As regular readers of PAXsims may know, I teach an undergraduate course on conflict simulation each year at McGill University. You can find reports on previous editions of the course here (2018) and here and here (2019). In Winter 2020, of course, the pandemic hit part way through the term—forcing a quick shift to online teaching, and disrupting the various game design teams as many students left Montréal to head to homes elsewhere in Canada or around the world.
In 2021, POLI 452 has been redesigned for remote teaching—which poses certain challenges with something as “hands-on” as manual game design. The course is fully-enrolled again this year, with 44 students.
McGill discourages professors from offering long, passive, synchronous online lectures during the pandemic: they can be tedious for the students and can pose timezone problems for those living outside Canada. Instead, I’m prerecording a major lecture each week, then hosting a one-hour Zoom seminar later in the week to discuss it (which is recorded for students unable to attend). I’m also available seven days a week for individual or group consultation, via Zoom, offering students more flexibility than pre-pandemic office hours.
Students are expected to participate in a number of games to earn simulation activity credits. Usually these take place in person, but this year weekly sessions in Leacock 510 have been replaced with online games via Zoom, Vassal, and Tabletop Simulator. They can also earn credits by attending various online presentations and other events.
In the first month of class, the games we have played include the following:
Zombies! (tactical miniatures game, repurposed as a investment/resource allocation analysis game)
1812: Invasion of Canada (board game)
Shores of Tripoli (board game)
Unity of Command (digital game)
Delivering the Needle (online COVID-19 vaccine seminar game/TTX)
Refugee response (online roleplay/TTX)
…plus various GUWS and MORS presentations, McMUN (McGill model UN), campus and class speakers, and others. We will be playing AFTERSHOCK, Black Orchestra, Assassin’s Mace, a matrix game or two, and a few others later in the term, and quite a few POLI 452 students will be attending the Connections North conference on February 19-21. Sadly there will be no McGill megagame this year, which is usually integrated into the class as well.
Back in July, James Sterrett and his colleagues at the US Command and General Staff College offered some some useful advice on distributed wargaming. In the case of POLI 452, I am generally not having students play directly over TTS or Vassal. Instead, I have a technically-savvy student volunteer head up the Red team against my Blue, and the rest of the class joins one side or the other via Zoom (with Discord being used for communication between the two team leaders). In games with no hidden information I simply host the whole thing myself. Zoom works well, is largely intuitive, and the integration with our myCourses (BrightSpace) course support software is excellent.
In non-pandemic terms all POLI 452 students undertake a group game design project. It is challenging to design and playtest a game remotely, however, so this year they also have the option of writing an individual research paper instead. I expeced that most students would be cautious and opt for the more familiar research paper assignment. In fact, indicative of their enthusiasm (and probably in reaction to the isolation of a school year conducted online), over 80% of the class has expressed a preference for the game project. POLI 452 is a conflict simulation course, not a wargaming course, so the proposed topics range from military operations to various other forms of political, social, economic conflict:
Imperial succession struggles in the early Tang Dynasty
West African kingdoms in the 17-18th centuries
WWII German commerce raiding (1940-41)
The Tiananmen Square protests (1989)
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (1994-2020)
Second Libyan Civil War (2014-2020)
Chinese-Indian border conflict (contemporary)
Irregular migration to the United States (contemporary)
Democratic backsliding (contemporary)
Adaptation of low-carbon technology in the US auto industry (contemporary)
Conflict on the Korean Peninsula (near future)
Finally, there are the inevitable exams: three online quizzes (multiple choice or similar), plus a take-home final exam in April (short and long answers).
So far, I’m quite happy with it. The real challenge will be the game design projects this year—but students seem to be very keen, and I’ve endlessly reminded them about the need to do their research and develop a first playable prototype as soon as possible, so I’m hopeful this will work out well. I’ll let you know at the end of the term!
The following report has been prepared for PAXsims by Nadya Hajj, Associate Professor of Peace and Justice Studies at Wellesley College. She has a new book, Networked Refugees: Palestinian Reciprocity and Remittances in the Digital Age (University of California Press) coming out in Fall 2021.
In the Fall 2020 academic semester I launched into teaching a remote digital course, Comparative Politics of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) at Wellesley College. The course explores critical issues in the politics of the MENA and draws from the literature in Peace and Justice studies to consider practical strategies for transforming political conflict in different state systems and among different groups across the region.
Specifically, the class is tasked with exploring a variety of violent (terrorism/coups/violent protest) and non-violent strategies (political humor, peaceful protest, civil society groups) vis a vis Curle and Dugan’s (1982) classic model of conflict transformation. The Curle and Dugan model is concerned with how to transform unpeaceful relations into peaceful ones. Unpeaceful relations are ones in which either or both parties are damaged possibly through physical violence but also economic or psychological ones. Like Galtung (1969) suggests, unpeaceful conditions are marked by structural violence, where one’s potential is curtailed due to broader socio-economic forces. In contrast, peaceful spaces are collaborative spaces where people, with the help of others, realize their own potential. When there is a high level of awareness and parity among the suffering and those that might help then you are likely to find peaceful spaces (Dugan and Curle 1982).Awareness refers not only to whether the parties involved know of the suffering of the aggrieved, but also the degree to which parties are aware of its sources and the possibilities for addressing the situation. Parity considers the balance of power among those that are suffering and those that might help. In latent conflict, the suffering of others, their needs, and potential pathways for remedying them are “hidden” usually because there is a low level of awareness and a great disparity between those suffering and those with control or access to valuable resources (Curle and Dugan 1982). Understanding and deploying strategies that enhance parity and awareness are key learning objectives in my classroom.
Of course, through readings and class Zoom discussions we evaluated the costs and benefits of different strategies. One thing that I noticed is that many people, not just passionate young college students, often argue that bolder (and sometimes) violent strategies are more effective than subtler forms of resistance because they are, theoretically, more likely to raise awareness and tip the balance of power such that communities can transform structural conditions of repression that underpin the suffering of many. Certainly, these bold strategies may bring about dramatic shifts in political systems if they are successful. However, the cost in terms of human suffering when they fail or only partially succeed is often difficult for students to comprehend in the safety of our anodyne classroom setting. I encourage students to consider the human implications when such movements fail and share digital talks, for example, from the few Syrian dissidents that survived prisons in Syria like those of Omar Alshogre. Still, it is hard to teach this perspective shift of theoretical versus human implications of particular strategies through traditional readings and lectures.
Simulations offer a chance to shift perspective and prompt students to learn through experience. It has been found that simulations and game-based learning promote skill acquisition, knowledge retention, attitudinal change, support the understanding of new concepts and ideas, shape behavior, and improve context-based problem solving (Klabber, 2003; Mateas 2003; Prensky 2001; Ricci, Salas, & Cannon-Bowers, 1996). In particular, Stevens and Fisher (2020) find that, “serious games have the capacity to help humanitarian students more deeply understand and critically engage with important issues. Experiential Learning Theory and Situated Learning Theory help explain why this is the case. According to Experiential Learning Theory (ELT), individuals learn most from direct experience, active participation, and visible feedback on the consequences of their actions. Situated Learning Theory (SLT) likewise suggests that people learn better when placed in authentic contexts to perform actions that parallel real world tasks, interacting with others and applying knowledge.”
In my classroom, I wanted students to experience a shift in perspective that simulations could offer so that they might consider the true costs and benefits of particular conflict transformation strategies in the Middle East. The catastrophic Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020 provided a current and critical real-world case for student learning to do just that. Students were “dropped into” Lebanon just moments after the explosion. The simulation was introduced with a description of what the explosion felt like for residents in Beirut. Borrowing from Jaddaliya’s excellent reporting, I shared:
The date is August 4, 2020 and the time is 6:05pm. The place is Beirut, Lebanon. In the midst of the novel coronavirus and Covid-19 pandemic, the Lebanese economy is weakened by a financial meltdown that has wiped out life savings and reduced the purchasing power of most segments of society to mere survival, threatened by the scarcity of food items, and frightened by rising levels of poverty now estimated at fifty percent by the World Bank. Just moments ago an explosion rocked the port of Beirut.
Sisters Yasmine and Rhola Khayat described the moment of the blast in their Beirut family apartment, “Still gripping my mobile, I felt the floor become jelly as I watched my cat dash maniacally into the furthest corner underneath my bed, not to emerge for a full twenty-four hours. Rola burst into the hallway screaming, “Did you feel the earthquake?” Then the entire house shook, our window screens, false ceilings, and door hinges blowing out. Even the laptop went sailing through the air as plumes of fluorescent pink nitric acid blanketed the sky (Khayat and Khayat 2020).”
Furthermore they shared, “reports began to trickle in that it was the result of sheer negligence—2,750 explosive tons of negligence, epitomizing the abyss that catalyzed the peoples’ collective rage against rampant corruption last October—and all that remains of that chapter. An accidental spark caused by fireworks, they say, catalyzed the ammonium nitrate dumped for years in the port, into an indescribable fireworks display. “Fireworks,” Theodor Adorno writes, ‘are apparitions par excellence.’ The humanitarian crime of neglecting 2,750 tons of explosive materials for six years in the heart of Beirut criminalizes the ineptitude of the government that cost people’s lives, livelihoods, and sense of being, to go up into apparitional smoke (Khayat and Khayat 2020).”
Students were pre assigned groups (4 groups of roughly 5 students each) and instructed with the following tasks:
Your team constitutes a Lebanese civil society group that just experienced the explosion and your members are knowledgeable of the unfolding crises that precipitated this cataclysmic event. You have also trained in conflict transformation strategies. You are tasked with developing a strategy that transforms this catastrophic moment of suffering into a path forward that realizes greater justice and peace for Lebanon. You must use your skill set and share your strategy (an executive summary and a power point presentation) with other groups. Your plan will be assessed by other civil society groups (i.e. classmates) and tough to please outside experts (i.e. Prof. Hajj and several Wellesley alumnae currently working in the policy, humanitarian, and think tank sphere in America and the Middle East).
Students were incredibly creative in crafting civil society group names, logos, and even websites. They did extensive research on community needs and existing resources available to communities in Beirut. They were conscientious of the need to develop horizontal and lateral relationships among sectarian groups, cognizant of deep histories of mistrust rooted in the decades long civil war. One group contacted a startup tech company that provides mobile WiFi units in disaster zones (the company has already piloted projects in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria) to assess the possibility of adapting technologies to various neighborhoods in Beirut. They crafted superb power points and generated well-argued and clearly stated executive summaries. Students spoke of their strategies with professionalism and compassion. They were self-aware about the potential limits and pitfalls of their plans. I was truly astounded at their teamwork and commitment in the midst of a difficult remote semester during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Upon reflection, I believe the simulation went well for three main reasons:
I led the class through a variety of readings and lectures in the weeks prior to the simulation that provided a strong base of book knowledge about Lebanon’s political history and the theoretical arguments for how and why social capitol and civil society groups work to transform communities toward more peaceful situations. Students had a solid foundation from which they could iterate and create.
Prior to the simulation, students interacted with a Wellesley alumna from Lebanon that is pursuing her PhD in advanced spatial mapping and recently co-founded a civil society organization called “OpenMapLebanon.” She gave insight into what it was like in Lebanon during and after the explosion- from sweeping broken shards of glass to using her anger to mobilize others for justice. She spent almost two hours of class time providing real time knowledge of what is happening in Lebanon and fielded questions. Her presence and participation created a more authentic context for the simulation to unfold.
Finally, students were given tough but constructive feedback from Wellesley alumnae working in related policy and think tank fields in America and the Middle East.
Students left the simulation feeling like they had a firm grasp of Lebanese politics, knowledge of specific historic events, and most critically, a sobering view of the “real world” benefits and drawbacks of using civil society groups to transform conflict and injustice. In a final project evaluation, one student shared: “Working with my teammates in a safe but high stress time limited situation forced me to really consider efficient, resilient, and realistic solutions to an emergency crisis. It was fun to work creatively with others and to stress test all these theories we encountered in readings. Having tough outside feedback from alumnae working in the real world made me feel like it was a realistic assessment of our projects. I don’t think I will ever forget the assignment.” Though the preparation and run time of the simulation meant students did not get to all the topics one could study about the MENA region, I firmly believe the students left with a renewed perspective and lifelong learning experience that will inform their knowledge of the Middle East and conflict transformation strategies for many years to come.
I need email addresses for the following 8 people, who have given presentations to Connections US. We need these as part of our effort to build an archive of Connections US Proceedings — specifically to obtain from them a copy of their presentation and their permission to include it in the online archive.
Please eyeball the below list and email me direct (stephen.downesmartin(at)gmail.com) whatever email addresses you have for them, thanks!
Philip Sabin retired a year ago as Professor of Strategic Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and is now Emeritus Professor. He worked closely with the UK military for many years, especially through the University of London Military Education Committee, the Chief of the Air Staff’s Air Power Workshop, and KCL’s academic links with the Defence Academy and the Royal College of Defence Studies. Professor Sabin specialises in strategic and tactical analysis of conflict dynamics, with a particular focus on ancient warfare and modern air power. He makes extensive use of conflict simulation techniques to model the dynamics of various conflicts, and since 2003 he taught a highly innovative MA option module in which students design their own simulations of past conflicts. He has written or edited 15 books and monographs and several dozen chapters and articles on a wide variety of military topics. His books Lost Battles (2007) and Simulating War (2012) both make major contributions to the scholarly application of conflict simulation techniques. Besides co-organising the annual Connections UK conference at KCL, he has taken part in several defence wargaming projects, and he worked with the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research on the initial design of the Camberley Kriegsspiel with which officers may practise battlegroup tactics. Professor Sabin was also co-director of the King’s Wargaming Network, which is taking forward KCL’s leading role in the academic study of wargaming after his retirement. He is continuing to design a succession of innovative games modelling the grand tactics of combat (especially air combat), and to lecture internationally on aspects of wargaming and airpower.
See the link above for more details. A copy of Prof. Sabin’s paper can be found here:
Matt Stevens’ presentation on “what can learning games teach us about ethical refugee response?” can now be found on the PAXsims YouTube channel.
Matt is Director of Lessons Learned Simulations and Training, a professional development training firm for humanitarian workers with a focus on simulations and serious games. His talk was presented to the McGill Refugee Research Group on 20 January 2021.
A summary and link to the 2020 report prepared by Matt Stevens and Tom Fisher (Imaginetic) on Serious Games: Humanitarian User Research can be found on PAXsims here.
There is still time to register for the LLST/McGill Refugee Research Group online refugee response simulation, which will take place from 1300-1600 ET on Saturday, January 23.
Sandia National Labs are looking for an undergraduate or graduate intern to work on cyber wargaming, specifically to help them design an experimental wargame to study cyber conflict between states. This is part of a three year project, called Tracing House, to study cyber deterrence strategic dilemmas through experimental wargaming. At the end of the project, they hope to develop new analytical methods and tools to identify strategies by human actors in cyberspace and examine how tradeoffs can impact stability and deterrence.
Wargaming has a diversity problem: 98% white and male.
I propose there are two ways that people engage with wargames:
1. To dominate, to win, to prove their mastery, to confirm what they already know.
2. To experience a new perspective, to learn, to grow, to embrace the unknown.
Playing for domination leads to misogynist and toxic behaviour towards women and minorities. It leads to playing for indulgence rather than learning the meaningful lessons serious games can impart—which is bad for the outcomes of wargames, bad for the culture of wargaming, and bad for diversity and inclusion. Wargaming is literally meant to teach us to be better.
We need to stop pretending that arguing against diversity and inclusion is anything more than the masturbatory indulgence of straight white men.
If your organization would like to indicate support for diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming, there are many things you can do—including lending your support to the Derby House Principles.
A wargame is a dynamic representation of conflict or competition in which people make decisions and respond to the consequences of those decisions. Analytic wargames are wargames created to provide insights to assist senior leaders as they make difficult decisions. Analytic wargames are inherent in DoD’s planning process (as well as many of our allies and partners, including NATO, UK, Canada, Australia), and they are also used by many analytic organizations to explore future concepts and technologies and to develop the CONOPS necessary to instantiate into combat simulations. Additionally, testers and experimenters use wargames as a front-end screening tool to better understand where to leverage high- dollar tests and experiments to get the highest return on investment. This year, we are seeking analytic wargaming best practices from planners, analysts, testers, and experimenters. We are especially interested in hearing from planning wargamers at flag headquarters such as Combatant Commands to hear best practices and lessons learned while creating and conducting the wargames that inform our future plans. We are interested in hearing from those who use wargames and combat simulations together for analytic studies and for planning. We are also looking for new techniques that organizations have found for wargaming adjudication and analysis. We are interested in hearing from those who have adopted techniques and mechanics from hobby games for use in defense wargaming. We would like to hear from logistics wargamers, as this is a critical need and one often overlooked. WG 30 encourages presentations on best practices for the definition, design, execution, and analysis of wargames, methods from other disciplines that may be of use to DoD-oriented wargames, new or innovative wargaming techniques from educational or experiential wargames, and wargame results from national security domains.
Several of the other working groups also include the use of serious gaming.
Abstracts are due February 16 for those who would like to present at the event—more information (including conference registration) can be found at the link above.
Systems Planning and Analysis (a mid-sized defense contractor headquartered in the DC metro area) has recently broken ground on a new Wargaming and Conference Center at their facility and are recruiting for two new wargaming positions. These positions will directly support clients in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (OUSD R&E), but SPA also conducts wargames for the Services and Joint community. Most of their current wargame efforts focus on emerging technology and the future operating environment.
One position is more senior and geared towards an experienced wargamer who can quickly take on tasks and their own wargame effort and the other is for a more junior analyst who can focus on wargame development and execution and grow into a design role. Both positions require the ability to attain a DoD security clearance.
On Wednesday, January 20 the McGill Refugee Research Group will be hosting an online presentation by Matt Stevens (Lessons Learned Simulations and Training) entitled “What can learning games teach us about ethical refugee response?”
Matt will also be running an online refugee response simulation on Saturday, January 23.
For more information, consult the McGill Refugee Research Group website. Registration for the former is open to anyone. Registration for the latter is limited (with most places reserved for McGill University students and staff).
Tim Wilkie (National Defense University) has passed on a call for papers for Connections US 2021:
Happy New Year from the Connections US interdisciplinary wargaming conference!
The call for presentations for Connections US 2021 can be found here.
Connections US 2021 is expected to be conducted in person at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, June 22-25. There is, of course, a great deal of uncertainty about what the public health situation will be in June. We will be reassessing our plans as more information becomes available. Updates to the planning for this year’s conference will be found at: connections-wargaming.com
Since 1993, Connections has brought together practitioners from every segment of the wargaming community to share best practices and advance professional dialogue in the field. Connections is open to all wargaming practitioners and we welcome international participation.
Please feel free to further distribute this call for presentations.
If you wish to support USNA’s research into how current wargame design education measures against the norms of higher education in artistic disciplines then please take the Delphi Survey 1 before the end of tomorrow (Friday 8th Jan).
(Further information is on the front page of the survey and at the original PAXsims post on the subject.)
Major Robert J. Fritz is civilian desk officer in the situation center of the Austrian Ministry of Defence. As “Creative Warrior” he has founded “Tablewood Studios” focusing on Business Dramaturgy, Game Design and Personal Screenwriting. If readers have any questions or wish to share feedback, they are invited to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
First of all I would like to wish all readers a Happy New Year. May you get healthy through the Pandemic Year 2021.
It is a pleasure to present via PAXsims my approach to epidemic crisis management by serious gaming. The game is based on AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game, and so those familiar with that game will recognize many of the mechanics. It is also inspired by core mechanic of virus spread used in the successful Pandemic game series. I am grateful to Rex Brynen, Tom Fisher and Matt Leacock behind those two game designs—without these sources it would have been impossible to create a prototype within a short period of time.
After last spring the first wave of COVID-19 had hit Austria, the commander of the Austrian Military Academy tasked the head of the Development Division, General Staff Col. Dr. Markus Reisner, to develop a simulation about the management of the COVID-19 pandemic by various key actors. Col. Reisner chose an innovative interdisciplinary approach. Due to our shared interest in wargaming and long friendship he got in touch with me and asked me for any support I could deliver. At the beginning I was overwhelmed by the challenge, but a look into my game collection identified a few candidates which could work as conceptual sources. I have to admit that I am not that experienced game designer, but I enjoy to cope with complex challenges in a creative way.
As advocate of educational gaming I had a few opportunities to gain some experience in the past. As student of political science I organized a NATO-related panel as part of the annual Vienna Model UN/VIMUN and as military training officer I created scenarios for the live action peace operations predeployment training of logistics and contracting officers. Being a freelance civilian logistics trainer at that time was very helpful in that regard.
As a “Creative Warrior” with my own business “Tablewood Studios” I started with miniature game designs (more or less by the principle trial and error) and did a lot of research on the history of wargaming. As civilian desk officer with a military background in the Austrian Ministry of Defence I use historical conflict simulations as analytical tools. My board and miniature game collection grows bigger and bigger and due to my cinematic approach I consider my miniatures as props for making table movies. In recent years I focused more on screenwriting and still have this great dream to see my two superheroes “Ghost Talker” and “Sergeant Gulliver” some day on the big screen. But this is another story. Back to COVID Buster.
After playing one session AFTERSHOCK with Colonel Reisner it became very clear that this simulation covers many clever aspects of crisis management, which could also work for a pandemic situation —especially the synergies of coordination by key actors. I like the elegant design and logical procedures represented by different card decks and player phases. The map system is also very attractive. Printing large geographical maps is more complex and expensive. The to scale size of different regions would also be a visual challenge to get all necessary information on the map. The district structure of AFTERSHOCK is just perfect to me.
In November the first prototype of COVID Buster was tested and presented to Major General Karl Pronhagl as Commander of the Military Academy and his Chief of Staff in Wiener Neustadt under lockdown conditions. Both gentlemen were deeply impressed and the momentum was used to continue working on bugs and new ideas. On the 17th of December 2020 the latest game lab took place and brought to light that the game system should work pretty well. There is still a long way to go and 2021 will follow a very pandemic path: Testing, Testing, Testing!
The core challenge was to demonstrate the complexity of nation-wide crisis management in Austria at different working levels during a pandemic linked with a simple, but still logical, infection rate. The actors should face the ups and downs of virus spread due to different factors like clusters, lockdowns, limited supplier markets, vaccine research, influencer conspiracies and a variety of other events which drives the situation. The dominant key player is the Health Services with the authority to put a general Lockdown in place (just once per game with a special card the actor has already at hand from the very beginning of the game). The military is the last actor during a game round, since it only acts by request of other authorities like Health Services or Police.
As mentioned above the basic character of AFTERSHOCK is very visible. The main differences are:
The key actors are Health Services, Austrian Red Cross (also representing the whole range of other NGOs), Police as well as the Austrian Armed Forces (Bundesheer) and play in that particular order.
Instead of districts you have the whole state of Austria represented by the nine federal states (Bundesländer). Each game plan for a federal state (Bundesland) includes a “Corona-Ampel” with four different colors (green-yellow-orange-red) reflecting the regional epidemic situation. The Corona-Ampel and the deck of Needs Cards (similar to the At Risk Cards in AFTERSHOCK) are linked since the colour of the Ampel increases the needs for critical supplies (+ 1 per type). Players assign teams to different tasks like in AFTERSHOCK. There are special fields for certain events like Quarantine and Disaster Relief (e.g. due to avalanches or floods) to tie up operational teams.
The four types of supplies are related to the most critical groups of goods needed to manage the pandemic. White cubes stand for personal protective equipment. Blue cubes stand for “disinfectants” and other liquid resources like blood plasma. Green Cubes are any form of test kits and also include medication. Red Cubes stand for intensive care beds and include the whole technology linked to it (e.g. respirators). In the fourth month production facilities (like Infrastructure in AFTERSHOCK) could be put in place representing domestic production capacities of critical items.
Since Austria is surrounded by eight neighbouring countries there is an Infection Plan for these countries, too. This plan also includes a “Corona-Ampel” related to the WHO representing the global pandemic situation. The Police and Military actors assign teams to border management which act as a blocker for the cross-border spread of the virus.
In each player turn there is an Infection Phase prior to the concluding Supply Phase by drawing infection cards to define the location of new infections like in the boardgame Pandemic. “Pandemic Cubes” will be placed on the Ampel of the effected “Bundesland” or “Neighbouring Country” and each color/cube stands for a reproduction factor of “1”. There are four “Pandemic Cards” in the deck which trigger an outbreak and could lead to chain reactions of viral spread.
Logistics: I am still so fascinated by the Logistic Hub Challenge of AFTERSHOCK by using this black discs. I wanted to transform this clever mechanic into a contracting based approach. My idea was to simulate limited markets of critical items by using the black discs as kind of contracting marker representing groups of suppliers and a bidding process needed to increase the capacities. To be honest, as former logistics officer and quartermaster I specialized in contingency contracting and I wanted to see this aspect in the game. My sponsor and other consulting experts did not agree and saw no benefit in that. I admit that the game is already complex enough which justifies this decision. Therefore it was simplified by delaying the availability of supplies. With a logistic operation you get ordered supplies from abroad back home into your domestic warehouses. The exchange of items between players and the generation of production facilities is like in AFTERSHOCK. There are certain events in the course of the game which will have an impact on the logistic chain, too.
Cards, cards, cards: The card driven core mechanic needs a lot of playing cards. Like in AFTERSHOCK there are cards for coordination, events, needs (like At Risk cards) and special situations (e.g. Media, Assessment, Social Unrest). In detail they differ very much due to the pandemic situation. Needs Cards (Bedarfskarten) include three different types refering either to a Regional Pandemic situation, a Corona Cluster or special situations like Corona Demos, Travel Warnings, Daily Commuters, Influenza Wave, Lack of Intensive Care Beds, Mask Refuseniks or Cov-Idiots.
The game lasts over 12 months/rounds.
Instead of the Relief Points in AFTERSHOCK, players gain or loose “Government Points” – the final score could be “good” or “bad governance”.
I am well aware that nine Bundesländer and a game length of over 12 months extend the needs in terms of playing time and game material. On the other hand I strongly believe that for a serious classroom game – provided that enough time is available – it is important to keep basic issues of the real world in the design. Players will have a personal relation to certain Bundesländer of Austria, which could have an impact on decisions about priorities. Therefore I did not want to reduce the number of Bundesländer to fictional regions.
First of all I was deeply impressed by the visual quality of the game material which was graphically prepared in advance by Andrea Zerkhold as member of the development division of the military academy. I absolutely did not expect this at this stage of the project, since so many aspects were still unclear. It is a pleasure to work with this material. It was the perfect eye catcher for the presentation of the prototype.
The first test game with the prototype took place on the 25 November 2020 and had this outstanding cast:
Health Services: Represented by General Staff Colonel Dr. Markus Reisner PhD, head of the Development Division at the Military Academy. A former SOF officer with operational experience in peace operations in Afghanistan, Chad and Mali. As historian he has written several brilliant books about military history and his broader academic profile also includes studies about robotic warfare.
Red Cross: The author and designer himself – Major Robert J. Fritz. My military baptism of fire was as UN Military Police patrolman in the 90s in Syria followed by a contracted officer career as quartermaster and logistic officer at the Austrian International Peace Support Command with duties in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Syria and the Western Sahara. After working a couple of years in the logistic branch of the Austrian MoD I was ready for a change. As civilian desk officer for UN peacekeeping in the MoD I joined the annual main conference of the UN Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations in New York on a regular basis. In December 2019 I took over a position in the Situation Center in the MoD and for months I am contributing to a daily Sitrep about COVID-19. This explains the close relation to the topic, although I would never claim to describe myself as pandemic expert – quite the opposite. At least my years as volunteer in the Red Cross during my time at Business School should justify my qualification that I have modest experience with key tasks of the different actors in COVID Buster. As artist I would prefer much more the Art of Peace than War. But if you want to have peace, you have to understand war.
Police: Soldier André Mayer. This young and open minded gentleman seems to be the luckiest conscripted soldier of the Bundesheer—having the privilege to serve under the command of Col Reisner and being active part of this project. He does not only play a supportive role for different services. With his critical mind he delivers valuable input to the design process. Perhaps it is worth to mention that he works in his civilian life for the Austrian Chancellor as the youngest member of the cabinet.
Bundesheer: Prof DI Dr. Col Norbert Frischauf. He is a High Energy Physicist (Astrophysics and Particle Physics) by education and a Future Studies Systems Engineer by training. Being highly interested in all sorts of technologies as well as the micro and macro cosmos his educational and vocational career led him to several distinct places, such as CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, ESA/ESTEC and the JRC-IET in the Netherlands and recently to the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation where he presents a monthly science telecast. He is part of the “Strategic Community Austria”, a military strategy adviser and writes daily analysis about the development of the COVID-19 pandemic from the very beginning. His expertise and critical contributions are still essential for the project.
COVID Buster starts with a historical setup, which means that there is a viral ground zero in the Western part of Austria, where people from around the world spend their skiing holidays. The event “COVID Ski” is activated right at the beginning of the first round (in addition to the regular event in the active player´s event phase). It says that “excessive apres ski drives the spread of the virus” and has the effect that an outbreak is starting from Tyrol. In that way players jump right into the pandemic situation.
In the Coordination Deck of the prototype a few Lockdown cards were available. The problem was, that until the third month Health Services and Police did not draw one of these cards. In the meantime we lost Government Points by failing to fulfill the needs of the Bundesländer and COVID-19 turned Austria and her neighbourhood into red. There was no other way, but to order a nation-wide Lockdown to reduce the infection rates by removing pandemic cubes without a specific card yet available. We agreed that the costs for this new Lockdown as Special Card for the Health Services should be higher for each game round it is in place (5 Government Points for the first round) and should not take longer than three rounds.
Bringing in supplies to the Bundesländer was also a challenge due to the contracting based logistics system. The delays of supplies took three months, when the distribution into the field really started. As mentioned above this mechanic was not very welcome and we dropped it.
In the first 2 months a team should be assigned to Evacuation (similar to Rescue in AFTERSHOCK) to fulfill the needs of a Bundesland. In Covid Buster it reflects the repatriation of Austrian citizens which has been managed by national authorities. As soon as the WHO-Ampel is set on red you have to assign teams to this task again. Every third month one pandemic cube is added to the WHO Ampel. Only the participation in an International Conference (a Coordination Card) could reduce this global growth.
In the fourth month we had to stop the game. For the next step I had to consider an Exit Strategy concerning the development of a vaccine, include the possibilty of lockdowns in the neighbouring countries and change the logistics system. Finally we agreed that Tyrol should not always be the black sheep as starting point of viral spread in Austria. The last issue was easily solved. By drawing an Infection Card as optional rule a new hot spot could be defined within Austria.
December Game Lab
To keep the momentum I continued working on the findings of the prototype test right away and we were able to organize another game lab on the 17 December 2020. In the meantime I played a full 12 month game session solitaire to get a better picture how the whole system works in the long run. Dealing with nine different Bundesländer, the pandemic situation in eight neighbouring countries and many other issues has increased the need for teams and supplies. My first calculations work pretty well, but I expect that after a few test games more balancing is needed.
There was no way during the first test game to get pandemic cubes removed without the Lockdown coordination card. Successfully resolving a Needs Card would also remove pandemic cubes, but this would take time. At a certain point the game became static and there was no sense to draw Infection Cards, since all Covid-Ampeln were red and no outbreaks could be activated anymore. The only penalty was the higher need for critical supplies in the Bundesländer. Conducting Security Operations like Border Management seemed also to be unnecessary due to the “Condition Red” on both sides of the border.
To cope with these flaws we had the idea that each actor should have a special “Joker Card” right from the beginning. Health Services got the nation-wide hard Lockdown Card. The Red Cross is able to generate additional teams. The Police is able to set a whole Bundesland under quarantine. The Bundesheer is able to mobilize additional teams from the militia, but has to wait for one game round reflecting the whole process from drafting to operational readiness. These cards can only be activated once in a game. Three soft Lockdown Cards are kept in the Coordination Deck to react to a pandemic situation in a Bundesland at a later stage.
The longer a Lockdown is in place the higher are the costs. The basic costs for the “Hard Lockdown” are five Government Points per active round. For each additional round one Operational Point has to be paid and one “Bürgerprotest/Citizen Protest” Card has to be placed in each Bundesland. On the other hand you remove one pandemic cube in each Bundesland for each round with an active Lockdown.
I have introduced Lockdown cards for the neighbouring countries as part of the Event Deck, which reduce Pandemic Cubes in the effected state by one. Austria has no influence on lockdown decisions of her neighbours, but there will be an impact across the borders concerning the need for teams in border management.
I changed a bit the procedure for outbreaks. If not even one pandemic cube could be placed somewhere during an outbreak the triggering Bundesland gets one “Citizen Protest” card instead. Outbreaks in the neighbouring countries are also limited to their next neighbour states and not further. The capital town and Bundesland Vienna is a special case concerning infection chains. If in Vienna an outbreak is triggered, it would also infect certain Bundesländer and neighbouring states without a direct borderline. That reflects the issue of national and international commuters or tourists, who work in or visit Vienna.
Finally I would like to outline my ideas how an exit strategy with the existence of an effective vaccine looks like in Covid Buster. There are two cards in the game dealing with research programms. There is the “COVAX Vaccine Initiative by the WHO” as Event Card and the “Vaccine Initiative by the EU” as Coordination Card. Except the Police the drawing actor could assign one team to research for the rest of the game. After six months of research it is possible to activate two other coordination cards (if the actors have kept them before in their hand): The “Vaccination Programme”, which works normally against a flu epidemic (an At Risk Card) becomes in combination with “Notfallzulassung/Emergency Use Authorization” (only activated by the Health Services) the vaccine against COVID-19. At the moment there are two “Vaccination Programme” coordination cards available. The actor holding it can activate it in a Bundesland, where they has a team assigned, by removing one Pandemic Cube.
All these latest adaptions should make COVID Buster more dynamic and should keep the attention of the participants.
Playing a full session of 12 months still takes too much time. I am sure that after more testing and bug hunting the playing time can be reduced. For the needs of the Military Academy as classroom game it should work, but as boxed game for the living room it will stay a challenge. First of all COVID Buster has to work in the classroom within a reasonable timeframe.
In real life we have not yet reached the point of one year crisis management and there are always new developments which I would like to incorporate (e.g. the mutation of the virus or like I did with the terror attack last November in Vienna). But it makes no sense to have hundreds of events with specific terms or actions available. In 12 game rounds with four actors you have about 48 events to draw. This number should also include enough Bundesländer cards to resolve Needs cards.
There is some flexibility to assign events and pandemic language to different card decks. Another approach could be to create special card decks which could dominate one game session or to use at least a few cards from them in the regular decks (e.g. using more terminology for the area of education like distance learning, home schooling, parental letter etc.)
It is scary that the first test games showed a similar viral spread which somehow corresponds with historical developments. I would not say that now it is proven to all sceptics that a hard lockdown is justified in certain situations. In game terms the right timing of a lockdown is essential. In the real world here in Austria the timing proved to be right – at least for the first wave. States had to learn to cope with many challenges. You solve one problem and generate two more. The real art is to prioritize the problems or challenges. No one knows how this experiment of nature will finally be described in history. I hope that COVID Buster could be a small piece of this big puzzle of human history to get an idea how challenging the management of the current pandemic is.
CONNECTIONS NORTH is Canada’s annual conference devoted to conflict simulation. It is intended for national security professionals, policymakers, researchers, educators, game designers, university students, and others interested in the field of wargaming and other serious games. This year it will be held virtually (via Zoom), and will extend over three days. Prior registration is via Eventbrite is required (but is free).
Themes to be addressed this year include:
wargaming and other serious policy gaming in Canada
wargaming in smaller defence communities
gaming the Arctic
COVID gaming and hybrid threats
gaming fisheries policy
analytical and policy gaming in the humanitarian sector
wargaming for command decision support
diversity and inclusion in professional (war)gaming
A full version of the conference programme will be posted by mid-January. Online connection information and other details will be sent to all registered attendees a few days before the conference itself.
Reports on previous CONNECTIONS NORTH conferences can be found here.