Recommendation. “PeaceGame” may not be the best title for events like these (something the the “Syria PeaceSimulation” might have been less problematic). Moderators need to recognize that the external audience may need to be reassured that human tragedy is being addressed with an appropriate degree of seriousness.

Finally, allow me to nominate “Islamic Extremist” Mona Yacoubian as the role-player of the day. She was excellent at showing how her actor(s) would manipulate the political and military situation to best advantage, whether by spoiling peace initiatives or exploiting  local war economies to enhance their resources.

Recommendation. Don’t ever let Mona get real control of a jihadist group. Someone may also want to consider placing her on a No Fly List.

Rex Brynen

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