North Korea has just fired off an intercontinental ballistic missile over Japan. Japan is uncertain as to whether the US wants to start a war.
It’s trying to find out why a massive American naval fleet has just arrived in the region. But it’s not getting any answers. There’s chaos in the White House as various factions try to influence the president.
Some of this might sound familiar. But this is not real life. It’s the scenario in a war game called Dire Straits, set in 2020.
And it’s being acted out, not on the world stage, but in a lecture theatre and seminar rooms at King’s College, London.
More than 100 people are taking part – students, serving military officers and civil servants, as well as a few who do this for a hobby.
To an outsider, the game looks like chaos, but there are rules and referees.
Tables have been set out representing countries.
The participants wear badges with their national flag and their role. There’s a Russian president and foreign minister, a UN secretary general, military commanders and even journalists.
It’s a noisy mix of debating society and board games: Risk meets Top Trumps meets chess.
On one table, there’s a map of the region with cards placed on top with pictures of military hardware such as a US aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine.
t’s all been choreographed by Jim Wallman and Prof Rex Brynen, of McGill University, in Montreal, who has also done these kind of games with the US military.
Prof Brynen says in recent years there’s been a “major resurgence of war gaming as a serious analytical and training tool in both the US and UK”
In Dire Straits, he’s overseeing events in the White House – a room down the corridor from the rest of the world in the lecture theatre. A dozen people are trying to influence President Trump, who’s survived another election in this scenario.
Alex Jonas, who plays the role of a beleaguered White House chief of staff, is trying to decide which of the advisers gets access to the president. Alex’s real job as a web developer sounds less frantic.
President Trump is not being played by a person.
Instead, there’s a board with chance cards that reveal his state of mind. Some are based on his own tweets. Before lunch, one of the cards warns North Korea of “fire and fury”, echoing a phrase the president used in August.
Prof Brynen says there are a lot of players trying to influence the president. “He’s blowing hot and cold on China, and US ambassadors in the region feel he’s not really listening.” Some of this might reflect his own views of President Trump.