Simulating the Cuban Missile Crisis on the 60th Anniversary

Written by Dr Cameron Hunter
9 November 2022

We gathered to mark the 60th anniversary of a showdown that brought the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. In November 2022, University of Leicester students, staff and guest experts gathered to simulate the Cuban Missile Crisis. Borne from the team’s sheer interest, this extra-curricular event had two goals: 1) to gain new perspectives on the historic crisis; and 2) to kindle interest in conflict simulation amongst a new generation.

A simulation cannot hope to replicate every aspect – some variables necessarily loom larger in the design construct than others. For our game, we emphasised the limitations of communications technology in 1962. This meant that players could only talk in person if they arranged meetings, with appropriate delays added for travel or bureaucratic wrangling. Otherwise, players were reliant on telegrams (and telephone calls, but security fears kept teams from using the phone on the day) – readers will recall that the Washington-Moscow hotline was not established until after the crisis.

Beyond communications technology, we structured the game with a full-fledged Cuba team, reflecting recent literature that revealed the heavy influence of Castro’s government in shaping the crisis. For the curious, the result of our simulation was a sort of limited Cuban “victory.” The Cuban team successfully played the superpowers off against each other to finish 1962 with newfound prestige and independence.

In our post-game discussion, however, our participants were convinced that Cuba could not have maintained this fragile “win” for long into 1963 or 1964 because of the irreparable damage to Cuba’s trustworthiness enacted by its double-dealing. Our game managers were especially pleased to see emergent gameplay dynamics. That is, politically credible choices and knock-on effects that were not directly due to the game mechanics, but rather from the interaction of players with one another (within the scenario’s restraints). We saw aspects of nuclear deterrence and risk management in player decisions, who tended to assume the worst-case scenario would be the result of their own provocative responses.

A broader question for anyone in the conflict simulation community is whether nuclear politics can be usefully simulated at all. In reality, players know that in the game the fate of their loved ones, fellow citizens or country is not actually resting in their hands. The weapons themselves can be difficult to manage under a crisis scenario, so the game designers’ decisions on how (or whether) to simulate these aspects powerfully and subtly also shape the game result. Nevertheless, the emotional engagement that a game can provide through immersion did capture a convincing sense of the historical crisis as relayed in the literature.

Regarding our objective of drawing in a new generation of crisis and war gamers, we polled our participants and found that they had a new sense of confidence in creating simulations for themselves. Our academic faculty now has a core group of simulation-savvy students eager for the next step, and those of us at the Third Nuclear Age project will be continuing to do our part to support the next generation of experts and practitioners.

Dr Cameron Hunter
Dr Robert Domaingue, former US State Department, briefs some of the players on how conflict simulation is used by government officials
Third Nuclear Age game managers and student participants pose after the Cuban missile crisis simulation

Cambridge Center for Existential Risk workshop : War Gaming and the Third Nuclear Age

1st March 2022

March 1 2022, Prof. Futter presented a talk titled ‘War Gaming and The Third Nuclear Age’ at the Cambridge Center for Existential Risk. 

You can download the presentation here:

Professor Andrew Futter

TNA Project Runs procurement politics simulation

12th January 2022

The Third Nuclear Age Project Team ran a simulation of the politics of technological procurement.  The players were briefed on their starting positions and then were left free to choose whatever technologies they felt their team required to maintain national security over the long-term. This closed game was part of a process of developing and refining scenarios for future events with stakeholders.

Held at the imaginary “ERSATZ” classification level, the players took on the roles of senior defence procurement bureaucrats in the fictional region of “Archipelagia.” Each turn simulated 3 years of in-game time, allowing players to see the consequences of their procurement decisions and respond to their regional rivals. Competition was intense, and the players’ decisions resulted in a deteriorating security environment. At its conclusion, the game designers extrapolated how a military crisis in the region would play out in light of the new weapons capabilities that the players had selected.

Feedback from the players was incredibly positive, highlighting requirements and implications for the methodology of future games.

The finale session gave players an overview of actions taken by the game designers and their opponents – actions that were otherwise secret while the game was in progress.

The briefing was delivered by the fictional superpower’s military featured in the game.

Derby House Principles

We are delighted to announce that the Third Nuclear Age Project is now signed up to the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming

This means that:

As professional gamers we are committed to the Derby House Principles:

1. Promoting inclusion and diversity in professional wargaming, through the standards we set, the opportunities we offer, and access to activities we organise.
2. Making clear our opposition to sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination across the board, as well as in wargaming.
3. Encouraging a greater role and higher profile for colleagues from underrepresented groups in our professional activities.
4. Seeking out and listening to the concerns and suggestions of our colleagues as to how our commitment to diversity and inclusion could be enhanced.
5. Demonstrating our commitment to diversity and inclusion through ongoing assessment of progress made and discussion of future steps.

As a team we feel it is particularly important for us to publicly commit to these principles as we plan to ramp-up the conflict simulation component of our project over the next two years. We want to ensure that these professional skills, increasingly valuable in the national security job market, are available to all regardless of background. These commitments closely complement one the primary objectives of the Third Nuclear Age project, which is to equip and develop the next generation of nuclear policy analysts.