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Tag Archives: COVID-19

Moving online: Thoughts on digital learning games in the COVID-19 era

The following piece was written for PAXsims by Matthew Stevens and Ben Stevens.

Matthew Stevens is Director of Lessons Learned Simulations and Training, a professional development training firm for humanitarian workers with a focus on simulations and serious games.

Ben Stevens is an expert in group facilitation and education via 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.

Matthew Stevens

Ben Stevens

G4C: Games as essential tools for pandemic planning and response

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.

For other resources, see the PAXsims COVID-19 serious game resource page.

Nature: Two decades of pandemic war games failed to account for Donald Trump

Before the current COVID-19 pandemic, American pandemic preparedness had been the subject of numerous serious policy games. At Nature this month, Amy Maxmen and Jeff Tollefson ask why the US response has been much worse than those games anticipated.

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.

The vulnerability of games (and, by extension, policy response) to idiosyncratic player/policymaker effects, and the difficult of translating game results into real world consequences, is something that was debated in a classic 1964 internal RAND discussion between Robert Levine, Thomas Schelling, and William Jones—which every policy gamer should read. I’ve also addressed the challenge of gaming unpredictable and unreliable decision-makers in the specific context of the Trump Administration, while Devin Ellis has commented on the problems that arise when game insights are not translated into policy or preparedness.

For more on pandemic, see the PAXsims COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

Flatten Island

Flatten Island is 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 COVID-19 game

This game below was created by Clay Dreslough, the designer and creator of Baseball Mogul.

After the Apex: A game of exit strategies from COVID-19

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.

For more on gaming the impact and aftermath of the pandemic, see the PAXsims COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

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. 

“Survive COVID-19” browser game


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.

h/t Sarah Jameel  

Post-pandemic scenarios


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.

Be sure to also check out our other PAXsims COVID-19 serious gaming resources.


Sharon Begley, “Three potential futures for Covid-19: recurring small outbreaks, a monster wave, or a persistent crisis,” STAT, 1 May 2020.

Centre for Economic Policy Research, Economics in the Time of COVID-19 resource page (2020)

Tyler Cohen, “A Vision of Post-Pandemic New York,” Bloomberg, 31 March 2020.

Deloitte, The world remade by COVID-19: Planning scenarios for resilient leaders (6 April 2020).

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.

Uri Friedman, “I Have Seen the Future—And It’s Not the Life We Knew,” The Atlantic, 1 May 2020.

As the United States engages in its own agonizing debate 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.

Here are some of the common themes

Peter Gluckman and Anne Bardsley , The Future is Now: Implications of COVID-19 for New Zealand (Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland, April 2020).

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.

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Recovery of the Austrian economy following the COVID-19 crisis can take up to three years, Policy Brief #26 (April 2020).

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.

International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook (April 2020).

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.

Warwick J. McKibbin and Roshen Fernando, The global macroeconomic impacts of COVID-19: Seven scenarios (Brookings Institution, 2 March 2020)

Tim Price, “Flattening the curve matrix game report,” PAXsims, 3 April 2020.

Stephen Kessler et al, “Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the postpandemic period,” Science, 14 April 2020.

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.

Dennis Snower, “Awakening in the post-pandemic world,” (Brookings Institution, 27 March 2020)

William Wan and Carolyn Y. Johnson , “Coronavirus may never go away, even with a vaccine,” Washington Post, 27 May 2020.

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.

“Flattening the Curve” matrix game report


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.FTC1.png

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.

Post-Game Predictions

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…

For more resources on the pandemic, see our COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

Aplatir la courbe


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.


For more resources on the pandemic, see our COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

WHO COVID-19 training exercise


The World Health Organization has made available a simulation exercise on COVID-19.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  • A set of reference documents and technical guidance on 2019-nCov

The package highlights clearly where some minor adaptions are needed to make the simulation country-specific and more relevant to the participants.

For more resources on the pandemic, see our COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

Engle: COVID-19 hospital matrix gaming ideas


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.

  • Effective intelligence
  • Pre-planning
  • 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.

Using Technology

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?”

Chris Engle

PAXsims offers substantial resources on various matrix games, including the Flattening the Curve matrix game scenario, game icons (if you are using physical displays), and the Matrix Game Construction Kit.

See also our COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

C3i Magazine: COVID-19 Scenario for Pandemic

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 boardgame1366004204.jpg 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

You can download your free copy here.

For more resources on the pandemic, see our COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

KWN: Online Workshop on Wargaming the Pandemic


The King’s Wargaming Network has announced details of their forthcoming online workshop on “Wargaming the Pandemic.”

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 If space is still available they will provide the registration link and password.

The draft agenda can be found here.

For more resources on the pandemic, see our COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

Gaming the supermarket supply chain: pandemic edition


H-E-B is an American privately held supermarket chain based in San Antonio, Texas, with more than 350 stores throughout the U.S. state of Texas, as well as in northeast Mexico. An article today in Texas Monthly discusses how they prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic—using, among other things, tabletop exercises.

On January 15, Wuhan’s Municipal Health Commission announced that the novel coronavirus was spreading via human-to-human transmission. 

Justen Noakes: So when did we start looking at the coronavirus? Probably the second week in January, when it started popping up in China as an issue. We’ve got interests in the global sourcing world, and we started getting reports on how it was impacting things in China, so we started watching it closely at that point. We decided to take a harder look at how to implement the plan we developed in 2009 into a tabletop exercise. On February 2, we dusted it off and compared the plan we had versus what we were seeing in China, and started working on step one pretty heavily.

Craig Boyan: Starting in January, we’ve been in close contact with several retailers and suppliers around the world. As this has started to emerge, we’ve been in close contact with retailers in China, starting with what happened in Wuhan in the early couple of months, and what kind of lessons they learned. Over the last couple of months, [we’ve been] in close contact with some of our Italian retailers and suppliers, understanding how things have evolved in Italy and now in Spain, talking to those countries that are ahead of us in the curve. We’ve been in daily contact, understanding the pace and the change and the need for product, and how things have progressed in each of those countries.

Justen Noakes: We modeled what had been taking place in China from a transmission perspective, as well as impact. As the number of illnesses and the number of deaths were increasing, obviously the Chinese government was taking some steps to protect their citizens, so we basically mirrored what that might look like. We also took an approach to what we saw during H1N1 in 2009, and later got on top of it. Our example was if we were to get an outbreak, specifically in the Houston area, how would we manage that, and how would we respond with our current resources, as well as what resource opportunities would we have.

Craig Boyan: Chinese retailers have sent some pretty thorough information about what happened in the early days of the outbreak: how did that affect grocery and retail, how did that affect employees and how people were addressing sanitization and social distancing, how quarantine has affected the supply chain, how shopping behavior changed as the virus progressed, how did companies work to serve communities with total lockdowns, and what action steps those businesses wish they had done early in the cycle to get ahead of it.

The important take-away here is NOT the use of serious games for pandemic preparedness, but rather how serious games were one part of a much broader analytical process. This involved lessons-learned from previous emergencies, qualitative and quantitative data analysis, and crowd-sourcing ideas and inputs—plus an agile process of making decisions. It many ways it reminds me of the successes of the Royal Navy’s  Western Approaches Tactical Unit during WW2. This didn’t just involve wargaming anti-submarine warfare, but also gaining insight from statistical analysis of convoy losses, qualitative interviews with escort commanders, multiple intelligence sources, subject matter expertise—all embedded in an institutional context that was responsive to their findings.

For more resources on the pandemic, see our COVID-19 serious gaming resources page.

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