Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dateline: Atlanta


Atlanta, USA
CDC Prediction and Simulation Working Group
Outbreak Response Simulation Exercises

The CDC has been tracking the 2008-12-FLU outbreak since January, and has recently discovered some disturbing news - the prime strain of the disease has mutated, and four different strains are spreading throughout different regions of the world. 2009-1-BLK is primarily contained in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and South Asia. 2009-1-BLU is primarily contained in North America and Western Europe. 2009-1-RED is primarily limited to the Far East, and 2009-1-YLW is contained in the tropics - Central and South Africa and South America. Note that these regional limitations are not expected to be maintained over the longer term - it is expected that each strain will spread along multiple vectors without geographic restrictions (other than those that influence traffic and population flows).

The decision was reached to run two simulations of potential responses to the pandemic, and the results are not encouraging - both simulations resulted in (simulated) widespread loss of life and major infrastructure breakdowns, seriously hampering our ability to deliver medical supplies, share information on the diseases and treatments discovered, and so on. If these simulations are accurate predictions of the outcome of this pandemic, major modifications in our approach are definitely in order.

The simulations randomized the initial outbreak locations, and also the spread and growth of each of the strains, and provided resources similar to those available to the CDC to address the spread of the diseases and the search for cures for each strain. In analysis of the simulation after the fact, it has been found that there was a data problem with the disease randomization function, such that it is possible that the outbreaks were more virulent than they might be expected to be in actuality - we hope that this is the case, as the outcome of these runs of the simulations were quite discouraging.

The one note of encouragement I can take from these two simulation exercises is that, both times, our team was very close to finding cures for each of the four stains and delivering them to the populations under threat. With some improvement to our approach to the disease outbreaks, I am confident that we will be able to use the experience from these simulations to improve our decision making and triage decisions in the real world. In both runs of the simulation, the team was very close to overcoming the mutating strains of the disease - with modifications to our approach, and a tweaking of the data model to more closely model the spread we are seeing in the real world, we expect to be able to continue to improve our response to the continuing pandemic.


Forgive me my chance to practice a little story-telling there, but Randy and I got together Saturday night for a gaming session - this time, our wives were included, so we played several multi-player games rather than two-player as is our normal intent. We got in one mission of Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel, two games of Pandemic, and a game of TransAmerica with the Vexation expansion included. This session report, as may be obvious from the lead-in, is going to focus on Pandemic only, as I don't know that we gave Siege of the Citadel enough of a chance, and TransAmerica, while quite enjoyable, is also quite light and there wouldn't be much to report.

We broke out Pandemic, as I was relatively confident that Carrie & Marissa (mine and Randy's wives, respectively) would enjoy the game - I think I was correct in my estimation, although I'll be interested to hear for certain what they thought. I'm not going to go into too much detail about how the game plays, but I will note that this is a cooperative game, meaning it's the players working together against the game system. As you might have gleaned from the flavor text above, we were not able to win in either of our outings - although both times we were probably within a single turn of pulling out the victory. I know for certain we were in the first game - if the outbreaks had come out in a different order, on the next player turn we would have had the fourth cure, and hence the win. The second game we lost due to time running out - when the player draw deck is drawn out, the game is lost. I think we were very close to a win there as well, but not close enough. Also, worth mentioning is that both our games were on the "easy" setting for the game - it scales up to "normal" and "hard" as well, although it may be awhile before we feel the need to do so!

The feel of Pandemic is quite interesting to me - it felt something like a well-run meeting, although one much more focused than most real meetings I've attended (and also more fun). While each player has a role in the game, and also some collection of information and resources that they control, it really is more of a group exercise in trying to solve the problem that the game system puts in front of you. I can see where in some groups this might be a problem - if a dominant personality were to monopolize play, for instance, making other players feel like they weren't so much playing as watching. Luckily, in our case, that didn't turn out to be a problem - we discussed our moves as a group, and generally followed through on consensus decisions, but didn't get into any arguments about who was driving the discussion, and it didn't feel (to me) as though any one of us was dominating the discussion more than anyone else.

Pandemic's feel is unique in the coop games I've played up to this point - which includes Scotland Yard, Lord of the Rings, Shadows over Camelot, Ghost Stories and now Pandemic. I have yet to play the newest, Battlestar Galactica, although I'd like to give it a shot. Pandemic really did have something of the feel of a steering committee, pouring over a map of the world with markers for resources and tracking disease outbreaks. In a movie, it would likely be a hologram or network operations center (NOC) or something of the sort.

On a tangential but related note, this past Thanksgiving, I took my copy of Pandemic with me to our family gathering, and taught a bunch of non-gamers how to play - and they all enjoyed it. One element there that was interesting was how fun it was to watch and kibitz, even though I wasn't playing. How many games can you describe the experience of NOT playing as almost as much fun as playing?

This outing of Pandemic was very enjoyable - and I felt like it was successful with the group we played it with. Those who require competition should probably stay far away (but then, they likely would do so when told this was a coop game to begin with), and I would also not suggest playing this game with a group that is prone to allowing one player to dominate the proceedings. One other limiting factor is that the game plays with a maximum of four players. I would expect it to scale to lower numbers fine, but it tops out at four. If none of these problems are an issue, then I can wholeheartedly recommend Pandemic, as I've enjoyed it every time I've played it.

Worth noting - in one of our games, we had the experience of having an Outbreak BEFORE the first player turn, due to there being a duplicate city card. Apparently, there was a collation issue with the cards, as there are only supposed to be one of each city in the deck. I've yet to contact Z-man, but I'm confident it will be made right - but this is the data anomaly that I mention in the "flavor text".

I think the next "session" for Randy and I is going to be an online attempt to play Squad Leader - we'll let you know how that works out in a couple of weeks.

So, with that, thanks for reading, and happy gaming!


  1. Glad you caught the fact that your Pandemic deck is a bit messed up. Made for an interesting start! Nice write up!


  2. I found Pandemic very dissatisfying. In essence it just came down to guessing which card was going to come out. Guess right, and you win. Guess wrong, you lose. Hmm, let's just flip a coin at the start of the game and go play something more interesting.

    BSG isn't really a cooperative game in the same mold. You're really playing against the other 'team' (humans or Cylons), and the game is just there to provide mechanisms for achieving that win. Of course, you don't actually know who the Cylons are.... Definite thumbs up on this one after 2 plays, and I've heard that 5-payer is the sweet spot.