Image from Dribble.

Designing a War Game in Space


A war game is a strategic simulation that is used to analyze the repercussions of future political decisions and planning. War games can take place over several hours or be weeks of intensive role play. Participants are often assigned a role or job title and are then asked to interact with other players as if they were in the position of their character. For this war game, players were assigned a role and a country of origin. I co-led the design, implementation, facilitation, and project management of this space race simulation for 40+ international analysts over 3 months.  

My guidance in this simulation allowed players the flexibility needed to subvert expected outcomes and better predict future problems policymakers may encounter.


Big, worldwide problems like pandemics, wars, and diplomatic solutions are too complicated to solve on paper alone. There are too many variables to account for, and humans are not always predictable. Strategic simulations are one way to easily recreate the chaos of real-world situations, without actual political ramifications. In fact, South Korea’s original response to the COVID-19 outbreak was so effective because infectious disease specialists had run a simulation exercise on a hypothetical Chinese-origin virus just weeks before the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded. This project was meant to give future politicians and policymakers a glimpse into how difficult political consensus is, especially on the international scale. 


The audience of this exercise were professionals in the field of international politics and law. Many of the participants either had a background in government or were planning future careers in the governmental field. Experience levels ranged from former interns for Congress to military commanders, to current Japanese government officials. All participants had at least a bachelor's degree and were in the process of a Masters's degree. Age, race, origin language, nationality, and gender were diverse. 

Roles and Responsibilities

I, along with another researcher, were assisting Emilie Hafner-Burton in the creation of the war game. We choose the topic, the modern space race, and spent 3 months investigating current policy around the subject. We then analyzed all parties involved in international policy and decided on the revision of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) agreements and Space 2030 plans. We created personas for 3-4 characters per country, totaling 43 active players by the end of the simulation. We then instructed players in their characters, gave them guiding documents, and facilitated discussions between parties. At the end of the simulation, we facilitated a vote on 5 separate guiding documents to decide the "success" or "failure" of negotiations.

Scope and Constraints

The simulation was limited to three months as that was the length of the class. Both my colleague and I researched for 3 months prior to holding the simulation, totaling 6 months of work. The simulation also took place during the pandemic, so what would normally be an in-person event was held online. Participants used zoom calls in place of in-person meetings and utilized a pre-made discord server to privately chat and negotiate.

Process and What I Did

My colleague and I did copious research into all potential treaties made by the UN, private companies, and environmental activists that involved space. We decided to focus on COPUOS (specifically The "Outer Space Treaty", and The "Liability Convention") and Space 2030 agenda as they were the broadest documents, but participants were allowed to make side agreements for their own character's gain. 


In order to create a realistic set of negotiations within a limited scope of participants, issues were chosen for their volatility and complicated international nature. The war game’s intent was to explore policy surrounding the issues of space militarization, the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), space pollution, and resource mining. All of these issues are highly contentious on their own, and to simulate the real world as much as possible the simulation was purposely set up to fail. Participants were instructed to create treaties that were both highly effective and required all parties to participate to a high degree. To explain why this task is nigh impossible, it is first important to establish how treaties can be measured in their effectiveness. Legal contracts can be measured through three categories: Obligation, Precision, and Delegation. 

Obligation (O)

In an agreement with high obligation, specific terms ensure parties involved will do the actions they agree to. This can be enforced in several ways, such as economic sanctions, military threats, or diplomatic consequences. Low obligation is a situation where parties are not concretely bound to the terms of the contract and do not have strong incentives to hold up their side of the bargain. 

Precision (P)

In an agreement with high precision, the policy will be very specific on details such as materials or years the policy is in effect. For example, a policy may state that WMDs are not allowed in space, but other rockets are fine. Low precision, in contrast, is where terms are vague and do not give specific details. 

Delegation (D)

In an agreement with high delegation, there are specific terms detailing who is responsible for what action and when. For example, there could be an agreement where only the US and Canada are expected to participate in official pollution clean-up, but all parties are required to meet every five years to evaluate the effectiveness of their policy. Low delegation would be where no specific parties are named in an agreement, and there is no precise outline of when the terms need to be met

The most effective space agreement would be one with high obligation, high precision, and high delegation. High OPD would mean a document that has specific terms to ensure actions will happen, precise definitions of what those actions will be, and a clear delegation of who is in charge of what part of that action. Although that kind of agreement would be ideal, it is almost impossible to find a consensus when negotiating between eleven different countries and their individual agendas. As such, my co-lead and I engineered the simulation to have some of the most contentious characters included at the forefront of the discussion.

The Players

Game Actors and Positions

The predicted agreement structure can be seen below.

The simulation officially began on May 1st, 2020. The first reports were due May 7th, and the first in-person formal negotiations took place on May 8th. The second report was due May 19th with the second round of formal talks on the 20th. Final drafts for agreements were due May 26th. All votes were then ratified on the 29th of May.

Without telling participants the game was set up to fail, we gave them the goal of creating a high OPD agreement that covered all the above issues and would be ratified by all member states. As predicted, the players were not able to come to a single concluding document that covered all issues, but several side agreements were made that did deal with some of the dangers in space policy that need to be addressed. 


Israel tried to play the field but was won over by China very quickly. Antagonistic dialogue with the US didn’t help. Additional changes to the document made the China document hard to support. India talked so much that they never were able to propose major amendments Russia was unified in their votes but did not take a leading role in negotiations, unlike China from what we could observe. China was a major power and set the scene for negotiations, and was a first mover on documents.

UK also put forward one of the first documents, but it was not as extensive as China’s. The Space Development Fund had more than four actors and as such went to a vote and failed (also failed internally). Pakistan started off strong, but had major issues with infighting and they ended up more reactionary than proactive. In the United States, the private sector took the lead in negotiations. Donald Trump undermined a lot of the talks due to his interests. France’s Nicolas Hulot was incredibly active in working with activists and helping elevate their issues. Le Pen also worked hard on planetary protection and contamination issues.

Private Sector was very active in getting governments to agree on legislation through economic incentives. Created multiple documents between companies and governments to ensure government compliance with agreements. Activists were way more powerful than in previous simulations, in part because of Nichols Hulot, a private actor, requesting to be added to the activist category. Gail Bradbrook was also very active in later weeks in the drafting of documents. Activists did a good job in changing the conversation to focus on space debris as both a military and environmental issue so that they could better advocated with defense focused actors.

Voting Rules

Voting will take place on all Multilateral agreements negotiated among the full or partial set of states. ONLY interest groups may vote. Heads of State MUST simply record the vote of the majority of their interest groups (with one exception listed below).

Democratic Heads of state must vote to represent the majority view of their country’s interest groups; they do not get an independent say.

Autocratic Heads of state may vote to overturn the majority view of their country’s interest groups in their own favor; however, they do so at some (unknown) risk of losing power.

Side Deals, including unilateral declarations and bilateral agreements:

The majority of interest groups within each state must formally sign the side agreement for it to take effect. No multilateral voting is required.

Final Documents

The Treaty on Principles for the Peaceful and Defensive Uses of Outer Space did not achieve unanimity in its current form. 

The Treaty on Principles for the Sustainable and Cooperative Exploration and Use of Outer Space achieved near-unanimity, with one exception: the United States. 

A Call to Action on Space Debris, that was put forward for countries to voluntarily endorse. That Call to Action, which is not a legally binding document but rather a voluntary code of best practices

Overarching Objective 4: It includes a  Statement of the UK and the US to establish a Space Development Fund, as well as a proposal to continue to discuss the Overarching Objective 4 goals and a plea to not hastily sign on to potentially disruptive treaties. 

Pledge to establish a Space Development Fund by Brazil, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. 

Actors and Vote List Sorted


China was a broker who put out both major treaties in 2 weeks. Israel had a draft but China beat them with manpower. They were on top of other countries, like the UK who tried to make their own drafts work. Israel made some revisions with China's permission about non-binding soft law due to worries on nuclear issues. India was very active but did very little. They never proposed or signed, and did not play the middle ground. Iran sided with China, as expected. Brazil did not play the field as much as expected. China pulled all developing nations over to their side early. 

Most language was current, previous drafts and documents were not up to date with current technology or discussions. Defense was watered down to softer law. Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) were not defined. Pollution/contamination was put to the last minute by Marie Le Pen and went from non-existing to being included at the last vote suddenly. Behind the scenes many players wanted more precise language by no one was willing to commit.