Major Robert J. Fritz is civilian desk officer in the situation center of the Austrian Ministry of Defence. As “Creative Warrior” he has founded “Tablewood Studios” focusing on Business Dramaturgy, Game Design and Personal Screenwriting. If readers have any questions or wish to share feedback, they are invited to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
First of all I would like to wish all readers a Happy New Year. May you get healthy through the Pandemic Year 2021.
It is a pleasure to present via PAXsims my approach to epidemic crisis management by serious gaming. The game is based on AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game, and so those familiar with that game will recognize many of the mechanics. It is also inspired by core mechanic of virus spread used in the successful Pandemic game series. I am grateful to Rex Brynen, Tom Fisher and Matt Leacock behind those two game designs—without these sources it would have been impossible to create a prototype within a short period of time.
After last spring the first wave of COVID-19 had hit Austria, the commander of the Austrian Military Academy tasked the head of the Development Division, General Staff Col. Dr. Markus Reisner, to develop a simulation about the management of the COVID-19 pandemic by various key actors. Col. Reisner chose an innovative interdisciplinary approach. Due to our shared interest in wargaming and long friendship he got in touch with me and asked me for any support I could deliver. At the beginning I was overwhelmed by the challenge, but a look into my game collection identified a few candidates which could work as conceptual sources. I have to admit that I am not that experienced game designer, but I enjoy to cope with complex challenges in a creative way.
As advocate of educational gaming I had a few opportunities to gain some experience in the past. As student of political science I organized a NATO-related panel as part of the annual Vienna Model UN/VIMUN and as military training officer I created scenarios for the live action peace operations predeployment training of logistics and contracting officers. Being a freelance civilian logistics trainer at that time was very helpful in that regard.
As a “Creative Warrior” with my own business “Tablewood Studios” I started with miniature game designs (more or less by the principle trial and error) and did a lot of research on the history of wargaming. As civilian desk officer with a military background in the Austrian Ministry of Defence I use historical conflict simulations as analytical tools. My board and miniature game collection grows bigger and bigger and due to my cinematic approach I consider my miniatures as props for making table movies. In recent years I focused more on screenwriting and still have this great dream to see my two superheroes “Ghost Talker” and “Sergeant Gulliver” some day on the big screen. But this is another story. Back to COVID Buster.
After playing one session AFTERSHOCK with Colonel Reisner it became very clear that this simulation covers many clever aspects of crisis management, which could also work for a pandemic situation —especially the synergies of coordination by key actors. I like the elegant design and logical procedures represented by different card decks and player phases. The map system is also very attractive. Printing large geographical maps is more complex and expensive. The to scale size of different regions would also be a visual challenge to get all necessary information on the map. The district structure of AFTERSHOCK is just perfect to me.
In November the first prototype of COVID Buster was tested and presented to Major General Karl Pronhagl as Commander of the Military Academy and his Chief of Staff in Wiener Neustadt under lockdown conditions. Both gentlemen were deeply impressed and the momentum was used to continue working on bugs and new ideas. On the 17th of December 2020 the latest game lab took place and brought to light that the game system should work pretty well. There is still a long way to go and 2021 will follow a very pandemic path: Testing, Testing, Testing!
The core challenge was to demonstrate the complexity of nation-wide crisis management in Austria at different working levels during a pandemic linked with a simple, but still logical, infection rate. The actors should face the ups and downs of virus spread due to different factors like clusters, lockdowns, limited supplier markets, vaccine research, influencer conspiracies and a variety of other events which drives the situation. The dominant key player is the Health Services with the authority to put a general Lockdown in place (just once per game with a special card the actor has already at hand from the very beginning of the game). The military is the last actor during a game round, since it only acts by request of other authorities like Health Services or Police.
As mentioned above the basic character of AFTERSHOCK is very visible. The main differences are:
The key actors are Health Services, Austrian Red Cross (also representing the whole range of other NGOs), Police as well as the Austrian Armed Forces (Bundesheer) and play in that particular order.
Instead of districts you have the whole state of Austria represented by the nine federal states (Bundesländer). Each game plan for a federal state (Bundesland) includes a “Corona-Ampel” with four different colors (green-yellow-orange-red) reflecting the regional epidemic situation. The Corona-Ampel and the deck of Needs Cards (similar to the At Risk Cards in AFTERSHOCK) are linked since the colour of the Ampel increases the needs for critical supplies (+ 1 per type). Players assign teams to different tasks like in AFTERSHOCK. There are special fields for certain events like Quarantine and Disaster Relief (e.g. due to avalanches or floods) to tie up operational teams.
The four types of supplies are related to the most critical groups of goods needed to manage the pandemic. White cubes stand for personal protective equipment. Blue cubes stand for “disinfectants” and other liquid resources like blood plasma. Green Cubes are any form of test kits and also include medication. Red Cubes stand for intensive care beds and include the whole technology linked to it (e.g. respirators). In the fourth month production facilities (like Infrastructure in AFTERSHOCK) could be put in place representing domestic production capacities of critical items.
Since Austria is surrounded by eight neighbouring countries there is an Infection Plan for these countries, too. This plan also includes a “Corona-Ampel” related to the WHO representing the global pandemic situation. The Police and Military actors assign teams to border management which act as a blocker for the cross-border spread of the virus.
In each player turn there is an Infection Phase prior to the concluding Supply Phase by drawing infection cards to define the location of new infections like in the boardgame Pandemic. “Pandemic Cubes” will be placed on the Ampel of the effected “Bundesland” or “Neighbouring Country” and each color/cube stands for a reproduction factor of “1”. There are four “Pandemic Cards” in the deck which trigger an outbreak and could lead to chain reactions of viral spread.
Logistics: I am still so fascinated by the Logistic Hub Challenge of AFTERSHOCK by using this black discs. I wanted to transform this clever mechanic into a contracting based approach. My idea was to simulate limited markets of critical items by using the black discs as kind of contracting marker representing groups of suppliers and a bidding process needed to increase the capacities. To be honest, as former logistics officer and quartermaster I specialized in contingency contracting and I wanted to see this aspect in the game. My sponsor and other consulting experts did not agree and saw no benefit in that. I admit that the game is already complex enough which justifies this decision. Therefore it was simplified by delaying the availability of supplies. With a logistic operation you get ordered supplies from abroad back home into your domestic warehouses. The exchange of items between players and the generation of production facilities is like in AFTERSHOCK. There are certain events in the course of the game which will have an impact on the logistic chain, too.
Cards, cards, cards: The card driven core mechanic needs a lot of playing cards. Like in AFTERSHOCK there are cards for coordination, events, needs (like At Risk cards) and special situations (e.g. Media, Assessment, Social Unrest). In detail they differ very much due to the pandemic situation. Needs Cards (Bedarfskarten) include three different types refering either to a Regional Pandemic situation, a Corona Cluster or special situations like Corona Demos, Travel Warnings, Daily Commuters, Influenza Wave, Lack of Intensive Care Beds, Mask Refuseniks or Cov-Idiots.
The game lasts over 12 months/rounds.
Instead of the Relief Points in AFTERSHOCK, players gain or loose “Government Points” – the final score could be “good” or “bad governance”.
I am well aware that nine Bundesländer and a game length of over 12 months extend the needs in terms of playing time and game material. On the other hand I strongly believe that for a serious classroom game – provided that enough time is available – it is important to keep basic issues of the real world in the design. Players will have a personal relation to certain Bundesländer of Austria, which could have an impact on decisions about priorities. Therefore I did not want to reduce the number of Bundesländer to fictional regions.
First of all I was deeply impressed by the visual quality of the game material which was graphically prepared in advance by Andrea Zerkhold as member of the development division of the military academy. I absolutely did not expect this at this stage of the project, since so many aspects were still unclear. It is a pleasure to work with this material. It was the perfect eye catcher for the presentation of the prototype.
The first test game with the prototype took place on the 25 November 2020 and had this outstanding cast:
Health Services: Represented by General Staff Colonel Dr. Markus Reisner PhD, head of the Development Division at the Military Academy. A former SOF officer with operational experience in peace operations in Afghanistan, Chad and Mali. As historian he has written several brilliant books about military history and his broader academic profile also includes studies about robotic warfare.
Red Cross: The author and designer himself – Major Robert J. Fritz. My military baptism of fire was as UN Military Police patrolman in the 90s in Syria followed by a contracted officer career as quartermaster and logistic officer at the Austrian International Peace Support Command with duties in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Syria and the Western Sahara. After working a couple of years in the logistic branch of the Austrian MoD I was ready for a change. As civilian desk officer for UN peacekeeping in the MoD I joined the annual main conference of the UN Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations in New York on a regular basis. In December 2019 I took over a position in the Situation Center in the MoD and for months I am contributing to a daily Sitrep about COVID-19. This explains the close relation to the topic, although I would never claim to describe myself as pandemic expert – quite the opposite. At least my years as volunteer in the Red Cross during my time at Business School should justify my qualification that I have modest experience with key tasks of the different actors in COVID Buster. As artist I would prefer much more the Art of Peace than War. But if you want to have peace, you have to understand war.
Police: Soldier André Mayer. This young and open minded gentleman seems to be the luckiest conscripted soldier of the Bundesheer—having the privilege to serve under the command of Col Reisner and being active part of this project. He does not only play a supportive role for different services. With his critical mind he delivers valuable input to the design process. Perhaps it is worth to mention that he works in his civilian life for the Austrian Chancellor as the youngest member of the cabinet.
Bundesheer: Prof DI Dr. Col Norbert Frischauf. He is a High Energy Physicist (Astrophysics and Particle Physics) by education and a Future Studies Systems Engineer by training. Being highly interested in all sorts of technologies as well as the micro and macro cosmos his educational and vocational career led him to several distinct places, such as CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, ESA/ESTEC and the JRC-IET in the Netherlands and recently to the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation where he presents a monthly science telecast. He is part of the “Strategic Community Austria”, a military strategy adviser and writes daily analysis about the development of the COVID-19 pandemic from the very beginning. His expertise and critical contributions are still essential for the project.
COVID Buster starts with a historical setup, which means that there is a viral ground zero in the Western part of Austria, where people from around the world spend their skiing holidays. The event “COVID Ski” is activated right at the beginning of the first round (in addition to the regular event in the active player´s event phase). It says that “excessive apres ski drives the spread of the virus” and has the effect that an outbreak is starting from Tyrol. In that way players jump right into the pandemic situation.
In the Coordination Deck of the prototype a few Lockdown cards were available. The problem was, that until the third month Health Services and Police did not draw one of these cards. In the meantime we lost Government Points by failing to fulfill the needs of the Bundesländer and COVID-19 turned Austria and her neighbourhood into red. There was no other way, but to order a nation-wide Lockdown to reduce the infection rates by removing pandemic cubes without a specific card yet available. We agreed that the costs for this new Lockdown as Special Card for the Health Services should be higher for each game round it is in place (5 Government Points for the first round) and should not take longer than three rounds.
Bringing in supplies to the Bundesländer was also a challenge due to the contracting based logistics system. The delays of supplies took three months, when the distribution into the field really started. As mentioned above this mechanic was not very welcome and we dropped it.
In the first 2 months a team should be assigned to Evacuation (similar to Rescue in AFTERSHOCK) to fulfill the needs of a Bundesland. In Covid Buster it reflects the repatriation of Austrian citizens which has been managed by national authorities. As soon as the WHO-Ampel is set on red you have to assign teams to this task again. Every third month one pandemic cube is added to the WHO Ampel. Only the participation in an International Conference (a Coordination Card) could reduce this global growth.
In the fourth month we had to stop the game. For the next step I had to consider an Exit Strategy concerning the development of a vaccine, include the possibilty of lockdowns in the neighbouring countries and change the logistics system. Finally we agreed that Tyrol should not always be the black sheep as starting point of viral spread in Austria. The last issue was easily solved. By drawing an Infection Card as optional rule a new hot spot could be defined within Austria.
December Game Lab
To keep the momentum I continued working on the findings of the prototype test right away and we were able to organize another game lab on the 17 December 2020. In the meantime I played a full 12 month game session solitaire to get a better picture how the whole system works in the long run. Dealing with nine different Bundesländer, the pandemic situation in eight neighbouring countries and many other issues has increased the need for teams and supplies. My first calculations work pretty well, but I expect that after a few test games more balancing is needed.
There was no way during the first test game to get pandemic cubes removed without the Lockdown coordination card. Successfully resolving a Needs Card would also remove pandemic cubes, but this would take time. At a certain point the game became static and there was no sense to draw Infection Cards, since all Covid-Ampeln were red and no outbreaks could be activated anymore. The only penalty was the higher need for critical supplies in the Bundesländer. Conducting Security Operations like Border Management seemed also to be unnecessary due to the “Condition Red” on both sides of the border.
To cope with these flaws we had the idea that each actor should have a special “Joker Card” right from the beginning. Health Services got the nation-wide hard Lockdown Card. The Red Cross is able to generate additional teams. The Police is able to set a whole Bundesland under quarantine. The Bundesheer is able to mobilize additional teams from the militia, but has to wait for one game round reflecting the whole process from drafting to operational readiness. These cards can only be activated once in a game. Three soft Lockdown Cards are kept in the Coordination Deck to react to a pandemic situation in a Bundesland at a later stage.
The longer a Lockdown is in place the higher are the costs. The basic costs for the “Hard Lockdown” are five Government Points per active round. For each additional round one Operational Point has to be paid and one “Bürgerprotest/Citizen Protest” Card has to be placed in each Bundesland. On the other hand you remove one pandemic cube in each Bundesland for each round with an active Lockdown.
I have introduced Lockdown cards for the neighbouring countries as part of the Event Deck, which reduce Pandemic Cubes in the effected state by one. Austria has no influence on lockdown decisions of her neighbours, but there will be an impact across the borders concerning the need for teams in border management.
I changed a bit the procedure for outbreaks. If not even one pandemic cube could be placed somewhere during an outbreak the triggering Bundesland gets one “Citizen Protest” card instead. Outbreaks in the neighbouring countries are also limited to their next neighbour states and not further. The capital town and Bundesland Vienna is a special case concerning infection chains. If in Vienna an outbreak is triggered, it would also infect certain Bundesländer and neighbouring states without a direct borderline. That reflects the issue of national and international commuters or tourists, who work in or visit Vienna.
Finally I would like to outline my ideas how an exit strategy with the existence of an effective vaccine looks like in Covid Buster. There are two cards in the game dealing with research programms. There is the “COVAX Vaccine Initiative by the WHO” as Event Card and the “Vaccine Initiative by the EU” as Coordination Card. Except the Police the drawing actor could assign one team to research for the rest of the game. After six months of research it is possible to activate two other coordination cards (if the actors have kept them before in their hand): The “Vaccination Programme”, which works normally against a flu epidemic (an At Risk Card) becomes in combination with “Notfallzulassung/Emergency Use Authorization” (only activated by the Health Services) the vaccine against COVID-19. At the moment there are two “Vaccination Programme” coordination cards available. The actor holding it can activate it in a Bundesland, where they has a team assigned, by removing one Pandemic Cube.
All these latest adaptions should make COVID Buster more dynamic and should keep the attention of the participants.
Playing a full session of 12 months still takes too much time. I am sure that after more testing and bug hunting the playing time can be reduced. For the needs of the Military Academy as classroom game it should work, but as boxed game for the living room it will stay a challenge. First of all COVID Buster has to work in the classroom within a reasonable timeframe.
In real life we have not yet reached the point of one year crisis management and there are always new developments which I would like to incorporate (e.g. the mutation of the virus or like I did with the terror attack last November in Vienna). But it makes no sense to have hundreds of events with specific terms or actions available. In 12 game rounds with four actors you have about 48 events to draw. This number should also include enough Bundesländer cards to resolve Needs cards.
There is some flexibility to assign events and pandemic language to different card decks. Another approach could be to create special card decks which could dominate one game session or to use at least a few cards from them in the regular decks (e.g. using more terminology for the area of education like distance learning, home schooling, parental letter etc.)
It is scary that the first test games showed a similar viral spread which somehow corresponds with historical developments. I would not say that now it is proven to all sceptics that a hard lockdown is justified in certain situations. In game terms the right timing of a lockdown is essential. In the real world here in Austria the timing proved to be right – at least for the first wave. States had to learn to cope with many challenges. You solve one problem and generate two more. The real art is to prioritize the problems or challenges. No one knows how this experiment of nature will finally be described in history. I hope that COVID Buster could be a small piece of this big puzzle of human history to get an idea how challenging the management of the current pandemic is.
Ben Stevens is an expert in group facilitation and educationvia non-traditional media, with a growing portfolio in learning game development. He joined LLST as a Project Assistant in September 2020.
Like the rest of society, over the past six months serious gamers have scrambled to move our profession online. New methods have proliferated to adapt our favourite mechanics to online platforms, and even those designers most reluctant to leave behind face-to-face gaming (myself included) have been forced to experiment with this new digital medium.
Shortly before COVID-19 changed the way we work, Imaginetic and Lessons Learned carried out research for Save the Children UK in Kenya, Jordan, and Canada on the potential uses and effectiveness of learning games in humanitarian training. That work feels especially timely now, as our study included an examination of the differences between digital games and face-to-face exercises. The main thrust of the findings will cause many long-time serious gamers to nod in agreement: face-to-face learning games were much more engaging, enjoyable, and effective than their digital counterparts.
But hold on: the reality might be more complicated. In the early days of the lockdown, the Lessons Learned team spent some time gaming out pathways to a best-case digital future. Here are some of the key takeaways we identified.
What Makes a Good Digital Game?
A key recommendation from our pre-COVID-19 research was that, for a learning game to be successful, the form of the game should be dictated by the learning goals. Genre, mechanics, and theme should all mirror function. A game about information flow, micro-frictions within teams, or inter-agency coordination should require players with different perspectives to discuss their actions face-to-face. If we want players to learn empathy for others, they should be emulating the decision-making processes and emotional states of others with as much accuracy as possible. Conversely, an action side-scroller makes for a poor tool to teach about a crisis case study if players are paying more attention to the nuances of the controls and the gaps they have to leap over than to the artificially injected learning moments—assuming they have the skill to pass the obstacles at all.
One corollary of our findings is that digital and tabletop games are fundamentally different learning tools. They do different things well and, similarly, are limited in different ways. As experienced tabletop game designers, we are experts in designing with the strengths and limitations of our medium in mind. We know that fog of war is hard, so if it’s needed we make that a central design feature. We know that buy-in is difficult, and so our games should be quick to set up, quick to learn, and quick to start. In particular, we know that our games should involve people with different points of view collaborating on a plan around a table because that is something our medium does exceptionally well.
But are we keeping these principles in mind as we pivot to the digital environment? For many of us (myself included!), pivoting to digital has simply meant running our tabletop learning games over Zoom. After examining my own experiences, hearing about the experiences of others, and playing a lot of games, I think that to succeed in a digital future we need to get back to basics.
Accepting and Avoiding Digital Limitations
Try playing your favourite board game online, and you’ll quickly notice that the components we use just don’t work as well in the digital space. Moving digital pieces on a digital board feels disconnected. Virtual decks of cards can be confusing. Where can I put my tokens and why? How tall is this stack of cards? Did we shuffle or not? What deck did this draw come from?
This isn’t to say that the same mechanics can’t be used, but we should not assume that the tactile user interface we employ via units, tokens, decks of cards, and dice in a tabletop exercise will translate directly to a computer screen.
Digital games do not allow for the type of fluid, dynamic conversation that we rely on in tabletop learning games. After six months of remote work, we are well aware that Zoom calls and forum threads are less efficient than face-to-face meetings. Of course, that principle is equally true when we are engaged in a serious game. Conversation, debate, coordination, and group goal setting—the bread and butter of our tabletop designs—are all bottlenecked by the limitations of online meetings.
If these classic tabletop features don’t adapt well to the digital environment, is that the fault of the medium itself? Or should we as designers be changing our approach?
Embracing the Digital Environment
Even before COVID-19 curtailed our ability to meet face-to-face, we used the digital medium to communicate in a bewildering assortment of ways: emails, WhatsApp messages, Slack groups, social media, shared documents, video calls, SMS—the list goes on and on. Instead of using these tools as imperfect facsimiles of in-person interactions, why not build our digital game designs around digital communication itself?
What many of these tools have in common is that they are asynchronous. Digital conversations don’t happen all at once. Even an urgent email takes time to draft and revise. The slow pace of digital conversations has a serious impact on one of the most ubiquitous game structures: turns. If each turn requires communication between players, we can expect those turns to play out like an uphill slog through mud. It is becoming clear that our digital game designs might be more effective if we made clever use of asynchronicity instead of struggling against it.
I’ll go one step further: that list of digital communications software gives us an opportunity to exploit as digital designers. We already have a magnificent suite of tools at our disposal that our participants use every day. If we are deliberate about the tools we use to host our designs, we will not have to teach participants the mechanics from scratch. They already know how to send emails, manipulate spreadsheets, and participate in Slack threads. With well-fitted digital designs, we can offload the unfamiliar elements of running the game onto the control team, leaving participants to work in ways which already feel natural to them. Since we know that cards and small components often do not translate to digital space, where we can’t pick them up and look at them, it becomes much easier to present information via email, chat, spreadsheet, PDF, image, webpage, or any of the other myriad digital options. These tools also make digital games fantastic for concealing information. As designers, we have much more control over what players see and do not see in digital space.
Another great opportunity presented by the digital environment is that digital games do not require a physical space. We don’t have to book a meeting room to set up the board. Participants don’t have to meet to debate their strategy or submit their actions. When combined with asynchronous methods of communication, this flexibility gives us the opportunity to build games which run over longer periods of time but require less frequent input: fifteen minutes a day over the course of a week or five minutes out of every hour spread across a three-day conference, all largely run over familiar digital office tools (the archetype of this structure is, of course, PAXsims’ own Brynania civil war simulation).
Digital games are much more easily automated, allowing for much more complicated rules and mathematics. This automation could be as simple as a facilitator copy-and-pasting data into spreadsheets and emailing participants the results at the end of every round. Or it could be as complex as scripting fully automated solo experiences in powerful digital game design tools such as Unity. However, in these cases, we have to be cognizant of the drawbacks of offloading the processes from the player. If a player does not understand what is happening or why, they will struggle to connect with the learning objective. If players do disconnect, the more automated a game, the less opportunity a facilitator has to intervene in order to keep it on track.
Because digital games can be automated, played in shorter chunks of time, and do not take up physical space, they can be much more easily repeated than their tabletop counterparts. The potential for repetition is a major opportunity for all kinds of reasons. We know that repetition is a powerful tool for learning—and how often have we railed against the “n=1 problem” in analytical games?
Back to Basics
Of course, we should not consider this an exhaustive list of the strengths and weaknesses of the digital design environment (nor should we think of that environment as being homogeneous). But I think it’s safe to say that, in making the move from tabletop to digital learning games, we will need to go back to basics in our designs. We need to return to the desired outcomes of the project, and we need to search for new game mechanics that maximize the opportunities of the medium while avoiding its pitfalls. For many of us (again, myself included!), this process is going to seem frustrating and limiting as we grapple with basic problems in ways we have not experienced since early in our careers. In some cases, we may have to completely re-examine our assumptions about what a learning game can do.
It’s clear that, as responsible designers, we can’t just force what we’ve been doing into a new shape. If we want our learning game designs to make the transition online, we need to treat digital learning game design as a new art and invest time in learning how to do it well.
Games for Change have posted a video of their recent online panel on Winning Against Pandemics: Games as Essential Tools for Planning and Response, featuring Francesco Cavallari (Video Games Without Borders), Noah Falstein (The Inspiracy), Seth Cooper (Northeastern University), Rhiju Das (Stanford University), chaired by Russell Schilling.
Event 201 was one of dozens of simulations and evaluations over the past two decades that have highlighted the risks of a pandemic and identified gaps in the ability of governments and organizations around the world to respond.
The exercises anticipated several failures that have played out in the management of COVID-19, including leaky travel bans, medical-equipment shortages, massive disorganization, misinformation and a scramble for vaccines. But the scenarios didn’t anticipate some of the problems that have plagued the pandemic response, such as a shortfall of diagnostic tests, and world leaders who reject the advice of public-health specialists.
Most strikingly, biosecurity researchers didn’t predict that the United States would be among the hardest-hit countries. On the contrary, last year, leaders in the field ranked the United States top in the Global Health Security Index, which graded 195 countries in terms of how well prepared they were to fight outbreaks, on the basis of more than 100 factors. President Donald Trump even held up a copy of the report during a White House briefing on 27 February, declaring: “We’re rated number one.” As he spoke, SARS-CoV-2 was already spreading undetected across the country.
Now, as COVID-19 cases in the United States surpass 4 million, with more than 150,000 deaths, the country has proved itself to be one of the most dysfunctional. Morhard and other biosecurity specialists are asking what went wrong — why did dozens of simulations, evaluations and white papers fail to predict or defend against the colossal missteps taken in the world’s wealthiest nation? By contrast, some countries that hadn’t ranked nearly so high in evaluations, such as Vietnam, executed swift, cohesive responses.
The scenarios still hold lessons for how to curb this pandemic, and for how to respond better next time. Deadly pandemics are inevitable, says Tom Frieden, a former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “What’s not inevitable is that we will continue to be so underprepared.”
Part of the answer, as the title of their article suggests, is Donald Trump:
Confusion emerged in most pandemic simulations, but none explored the consequences of a White House sidelining its own public-health agency. Perhaps they should have, suggests a scientist who has worked in the US public-health system for decades and asked to remain anonymous because they did not have permission to speak to the press. “You need gas in the engine and the brakes to work, but if the driver doesn’t want to use the car, you’re not going anywhere,” the scientist says.
However, they also note that—regardless of who occupies the presidency—institutions also failed to respond to insights and warnings that emerged from many of these games.
Perhaps the biggest limitation of simulation exercises was that they didn’t actually drive policymakers to prioritize and fund improvements to the public-health system. Morrison now questions whether it’s even possible to do that through simulations alone, or whether people must experience an epidemic at first hand.
Flatten Islandis a browser game in which a player tries to manage the COVID-19 pandemic by allocating scarce resources across several areas—infection control and social distancing, medical treatment, vaccine research, and public relations, while at all the time facing the constraints of financial resources and political capital.
The NGO Video Games Without Borders presents the video game Flatten Island, a not-for-profit development in collaboration with Margarito Estudio (artistic direction), Cicchi Consulting (technical management) and Asociación Oleaje (game design).
Flatten Island makes you the governor of a pandemic-stricken island. Experiment with managing a health emergency for fun and with a touch of humour. You’ll learn that no decisions come without consequences and that they aren’t always easy to make. What’s more, Flatten Island, which is already available for free on Android devices and on the web, makes it possible to financially support various initiatives of different natures that are fighting against the real-life pandemicthrough both research, health and care services.
Francesco Cavallari, founder of Video Games Without Borders, tells the story behind Flatten Island: “At the start of lockdown, we realized that we needed to do something, to do our bit in this exceptional situation. That’s how we had the idea to develop a game to help in the fight against COVID-19 and the direct and indirect consequences that it brings. No more than a few days into our venture, several people from our international community had already signed up to the project and we had a complete team to start work on the game. The entire development was undertaken on a voluntary basis, without investing a single penny, and was completed in just one month and a half. I think that’s a really great achievement and I want to congratulate the whole team for their altruism and professionality.
Since the beginning of lockdown, people have gone out onto balconies in several countries to applaud and support the key workers who are fighting hard to limit the consequences of the pandemic. This game is our special way to pay tribute to those people for their commitment and hard work, as well as to remember all those who passed away during the outbreak and especially to help the organisations that are still fighting to overcome the virus.”
Despite the cartoony visuals, the game is largely aimed at an older teen and adult audience.
The following article was written for PAXsims by Ben Taylor (Defence Research and Development Canada) and Benjamin Williams (Professeur des Universités, IAE & CleRMa, Université Clermont Auvergne). The views expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of any agency, organization, employer or company.
The authors met through a workshop on Wargaming the Pandemic hosted by the King’s Wargaming Network that was held 1-2 April 2020. BW gave a presentation in which he set out an idea for a matrix game on the COVID-19 crisis that could be supported by quantitative epidemiological and economic models. BT had previous experience with matrix games and offered to collaborate on the idea. This project is therefore itself a product of the COVID-19 crisis as the authors are unlikely to have met or to have found a common project to work on without it.
We decided from the outset that we wanted to design a game that tackled the COVID-19 crisis in a country from the point after the initial lock-down measures had flattened the curve. This phase would require a balancing act by political leaders as they face challenges on three axes: economic, social and healthcare. We termed these the three frontlines of the battle against COVID-19. Our aim was for a game that would sensitise decision-makers to issues that they might face and one in which choices would be constrained by the cross-coupling between the frontlines; for example that returning people to work in offices would likely increase the rate of infection, or that a renewed lock-down would lead to public discontent. We also wanted to introduce some quantitative models to help elaborate upon the consequences of player actions.
We also decided that we did not want to build a detailed game around a specific country. Rather we wanted a tool that could be customised to any country. That required the game to have a generic framework to which national specific details could be added. For development purposes we settled upon the fictitious country of Bretonia which has a government structure like Canada and the economy of France. Our generic framework envisaged four players to represent key elements of the country; the national government, the lower tier governments, the business sector and the public health system. A fifth player, termed “The Crisis”, represents all other domestic groups, external actors and anything else that could happen to challenge the other players’ efforts. An example of the customisation necessary comes from different national approaches to healthcare funding. In Canada healthcare is a provincial responsibility, whereas in France it is mainly funded by the national government through the social security system. This difference would have to be represented in the roles and responsibilities of the two government players.
One of the first steps in designing the game was to develop an influence diagram that showed how various parts of the economy, business, government finances, social attitudes, the healthcare system and the pandemic itself are connected. This provided the reassurance that everything that we wanted to be in scope was captured. The model also provided insight to where knock-on effects (positive or negative) might be felt, which would provide for consistent adjudication.
We also built a dashboard that displays selected metrics grouped across the three front lines, a macroeconomic model, a model of the infection and fatalities and a slide deck for displaying new stories each turn. This latter part of the game was developed to provide some humour, some cultural flavour and to allow attention to be drawn to specific sectors of the economy. We also prepared a number of bad news stories to be injected if any of the economic or social metrics approached worrying levels.
Many design issues common to matrix games apply equally to this game. Among those that we encountered are:
The advantages of having players who have played matrix games before.
The need for subject matter experts to support adjudication if the results are to be realistic.
The challenges for players to switch between role-playing and becoming engaged participants in adjudicating arguments.
Whether the players should be left to solve the basic problem of opening the economy without triggering a spike in infections, or to subject them to additional external challenges, and in the latter whether it is best to script the injects or to have them occur randomly (the answer of course is “it depends”).
The balancing act between allowing players to discuss the proposed actions in detail and curtailing discussion in order to speed up the game.
The game has been run twice with participants from Europe and Canada using a video conference link with supporting text chat facility, a Google slides deck to share news stories, and Google sheets to share the dashboard of metrics and to provide an online tool to capture the participants’ assessments of the likelihood of success of proposed actions. This setup worked very well and participants felt that they could communicate with each other and access the information that was required. There was agreement that the game largely felt right, but that play was slow. The supporting quantitative models were not used extensively. In particular the epidemiological model implemented according to formulation drawn from the literature produced counter-intuitive results and proved impossible to fit to the observed progress of the outbreak in Canada. This placed a particular burden upon the adjudicator to determine how to adjust the dashboard in response to player actions.
Our next objective will be to design a discussion-based game without the matrix structure in order to compare the utility of the two gaming techniques in addressing the management of the COVID-19 crisis.
I’ve seen a few online educational and awareness games about the current COVID-19 pandemic, but Survive COVID-19 is the best so far. Developed by Yein Udaan and XR Labs in India, it presents a series of choices about how to spend dwindling savings to keep your family well, while at the same time minimizing exposure.
Unlike some less-well designed games of this genre, there are no easy or obvious options. The scenario is all too real for hundreds of millions in South Asia and around the world. The presentation is appropriately minimalist, and the music and sound effects contribute to the appropriate mood without being distracting. As one recent research report has found, keeping things focused and simple can really pay off in educational games.
What might the world look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control? A number of public agencies, research groups, and private companies have started to offer possible scenarios. All of these can be use in post-pandemic policy gaming, so I have started a list below. I will add to it as I come across new material (and please feel free to pass on suggestions). The abstract or summary is presented below for longer and more substantial analyses.
The World Remade by COVID-19 offers a view of how businesses and society may develop over the next three to five years as the world navigates the potential long-term implications of the global pandemic.
Our view is based on scenarios—stories about the future designed to spark insight and spot opportunity—created by some of the world’s best-known scenario thinkers. The collaborative dialogue hosted by Deloitte and Salesforce continues the companies’ tradition of providing foresight and insight that inform resilient leaders:
Explore how trends we see during the pandemic could shape what the world may look like in the long-term
Have productive conversations around the lasting implications and impacts of the crisis
Identify decisions and actions that will improve resilience to the rapidly changing landscape
Move beyond “recovering” from the crisis, and towards “thriving” in the long run
We are in uncharted waters, yet leaders must take decisive action to ensure their organizations are resilient. We’ve outlined four COVID-19 scenarios for society and business that illustrate different ways we could emerge from the crisis—and what’s required to thrive in a world remade.
As the United States engages in its own agonizingdebate about how far to go in easing lockdown measures, I’ve spoken with people in China, South Korea, Austria, and Denmark to get a sense of what they’re witnessing as their countries’ respective coronavirus curves flatten, their social-distancing restrictions abate, and they venture out into life again. And although that life doesn’t look like the present nightmare those still locked in coronavirus limbo are experiencing, it doesn’t look like the pre-COVID-19 past either.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought such issues even more rapidly to the fore. The intent of this paper is to help catalyse important conversations that are needed in the wake of New Zealand’s response to the crisis. It is clear that we will not go back to a pre-COVID-19 normality, but instead will inhabit a new normal. Issues that might have taken years to consider, may now have to be considered over a much shorter time frame. New Zealand must take the opportunity from this pervasive and hugely disruptive crisis to shape its future in an informed and inclusive way.
Collaboration between researchers from IIASA, WU, WIFO, and the IHS provides scenarios of the medium-run economic effects of the lockdown in Austria using the IIASA macroeconomic simulation model. The analysis suggests that the return to the business-as-usual trend may take up to three years after a steep initial economic downturn due to the lockdown, and a gradual recovery thereafter.
The COVID-19 pandemic is inflicting high and rising human costs worldwide, and the necessary protection measures are severely impacting economic activity. As a result of the pandemic, the global economy is projected to contract sharply by –3 percent in 2020, much worse than during the 2008–09 financial crisis. In a baseline scenario–which assumes that the pandemic fades in the second half of 2020 and containment efforts can be gradually unwound—the global economy is projected to grow by 5.8 percent in 2021 as economic activity normalizes, helped by policy support. The risks for even more severe outcomes, however, are substantial. Effective policies are essential to forestall the possibility of worse outcomes, and the necessary measures to reduce contagion and protect lives are an important investment in long-term human and economic health. Because the economic fallout is acute in specific sectors, policymakers will need to implement substantial targeted fiscal, monetary, and financial market measures to support affected households and businesses domestically. And internationally, strong multilateral cooperation is essential to overcome the effects of the pandemic, including to help financially constrained countries facing twin health and funding shocks, and for channeling aid to countries with weak health care systems.
It is urgent to understand the future of severe acute respiratory syndrome–coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) transmission. We used estimates of seasonality, immunity, and cross-immunity for betacoronaviruses OC43 and HKU1 from time series data from the USA to inform a model of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. We projected that recurrent wintertime outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 will probably occur after the initial, most severe pandemic wave. Absent other interventions, a key metric for the success of social distancing is whether critical care capacities are exceeded. To avoid this, prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022. Additional interventions, including expanded critical care capacity and an effective therapeutic, would improve the success of intermittent distancing and hasten the acquisition of herd immunity. Longitudinal serological studies are urgently needed to determine the extent and duration of immunity to SARS-CoV-2. Even in the event of apparent elimination, SARS-CoV-2 surveillance should be maintained since a resurgence in contagion could be possible as late as 2024.
There’s a good chance the coronavirus will never go away.
Even after a vaccine is discovered and deployed, the coronavirus will likely remain for decades to come, circulating among the world’s population.
Experts call such diseases endemic — stubbornly resisting efforts to stamp them out. Think measles, HIV, chickenpox.
It is a daunting proposition — a coronavirus-tinged world without a foreseeable end. But experts in epidemiology, disaster planning and vaccine development say embracing that reality is crucial to the next phase of America’s pandemic response. The long-term nature of covid-19, they say, should serve as a call to arms for the public, a road map for the trillions of dollars Congress is spending and a fixed navigational point for the nation’s current, chaotic state-by-state patchwork strategy.
Tim Price has been kind enough to pass on this report from a recent play of the Flattening the Curve matrix game.
Last night I managed to get 11 volunteers together to play a distributed version of the Flattening the Curve matrix game over Zoom. It was an interesting and frustrating experience, but I thought it might be worthwhile sharing it with you.
We used Zoom for the video chat. We felt it was very important to be able to speak and see each other and Zoom has a simple and intuitive mosaic screen setup that is particularly useful for the Facilitator. The surround to the image is highlighted to show the current speaker, interrupters are shown with a highlighted line under them, and their names appear under their faces (really very useful indeed). Of particular interest for running a Matrix Game, it is possible to sent private messages to named individuals using the chat function in the application. It was also stable for the 3hrs we played.
We used Google Slides for the game map (see here). With the map itself as the background image and a number of counters imported as images onto the map (and left outside the slide boundary), so everyone could see and collaboratively move the counters if necessary. It is useful to duplicate the last slide for every turn, so you have a record of the map after each turn, and that also allows a run through at the end as an After Action Review.
Finally, we used Mentimeter to be able to carry out the “Estimative Probability” method of adjudication.
When using Estimative Probability players or teams are asked to assess the chances of success of an argument, and these are aggregated to reveal the “Crowd Sourced” chance of success. In analytical games, this provides potentially valuable insight into how participants rate the chances of a particular course of action. Following discussion, players select the option on the Mentimeter slide which, in their view, best represents the probability of the argument’s success. These are displayed immediately to the Facilitator, but not to the players, so it is using hidden voting. It is generally felt that this is a more accurate method to leverage the work on Crowd Sourcing, as well as making the resulting probability more accessible and acceptable to the participants. The terms on the slide also reflected those commonly used in the intelligence community.
The advantage with Mentimeter over other poll and voting systems is that it is free, feedback is instant, and you can use a single slide for all the Matrix Arguments, because you can re-set the results each time. Of course, if you want to have a record of the results, you will have to buy the upgraded version, or save a screenshot each turn (which is a pain).
Running the Game
As is normally the case with video conferences, we had the usual difficulties getting everyone onto the Zoom, with sensible names displayed instead of “Owner’s iPad”, so the start was a little delayed. I had put out a Loom video with a short introduction about Matrix Games, but inevitably a few of the players hadn’t been able to view it, so we were delayed starting as I had to explain how the game would play.
As the game went on, I modified the map (based on some helpful collaboration with TNO in the Netherlands), to make it easier to follow. The revised map is here:
The game played perfectly well, but at a slower pace that if it had been face to face, and it was certainly more tiring for me as the Facilitator. The inter-turn negotiation between team members and other teams was carried out using Whatsapp: and Whatsapp Web so was private to the other players.
We were time limited and were only able to have 11 participants in the end – but it was mainly a trial to see if running a Matrix Game remotely is at all possible. We got a few insights from the game, one of which I will share – as we all go into working from home full-time and are switching to remote working, we end up downloading all sorts of software and applications that we would never have normally dealt with. This increases the threat surface for cyber-attacks by an order of magnitude, so correct digital hygiene is going to be as important as washing your hands.
Following the game, we quickly did a couple of polls, hopefully better informed by the experience of the game:
Each participant was asked to give me their MOST IMPORTANT thing that would happen over the next month (please note the definition of “thing” was left deliberately vague so the players could decide for themselves what it meant).
They were then asked to vote on which of these was the MOST LIKELY thing to happen.
Next, each participant was asked to give me their MOST IMPORTANT long-term consequence of Coronavirus.
They were then asked to vote on which of these was the MOST LIKELY thing to happen.
It is possible to run a Matrix Game remotely, but it is very tiring for the Facilitator and takes much longer than you thought it would.
The right choice of technology can make a real difference – so mandated standards and corporate choices may well have an impact on the experience. This means that practicing, as I was, while waiting for the corporate roll out of their platform of choice might end up especially frustrating, when I am unable to do something that I know a free app on the internet will let me. But downloading all those free apps and trying them out could be dangerous, because the bad guys are definitely out to get you…
Antoine Bourguilleau has developed a French translation and adaptation of Tim Price’s Flattening the Curve COVID-19 matrix game. In this revised version of the game, the UK and US actors are replaced by France and Germany.
Aplatir la Courbe contains an overview of the pandemic, guidance on running a matrix game, and briefings sheets for the major actors. For other game materials—notably the game display and markers—download the original (UK) version.
To support countries’ preparedness effort on the COVID-19 outbreak, WHO`s Department of Health Security and Preparedness has developed various COVID-19 tabletop exercise (SimEx) packages. This includes:
A Generic Covid19 SimEx to examine and strengthen existing plans, procedures and capabilities to manage an imported case of 2019-nCov and targets the health authorities at the national level.
A Health facility & IPC SimEx that is based on the Core Components of Infection Prevention and Control Programmes at the National and Acute Care Facility Level.
A Point of Entry (POE) SimEx to examine and strengthen existing plans, procedures and capabilities at the main airport (POE).
The simulation package consists of different elements including:
PowerPoint presentations to support the facilitation of the exercise and its subsequent debriefing
A participants’ guide and a facilitators’ guide to explain what is expected from the different people involved in the preparation and running of the exercise.
Chris Engle, the inventor of matrix gaming, has passed on some ideas for a COVID 19 general hospital simulation. We are pleased to post them below.
The world is facing a pandemic. It is testing our systems to the extreme. Maximizing utilization of resources is all important. This requires the following.
Pre-deployment of resources
Public policy to slow the spread of the illness
Maintenance of public order
Distribution of goods and services
Medical treatment as needed
Maintenance of front line essential workers
Evaluation of effectiveness and alteration of intervention
Data-based decision making on when to return to normal
It is a highly complicated situation that is in a constant state of flux. Simulating this in a timely meaningful way is a huge challenge.
What follows is a simple, inexpensive, easily run, quick to initiate simulation that might be helpful. The game is about a general hospital in a moderate sized city in Middle America: imagine it being in a city of 100 to 250 thousand people. Or it might be in one district of a much larger city. The players are healthcare providers, administrators, and other stakeholders. The game consists of play sessions of around 10 participants each engaging problems and solutions, and the problems that flow from them. Sessions last between 30 tp 120 minutes and can be done by phone, video, email, or in person. The game requires a facilitator/moderator/host who does not have to be an expert. Their job is to encourage people to participate.
The Matrix Game
General Hospital is run using a Matrix Game. This is a type of game that uses words and discussion rather than numbers and mathematical algorithms to track what happens, The approach has been used since the 1980’s as a planning/training tool in a variety of fields. Chris Engle, a psychiatric social worker, invented Matrix Games in 1988. Games consist of players making statements about what they think happens next in a given situation. They are narrating events, which they make up out of their imagination. The session is a conversation between participants. The outcome of sessions is a list of brainstormed problems and solutions, with some indication about which ones are more or less likely to happen. The complete rules of the game are as follows’ The host of the event starts the session by stating a problem. They then ask the players “What happens next?” The host then allows the players to speak. The host’s remaining job is to encourage people to speak, to recap what is said, to help players through the technical rules, to occasionally re-ask the question, and to wrap the game up on time. The players make things happen by jumping in as the spirit moves them to say what happens next. This might be an event, a plan, or another problem. Whatever the player says automatically happens, it is part of the story. Other players may jump in and add to this or they may alter it or even say that something else happens instead. These also automatically happen, and overwrite the first statement. If a player says something that people think is unlikely to happen they may ask the player to roll for it. The player must then roll a six sided die. On a roll of 1 to 3, the event does not happen and cannot be repeated in this game. On a roll of 4 to 6 the event does happen and cannot be overwritten, As many players as wish may ask a player to roll and the player must pass each roll to have their event happen. This is evidence or how unlikely people believe certain moves are.
The game ends when the starting problem is solved or when the players run out of time.
Dice rolls are never required and it is not uncommon for there to be sessions without any rolls. The ideas that players come up with will range far from their areas of responsibility and expertise. They will identify problems and interventions that touch on society at large. Some input will even be silly and fantastical. All this is allowed because with each statement, the players open up a little more which makes it possible for them to speak and share incites that will help. To this end, it is helpful for top leaders to say little or nothing in games since they may overly influence participants.
It is vitally important for time be given after each session for the players to talk about and summarize what they learned. This cements lessons. This can be done by the players talking to one another or by the game host recapping events and highlighting the important points. These recaps should then be passed back to the administrators and decision makers who sponsored the event so they can make use of the intelligence for planning purposes.
Any health professional or stakeholder in decision making can usefully participate in Matrix Game sessions. They do not need any simulation expertise or area knowledge beyond what they already have. All they need to know before the event is that they are going to participate in a low key, planning meeting that will give them deeper knowledge of the big picture of the present problem and how they fit into it.
Matrix Games are usually played in face to face sessions. But they work just as well as email/text messages. They also work in phone meetings or video conferences. The medium is unimportant, and because the game consists of conversations between players, there is no need for expensive computer programs or equipment. This approach can be implemented in a high tech city or a village with no paved roads. One advantage of using video or email is the potential to have a record of each game. These records form a data set that can be analyzed at a later date using computational models.
On Use of this Game
Permission is granted for any person, institution, or company to use this game and the Matrix Game approach in general for planning and training purposes. The only request is that they cite that Matrix Games were invented by Chris Engle in 1988. Please pass this document onto any and all people you know who might be helped by it.
Note for Facilitators
People are naturally shy when it comes to making things up. It is helpful to start the game by asking each player to say one thing that people in their role would do in the face of the presenting problem. Once that is done the ice is broken and the host can take a more backseat approach.
The facilitator is responsible for establishing and maintaining a good work environment. If players engage in abusive or intimidating behavior, it is the facilitator’s job to intervene and establish order. There can be no useful work accomplished without a good working environment. It is okay for participants to say little or nothing is a game. When they do this they are being the audience. They still learn from the event and may come up with the most useful observations during debriefing because they were looking at it in a bigger picture way.
The facilitator does not have to be an expert in technical subject matter. It is perfectly acceptable and expected that they will not know certain details. This allows them to model how to ask questions and listen to answers. The facilitator does need to be an outward going person who will engage the players actively. Aside from encouraging people, the facilitator is also a player. But they need to not take too much role in the game so that they do not unduly influence play. The facilitator needs to gather up all materials from the game and return them to the administrator who sponsored the event. This may involve writing a short report.
Lastly, end sessions promptly. Make certain there is time to do debriefing within the time of the meeting. Healthcare worker are very busy, especially now, and will appreciate meetings that end on time. Overstepping their time will reduce how much they take away from it. A good opening problem to start a game is: “The coronavirus is coming. We need to deal with it. How do we prevent a disaster?”
While the board game Pandemic makes no claim to be a serious game, it can certainly is the most popular game ever on the subject of epidemic disease. Now, courtesy of C3i Magazine, there is a scenario available that allows you to adapt the game to play the current COVID-19 pandemic.
C3i Magazine is proud to present Trevor Bender’s COVID-19 Scenario for the strategy boardgame Pandemic
The scenario introduces a new Action – Social Distancing – which allows players to explore the costs and benefits of this activity in a cooperative game environment, perhaps giving additional reason to what we are doing in society during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020
King’s Wargaming Network is convening an online workshop on 1-2 April 2020 from 12:30 to 17:00 GMT to understand how wargaming methods:
(1) have contributed to research and education of health-related crises,
(2) could be used to understand the short and long-term effects of the current pandemic and how to address them,
(3) could be used to educate and train decision makers and the public.
We are grateful to those who have submitted abstracts. We have an impressive lineup of 20 presenters, including McGill University, University of St Andrews, University of Maryland Advanced Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security, Université Clermont Auvergne, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Columbia University, Marine Corp University, European Centre for Exellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, Stimson Centre, Mexican Navy Centre for Higher Learning, Netherlands Defence Research Organisation, Global Affairs Canada and industry.
Presentations will feature past and proposed new projects examining the impacts of the pandemic on a range issues, including economic, social (e.g. healthcare, volunteerism and gender equality), political (e.g. regional cooperation in Europe and South East Asia) and military (e.g. hybrid warfare and cyber threats) factors.
Please note that space is very limited and priority will be given to presenters, policymakers and funders.
To register, you will need email the King’s Wargaming Network at email@example.com. If space is still available they will provide the registration link and password.