PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Facilitating AFTERSHOCK

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From time to time I get asked what the best way is of teaching new players how to play AFTERSHOCK, and facilitating a game for a class or other participants. There are probably many ways of doing this, but here is the way we’ve typically done it—and it seems to have worked well with audiences ranging from gamers to university students to military folks to humanitarian, development, and diplomatic personnel.

  1. First and foremost, we don’t try to teach the entire rulebook, or even let players see this before or during the game. Even for a low-medium complexity game like AFTERSHOCK, a book of rules or a long “rules lecture” can be daunting, especially for newbie players or non-gamers who feel pressured to remember everything.
  2. Instead we provide a brief 15-minute overview of the game using this powerpoint presentation. As you’ll see, we break the games into three primary elements: assigning teams to tasks; delivering appropriate assistance; and managing supply and logistics. When going through the presentation, the emphasis is on concepts, themes, and how they are represented in the game (avatars for teams, boxes for supplies, disks for infrastructure, the meaning of the various displays, etc.) rather than on detailed rules. We also point out to each team their specific strengths, weaknesses, and goals. These are also summarized on the player hand-outs.
  3. Make sure that throughout the game players follow along phase by phase. The turn sequence is listed in each player briefing, but we usually also project it on a screen or write it on a whiteboard to make it even easier to view. If players can come to understand the tasks and choices in each phase, they’ll understand the game.
  4. Players are asked to assign their initial teams. They’ll be confused, but simply tell them that a major earthquake has just hit, confusion is to be expected, they’ll get a chance to change things later, and there are only a few good choices anyway (relief in a district, rescue in a district, or a cluster meeting). Give them a minute or less to do this, ideally while urging them to hurry.
  5. We then start playing, with the facilitator being clear to the player what their options are in each phase. I talk them through their choices at each point, but also hurry them up if they dawdle. The timed game/clock does a great job of reducing analysis paralysis, and I’m not above making sound effects of desperate survivors if they need a further push to make up their mind and act.
  6. When Event and Coordination cards are drawn, it usually works best to have the player quickly hand them back to the facilitator to read them to the group and explain, rather then the current player trying to read the card and work it the implications while everyone else stares over their shoulder. The cards are also designed to be teachable moments, so I’ll often expand on what the card says or relate it to actual incidents or real-life challenges.
  7. Don’t bother with explaining any of the Special Operations until they become relevant/available to the players, which is often not until the latter half of the game. Indeed, in general our philosophy has been not to introduce a rule or option until the players need to know it.
  8. In most games we offer limited advice—enough to prevent an early disastrous failure, but not enough to ensure victory.  In particular players need to be aware of the importance of opening up the port/airport, as well as the potential value of coordination meetings.

In our experience, 95% of players will more-or-less understand the game mechanics by the the start of the second game turn, and by the fourth turn or so they’ll often correct me if I forget something. It is absolutely key to step through each game phase in a methodical way, however—as understanding and enthusiasm grows, the table will get noisy and there will be players who are eager to skip ahead to do something.

While it wasn’t initially intended as part of the game design, this psychological transition from initial confusion (“What’s happening? How do we play?”) to an increasing sense of initiative, self-confidence, and control very nicely mirrors actual humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations. In the early phase, first responders are overwhelmed and struggling to cope. With prioritization, teamwork, and planning, however (coupled with quite a lot of self-help by the affected population, which is also included in AFTERSHOCK) they can slowly get on top of the situation.

If they do so they’ll win the game—or, in a real HADR situation, save actual lives.

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