Cold War Simulation


Students take part in a three day simulation of a cold war-era international crisis to experience the challenges of nuclear weapons decision-making and better understand the history of the Cold War.


To give students a better appreciation for four things:

1) The history of the Cold War

2) The immense impact of nuclear weapons decisionmaking

3) The nature of a political "crisis" in international relations

4) the necessity of active involvement in a group setting to reach decisions.

Class: GOVT E-1882: Active Learning Weekend: The Crisis Game—A Cold War Nuclear Crisis Simulation


During three days in April, students participate in a simulation of a nuclear crisis between the United States and Soviet Union. As the instructor writes, “There is no way to explain the unnerving nature of the Cold War or the crises which occurred simply by lecturing about them and passively instructing the students. The simulation was a response to students not fully grasping the Cold War in previous courses. The immediacy of the crisis simulation has had a major impact on student understanding of what a "crisis" is and why the Cold War was so important to political leaders.”


This exercise is open to students who already passed one of 4 semester long courses on international security. The parameters of the game were kept secret from the students until the day of the activity.

Day 1 (Friday, 5 PM – 8 PM)

  • On game day, each student was given a folder with a summary of the crisis (set in 1984), their group (the Soviet Union leadership, the US leadership, UN Ambassadors, journalists), their role (e.g. President, Secretary of State) and information they would have (maps, etc) that other players may or may not have, forcing all students in their roles to brief each other.
  • The first afternoon was a lecture and indication of the roles for the students. Each team (Soviet Union and United States) had an initial organizational meeting.
  • That night at 12:30 am, selected members of the American team were texted sudden changes in the scenario (in which the USSR invaded Iran) and the game commenced at 9 am the next morning with meetings in "Moscow" (USSR), "New York" (the UN) and "Washington" (the White House).

Day 2 (Saturday, 9 AM – 5 PM)

  • The full-day game begins at 9am. Leadership for the two countries are in two different rooms (Moscow and New York). Players representing the UN and the media may move around at will, but the Soviet and American players cannot communicate except in writing.
  • Students are expected to act in a manner befitting the simulation. For instance, they dress in business attire and use the form of address befitting each individuals’ role (e.g.Mister President, Comrade Minister).
  • The Soviet side has invaded Iran. They have more information about this than the American players, who received a brief from an actual U.S. military officer who volunteers each year to lead them through the problem.
  • The movement of Soviet forces toward the Persian Gulf is the "forcing function:" the Soviet team has a faculty adviser and the plan (pre-written before the game) is to capture the Gulf in 8 "Game days" (hours), thus forcing the US side to make decisions -- including discussion of the role of nuclear weapons.
  • Each team deliberates for one hour at a time (one "day" in game time). At the end of the hour, the students tell faculty and TAs what moves their sides have decided upon, and instructors inform the students of what outcomes took place based on those moves.
  • During the game, students must produce a great amount of collaborative material, including press releases, resolutions, communications, and news stories.
  • The game ends at 5 pm.

Day 3 (9 AM – 1 PM)

  • There is a three hour seminar for all players to meet and discuss what happened the following day.
  • There is no final product; the course, because of the various nature of the roles of the players, is pass-fail.


Students were not allowed to access the internet (which did not exist in 1984) and all materials were provided either as written product (news reports, messages) crafted by the students or injected into the game at various points by the faculty. These included: maps, readings, charts, photographs, etc.


Basic instructions for all students

Scenario synopsis for all students

Briefings on the situation for each side individually (Soviet and American)


Recommendations to other instructors: “Doing it alone is tough; a good team of TAs and any outside volunteers (in my case, a military officer and a colleague to advise the "Soviets") is important to the success of the crisis. The students *must* be separated: the inability to simply sit around and talk to each other, and instead have to respond in timed moves, is crucial to the game's sense of tension. (As one student playing the President noted: "I feel like we're always up against the wall about time; I finally understand how that's a problem for national leaders now.")”

instructions.docx13 KB
appraisal.pptx1.03 MB
soviet file.pptx2.8 MB
crisis game.docx16 KB