PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Category Archives: forthcoming games and simulations

UK Fight Club parent-daughter wargaming night

UK Fight Club is sponsoring a parent-daughter online wargaming night on Sunday, 24 April at 1700 GMT, via Discord and Steam.

You can sign up here.

Outbreak READY! infectious disease simulation

The READY Initiative was established in 2018 by Save the Children, the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health, the Johns Hopkins Center for Communications Programs, UK-Med, EcoHealth Alliance and Mercy Malaysia to strengthen global capacity to respond to major disease outbreaks. To the end it has developed a variety of training and outreach programmes, operational readiness checklists, and other tools for use by humanitarian and development NGOs and others. Funding is provided by USAID.

Much of this training initially took place in-person—something that became more difficult when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit. To facilitate remote training, it was decided to develop an online simulation: Outbreak READY!

Outbreak READY! is a digital simulation strengthening the readiness of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to respond to large-scale infectious disease outbreaks in humanitarian contexts. Through a unique, digital interpretation of an outbreak simulation, READY brings the complex nature of a humanitarian outbreak response to life utilizing a computer-based serious game that allows participants to test and refine their readiness skills and knowledge.

In Outbreak READY!, you will take the role of an NGO team lead managing a multi-sectoral humanitarian program portfolio for a medium-sized, international NGO named READY. The response takes place in a fictitious, low-income country that recently experienced civil conflict following a disputed national election. The simulation is divided into two modules: the first focuses on readiness prioritizations and actions as an outbreak is identified in a neighboring country; the second focuses on the NGO’s response to the outbreak as it begins to spread. Over the course of the simulation, the learner must make decisions that determine how the NGO adapts and expands programs to respond to the outbreak.

The simulation is designed for national and international NGOs responding to humanitarian emergencies, particularly targeting NGO leaders and managers from both operational and programmatic backgrounds across all sectors.

This simulation is set in “Thisland,” a low-income developing country that recently suffered from a period of violent conflict. Government capacity is limited outside the capital and corruption remains a serious problem. The country’s public health infrastructure is weak. As noted above, the player assumes the role of the team lead for an international humanitarian relief and development non-governmental organization (READY) in the outlying city of Murelle. Your current programmes include health and nutrition, food security and livelihoods, cash and voucher assistance, and water, sanitation, and hygiene. Community engagement and protection are mainstreamed across your portfolio. In the course of the simulation you’ll interact with your country director, local staff, public health officials, a partner NGO, a journalist, and a community leader—among others

The narrative-choice simulation is designed for experienced humanitarian aid workers, not for neophytes. It is also more of a simulation than it is a game. There is a lot of information to juggle. Don’t expect to see immediate epidemiological consequences from your actions, since that’s not the way it works it the field—especially when you’re but one small part of a multi-stakeholder response. The simulation content was built with input from dozens of subject matter experts.

Nevertheless, I’ve used it with my own undergraduates, and the feedback has been very positive. I think it also has considerable value for “humanitarian adjacent” organizations and personnel who would like better insight into the perspective, concerns, and priorities of the humanitarian aid community. If you’re instructing military personnel, diplomats, or journalists about humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, for example, I think they would learn a lot.

The simulation is browser-based for ease of access, designed for low-bandwidth environments, and intended to be robust across a broad range of browsers, platforms, and operating systems. It will be localized into French and Spanish too. &RANJ—the digital game company behind the peacebuilding game Mission Zhobia—was the development studio for the project.

From the very beginning, Outbreak READY was also designed with support for briefing, debriefing, and pedagogical support built into the project. The website thus includes an optional pre-reading package, a solo play guide, and very substantial (70+ page) facilitation guides for both virtual and in-person events. When players complete the simulation they also receive a substantial evaluation of their effectiveness as a humanitarian team leader during a major infectious disease outbreak.

I was fortunate to work on the project as part of the READY team (who, it must be said, were an absolutely terrific group to work with.) Click the link and give it a try!

We Are Coming Nineveh! in the pipeline

For those who have been asking—yes, we are getting closer to the publication of We Are Coming, Nineveh!, the tactical-operational game of the 2017 liberation of West Mosul from Daesh (ISIS) control by the Iraqi security forces and their Coalition allies. The game is designed by Juliette Le Ménahèze and Harrison Brewer, with support from Brian Train and myself.

WACN is being published by Nuts! Publishing, and you can see some of the final art and components on their website.

There’s also a video in which I discuss the game design:

You’ll find several previous posts discussing the design process here at PAXsims.

Dietz Foundation: Littoral Commander

PAXsims doesn’t usually post forthcoming game announcements, since there are far too many to keep up with. However, we’re making an exception for Littoral Commander: The Indo-Pacific for three reasons.

First, it is a very well-designed game.

Littoral Commander: Indo-Pacific (LC) is a 2 to 6-player ‘grand tactical’ wargame which explores the future of warfare. The wargame is designed to be accessible to all levels of players, whether civilian or military, and with no experience with games necessary to play (though it is helpful!). Utilizing a dynamic card-oriented game system, LC offers fast-paced, accessible, and flexible gameplay with plenty of player interaction during turns. LC is not about number-crunching or odds-totaling.  The LC series provides a rich and interactive “intellectual sandbox” for inquisitive minds to explore and engage with the daunting challenges of current and future wartime operations.

For this campaign, the Foundation is creating LC, a wargame/simulation currently used for professional military education.   The game emphasizes the complex nature of future modern warfare involving air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace forces and is already in use for professional military education with military units across the world

Second, it is designed by Sebastian Bae, who has done as much as anyone in recent years to encourage and support the next generation of wargaming professionals. Third, it is being published by the Dietz Foundation:

The Dietz Foundation began in July 2018, created by Jim Dietz, with the dream of making a difference in American society by helping teachers learn alternative means of education in the classroom; endowing scholarships at high schools for students going into education; endowing scholarships at the collegiate level for students pursuing teaching certificates; and teaching the general public through the play of games.

The Foundation is managed by Jim Dietz under the supervision of a board of directors including men and women with important past and current expertise for the organization: non-profit organizational leadership, game design, educational pedagogy, social media communication, game industrial manufacturing and sales experience, and educational game design.

You can preorder (USD$65 + shipping) at the link above.

UPDATE: I should have thought to have linked to this excellent interview with Sebastian at Armchair Dragoon.

Zenobia Award winners announced

The winners of the Zenobia Award have been announced!

Historical board games are enjoyed by people from all walks of life, but their designers are predominately white men. The Zenobia Award hopes to change this by encouraging game submissions by people from marginalized groups.

The Zenobia Award is not an ordinary design award. Promising applicants will receive mentorship on their designs from established industry designers, and the winners will receive help navigating the game publication process in addition to a cash prize.

Contestants must belong to an underrepresented group, including women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people. A design team prominently including members of these groups also may enter. 

The winning game design is Tyranny of Blood, by designer Akar Bharadvaj.

Second place went to Winter Rabbit, designed by Will Thompson.

Third place went to Wiñay Kawsay, by Alison Collins.

In the video below, Harold Buchanan and Volko Ruhnke announce the winners.

As a member of the Zenobia board, I can say it was very close and there were many terrific entries. If you’re a game publisher who might be interested in publishing one of these, check out the forty-six games that made it to the second round, as well as the eight Zenobia finalists and two honourable mentions.

GWUSCS: Ruined Tempest

The George Washington University Strategic Crisis Simulations will be holding a (in-person) crisis simulation on 16 October 2021 at GWU.

In partnership with the Elliott School’s Leadership, Ethics, and Practice Initiative, GWUSCS presents our first simulation of the 2021-22 academic year! Ruined Tempest will take place on Saturday, October 16th, 2021 from 12 PM EST to 5 PM EST in Funger Hall.

After a cyclone strikes Sri Lanka, leaving vital infrastructure destroyed and thousands displaced, the nation is left to pick up the pieces and begin the process of rebuilding. However, with competing influences from abroad, Sri Lanka finds itself at a crossroads. Does it continue its partnership with China, looking to the East for investments in crucial roads and ports, or does it instead turn to the United States, which has long sought to secure the movement of its navy through the Indian Ocean? At the same time, how will Sri Lanka tackle rising internal ethnic tensions as destroyed communities and refugee camps once again fester into civil strife?

Further information and registration can be found here. Note that if If you are NOT a GWU Student who is registered with GWU on campus you MUST register yourself as a visitor—you will find the procedure for this on the registration page.

If you are interested in being a mentor for this simulation, please contact Ryan Li, Vice President of Programming at ryan_li@gwu.edu.

US Army Fight Club: Battle for Moscow showdown

US Army Fight Club and Army University will be hosting their first virtual showdown: a Battle for Moscow tournament, via Discord and VASSAL.

The event will take place on Saturday, 16 October 2021 from 0900 (EDT) until complete (likely all day).

Full details are available from MAJ Wayne McInnis (Directorate of Simulation Education (DSE), Army University and Command and General Staff College). Please RSVP (individual player or team) no later than Saturday, 09 October 2021.

h/t James Sterrett

Games for Change finalists

Games for Change has announced the finalists for the G4C 2021 Awards. Don’t click the image above to see them, however—instead, you will find descriptions and links to the games at the G4C awards page .

Several of these will be of particular interest to PAxsims readers because they deal with issues of conflict and peacebuilding. These include:

Through the Darkest of Times (Steam)

Berlin 1933. “Adolf Hitler is chancellor!” We all know the consequences this message bore. Unspeakable horrors and suffering would sweep across the world. Few would stand and fight the monstrosity that was the German Reich. Will you? Lead an underground resistance group Through the Darkest of Times.

Suzerain (Steam)

As President Rayne, lead Sordland into ruin or repair during your first term in this text-based role-playing game. Navigate a political drama driven by conversations with your cabinet members and other significant figures. Beware or embrace corruption; shirk or uphold ideals. How will you lead?

Harmony Square (browser)

Harmony Square is a game about fake news. The game’s setting is the idyllic Harmony Square, a small neighborhood mildly obsessed with democracy. You, the player, are hired as Chief Disinformation Officer. Over the course of 4 short levels, your job is to disturb the square’s peace and quiet by fomenting internal divisions and pitting its residents against each other.

Radio General (Steam)

Radio General is a unique strategy game where you interact with your units over the radio using speech recognition. Test your mettle and relive famous battles as a WW2 general.

CNAS call for applications: A Russia Crisis Simulation

The Center for a New American Security has issued a call for applications for “Wargaming with the Next Generation: A Russia Crisis Simulation.” The virtual workshop will provide students and young professionals with the opportunity to simulate decision-making in a political crisis and military conflict in Europe.

The one-and-a-half-day event will be held on July 21 and 22, 2021. The first half-day will focus on the basics of wargaming and will teach participants how defense and strategy games are used by U.S. and EU stakeholders to enhance decision-making. During the second day, participants will engage in a virtual crisis simulation with defense and national security experts to gain greater insight into the longstanding diplomatic and defense relationships between the United States and Europe, including NATO and EU dynamics.

Applications will be accepted until 11:59 pm EDT on Friday, May 21, 2021. Selected applicants will participate in a virtual workshop on July 21 and 22, 2021.

To be eligible, applicants must be US citizens between 15 and 30 years old.

Additional information and application details can be found at the CNAS website.

Army University wargaming tournament, 15 March

Army University will be hosting an online wargaming tournament on 15 March, with a possible extension to March 16 if need be. Everyone is welcome to take part.

Please let Dr. James Sterrett know if you wish to take part by 1700 ET on 13 March, so they can set up the competition grids. It will be a Swiss-style round robin tournament.

  • The game to be used will be Battle for Moscow (Victory Point Games edition). The rules can be found here.
  • Games will be played via VASSAL (download here), using this module (BFM.vmod “Alternate (VPG Remake)”).
  • Communications will be via Discord, with a channel link to follow closer to the time

Liberating Mosul (solo edition)

A few weeks ago I watched the movie Mosul (2019) on Netflix—a fictionalized account of a real-life Iraqi SWAT team that fought against Daesh (ISIS) from the fall of Mosul in 2014 through to the liberation of the city in 2017. It’s an excellent, gritty movie. Filmed entirely in Arabic, it places the Iraqi security forces at the centre of the story: US and coalition support is only mentioned a few times and one Iranian military advisor makes a brief (and memorable) appearance. Indeed, during the actual campaign in Iraq and Syria, 99.5% of those who fought and died against Daesh were Arabs and Kurds.

Not surprisingly, the movie often comes to mind as I’ve been playtesting the optional solitaire rules for We Are Coming, Nineveh! As regular readers of PAXsims will know, WACN is a tactical/operational game of the liberation of West Mosul. It was first developed by two students in my conflict simulation class, Juliette Le Ménahèze and Harrison Brewer. I later joined them as a codesigner, as did Brian Train. While things have been slowed by the pandemic, Nuts! Publishing plan to release it by the end of this year. You’ll find previous reports on the project here and here.

Normally, WACN is a two player game. In the solitaire version, the player assumes control of Iraqi forces against an automated Daesh defender. First, the ISF player decides what additional assets and capabilities they will bring to the battle. The initial deployment of Daesh forces is then randomized, but in a way that reflects the group’s major tactical priorities: a last-ditch defence of the densely-built Old City, with enough units and IEDs elsewhere to preclude rapid encirclement, complicate ISF planning, and promise some difficult fights and tactical surprises. The use of blocks and rumours (dummy counters) means that the ISF player is rarely sure of the enemy’s exact dispositions.

Thereafter, game play alternates, with Daesh actions controlled by a deck of “military council” cards. These usually direct two or three sets of Daesh action each turn, from ambushes and counterattacks, through to indirect fire, quadcopter (drone) attacks, snipers, tunnels, human shields, and so forth. Some of these depend on Daesh’s supply situation, and others seek to identify weak spots in the ISF lines.

For the ISF, it is essential to cut off external supply routes into the Old City and destroy key assets (such as leadership, arms aches, and IED factories). Coalition ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance assets) and precision fires can be very helpful indeed if used carefully. But so too are things like training, improved logistics, casualty evacuation, explosive ordinance disposal, and old-fashioned human intelligence (HUMINT). Indeed, while the battle for Mosul had some key high-tech elements, most of the gruelling, house-to-house fighting would have been familiar to veterans of Stalingrad, Seoul, or Huế—a point that the movie brings out well.

Details from yesterday’s game can be seen below. (Note that this is my rather heavily-used playtesting copy, and not representative of the artwork that will appear in the published version.) The ISF has secured coalition air, artillery, and UAV support, augmented its logistics capabilities, and deployed some Popular Mobilization Forces in addition to the Iraqi Army, police, and Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS).

Military Council cards determined what Daesh did each turn. The initial advance went well, with some Daesh forces brushed aside quickly.

However, Daesh had a few surprises up its sleeve—on top of the challenges of conducting military operations in a major city. Below, veteran Daesh defenders emerge from a hidden tunnel to attack Iraqi police in a rear area.

Things began to bog down. The Iraqi Army severed the enemy’s supply lines, only to see them reestablished for another month after a Daesh counterattack.

Most of the fighting in the Old City was conducted by forces from the elite CTS “Golden Division.” However, one memorable scene from Mosul was replayed as an Iraqi police SWAT team and Iranian-advised PMF forces found themselves together—possibly trading cigarettes for ammunition, as in the movie.

The fighting here was gruelling, with some CTS units suffering over 70% casualties (as they did in real life). The local Daesh commander was ultimately cornered just north of the al-Nuri mosque, but precious weeks were lost taking these final positions.

The collateral damage from the fighting was also heavier than expected. When points were tallied at the end of the game, Daesh had lost control of the city but won a political victory.

What can learning games teach us about ethical refugee response?

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).

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

“Disaster of the JOADIA Islands” AI gameathon

In conjunction with Australian Department of Defence, the Data Science and AI Association of Australia (DSAi) is hosting a virtual Gameathon to help generate ideas around the use of AI in the field of wargaming. The Gameathon is centred around the Defence Science & Technology Group (DSTG) wargame “Disaster of the JOADIA Islands” (outlined below) and has 2 challenges which cover Game Design and AI Assistance.

  • Challenge 1 – Game Design: Design new game systems and rule sets for the original game to explore concepts applicable to a HADR scenario.
  • Challenge 2 -AI Assistance: Exploring ways that modern AI techniques can enhance decision support for wargaming.

Prizes for each challenge = 1st $1000, 2nd $500, and 3rd $250

Contestants can register as individuals or as teams and create submissions for either or both challenges. The deadline has been extended due to COVID and DSTG and DSAi will judge the entries and award prize in late February/early March 2021.

Disaster of the JOADIA Islands is a turn-based wargame that models a Joint Task force assigned with the goal of rescuing civilians in a fictitious humanitarian aid disaster relief (HADR) scenario.

For full details visit https://joadia.dsai.org.au/

Climate change megagame

The Climate Change Megagame is a research project based at Linköping University that investigates how a megagame can be used to convey knowledge about climate change. The Megagame will take place on 21 November 2020, both in-person (in Linköping, Sweden) and online. You can register to participate here (priority will be given to local participants). The closing date for applications is 21 October.

“The digital version of the game that we have created will give the participants a better overview of what’s happening”, Magnus Persson and Ola Leifler, who are responsible for the project, tell us.

A megagame is a large-scale game with elements of board gaming, role playing and conflict gaming, with a number of players from around 10 up to a hundred. The scenario of the game is placed in eastern Sweden and the participants play various local, regional and national roles, such as political decision-makers and representatives for business. Many of the participants will play the role of local inhabitants.

One aim of the game is to create a meeting place in which different groups in society can come together and discuss.

During the game, climate change will be simulated for the period 2020 to 2100, based on forecasts from the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI). The consequences of the changed climate will present the participants with difficult choices. The goals of the players may conflict with political decisions taken in Stockholm and in Brussels.

Representatives for regional businesses, municipalities and Region Östergötland will participate in the game.

The Climate Change Megagame will collaborate with SMHI, the Swedish National Council for Climate Adaptation, and researchers at McGill University in Canada.

The objectives of the Climate Change Megagame research project are:

• to develop a game that creates awareness of how serious climate change is, and how it affects us

 to develop a university course in which students develop, organise and participate in a megagame

• to study the behaviour of those playing the game with respect to communication, decision-making and conflict management.

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