PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

AFTERSHOCK: A humanitarian crisis game (beta release)

aftershock available

The final production version of AFTERSHOCK is now available! For information, see the AFTERSHOCK information page. The blog post below describes the conceptualization, beta release, and development of the game.

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It is still soon after the EMERGEMNCY phase, soon after earthquake. District 2 needs 2 medical supplies (red cubes), 2 water and sanitation (blue cubes), 1 food (green cube), and a team assigned to rescue. It meets those requirements, so aid efforts here will be successful.

It is still the EMERGENCY phase, soon after earthquake. District 2 needs two medical supplies (red cubes), two water and sanitation (blue cubes), one food (green cube), and a team assigned to rescue. It meets those requirements, so aid efforts here will be successful.

September 2013: After some additional playtesting and a few more tweaks, I am now making available a fully-playable beta version of the Humanitarian Crisis Game. The Humanitarian Crisis Game is a four (to eight) player game that explores the interagency cooperation needed to address the emergency and early recovery phase of a complex humanitarian crisis. The game is set in the fictional country of Carana, but is loosely modeled on disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

 Carana has suffered years of sometimes violent turmoil, and has only recently taken the first steps to tentative steps to national reconciliation and reconstruction. Poverty is widespread, government capacity is weak, and ethnic and political tensions remain high. Nongovernmental organizations and United Nations specialized agencies are active in the country, including a moderately-sized UN civilian police contingent. At dawn today, a powerful earthquake struck the capital city of Galasi, causing widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure. Tens of thousands of people are in need of urgent aid and medical attention. At the request of the Caranan government, military forces from several friendly countries—operating as the multinational Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force, or HADR-TF—are en route to assist, as are additional contingents of UN and NGO personnel together with relief supplies.

The game files required for the beta version are as follows (all in pdf format):

  • The complete game rules (updated as of 28/02/2015)
  • The various game displays
  • The event cards used to generate random events during the crisis
  • The at-risk cards used to denote humanitarian needs in each district
  • The cluster cards used to generate positive effects from coordination
  • Markers for supplies (optional, if no other tokens available)

Note that if you are currently thinking of using the game, you are strongly advised to contact us for a final production version. It looks much better, and contains a number of tweaks and revisions. For the various game markers I use wooden tokens purchased online from Game Crafter, but the file also includes cut-out markers if you wish to use those instead. I have distributed the files in their original (.pptx and .docx) formats to facilitate modification by users, but if you have trouble with any of them let me know and I’ll provide .pdf versions. I’ve now play tested the game extensively with students at McGill, and it has also been used in the classroom at Texas State University. If any PAXsims readers try out the game, please drop me a line with any thoughts and feedback you have.

Design Notes

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Playing the game at McGill University.

No game can capture all aspects of a process, and humanitarian assistance is no different. A key design choice from the outset, therefore, was what elements needed to be most emphasized, and how those might best be represented. First, the game needed to highlight humanitarian assistance as a cooperative endeavour, but one in which different actors have slightly different perspectives and priorities. This was done by measuring assistance efforts both collectively (relief points/RP) and individually (operations points/OP). Addressing humanitarian need is a central priority for everyone, and if RPs are negative at the end of the game everyone loses. However, humanitarian actors also need public and political support to function, and failure to maintain this can result in losing for that reason too. The game also needed to highlight that different humanitarian actors have different strengths and weaknesses. This is difficult to do, because each of the four actors identified in the Humanitarian Crisis Game are, in the real world, themselves composed of many different elements with different skills and capabilities. However, for game purposes the rules give the local government primary responsibility for security, and some comparative advantage in local distribution; depicts foreign militaries as having strong logistics and security capabilities but with limited staying power and little capacity to promote sustainable development; and represents UN agencies and NGOs as having comparative strength in relief and development. The combination of differing goals and capabilities, in turn, sets the stage for the coordination challenges in the game. This has been treated in two complimentary ways. Players need to play cooperatively and coordinate their actions to win, both in terms of allocating their human resources and in deciding what kinds of assistance to deliver, where, when, and how. However, coordination is also an activity that they can invest game resources into, by participating in the various coordination clusters. Doing so delivers benefits, but these are not wholly predictable, and the process can even be a bit frustrating. Indeed, the game forces players to even cooperate in coordinating, since some activities may require that multiple parties prioritize the same sectors at the same time. Yet coordination involves opportunity costs too, since resources invested in coordination are not available for other tasks.

Playing the game at King's College London (Connections UK 2014).

Playing the game at King’s College London (Connections UK 2014).

The game uses “at risk” cards to indicate where humanitarian assistance is needed, and “event” cards to generate a challenging operational environment. The sudden and unpredictable operation of these is somewhat different, of course, than the steadier loss of human life in a humanitarian crisis. The mechanism was adopted, however, because it does generate some of the sense of chaos and limited information of a major disaster. It also reflects the extent to which humanitarian actors are struggling to deal with an array of challenges beyond their immediate control. The Humanitarian Crisis Game, like with real humanitarian operations, rewards risk assessment and contingency planning. It also forces players to make difficult decisions about priorities and triage: given limited resources, do they focus on those who are most easily saved, or those most in need? The first few turns of the game are likely to be overwhelming, with the players lacking sufficient resources to meet needs. The importance of randomly-drawn event cards also means that every game is likely to be quite different, and some will be much more difficult than others. In this sense, the game isn’t “fair” and in some cases players may be faced with an almost impossible sequence of events. However, real humanitarian crises aren’t “fair” either. All that anyone can do is to do their best (and do no harm).

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Playing the game at Texas State University.

There is a considerable amount of politics represented in the game.  Actors need to maintain public and political support, generated both by their performance in the field and through media outreach. Carana itself is politically fragile, and a failure to address basic needs can be dangerous, especially in the latter part of the game after the initial shock of the disaster has worn off. I didn’t want to overemphasize the element of social unrest and insecurity, however, since it is often rather less than pundits anticipate (in Haiti in 2010, for example). Still, some risk is there. Badly handled the government of Carana—and, by extension, the other players too—could find themselves in serious trouble. The media is a significant presence in humanitarian emergencies, important to the various actors yet beyond their control. In the Humanitarian Crisis Game it moves across the country, highlighting some areas while ignoring others, and variously boosting or damaging the standing of players. Later it is likely to leave altogether as the broader public loses interest, or as other news stories command greater attention. Players of more conventional wargames will immediately notice that the game does not include a map, or more accurately doesn’t include map-based representations of spatiality. Part of the reason is that the design is intended to prioritize processes and thematic sectors over geographic space. Part of the decision was a practical one, too—I wanted the game to be easily reproduced with nothing more than a printer and standard paper, and a larger mapboard would have complicated that. Geography isn’t entirely absent in any case. As players will soon find out, transportation and logistics play an absolutely key role in providing relief in Carana. Unlike most conventional wargames, the design also uses a fictional case and country. This is to allow a broader range of issues to be explored than in any one single real-world case, and to relax some of the pressure to depict historical events with a high degree of fidelity. It also allows students to get past their knowledge and horror of, say, the Haiti case to focus on the broader processes at work in humanitarian crisis response. The Humanitarian Crisis Game can be played in about 3 hours, which is the upper limit for an educational game. It is probably best played in an educational setting with an experienced facilitator, rather than expecting students to self-teach themselves the rules. However, once play starts the game is fairly straightforward, with the various cards providing clear explanations of game effects. The cards themselves are designed to provide large numbers of “teachable moments,” highlighting issues drawn from actual humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations.

Game Strategy

While players might initially focus on getting vital supplies to hungry, thirsty, and injured survivors, it will soon become apparent that logistics are key. If resources can’t be brought into affected areas, they are almost useless. Carana and the HADR-TF have a comparative advantage in opening up transportation routes, and should do so early. Coordination through the cluster system is important, especially since it allows players to transfer resources amongst themselves. Without this sort of cooperation there will be duplication of effort on the ground. It is also impossible to deal with challenges like cholera without coordination. Earning operations points matters, but so too does using them. While they may be necessary to “win” the game, players should also remember that they can be  “spent” to acquire additional resources. Carana is often both the weakest, most over-stretched player and the most important one: it has a network for local delivery of supplies, it is primarily responsible for security, and if it does poorly all players suffer. Social unrest is usually not a major problem unless players perform poorly in the later weeks of the crisis. However, if problems do arise don’t leave them to fester. Finally, be mindful that local needs will shift between the emergency and recovery stages. Medical care and WASH tend to be the priority in the first few days, while food and shelter become more important as time moves on. Other than logistics, most infrastructure activities are better reserved for the recovery stage when needs are less acute and the opportunity cost of infrastructure is reduced.

Credits

The initial ideas for this game were drawn from participants in the Connections 2012 Game Lab, with special thanks to my co-facilitators David Becker, Brant Guillory, Ty Mayfield, Gary Milante, Joshua Riojas, and Brian Train. I also drew on the inspiration from the subsequent Crisis Response humanitarian assistance card game developed by Gary Milante, and from the Zombiton NHS zombies-in-a-hospital game developed with Jessica Barton. At McGill, the design of the game was refined and play-tested with input from Sean Anderson, Chloe Brynen, David Brynen, Islam Derradji, Bushra Ebadi, Thomas Fisher, Benjamin Foldy, June McCabe, Beth McKenna, Émilie Noël, Adriana Willms. I also benefitted from feedback from players and other participants at the Connections UK 2013 and Connections 2014 professional wargaming conferences.

Revision History and Updates

18 January 2014: Revised cluster cards uploaded

20 July 2014: A substantially revised version (beta4.0) has been uploaded. The major change is to do away with the dual “emergency” and “recovery” sections on each at-risk card (depicted in the older graphic at the top of this page). Instead, cards are now one or the other, and the deck is prepared before play to assure that the top two cards in each district always depict the “emergency” stage of the disaster, with greatest need for WASH and medical supplies, and the need to assign some teams to disaster rescue. This has the added advantage of pushing some of the more complicated cards (like Cholera or Squatters) deeper into the deck to ease player learning. Several rules have also been simplified, notably with regard to logistics. Several of the Cluster and Event cards have been changed. Finally, the game has been been shortened from eight turns to seven, in an effort to make in playable within two hours.

11 August 2014: I’ve made some small changes (beta4.1) as a result of feedback at the Connections wargaming conference. In particular, players now draw one Coordination card for each cluster they are attending, and then select which one of these to play. There have been a few other minor tweaks too. The game works well with a 15 minute introduction, 7 periods (turns), and 2 hours of play time. All changes have been uploaded.

12 December 2014: Some minor rule-tweaks based on recent playtesting. The game is now names AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. We plan to make the game available for purchase via GameCrafter in the second half of 2015.

15 January 2015: We’ve received permission from WFP and UNDP to use images from their photo libraries for the production version of the game.

15 March 2015: Due to the magical graphics skills of Tom Fisher, we are very near to completing the production version. You’ll find some of the (almost-final) game elements below. E6 CO7 AR1 airportdisp6 clusterdisp10 district1 1 April 2015: We ran four simultaneous games of AFTERSHOCK for students of the Canadian Disaster and HumanitarianResponse Training Program. It all seems to have gone very well indeed!

1 July 2015: We’re in production! See the AFTERSHOCK page.

5 responses to “AFTERSHOCK: A humanitarian crisis game (beta release)

  1. Lisa Lynch 29/09/2013 at 4:19 pm

    looks great, rex. downloading.

  2. Rex Brynen 29/09/2013 at 4:23 pm

    Lisa: You’ll enjoy the way the humanitarian community views the (non-player) media card–they try to endlessly exploit it for free publicity, and get annoyed when it reports on operational failures.Can’t live with it, can’t live without it…

  3. mrwalker1 29/09/2013 at 4:29 pm

    Wow. Major kudos on the effort and the idea, can’t wait to try it out!

  4. judithbshields 18/01/2014 at 11:32 pm

    Hi, thanks for sharing. However, some of pdf links aren’t working

  5. Rex Brynen 19/01/2014 at 12:45 am

    Fixed now.

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