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AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game» Forums » Reviews


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Brian Train
British Columbia
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Peoples’ motivations and inclinations to play board games are almost as varied as the board games themselves. For some people it is the social aspect; others are chronic optimizers, some treat games as elaborate puzzles to be broken, and still others go for the win-win-win. But the subject matter of the game is always a factor too. Take two games with similar mechanics, and give one a theme of “Let’s Tour Wine Country” and the other “Loot Your Way to Rome”, and then see who plays which.

AFTERSHOCK is a serious, complex game on a serious, complex somewhat grim subject, but it is presented and plays in such a way that you find yourself having a lot of fun… which is why it’s a winner, in my view.

Background: there is an annual interdisciplinary conference on wargaming called CONNECTIONS, that brings commercial game designers, academics, analysts and professional military members together to discuss how games are used in their different worlds and how methods and games in one area could be adapted or used in another. It has been running for over 20 years. In 2012 a “Game Lab” event on quick game design was held, with three groups of participants gathered to discuss and see how far along in the design process they could get in two and a half hours of brainstorming and discussion. The subject of the design process was the 2010 Haiti earthquake; in addition to pre-reading there were subject matter experts including diplomatic staff and USAF personnel who had been there and assisted in the relief efforts. The game's designer, Rex Brynen organized the event, which gave the initial impetus for the design; he combined the thoughts and concepts from some of the working groups with other games on humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and so the game came to be two years later.

The game takes place in Carana, a fictional 3rd World country invented for use in simulations used by the United Nations and other organizations. Carana’s capital Galasi has been struck by an earthquake, and a complete game of AFTERSHOCK covers the initial three months of response and recovery.

The game is for four players: the government of Carana; the multinational Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response Task Force; the United Nations; and Non-Governmental Organizations. There are seven game turns, each composed of four player turns: the first three game turns represent the one-week initial emergency stage during which more lives are at risk of being lost if their immediate needs for rescue, medical supplies, clean water and food are not met, then the early recovery stage which focuses on longer term needs (rebuilding shelter, water and sanitation supplies and structures, etc.).
Each player turn consists of:

- Coordination Phase: the player draws one card for each cluster they are participating in (there are five (health, water/sanitation, food, shelter, rescue) and a player participates in a cluster by deploying one of their small number of assistance teams (meeples) on the appropriate card area)

- Event Phase: an event of some kind will occur, most often the resolution of the needs of one of the five districts of Galasi but there are other cards that may help or hurt players in the larger sense (e.g. an outbreak of cholera, or even worse a visit by a celebrity whose plane and entourage clog up the airport for a turn). Districts are different from each other and have different needs depending on the stage of the game, but only one district per player turn will be checked or resolved to see if its needs for supplies (coloured wooden cubes, classified by the five cluster categories above) are being met. If they are, the players gain collective Relief Points, and/or individual Operations Points. If not, then they lose points.

- Human Resources Phase: The player can redeploy his meeples to work in districts, attend cluster meetings, or do media outreach (yes, this is an important part of the game).

- Relief Operations Phase: The player resolves operations in a district by moving needed supplies (cubes) there, in anticipation of that district being resolved later. Players have their own stocks of supplies but they rarely have exactly what is needed to help the district being resolved; they can fix this by transferring supplies from the stockpiles of other players who are attending the same cluster meeting as they. See, it’s good to sit around in meetings sometimes….

- Special Operations Phase: in this phase the player can conduct security operations (restore local law and order), logistics operations (move supplies between warehouses or improve the capacity of the port or airport), needs assessments (peek ahead in the deck associated with a district) or media outreach (this may seem frivolous, but it is necessary for some players to do, in order to get more Operations Points which they need to use to obtain more resources).

- Supply Phase: The player receives new assistance teams and supplies for later operations. Some supplies may be exchanged to build infrastructure in districts (disks which are placed in a district to permanently generate associated supplies). Each player has different methods of acquiring and exchanging supplies.

The game is won or lost by all depending on the collective score of Relief Points. If the track reaches a deficit of -30, it’s a disaster and everyone immediately loses; if it reaches +30 everyone immediately wins and it’s champagne all round.

Otherwise, the game runs to the end of the seventh turn and players obtain their final scores in slightly different ways (e.g. the government of Carana loses points for there being active social unrest in districts and gains points for districts with functioning infrastructure, while the Task Force player is penalized points if he still has teams deployed in the country).

If after all that, the Relief Points track is still below zero, all players lose – there were too many deaths. Any player whose Operations Points total is below zero loses – they squandered their political capital and received enough negative publicity that their organization is less able to deal with the next disaster. But if the Relief Points total is positive, players may win one grade or another of partial victory.

There are several game variants to use: a timed game (with bonuses for finishing early); a team game; and solitaire, two or three player versions.

Finally, because one target audience of this game is students or trainees, there is a section on how to use this game in the classroom with a facilitator, and how to work it into the curriculum for a course. Rex Brynen is a Professor of Political Science at McGill University and has been using games and simulations in his classes for many years. (See his blog Paxsims for much more on this topic, )

Game components are well made and well printed, in my opinion to the standard of a good GMT product, and the games are sourced and assembled by The Game Crafter LLC. This results in a retail price of $99 which has aroused some comment, but really, this is an illustration of the economies of scale that only larger companies can realize.

So to return to my initial paragraph (which all reviews ought to do, I suppose), I have treated the subject matter of this game at length, but what of the motivations for its players? The game does offer something for each type of player: it is a semi-cooperative game, so the social aspect is served; it is a logistics and planning game, so the optimizers and puzzle-happy folks will be happy; and the win-at-all-costs types will have fun trying to gain this prize, though they will probably be more frustrated with this approach if they go for it too forcefully, or too obviously….

This is an enjoyable, well designed game on an unusual topic (unusual for games, not unusual in the real world). It is worth your attention.

Brian Train
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