PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

COVID Buster : An Epidemic Crisis Management Game

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 creativewarrior@tablewoodstudios.com


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.

Background

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!

Design Concept

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.

Prototype Testing

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. 

Final conclusions

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.

Robert J. Fritz

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