GrogHeads Analyzes Aftershock: A Humanitarian Crisis Game

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Professional development through better gameplay? ~

Brant Guillory, 12 August 2017

The first tremors hit Carana around 415 in the morning, local time. The capital was just stirring as many laborers were hurrying through their pre-dawn meals before shuffling out of their small houses to arrive at work by sunrise. The full brunt of the earthquake arrive 20 minutes or so later, and the devastation was described by at least one news outlet as “biblical.” The nations tenuous infrastructure, barely a patchwork to begin with, had no chance against the fury unleashed by the Earth’s shifting tectonic plates as bridges crumbled, roads buckled, water pipes tore apart like paper, and the electrical grid shut down, ending any communication that was out of shouting distance.

The full brunt of the earthquake arrive 20 minutes or so later, and the devastation was described by at least one news outlet as “biblical.”

Help was slow in arriving. Certainly the help wanted to arrive, but the routes into the country – the limited airport, the ramshackle seaport, and inland border – were never ideal under perfect circumstances, and these were not perfect circumstances. The local population certainly had a will to survive, but lacked critical supplies for medical care, safe water, and food & shelter. The world mobilized to help.

And the help began to arrive, a multi-headed hydra of organizations, services, expertise, and agendas. Usually cooperative, occasionally antagonistic, and always under the steady gaze of the worlds’ TV cameras, the various organizations rolled up their sleeves to start the long, hard slog of restoring the basic necessities of life to Carana.

Aftershock is a tough game to review, for a variety of reasons – but hey, that’s not reason not to take a swing at, right?

Aftershock is not your average let’s-play-a-game-one-afternoon-this-weekend sort of tabletop game. It was designed with a rather specific – and quite frankly, noble – purpose: to help with the training of mid- and high-level relief agency operatives in responding to a major humanitarian crisis. As such, it has more in common with a cooperative game like Pandemic or Forbidden Island than an antagonistic game like one of the COIN series. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the players aren’t working at cross-purposes on occasion!


The scenario is a fictionalized country, but loosely based on the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, with events and experiences from other humanitarian efforts like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami woven in. It is designed with 4 different groups of players in mind, but each ‘player’ can be represented by a team, and one might argue that those teams would better replicate the working environment than single players would.

The game is played in a series of turns in which the different players are conducting a variety of assessment actions to understand the problems on the ground, and then allocating various activities and assets to mitigate those problems. Not too tough, right?

Says easy… does hard…

The players all start with a briefing card and a handful of initial resources. The nation of Carana is divided into 5 districts, with 3 additional ‘regions’ on the table representing the staging areas / transportation hubs for the inbound relief efforts. Five is probably an over-simplification but it makes for a more manageable game, especially considering how new this training paradigm will likely be for many participants. Each district is distinct, whether a slum, or middle-class, or semi-rural. There are no pure ‘countryside’ districts, as the relief efforts are focused on the cities.

The three ‘staging areas’ are the port, airport, and internal land border through which outside help can arrive. Each staging area includes a set of warehouses, and a variable capacity that can be upgraded as logistics resources are applied to it.

The four ‘factions’ in the game are the Carana government, the UN, the NGOs (all rolled into one player), and the HADR-TF, which is roughly analogous to a US military task force that can be mobilized and dispatched rather quickly with a variety of life-support and sustainment supplies, in addition to their wide range of medical support (which are normally needed for expeditionary warfare).

Each turn, the players draw a Coordination Card, which provides instructions on specific shared effects across multiple players. Some are positive, like the “Strategic Planning” coordination that allows you actually solve problems without a crisis intervening. Others, like the “Joint Communications Strategy,” score OPs for the players if they steer the media in the ‘right’ directions. “Endless Meetings” accomplish absolutely nothing. And let’s face it, you can’t wait for the “Clusterf**k” card to come up, if only to say you played in a game that included a Clusterf**k. Most of the time, though, the Coordination Cards allow the teams to share efforts, and reap rewards, of combined efforts in the field.

The Events are those items out of any player’s control – this is the current crisis environment just “happening” as the players navigate the relief efforts. Some of these events are specifically located in a district., where you might have to resolve an “at-risk” card in a specific district before moving on. Others might have more global effects, such as the a “Pulling Together” card that represents the local population bootstrapping themselves, or “Celebrity Visitors” that increase the media outreach, but take up valuable tarmac space at the airport while their personal planes clog up otherwise-needed ramp space (and yes, that really happened).

The coordination cards aren’t a big deck, and you go through them enough that they’ll come up repeatedly, especially if you play several games back to back. The event cards, however, are a larger deck, and are sometimes skipped. The replayability with the event cards is definitely higher, but unlike the coordination cards – where there are only so many ways to hold a meeting – there are plenty of different ways in which “sh!t happens” when the event card pops up.

The players alternate turns leading the charge for moving their people (“assistance teams”) around the country, and reacting to ongoing crises with either delivery and distribution of supplies, or rebuilding of infrastructure. The assistance teams travel between the districts, and are allocated to specific tasks while in those districts – Emergency Relief, or Infrastructure, or Security – that allow them certain actions when in those districts.

The mechanics of the game proceed such that there’s a variety of assessment – coordination – allocation – resolution processes that unfold, but the challenges are structured such that the players are best served to cooperate as often as possible to share the burdens of helping Carana recover.

At its core, as a game, Aftershock is a resource allocation game. There are some resource acquisition tools available as well, but the players and teams are judged on – and win or lose by – how well they allocation their limited response assets to alleviate the suffering of the Caranans. In that respect, it’s a cooperative game not unlike the aforementioned Pandemic. But the wide variety of assets, local situations, necessary administrative coordination, and outside interference (yay, media!) significantly raise the difficulty levels and challenges from casual commercial games.

Among the difficulties in reviewing Aftershock, two stand out.

The first is that you can’t really judge Aftershock by any sort of ‘fun factor’ because it’s not designed to provide one. Yes, it is designed to make professional development more meaningful, and likely more enjoyable, by integrating a multitude of lessons and procedures into a holistic training exercise. Measuring Aftershock’s ‘fun factor’ against commercial games is like measuring NFL preseason workouts against an afternoon pickup game of touch football at the local park – it’s the wrong comparison.

The second difficulty in reviewing Aftershock is that there’s a bit of backstory about how it came into being, and I was there for a lot of it.

The genesis of this game was a team-based workshop run by Dr. Rex Brynen (one of the primary designers) at the Connections conference in 2012 at the National Defense University. Rex divided the participants into 3 teams to come up with some design ideas about how such a game might be conceived, some initial mechanics of game rules, and the concepts of how the needs of the population would be modeled and the responses to those needs would be met and measured.

Each of those teams had a gamer/game designer designated to lead the ‘mechanical’ discussions, and a partner who had been on the ground in Haiti during the earthquake relief efforts, to provide some ‘real-world’ context to the ideas being batted around and serve as the ‘reality check’ for the design teams. I was one of the team leads, partnered with an Air Force officer who had been in charge of ground security at the airport during the first 4 months or so after the Haiti earthquake. The three teams each brainstormed a variety of ideas about how such a game might work, and then at the end of the day shared them with the entire group.

That night, back at the hotel, Dr. Brynen and Gary Milante (then at the World Bank) rolled many of those ideas into an initial draft that rather closely resembles what Aftershock is today, although the mechanics of it are much smoother following its extensive playtesting over the next several years. Rex has, on occasion, given me some credit for “helping design” Aftershock, which significantly overstates my contribution – primarily nursing a beer and throwing random semi-coherent sarcastic remarks during the brainstorming session with Gary. Legitimate and useful ideas were, I can wholeheartedly assure you, entirely accidental.

So is it odd that someone who was “there for the birth” of Aftershock would ultimately come to review the finished product? Perhaps. It may certainly smack of a conflict of interest, and an even worse one had I not disclosed that I’m actually in the credits for the game. But I’m also in a unique position to have the expertise to review such a game, as I’ve worked in both the professional game design world, and the commercial game design world, as well as having worked as a member of a command cell during several civil-military relief missions for wildfires, floods that cut off several California towns for weeks on end, and East coast hurricanes.

Are there times when the randomizing of events can go ‘off the rails’ in the game, presenting a nigh-impossible situation? Yes, but it’s unlikely given the sheer number of combinations the cards can provide. This also keeps the replay value high, and given the likely-infrequent nature of its use in training, would keep each scenario rather fresh to the participants. There is also significant support of the game, and after-action reports from real-world training events, over at Dr Brynen’s site PaxSims.

Gathering folks around the table for a training exercise in advance of a real-world emergency serves to help tighten the interpersonal bonds that don’t really have time to develop when the crisis has already started.

Aftershock’s true value is in the way it brings disparate agencies and their key members to the table to engage across organizational lines while reacting to shared, and very plausible, scenario that lets them exercise their internal decision-making processes while sharing with other how they evaluate priorities, courses of action, and outcomes. Gathering folks around the table for a training exercise in advance of a real-world emergency serves to help tighten the interpersonal bonds that don’t really have time to develop when the crisis has already started. When responding to existential emergencies for nationwide populations, familiarity is a necessity.  And lest anyone think that the value in this game relies in the ability to ‘export’ or ‘project’ aid beyond our borders, I’ll note that more than a few of the situations encountered in the game were uncannily similar to those described by some of my relatives who lived through Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath around New Orleans.

Overall, Aftershock succeeds quite well at what it was designed to do – provide a self-contained, low-overhead training tool for emergency management leadership that allows them to practice their essential coordination, communication, and cooperation skills in reacting to a very plausible and realistic disaster scenario. It’s not a Saturday-afternoon-with-the-guys beer-and-pretzels game, but it’s not supposed to be. For what it’s supposed to be, it’s an excellent tool and it’s adoption should be far more widespread than it is.

Aftershock can be ordered from The GameCrafter.  If it’s out of stock, check back in a few weeks; print-on-demand folks occasionally run short of on-hand stock.

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