Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: AFTERSHOCK

AFTERSHOCK at the Chilean Joint Peacekeeping Operations Center

Subcomisario Fabian Mac-namara (Policia de Investigaciones de Chile)  and Captain Chris Blessley (British Army) were kind enough to share this report on the recent use of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game at the Chilean Joint Peacekeeping Operations Center (CECOPAC).

* * *

On the 9th April 2015, and for the first time in its history, the Centro Conjunto para Operaciones de Paz de Chile (CECOPAC) —the Chilean military academy specialising in United Nations peacekeeping operations and humanitarian missions—used AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game in its training programme.

Two simultaneous games of AFTERSHOCK underway, as video of the 2010 Haiti earthquake plays in the background.

Two simultaneous games of AFTERSHOCK underway, as video of the 2010 Haiti earthquake plays in the background.

The 22 students, consisting of senior civil servants, police officers and military personnel from Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico were enrolled in CECOPAC’s two-week Protection of Civilians course – headed by Mr Jorge Canales – in which an array of humanitarian-related topics were covered. AFTERSHOCK proved a natural fit for the course and offered students a valuable opportunity to directly grapple with some of the practical and high-level issues encountered on disaster relief operations.


Having been given an overview of the game’s rules and a Carana situation brief, students made their way to the ‘Operations Centre’ to begin a 2.5 hour timed version of the game. The two groups (Teams 1 and 2) were initially greeted with tense atmospherics as eerie scenes of the 2010 Haiti earthquake aftermath were broadcasted on projector screens at the back of the room. Students were guided through the first two rounds of the game by instructors Subcomisario Fabian Mac-Namara of Chile’s Police Investigations Force and Captain Chris Blessley of the British Army, but were then left to their own devices for the remainder of the exercise.


The instructors helped the teams through the first two turns—after which, they were largely on their own.

Confusion and disorder were rife at first as students debated strategy and how best to allocate the few resources they had. Decision-making was consequently slow, which only served to further frustrate participants as they saw precious minutes slip away from them. That said, once players better understood the game’s mechanics, they were increasingly able to converge on strategy and coordinate logistics which, in turn, quickly helped reverse the downward humanitarian trend.

Not wanting students to get too comfortable, CECOPAC decided to add an extra layer of confusion to the game by deliberately triggering the building’s earthquake alarm system one hour into play. Natural disasters are, after all, an unpredictable business! Students were immediately evacuated by members of staff dressed as firemen and instructed to wait outside until the all-clear had been given. When they finally returned to their tables, it was clear that certain details of the latest agreed-upon strategy had been forgotten, not to mention whose turn it was…

For added realism, earthquake alarm is sounded and the teams are made to temporarily evacuate the building.

For added realism, earthquake alarm is sounded and the teams are made to temporarily evacuate the building.

It was also apparent that Teams 1 and 2 differed in one fundamental professional aspect: Team 1, mainly consisting of military personnel, were far quicker when making decisions – most likely as a direct consequence of hierarchical military management structures and military commanders accustomed to making ‘command decisions’ whilst under pressure. However, their quick decision-making did not always pay off and some inane mistakes were made along the way. Team 2, on the other hand, which principally consisted of civil servants, preferred to debate strategic decisions in far greater detail and were reluctant to press forward unless some consensus had been agreed upon. Whilst their methodologies appeared more unison in nature, they finished some 25 minutes after their counterparts and very nearly failed to complete the game within the stipulated time period.


In any event, the game concluded with both Teams 1 and 2 finishing with positive RP and OP points (notwithstanding that a significant number of OP points were ultimately deducted from the UN players for insufficient infrastructure and from HADR-Task Force players for failing to promptly withdraw their teams from Carana).

Overall feedback from the players was immensely positive, with the vast majority of them agreeing that the game was not only enjoyable, but also provided a good introduction to some of the likely practical realities encountered on humanitarian operations. One senior Chilean army officer commented that the confusion and commotion at the beginning of the game bore a close resemblance to the discord that he experienced personally in a real earthquake relief operation in Chile. Another senior army officer claimed that, owing to the nature of his profession, he was initially very focused on his team’s individual mandate. However, as his appreciation of the game’s wider issues developed, he quickly learned the benefits of resource-sharing and working with other teams to achieve both individual and collective humanitarian mandates.

Following the exercise’s success, CECOPAC will be using AFTERSHOCK as a permanent training feature on several of its humanitarian and peacekeeping courses. It’s also working with the game’s designer, Prof. Rex Brynen of McGill University, to produce a Spanish version of the game which, in turn, will hopefully disseminate its use throughout other Spanish-speaking countries.

Chris Blessley and Fabian Mac-namara  

AFTERSHOCK at CanGames 2015


The CanGames gaming convention takes place in Ottawa on 15-17 May 2015. This year we’ll be running a game of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game at the convention:

Sunday, May 17 • 2:00pm – 5:00pm
AFTERSHOCK is a game of humanitarian crisis, in which the local government, the United Nations, third country militaries, and nongovernmental organizations race to save lives–before it is too late.

Plan on attending, and want to play? Register and reserve a spot!

AFTERSHOCKing the Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program


Yesterday, a group of us from McGill University ran four simultaneous games of AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game for around thirty students in the 2014-15 Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program. This program offers evidence-based training on the globally-recognized core humanitarian competencies. It is intended for those with little or no prior field experience who wish to undertake a professional career in the humanitarian sector.


Eric makes sure his game is ready to go as participants listen to the pre-game briefing.

I started off the session with a quick overview, lasting about 15 minutes. This introduced the fictional scenario (modelled on 2010 Haiti earthquake and several other disasters). We then highlighted the three main interrelated themes of the game:

  • human resource management and coordination
  • aid prioritization and distribution
  • supply management and logistics

We also provided players with an overview of the turn sequence, and the strengths, weaknesses, and special objectives of each of the teams (the host country of Carana, the United Nations, international NGOs, and the third-country military forces of the “Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force” sent to assist). As a deliberate teaching strategy we did NOT try to acquaint players with all of the rules up front, since this might have overwhelmed neophytes. Instead, the game is much more easily learned by playing it step-by-step. Experience suggests that, after the first turn, most people understand what they are doing.


Hiba is ready to go too!

Players then reported to their pre-assigned game table, forming teams of 1-2 for up to eight players per game. Each game was run by an experienced McGill graduate student, while myself and co-designer Tom Fisher circulated around the room helping with game play and relating what was happening in-game to real-world disaster relief.

We used the two-hour timed version of the game, which includes scoring bonuses for reaching certain benchmarks within certain time limits. This not only guaranteed we would could deliver the entire game within the 2.5 hour class slot, but also has the very considerable advantage of generating a real sense of urgency during game play.


June talks players through their first turn.

At first it was all rather chaotic, with players learning how the game worked and starting to coordinate between teams—a key part of effective game play.

Many Caranans died in the first 48 hours or so of the disaster. That too was part of the atmosphere we were looking to achieve: an initial sense of being overwhelmed by the confusion and sheer scale of the disaster, but with actors slowly beginning to make some headway as priorities are set, scarce resources are allocated (and others arrive on-scene), and multiple actors begin to work cooperatively around shared strategy.

Over time, a real sense of camaraderie developed in each game: players cheered their successes, collectively groaned at failures or adverse effects, noisily debated strategy, and urged each other to act promptly. Occasionally some tensions arose between the slightly differing priorities of each team. At times host country leaders grew annoyed that they weren’t always being listened to by the outsiders who had come to help.

Three of the four games resulted in overall success, two by a substantial margin and one rather more closely. With the exception of one HADR Task Force contingent that ended up over-committed, all of the individual teams in these games won too.


Ecem has a player draw cards from the Coordination deck—one of the advantages of attending humanitarian cluster meetings.

Players in the fourth game were unsuccessful. However, they were especially unfortunate: the initial earthquake was followed by a very severe aftershock only 72 hours later, which in turn was followed by heavy rains and flooding just a couple of days after that. As if that wasn’t enough, a severe cholera outbreak then devastated the slums of the capital! Social unrest became widespread, forcing the government to devote scarce resources to deescalating tensions and restoring public order. Much of this was the result of some frankly very unlucky card draws, but there was a teachable moment in that too: natural disasters and other humanitarian crises aren’t “fair,” and sometimes actors will need to deal with a series of setbacks largely beyond their immediate control.

Afterwards, everyone enjoyed beer and pizza. The feedback from the class (n=27) was very positive indeed:

1. How enjoyable did you find the game?

  • Not at all enjoyable 0.0%
  • Not enjoyable 0.0%
  • Somewhat 3.7%
  • Enjoyable 14.8%
  • Very enjoyable 81.5%

2. How well did the game illustrate themes related to humanitarian assistance and coordination?    

  • Not well at all 0.0%
  • Not well 0.0%
  • Somewhat 3.7%
  • Well 40.7%
  • Very well 55.6%

3. Were the rules too complicated, too simple, or about right? 

  • Too complicated 25.9%
  • About right 74.1%
  • Too simple 0.0%

4. Should the game be used again for this course in future years?

  • No 0.0%
  • Perhaps, with major improvements 7.4%
  • Yes 92.6%

These are similar to the results we’ve received when we’ve run the game with university students at McGill. We’ll be running the game again for another Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program class in May.

Tom and I—in white hats, of course.

Tom and I—in white helmets, of course.

Playtesting the Humanitarian Crisis Game

hadr-event-cardsRecently, Professor Jeremy Wells of the Department of Political Science at Texas State University—San Marcos playtested the beta version of the PAXsims’ AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game with  students in his civil-military relations course. You’ll find their impressions below.The play test even got a mention in the local newspaper, the San Marcos Daily Record—see the newspapers clipping at the end of this blog post. In reading through the account they provide, several things stand out to me. One was his innovative decision NOT to allow the students to read the full set of rules in advance, but rather inform them of what they needed to know as they played the game. This undoubtedly facilitated easing them into the game, and also generated a sense of being temporarily overwhelmed by a new situation, although it may have inhibited some strategic planning. Also, I was struck my the more competitive way his students appear to have initially approached the game. In  my own playtests at McGill, students were generally much more cooperative from the outset. This may have been because many were international development studies students, or because they had completed a course with me on peacebuilding. It might also have been a function of having had fuller access to the rules before the game. As the account below notes, the game sets up both collective victory conditions (“Relief Points” indicating how well players are saving lives), and individual ones (“Operations Points,” reflecting the organizational achievements and political capital of each particular actor). Players can all win, all lose, or some may win while other lose. The game described below highlights the importance of logistics infrastructure: if you don’t invest early in opening up the airport, the main roads, or the port, players will soon run into major bottlenecks. This mirrors the importance of efforts by the US to open Port-au-Prince airport during the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the disaster upon which the game is largely modelled. I’m pleased at the degree to which the game seems to have revealed to participants the relative advantages different players have, as well as the potential synergies between players. In refining the game, I’m still struggling with two major challenges. The first of these is complexity—is it too complex, or would simplification lose too much of the essential texture? Student comments below mention how complex it seemed at first. On the other hand, one playtester at the Connections UK conference said it had a rather simplified/abstracted “Eurogame” feel  to it. The second issue  is length of play. At the moment it takes about three hours to play, which is a bit long for classroom use. I’ll be using the game next term as an option activity for students in my POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) course. I’ll be organizing that exercise as competition, to see which team is best able to same the disaster-affected population of Carana.


* * *

My Civil Military Relations class played the Humanitarian Crisis Game as a final project for the course. The nine students were divided into pairs playing the Carana, United Nations, and nongovernmental organization sides, while the remaining three made up the Task Force. They played the game over two 80-minute meetings. 2013-11-18 16.04.37 Each student was required to submit responses to four general questions about their experience playing the game, and three general issues were common across most of the responses: consideration of individual versus overall results, immediate versus long-term goals, and the complexity of the rules of the game. The Humanitarian’s Dilemma The HCG rules encourage players to focus on both Relief Points (RP), which indicate the overall progress in Carana, as well as Operations Points (OP) that tally the individual success of the four teams. That humanitarian aid agencies are driven by competition with other organizations as by helping targeted peoples, regions, and countries is nothing new, but the message still comes as a shock to many. This was definitely the case with the nine students playing the game. EG, half of the Carana government pair, noted that at the “beginning of the game, we often chose the option that would gain us the most individual points instead of choosing what was best for the players as a whole. This later proved detrimental as we realized if we moved our teams to benefit other players our tasks were made easier as well.” One example was the need for security operations as social unrest became in the problem later in the game. The rules discourage the Task Force from initiating security operations, placing the burden on the already-pressed Carana regime. EG added:

It was frustrating that we, the Government of Carana, would exhaust our resources sending teams to security while… the Task Force was not as proactive. This led me to realize how frustrating it must be when a Task Force assigned to a specific disaster-stricken region is not executing its mission properly. As the government of an impoverished country with few resources, it would be incredibly maddening to be working with a Task Force that was not proactively protecting the victims of the disaster. I believe this apathy on the side of the Task Force is because they have no real stake in the issue. It is not their state to defend, and therefore there is less motivation to see the mission of victim protection through.

One of the Task Force members, MH, admitted that the costs of intervening prohibited their desire to engage: “In our coordination with civilian authorities one of the impacts of being the task force was that there was less of an investment in the country and long game, as we knew that we would have to withdraw anyway, distancing ourselves from the country and making it harder to coordinate with other groups when these actions would involve some sort of sacrifice.” Another Task Force member, BP, recognized that thinking in terms of each group’s sacrifice was misleading:

We realized that our supplies weren’t really OUR supplies but everyone’s, as we were all trying to meet the same goal–providing for the people in the districts. Once I got out of the mindset that we were in different groups to compete and realized that we were all essentially on the same team, my goals in the simulation became clearer and decisions became easier.

Of course, as UN member JW points out, this took a relatively long time: “It wasn’t until the end of the game that the Task Force began to work security and do what its job was. And that was only when we really needed it due to the amount of social unrest.” Players were also distracted from the overall operation by the media card and media operations, which early on led players to compete for attention and OP. NGO player TS noticed this early on:

Everyone was concerned only with the district in which the media was present, which is somewhat understandable because all teams need to have good public relations. However, when the teams were concerned only with the district where the media was present, other districts suffered from our negligence, which came to hurt us. We addressed the needs of certain districts before others solely because of the media presence, even though there were many more people suffering in other districts of the city. In a real life disaster, the United Nations and the local government would be doing whatever is possible to make their efforts look the best they can to the media

BP took the lesson a step further, noting the moral hazard caused by the media: “The idea that some groups actually might want to come out on top or with a better image than another group in real life is particularly disturbing as the most important thing should always be to help the people, not worry about how good you look doing it in the media.” 2013-11-18 16.04.46The early focus on individual gains had repercussions later on as well though, even as groups began pushing for cooperative efforts. The Task Force especially struggled with this, as MH points out: “The strategy we started out with was building up a lead in OP early in the game; however, as the game developed, we found that this strategy had hampered our ability to meet the needs of the districts and was contributing to the massively negative RP on the field. Moreover, this also created tension between us and other players as later in the game it was harder to convince them to cooperate with us.” NGO player KK agrees that the Task Force hamstrung itself early on: “If one group is not on the same page or not trying to achieve the same goal, the whole response effort will fail; at times we saw the Task Force not being on the same page with the rest of the group and trying to work for themselves and just gain points for themselves, which hurt every team and Carana.” After the first meeting, JW pointed out to me personally that the game portrayed a four-person Prisoner’s Dilemma. As a member of the UN, he had been sacrificing opportunities for individual OP in order to staff Emergency Relief boxes, allowing the other teams to take advantage of Coordination Clusters to distribute resources via the UN. One of the strongest points of the HCG is the inherent Prisoner’s Dilemma. The possibility of individual point-scoring added a dimension to the game often lost in general discussions of complex cooperative efforts. By allowing competition and cooperation to develop organically, rather than as the result of artificial rules or direct rewards, students learn about the rational processes of competition and cooperation. The Shadow of Crisis The students also recognized the difficult balance between immediate emergency needs and long-term development goals in a crisis situation. Logistics infrastructure particularly became the focus after the first few periods when players realized the limits on warehouse space was keeping valuable resources out of reach. By this time, however, the most affected team, the NGO, was generally unsuccessful at getting the other teams to trade supplies for what they saw as expensive infrastructure. Only later in the game did EG recognize the need to invest in infrastructure, despite the easy access to Carana’s supplies:

Another difficulty the Government of Carana faced was knowing when it was the best time to buy logistics infrastructure. Logistics infrastructure pieces could be purchased with any three of our supply chips of different colors, and their purpose was to create more room in the warehouse that other players could move their supplies in for quicker access when it was time to move them to districts. By purchasing logistics pieces, we had to give up three of our supplies, and we were the team with the fewest supplies. We rarely, if ever, made the decision to purchase logistics infrastructure during the beginning of the game, as we could see no benefit to our team directly. As the simulation progressed, we realized our sacrifice allowed other teams with more resources to move their supplies to districts whose needs we could not meet.

The class played the game the first time before the Thanksgiving break in November. I let the class play a second time after the break. Interestingly, the students agreed to put all their supplies toward infrastructure, but this prevented them from resolving any districts early on, and by Carana’s start of the second period, the RP counter dipped below the minimum threshold, immediately ending the game. With plenty of time remaining, they restarted, this time balancing the need for immediate short-term coverage of as many districts as possible with the desire to generate long-term development. This produced a fruitful discussion comparing foreign assistance to institution building in developing countries, adding another dimension to the lessons learned from the game. The Rules A general complaint from the students concerned the complexity of the game’s rules; however, this was not entirely the fault of the game’s developer. I purposefully kept students mostly in the dark right up until the first turn began to push the point that UN member MM writes, “in the very first stages of the game there was so much information that we had to remember. If there was a list of rules and regulations handed as a hard copy to all of the teams then I believe the start of the game can run more smoothly and efficiently.” But this is exactly the situation I did not want to allow. Carana Government member JR added that not fully understanding the rules at first “made it harder to develop a game plan early on.” When crises begin, there are no rules. When situations required explaining the rules or making a judgment, I made the call, but I left the progress of the game and the learning up to the students as much as possible. This also allowed for some mistakes to be made along the way, as KK points out: “The only issues, I believe, arose because we did not have a list of what the actual rules were. At times we would forget rules or just have little mistakes.” My response, when students first asked for a copy of the rules, was that in a real situation there are no rules; I would then tell them to relate the ensuing frustration to that of the responders and victims of real crises. This converted emotional responses to the complexity of the game into another learning experience. Conclusion Overall the students thoroughly enjoyed playing the game while I enjoyed watching them learn not only about crises but how crises and the responses develop. They connected abstract concepts, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and debates over the best means of generating economic and political development, to in-game outcomes and real-world situations. This game is well-suited for courses in world politics, international studies, global issues, international or comparative political economy, and international development. It was also relatively easy to play the game as groups if you have more than four players. The game will definitely be a part of many of my future classes.

Jeremy Wells Department of Political Science Texas State University—San Marcos


AFTERSHOCK: A humanitarian crisis game (beta release)

aftershock available

The final production version of AFTERSHOCK is now available! For information, see the AFTERSHOCK information page. The blog post below describes the conceptualization, beta release, and development of the game.

* * *

It is still soon after the EMERGEMNCY phase, soon after earthquake. District 2 needs 2 medical supplies (red cubes), 2 water and sanitation (blue cubes), 1 food (green cube), and a team assigned to rescue. It meets those requirements, so aid efforts here will be successful.

It is still the EMERGENCY phase, soon after earthquake. District 2 needs two medical supplies (red cubes), two water and sanitation (blue cubes), one food (green cube), and a team assigned to rescue. It meets those requirements, so aid efforts here will be successful.

September 2013: After some additional playtesting and a few more tweaks, I am now making available a fully-playable beta version of the Humanitarian Crisis Game. The Humanitarian Crisis Game is a four (to eight) player game that explores the interagency cooperation needed to address the emergency and early recovery phase of a complex humanitarian crisis. The game is set in the fictional country of Carana, but is loosely modeled on disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

 Carana has suffered years of sometimes violent turmoil, and has only recently taken the first steps to tentative steps to national reconciliation and reconstruction. Poverty is widespread, government capacity is weak, and ethnic and political tensions remain high. Nongovernmental organizations and United Nations specialized agencies are active in the country, including a moderately-sized UN civilian police contingent. At dawn today, a powerful earthquake struck the capital city of Galasi, causing widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure. Tens of thousands of people are in need of urgent aid and medical attention. At the request of the Caranan government, military forces from several friendly countries—operating as the multinational Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force, or HADR-TF—are en route to assist, as are additional contingents of UN and NGO personnel together with relief supplies.

The game files required for the beta version are as follows (all in pdf format):

  • The complete game rules (updated as of 28/02/2015)
  • The various game displays
  • The event cards used to generate random events during the crisis
  • The at-risk cards used to denote humanitarian needs in each district
  • The cluster cards used to generate positive effects from coordination
  • Markers for supplies (optional, if no other tokens available)

Note that if you are currently thinking of using the game, you are strongly advised to contact us for a final production version. It looks much better, and contains a number of tweaks and revisions. For the various game markers I use wooden tokens purchased online from Game Crafter, but the file also includes cut-out markers if you wish to use those instead. I have distributed the files in their original (.pptx and .docx) formats to facilitate modification by users, but if you have trouble with any of them let me know and I’ll provide .pdf versions. I’ve now play tested the game extensively with students at McGill, and it has also been used in the classroom at Texas State University. If any PAXsims readers try out the game, please drop me a line with any thoughts and feedback you have.

Design Notes


Playing the game at McGill University.

No game can capture all aspects of a process, and humanitarian assistance is no different. A key design choice from the outset, therefore, was what elements needed to be most emphasized, and how those might best be represented. First, the game needed to highlight humanitarian assistance as a cooperative endeavour, but one in which different actors have slightly different perspectives and priorities. This was done by measuring assistance efforts both collectively (relief points/RP) and individually (operations points/OP). Addressing humanitarian need is a central priority for everyone, and if RPs are negative at the end of the game everyone loses. However, humanitarian actors also need public and political support to function, and failure to maintain this can result in losing for that reason too. The game also needed to highlight that different humanitarian actors have different strengths and weaknesses. This is difficult to do, because each of the four actors identified in the Humanitarian Crisis Game are, in the real world, themselves composed of many different elements with different skills and capabilities. However, for game purposes the rules give the local government primary responsibility for security, and some comparative advantage in local distribution; depicts foreign militaries as having strong logistics and security capabilities but with limited staying power and little capacity to promote sustainable development; and represents UN agencies and NGOs as having comparative strength in relief and development. The combination of differing goals and capabilities, in turn, sets the stage for the coordination challenges in the game. This has been treated in two complimentary ways. Players need to play cooperatively and coordinate their actions to win, both in terms of allocating their human resources and in deciding what kinds of assistance to deliver, where, when, and how. However, coordination is also an activity that they can invest game resources into, by participating in the various coordination clusters. Doing so delivers benefits, but these are not wholly predictable, and the process can even be a bit frustrating. Indeed, the game forces players to even cooperate in coordinating, since some activities may require that multiple parties prioritize the same sectors at the same time. Yet coordination involves opportunity costs too, since resources invested in coordination are not available for other tasks.

Playing the game at King's College London (Connections UK 2014).

Playing the game at King’s College London (Connections UK 2014).

The game uses “at risk” cards to indicate where humanitarian assistance is needed, and “event” cards to generate a challenging operational environment. The sudden and unpredictable operation of these is somewhat different, of course, than the steadier loss of human life in a humanitarian crisis. The mechanism was adopted, however, because it does generate some of the sense of chaos and limited information of a major disaster. It also reflects the extent to which humanitarian actors are struggling to deal with an array of challenges beyond their immediate control. The Humanitarian Crisis Game, like with real humanitarian operations, rewards risk assessment and contingency planning. It also forces players to make difficult decisions about priorities and triage: given limited resources, do they focus on those who are most easily saved, or those most in need? The first few turns of the game are likely to be overwhelming, with the players lacking sufficient resources to meet needs. The importance of randomly-drawn event cards also means that every game is likely to be quite different, and some will be much more difficult than others. In this sense, the game isn’t “fair” and in some cases players may be faced with an almost impossible sequence of events. However, real humanitarian crises aren’t “fair” either. All that anyone can do is to do their best (and do no harm).


Playing the game at Texas State University.

There is a considerable amount of politics represented in the game.  Actors need to maintain public and political support, generated both by their performance in the field and through media outreach. Carana itself is politically fragile, and a failure to address basic needs can be dangerous, especially in the latter part of the game after the initial shock of the disaster has worn off. I didn’t want to overemphasize the element of social unrest and insecurity, however, since it is often rather less than pundits anticipate (in Haiti in 2010, for example). Still, some risk is there. Badly handled the government of Carana—and, by extension, the other players too—could find themselves in serious trouble. The media is a significant presence in humanitarian emergencies, important to the various actors yet beyond their control. In the Humanitarian Crisis Game it moves across the country, highlighting some areas while ignoring others, and variously boosting or damaging the standing of players. Later it is likely to leave altogether as the broader public loses interest, or as other news stories command greater attention. Players of more conventional wargames will immediately notice that the game does not include a map, or more accurately doesn’t include map-based representations of spatiality. Part of the reason is that the design is intended to prioritize processes and thematic sectors over geographic space. Part of the decision was a practical one, too—I wanted the game to be easily reproduced with nothing more than a printer and standard paper, and a larger mapboard would have complicated that. Geography isn’t entirely absent in any case. As players will soon find out, transportation and logistics play an absolutely key role in providing relief in Carana. Unlike most conventional wargames, the design also uses a fictional case and country. This is to allow a broader range of issues to be explored than in any one single real-world case, and to relax some of the pressure to depict historical events with a high degree of fidelity. It also allows students to get past their knowledge and horror of, say, the Haiti case to focus on the broader processes at work in humanitarian crisis response. The Humanitarian Crisis Game can be played in about 3 hours, which is the upper limit for an educational game. It is probably best played in an educational setting with an experienced facilitator, rather than expecting students to self-teach themselves the rules. However, once play starts the game is fairly straightforward, with the various cards providing clear explanations of game effects. The cards themselves are designed to provide large numbers of “teachable moments,” highlighting issues drawn from actual humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations.

Game Strategy

While players might initially focus on getting vital supplies to hungry, thirsty, and injured survivors, it will soon become apparent that logistics are key. If resources can’t be brought into affected areas, they are almost useless. Carana and the HADR-TF have a comparative advantage in opening up transportation routes, and should do so early. Coordination through the cluster system is important, especially since it allows players to transfer resources amongst themselves. Without this sort of cooperation there will be duplication of effort on the ground. It is also impossible to deal with challenges like cholera without coordination. Earning operations points matters, but so too does using them. While they may be necessary to “win” the game, players should also remember that they can be  “spent” to acquire additional resources. Carana is often both the weakest, most over-stretched player and the most important one: it has a network for local delivery of supplies, it is primarily responsible for security, and if it does poorly all players suffer. Social unrest is usually not a major problem unless players perform poorly in the later weeks of the crisis. However, if problems do arise don’t leave them to fester. Finally, be mindful that local needs will shift between the emergency and recovery stages. Medical care and WASH tend to be the priority in the first few days, while food and shelter become more important as time moves on. Other than logistics, most infrastructure activities are better reserved for the recovery stage when needs are less acute and the opportunity cost of infrastructure is reduced.


The initial ideas for this game were drawn from participants in the Connections 2012 Game Lab, with special thanks to my co-facilitators David Becker, Brant Guillory, Ty Mayfield, Gary Milante, Joshua Riojas, and Brian Train. I also drew on the inspiration from the subsequent Crisis Response humanitarian assistance card game developed by Gary Milante, and from the Zombiton NHS zombies-in-a-hospital game developed with Jessica Barton. At McGill, the design of the game was refined and play-tested with input from Sean Anderson, Chloe Brynen, David Brynen, Islam Derradji, Bushra Ebadi, Thomas Fisher, Benjamin Foldy, June McCabe, Beth McKenna, Émilie Noël, Adriana Willms. I also benefitted from feedback from players and other participants at the Connections UK 2013 and Connections 2014 professional wargaming conferences.

Revision History and Updates

18 January 2014: Revised cluster cards uploaded

20 July 2014: A substantially revised version (beta4.0) has been uploaded. The major change is to do away with the dual “emergency” and “recovery” sections on each at-risk card (depicted in the older graphic at the top of this page). Instead, cards are now one or the other, and the deck is prepared before play to assure that the top two cards in each district always depict the “emergency” stage of the disaster, with greatest need for WASH and medical supplies, and the need to assign some teams to disaster rescue. This has the added advantage of pushing some of the more complicated cards (like Cholera or Squatters) deeper into the deck to ease player learning. Several rules have also been simplified, notably with regard to logistics. Several of the Cluster and Event cards have been changed. Finally, the game has been been shortened from eight turns to seven, in an effort to make in playable within two hours.

11 August 2014: I’ve made some small changes (beta4.1) as a result of feedback at the Connections wargaming conference. In particular, players now draw one Coordination card for each cluster they are attending, and then select which one of these to play. There have been a few other minor tweaks too. The game works well with a 15 minute introduction, 7 periods (turns), and 2 hours of play time. All changes have been uploaded.

12 December 2014: Some minor rule-tweaks based on recent playtesting. The game is now names AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. We plan to make the game available for purchase via GameCrafter in the second half of 2015.

15 January 2015: We’ve received permission from WFP and UNDP to use images from their photo libraries for the production version of the game.

15 March 2015: Due to the magical graphics skills of Tom Fisher, we are very near to completing the production version. You’ll find some of the (almost-final) game elements below. E6 CO7 AR1 airportdisp6 clusterdisp10 district1 1 April 2015: We ran four simultaneous games of AFTERSHOCK for students of the Canadian Disaster and HumanitarianResponse Training Program. It all seems to have gone very well indeed!

1 July 2015: We’re in production! See the AFTERSHOCK page.

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