Simulating War and Peace in IR Theory with a Classroom Game

Today we have the first of two guest posts by Nathan Alexander Sears, a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto and previously a professor of international relations at the Universidad de Las Américas, Quito. He can be reached at n[dot]sears[at]mail[dot]utoronto[dot]ca.

This game introduces students to theoretical concepts in IR, such as neorealism, neoliberalism, constructivism, and bargaining theory.

The class is initially divided into two states. The object of the game is to meet two, and only two, goals: (1) to survive and (2) to maximize the amount of money spent on enjoyment. Survival means that a state is not defeated in war by another state.

The game entails multiple rounds, usually three or four depending on class time. Each round should take approximately 10 minutes. In each round, states begin with a budget of $10 and must make two decisions. First, each state must decide how to allocate its budget between two mutually exclusive items: armaments or enjoyment. States may choose any combination of the two items, but must allocate all of their resources each round. For instance, a state may choose $8 for enjoyment and $2 for armaments or $0 for enjoyment and $10 for armaments. These resources are nontransferable between states.

Second, each state must choose a foreign policy of peace or war. If all states choose peace, then the outcome is international peace, and each state ends the round with the money they allocated towards enjoyment. If a state chooses war, then it must declare war against a specific state(s). If war is declared by any state, then the result of that war is determined by the side that has spent more money on armaments. A state that prevails in war not only keeps its own money for enjoyment, but also steals the remaining money that the defeated state(s) allocated for enjoyment. A state that is defeated in war is eliminated. For example:

State A

  • Begins with $10.
  • Allocates $8 to “armaments.”
  • Allocates $2 to “enjoyment.”
  • Declares “war” on State B.

State B

  • Begins with $10.
  • Allocates $5 to “armaments.”
  • Allocates $5 to “enjoyment.”


  • State A ends the round with $7 for enjoyment (its $2, plus $5 taken from State B).
  • State B is eliminated.

If war occurs between two or more states with the same level of armaments then the war is inconclusive, meaning that all states survive and end the round with the amount of money they individually allocated towards enjoyment. If two or more states declare war on the same state, then the values of their armaments are combined, and any money for enjoyment that is taken is divided equally between the prevailing states.

States are allowed to engage in diplomacy in order to facilitate their decisions about resource allocation and foreign policy. Given the condition of international anarchy, however, any agreement or alliance that is reached through diplomacy is not automatically enforceable; states must make independent decisions about their resource allocation and foreign policies.

The game is played under the conditions of imperfect information and simultaneous decision-making. Each state should come to a decision as a group, which is written on a piece of paper and submitted to the instructor. Once the instructor has received decisions from all states, the results are tallied on the blackboard and the round ends. Rounds are not cumulative; states begin each round with new resources.

The number of states should increase by one per round. In practice, this is done by shuffling the students around, with the instructor choosing students from the existing groups and asking them to form a new group before a new round begins. If a state is eliminated in a particular round, then it should be replaced by a different country name in the subsequent round(s). What is important is to continue increasing the number of states in each round.

Occasionally, the simulation will result in a situation where, for example, A attacks B, B attacks C, and C attacks A. If this occurs and one state possesses more armaments than both other states, then that state shall triumph in war and eliminate the other two. If no clear victor emerges, then an armistice is concluded, in which all of the states survive and each state ends the round with the resources that it has individually allocated for “enjoyment.”

An oral or written debriefing can be based on questions like:

  • Why did war/peace occur? If your group chose to attack another group, what was the reason? If you chose peace, why?
  • What considerations influenced the diplomatic process or decisions about alliance formation? Did you trust other groups to follow through on agreements, including your allies?
  • Which system was the most/least stable—bipolarity, tripolarity, or multipolarity?
  • Kenneth Waltz (1959) asserted that, “War occurs because there is nothing to prevent it,” while Alexander Wendt (1992) argued that, “Anarchy is what states make of it.” Given your experience in the game, what is the nature of the relationship between international anarchy and war?

2 thoughts on “Simulating War and Peace in IR Theory with a Classroom Game

  1. This looks like a great idea, but I was just wondering – why don’t states accumulate resources in each round? Wouldn’t that represent how power and strength often begets power and strength, and allow for bipolarity/tripolarity to emerge. How does it emerge in the event that resources don’t accumulate. And why is it important to keep adding countries?

    1. Thanks for your questions. I think that you could add a parameter for accumulating resources; indeed many times my students have asked me just that. My main reason for not doing so has been to avoid giving one state (or the two original states) a decisive strategic advantage in later rounds, but perhaps balancing could right and “disequilibrium” (as per balance-of-power theory). Another reason is more practical, having to do with whether to make, say, “unused armaments” accumulate, or perhaps resources left for “enjoyment”. I would encourage other instructors to experiment with different ways of simulating resource accumulation, and then let me know how it works. As for my reason for adding states in consecutive rounds, this was to simulate the effects of structural change (along the Waltzian lines of “adding great powers”) on uncertainty and peace/war outcomes.

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