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Daily Archives: 01/07/2017

Gaming the apocalypse: Northland edition

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A few hours ago the world’s first ever “wide-area megagame” ended. Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos concerned a growing zombie apocalypse in a fictionalized United States. It involved some five hundred or so players in 11 cities in five different countries: London, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Leeds, Southampton (UK); Brussels (Belgium); Nijmegen (Netherlands); New York, Austin (US); and finally our small band in Montréal. The games were simultaneous (which meant a 6:30am start time for us) and linked (so what happened in one game affected the others). While subject wasn’t a serious one, many of the game design elements could certainly be applied to more serious topics.

While the rules were generally identical across games, there were a number of innovations in the “Northland” (Montréal) game, as befitted our status as the neighbouring country. Communications between games was by email and a centralized website for local and national news. Our own game had three components: a strategic game involving federal and provincial players, and two city/regional games, one depicting the Windsor/St. Catharines area (adjacent to Buffalo) and depicting the London/Windsor/Sarnia area (adjacent to Detroit or “Romero City”) .

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The peaceful streets of St. Catharines, Ontario, on the eve of the apocalypse.

The day started off with growing numbers of refugees from South of the Border arriving in Windsor and Niagara, as well as other areas on Ontario from Sault Ste-Marie to Cornwall.[1]

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In Ottawa, PM Trustin Judeau photogenically ponders the growing crisis.

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Windsor police—outside a Tim Hortons doughnut shop, of course.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the federal government immediately declared a nationwide state of emergency, which speeded the mobilization of federal and provincial assets. Prime Trustin Judeau was dispatched to London to cheer up hospital patients with smiling selfies.

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Trustin Judeau at London Health Sciences Centre.

In Niagara, local authorities quickly established a quarantine center and refugee camp. Newly-arrived refugees were screened and escorted to the camp, while zombie infestations were cordoned off until they could be dealt with.

In southwest Ontario, however, things quickly went from bad to worse. A light aircraft crashed at London airport, causing several casualties and closing it for more than 8 hours. Failure to screen arriving refugees led to several outbreaks, and other zombies started to float into coastal areas of Lake Erie. Local authorities were slower to establish cordons, which allowed the virus to spread. It didn’t help that conditions were equally bad, or even worse, in neighbouring Romero City (Detroit) and much of the rest of Mishigamaa (Michigan):

Mayor Mayhew tried to rally his troops:

Mayor Callum Mayhew, speaking at London City Hall today, praised municipal preparations to combat the zombie menace, and encouraged city workers to “hold your ground!”

The Mayor went on to say “Sons and daughters of London, of Windsor, my brothers/sisters, I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men and women fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.”

He added, “An hour of undead and shattered riot shields, when the Age of Persons comes crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight. By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, municipal employees of southwest Ontario!”

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Floaters! Undead abominations wash up on the northern shores of Lake Erie. The Munsee-Delaware (marked by the symbol in zone #49), Chippewa, Oneida, and other First Nations would do an admirable job of keeping their areas zombie-free.

When a small group of survivalists arrived by boat near Owen Sound and proceeded to shoot up the Bruce nuclear generating station, Acting Prime Minister Aaron Brennan ordered the closure of Canadian airspace to civilian traffic, and deployed Coast Guard units and Ontario Provincial Police helicopters to Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron to interdict unauthorized boats trying to enter the country.[2] the importance of doing so was highlighted the next day when a lake freighter docked in a Northland port—only to disgorge a cargo of zombified crewmen. Only a quick response by the Northland Armed Forces prevented disaster.

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PM Trustin Judeau confers with Ontario provincial officials in Toronto. To the northwest, a small group of foreign survivalists fleeing from South of the Border asserts its so-called “Second Amendment right to loot nuclear power stations.”

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A classified map from the Pentagon, obtained after the crisis. Areas have been coded 1-5 for severity. As can be seen, large areas of Mishigamaa have been marked as lost.

Infected refugees led to a zombie outbreak in Sault Ste-Marie, but this was quickly suppressed by the timely arrival of elite JTF2 special forces and 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron, operating from Ottawa and NFB (Northland Forces Base) Petawawa. Other outbreaks occurred elsewhere from time to time, but were quickly dealt with.

Despite interdicting some would-be arrivals, Northland did not turn its back on its southern cousins. A refugee camp and quarantine site was established at the Cornwall, Ontario border crossing, in cooperation with the Northland Red Cross. This was opened to displaced persons of all nationalities. The Northland Public Health Agency contacted federal officials South of the Border, and offered their assistance with research—including a sample of the Pithovirus Sibericum B zombie virus that had been isolated by pathologists at the Niagara Health Services hospital.

Perhaps most important, as soon as the mechanized infantry of the 1e battalion, Royal 22e Régiment had formed up at NFB Valcartier they were ordered to the border south of Montréal. Northland then offered to deploy these forces to assist the state of Adirondack, which had suffered serious zombie infestations in Albany and elsewhere. It took a while for federal and state officials to sort out the necessary permissions and command protocols, but the Northland contingent was eventually dispatched to secure Plattsburgh and support efforts to liberate Albany.

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Northland Armed Forces units wait for a green light to assist local Adirondack officials across the border. The Cornwall Refugee Reception Centre can be seen to the west. Local OPP, SQ, and RNMP police units stand ready to screen new arrivals and escort them to the camp. Members of the Joint Incident Response Unit, based out of NFB Trenton, have established quarantine facilities there to prevent infections spreading among the refugees. (The misspelling of “Plattsburgh” was a cunning ruse to fool zombie cartographers. Given the absence of zombie maps after the crisis, it appears to have worked.)

At Owen Sound, an Ontario Ministry of Health HAZMAT team responded, and—working with local engineers—was able to seal a small breach at the Bruce NGS that had vented some radioactive steam. On two occasions aircraft ignored the closure of Northland airspace, and attempted to land anyway. On both occasions the government decided not to shoot them down. The first, landing in Ottawa, turned out to be a young family in a desperate search for safe refuge. The second, arriving at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, was a group of armed survivalists. They refused to surrender their weapons and opened fire on airport security personnel, but were soon brought under control by reservists from the 48th Highlanders and Royal Regiment of Northland. The airport was closed for several hours as a result of this incident.

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Infected refugees lead to a zombie outbreak in Kitchener, Ontario—but it is soon dealt with by reservists from the Royal Highland Fusiliers. To the east, a large concentration of refugees can be seen at the Toronto Refugee Reception Centre, guarded by an OPP SWAT team. At the top left an Ontario Ministry of Health HAZMAT team checks radiation levels at the Bruce nuclear power plant, following the incident with survivalists there.

Meanwhile in southwest Ontario, increasingly concerned municipal authorities took the drastic decision to have firefighters to refill their tankers with gasoline from the Sarnia refinery, and turn this on the undead hordes.

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The London Fire Department warily try their new weapon, as Mayor Mayhew and Chief Islam look on approvingly.

This worked about as well as one might expect: a few hordes were singed, several firefighter units suffered serious casualties, and a lot more fires erupted—including one at the Sarnia refinery. This promptly exploded, causing a fireball and column of smoke that could be seen in neighbouring Mishigamaa. Mass panic gripped the city.

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Grrrr, arghhh

In Windsor, all seemed lost. Large numbers of refugees had gathered here from Romero City, their onward route to Toronto blocked by the zombie packs that prowled large sections of Highway 401.[3] Police units had become cut off. Small children cried as undead abominations crept ever closer. Although loud Nickelback music[4] succeeded in driving back the zombies in some areas, it was only a matter of time before Windsor was completely overrun.

Then they heard it. First came a series of loud explosions, as CF-18s of 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron began airstrikes on the largest concentrations of animated abominations. This was then followed by the dull thud of helicopters in the distance. Led personally by General Daryl Cartier, Chief of the Defence Staff, Direct Action Company A of the Northland Special Operations Regiment and 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron undertook an airmobile assault to secure Windsor airport. Soon thereafter, the remainder of the regiment arrived, transported by CH-130s of 436 Transport Squadron.[5] They quickly took control of area and started to push back the undead.

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General Cartier looks on as reinforcements arrive to secure Windsor, Ontario.

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Pretty much everything in Sarnia is on fire (left) and airmobile Northland special forces secure Windsor (right).

In London, advance elements of Royal Northland Dragoons and Royal Northland Regiment started to arrive in the city, supported by reservists from 31 and 32 Brigade. As municipal police, fire, and reserve military forces (notably from the locally-based Windsor Regiment, Essex and Kent Scottish, and 1st Hussars) formed a cordon around the largest outbreaks, heavily armed regular troops began the counterattack. Additional mechanized infantry forces, this time from 2e battalion, Royal 22e Régiment, arrived a few hours later and began to push down the 401. Drawing upon the benefits of international research collaboration, a HAZMAT team from the Northland Public Health Agency began field trials of a new cure for the zombie virus. The early results were encouraging.

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The NPHA mobile lab deploys the experimental cure as the Mayor looks on (or, perhaps, at the fire down the road).

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A convoy of Vandoos advances down the 401 from London to Windsor, escorted by local police

It came not a moment too soon. NORAD and the Pentagon urgently informed the Northland government that Russian Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 Blackjack nuclear-armed bombers were airborne, and might be headed southwards. All aircraft were re-tasked to intercept. In a tense call over secure communications, the Deputy Prime Minister and Chief of the Defence Staff agreed: the order would be given to engage any hostile armed aircraft entering Northland airspace…

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CF-18s of the Royal Northland Air Force streak northwards to intercept possible Russian bombers, “loaded for Bear”…


Reflections

We had far fewer players than we had initially planned for. A 6:30 am start on a national holiday (July 1 is Canada Day) is, it seems, a hard sell. However, everything went very well indeed. There were some communications issues—the central news website wasn’t always available due to server bandwidth problems (I couldn’t access it three-quarters of the time), and the email system could have functioned better. Busy players probably meant that not all of the information that could have flowed between games did flow between games. However, it was the apocalypse, so what do you expect?

Our small group had an absolutely terrific time. Unlike the other UNSOC sessions we had no elections subgame, but rather a competition to earn smug self-righteousness cards (“Smuggies”). Mayor Jano Bourgeois of Niagara and Acting Prime Minister Aaron Brennan were tied at the end, and so shared the trophy for the most outstandingly nice Northlander.

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Mayor Bourgeois (left) and Acting PM Brennon (right).

However a dispute erupted when the Mayor discovered one more Smuggy which he had forgotten about. The issue was resolved with a traditional hockey brawl, and then everyone made nice again and finished off the Timbits.

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Federal and municipal officials discuss the recent crisis.

I was very happy with the way that our Northland modifications (zonal maps, refugees) worked. Indeed, in addition to being a lot of fun, it had the real feel of an emergency management game. I might even use a modified version of UNSOC: Northland in my teaching on humanitarian crisis response next academic year.

The tokens and stickers we used for units were based on the MaGCK system that Tom Fisher, Tom Mouat and I are developing. The stickers are removable, so all the tokens can be reused.  It took maybe two hours to print and assemble 200 components. Total cost: probably $10 or so for the printing. While we’ve designed MaGCK for matrix gaming, it clear has some megagame applications too!

 

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WAMCOM Kevin Farnworth (left).

Particular gratitude is due to my CONTROL team counterparts, Tom Fisher (who ran not one but two city maps simultaneously) and Kevin Farnworth (who served both as WAMCOM, interacting with the other games, and as the Northland press). Of course, none of this would have been possible at all without the megagame design and organization skills of mad genius Jim Wallman, who put the wide-area megagame together.

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City CONTROL, Tom Fisher. Note the relative calm in Niagara/St. Catharines (foreground) as local police, reservists from the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, and a Northland Border Services Agency K9 unit meet refugees crossing the Niagara River, preparing to escort them to the nearby refugee camp and quarantine centre. A SWAT team patrols the Queen Elizabeth Way. Meanwhile, firefighters deal with a small fire east of Welland, while St. Catharines police respond to a robbery in progress.

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The heroes of Northland.


Notes

[1] Refugees were a major component of the Northland game. They could be regular refugees, armed survivalists (prone to looting), or infected (who might turn into zombies). Police and military units could screen these and escort them, otherwise they would all slowly head towards Toronto or Montréal. Refugee camps could be established to hold them, and these could be upgraded with security and medical quarantine facilities.

[2] In the Northland game, the flow of refugees could be slowed by interdiction efforts in the air and by the use of Coast Guard and other assets on the Great Lakes.

[3] While most of the UNSOC games used a hex grid, we used zonal maps overlaid on Google Map images. The various major highways provided a much faster route than the city streets or rural roads. Also, our London/Windsor/Sarnia map was on a larger scale than others, with movement allowances scaled accordingly.

[4] Among other Northland-specific special action cards, our game featured Tim Hortons, support from First Nations communities, an emergency telephone conversation with the Queen, polite neighbours, the War of 1812, and local hockey teams with protective gear and sharpened zombie-killing hockey sticks.

[5] The Order of Battle in the Northland game accurately mirrored the actual deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces, with every single combat unit in 2 Mechanized Brigade Group, 5e Groupe-brigade mécanisé, 31, 32, 33, 34, and 35 (reserve) Brigade Groups, and the 1st, 3rd, and 8th Wings of 1 Air Division represented at the Company or Squadron scale. Representation of Royal Northland Mounted Police, Ontario Provincial Police, and the Sûreté du Québec generally reflected their actual deployment and organization too.

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