AFTERSHOCK: Designing an Educational Board Game

Rex Brynen, McGill University

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s Spring 2014 issue.

After the earthquake that devastated the capital, aid was slow to reach the slums of District 3. Poor coordination resulted in duplication of effort in some areas, and shortages of essential aid supplies in others. The port and airport remained severely damaged, creating transportation bottlenecks. The latest reports suggested a cholera outbreak too. It was no surprise that social unrest was growing.

The vignette above is drawn from AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game. AFTERSHOCK was developed for classroom use to highlight the challenges of multilateral coordination in the context of a natural disasters or complex humanitarian emergencies. The game has spread well beyond its initial use at McGill University, and has been taken adopted for professional training of aid workers, peacekeeping personnel, and military officers. This article briefly describes the genesis of the project, the development and production of the game, and some thoughts about using it in the classroom.

The Origins of AFTERSHOCK

Many of ideas behind AFTERSHOCK originated at the 2012 Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference.1 At that meeting, a “game lab” challenged subject matter experts and national security professionals to brainstorm how they might model humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR) operations in an educational game. Among the key issues to emerge were the need to design a cooperative game with asymmetric player goals and capacities so as to generate some of the inherent challenges of inter-­‐agency cooperation; the importance of issues such as needs assessment, aid logistics, prioritization, and material and human resource constraints; and the imperative of making the game quick to learn and highly engaging.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

In subsequently developing these ideas into AFTERSHOCK, I chose to build the game around a combination of locational game boards (districts, transportation hubs, coordination meetings) and a card-­‐driven game mechanic. Card-­‐driven games have the advantage that game effects can be implemented directly from a card when drawn, rather than requiring players to master the full rules before play. They also allow a designer to include a variety of teachable moments on the cards themselves. In AFTERSHOCK, various “coordination cards,” “at-­‐risk cards”, and “event cards” address everything from the risk of epidemic disease to adverse weather, malnutrition, local self-­‐help, strategic planning, staff burn-­‐out, corruption, squatters and internal displacement, and, of course, the risk of aftershocks too.

Although initial Connections game lab had focused exclusively on the 2010 Haiti earthquake, my game is set in a fictional country. This allowed me to include a wider variety of challenges than would be the case if it were tied to a particular time and place. Four sets of actors are represented in the game: the government of “Carana,” the United Nations, a “Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Task Force” of foreign military contingents, and the NGO community. Each of these actors can be played individually or by small teams.

Once an initial design had been sketched out and a prototype produced (using little more than cardstock, a printer, and a pair of scissors), the game was ready for play testing.

Fortunately, university students are enthusiastic gamers, and I was not short of volunteers. I integrated AFTERSHOCK into my own POLI 450/650 course on peace building, and posted a print-­‐and-­‐play beta version on the Passim website. Through Passim, the game was also used in the classroom by Professor Jeremy Wells at Texas State University -­‐ San Marcos, and by the staff of the Centro Conjunto para Operaciones de Paz de Chile (Chilean Joint Peace Operations Center).

From Playtest to Production

Given student enthusiasm for the game and interest from colleagues and humanitarian professionals outside McGill, I next decided to publish it in limited numbers. Thomas Fisher, a Montreal-­‐based game design consultant helped (pro bono) in developing a professional-­‐looking version of all of the game materials. UN agencies offered free use of their photo archives. We decided to produce the game via The Game Crafter, a company specializing in high quality print-­‐on-­‐demand production and sale of user-­‐provided game designs. This eliminated any financial risk on our part: we simply uploaded the materials to The Game Crafter, and whoever wishes to purchase the boxed game (including all cards, playing mats, rules, briefings, and game pieces) can simply go to their online shop and order a copy.2 All profits are donated to UN humanitarian agencies.

Since its publication, AFTERSHOCK has been adopted for HADR training by the Canadian Humanitarian and Disaster Response Training Program (CHDRTP), National Defense University, and units of the US Army Reserve. Student feedback has been very positive: 90% of McGill students and 87% of CHDRTP participants found the game enjoyable or very enjoyable; 97% of McGill and 96% of CHDRTP participants found it illustrated HADR themes well or very well; and 94% of McGill and 93% of CHDRTP participants believed it should be used in future courses on the topic.3

Thoughts on Classroom Use

AFTERSHOCK works best as a timed game lasting exactly two hours, with 4-­‐12 participants per game (8 being ideal). Facilitated games are better than those where students play without assistance, since facilitation allows participants to focus on game play rather than rules mastery, and the facilitator can link game events to real-­‐life events and challenges as play progresses. In large classes I have either run multiple simultaneous games using student facilitators to assist, or held an optional tournament among competing teams for bonus grades over several weeks, outside class hours. Experience suggests that players should only be given a short overview of the game, and then thrown straight into it: the initial confusion echoes that of a real crisis, there is less concern with memorizing rules, and almost everyone learns game play quickly. Perhaps most important of all—and as with all educational simulations and games—learning outcomes are enhanced if time is set aside for discussing and debriefing game outcomes.


  1. Connections Wargaming Conference,

Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.


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