Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Gaming African Swine Fever


Policy points indicated the capacity of government agencies to deal with the challenge. In this game, additional resources were soon requested from cabinet.

Recently I spent an afternoon gaming real-life response plans for an emerging global pandemic. This wasn’t COVID-19, however. This was African Swine Fever (ASF).

African Swine Fever is a very frightening pathogen—if you’re a pig or a pork producer. It is 2-3x more contagious than SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus), and perhaps 50 times more lethal (with a 95%+ fatality rate). It can remain infectious in feces and soil for a couple of weeks and in pork products for months. While it poses no direct health threats to humans, it has lead to the deaths of tens of millions of animals. Indeed, by some estimates up to one-quarter of all pigs in the world might die from the disease or associated “depopulation” (culling of potentially infected stock). For Canada, potential losses could run to many billions of dollars.


My involvement in this project started in late November, when the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) called to ask whether I might develop a game that could help in  policy development and biosecurity preparedness. It was one of the most thoughtful discussions I’ve ever had with a game sponsor: AAFC immediately understood what a game could (and could not) do, the value of crowd-sourcing from diverse perspectives, and the necessary linkages to other analytic methods. Moreover, AAFC was fast in following up. Within days, a team led by Amanda Stamplecoskie and Michael Donohue was in touch, and by mid-December we had developed a prototype. This was playtested early in January. AAFC was extremely prompt in responding to requests for data, and indeed pretty much everything else.


Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba are the main pork-producing provinces in Canada. The small pink and white stickers represent hog farming and meat processing, while the larger blue and red tokens indicate the volume of international and interprovincial trade in live hogs.

We decided to do this as a four-sided matrix game, with players (or teams of players) representing the federal government, the provinces, pork producers, and pork processors. To represent limited policy capacity, taking an action required spending three “policy points” from a stockpile. In the case of the federal government, this stockpile was subdivided into AAFC, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), and other government departments, while the provincial policy capacity was subdivided into the “infected” and uninfected provinces. Policy points had to be spent from the appropriate pool, and only replenished slowly. Other players could add an additional policy point to represent support for an initiative, but everyone needed to be wary of exhausting their resources. At the end of the round, the federal government could opt to take a second action. The provinces could also do this, but only once during the game. Finally, when all of the regular players had finished their turns, a fifth player—”markets and mishaps“—could take an action, reflecting the response of local and international markets, public opinion, political repercussions, or things going wrong.

The game is played on a map depicting Canada, with pink stickers marking areas of hog production. Each represents 200,000 pigs, which gives you an idea how big the Canadian pork industry is, especially in Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba. Major pork processing facilities are also indicated. Removable tokens indicate the weekly volume of hog exports to the US as well as inter-provincial movement.


In this scenario, an ASF infection at a meat processing plant in Fargo, ND was quickly traced back to a farm in southern Manitoba. The border was immediately closed to hogs, and CFIA imposed control ones around the affected farms.

Using a matrix game approach made the game easy to learn and play, as well as easy to modify. Adjudication was done via probability polling, whereby all players were asked for an estimate of how likely an action was to succeed, and percentage dice were then rolled against the median probability. This had the advantage of highlighting areas of analytical consensus (when similar probabilities were offered by all participants) and analytical divergence (where players disagreed markedly on the odds of success, thus pointing to areas where further information or analytical follow-up might be required).


Players contemplate their next move. Senior department officials were highly engaged in moving the game project forward.

Particularly impressive was the fact that AAFC not only worked with me to develop the game very quickly, but also developed the internal capability to run and modify it—running five games internally over the next six weeks or so, involving a diverse group of players and expertise. While common themes came up in all of the games, they also differed significant ways. Even more important, each game saw players discover insights, whether this be new perspectives, the need for new analysis, or learning about aspects of a potential epidemic outside of their normal areas of expertise or responsibility.

All in all, it was an extremely productive, rewarding, and enjoyable experience. Quite beyond it’s usefulness to AAFC, moreover, the whole thing was a model of how policy game development should be done.

3 responses to “Gaming African Swine Fever

  1. Tracy Johnson 10/06/2020 at 9:03 am

    For the record, African Swine Fever made top headline on BBC news for Africa today. (10JUN2020).

  2. Ed 09/03/2020 at 12:01 pm

    I was hired as a subject matter expert with incident command experience in a civilian setting by a leading US military provider (now owned by Raytheon) tasked to develop a 24/7/365 simulation gaming portal for the US military. The company was run by the two software engineers who had trained US armored brigade commanders for Desert Storm and the Battle of 73 Easting. When they took that experience down to the level of the desktop PC, they developed MAGTF, a game around the deployment of US Marine amphibious group task forces. The task on which I was to work emanated from DARPA and the US Department of Agriculture, and was backstopped by educational curricula developed by two other vendors, the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and was focused on an outbreak of the avian influenza inside Georgia’s huge chicken processing industry. [Six million birds….]

    Working with what I had learned as a beta tester of a play by e-mail game developed with input from Thiagi as well as a few hours over dinner with a British developer of computerized simulation games who was attending the NASAGA conference in Montreal, the two lower echelon software engineers and I developed a “game engine” built on the development and assignment of 25 roles to five players. In other words, at any given time, each player had to wear one of five different hats. Using a timeline of two weeks compressed Into two hours, players inside their roles ascertained critical information by asking their co-players questions. The trick was that some of the “hats” were in conflict with other “hats”, including those worn by the same person.

    The project was cancelled. We had a final meeting inside the triple-tight offices of the Crystal Palace. I was told, on the flight home, that the project had been cancelled due to financial improprieties on the part of one fo the other vendors. I doubted that. I overheard an angry comment made to my boss by his boss as I left the office building: “… I thought you vetted him.” Which led me to believe that my past co-authorship of the position paper for the Physicians for Social Responsibility on the Pentagon’s plan to handle collateral victims of a limited nuclear exchange in the Fulda Gap by shipping them to East Coast Hospitals (the CMCHS, or Civilian-Military Contingency Hospital System) had caught up with me. My experience is in mass casualty incident management. Victims of radiation require labor and fluids-intensive care not distantly unlike that which would be required by numbers of people suffering from respiratory failure due to ARDS from a virus.

    So I went home and wrote this paper:

  3. Tracy Johnson 09/03/2020 at 11:33 am

    I’m reminded of Avalon Hills “Civlization” where “Epidemic” was a card you traded one of your opponents and he loses a number of population, and that Player in turn can cause other players to lose population also. However the person who originally traded the card was immune.

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