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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

Can A Board Game Help Us Understand The Pandemic We're Living Through?

Seré Williams

Board game designer Matt Leacock never expected to live through a pandemic when he created the board game, aptly named Pandemic, in 2007.

Leacock began developing the game in 2004 after reading "The Hot Zone" during the SARS outbreak. He wanted to create a collaborative game where your opponent is not the human sitting next to you, but is instead the cardboard on the table in front of you. It took him three years to develop the game, but he knew in the first 20 minutes that the game would involve a disease with reinfection.

"You could play the game and at the end of each turn disease appeared and then if things went wrong it could just spiral out of control. And I thought, 'Oh, this could be really exciting.' 'Cause it looks so dangerous, you know," said Leacock.

The Pandemic gameboard looks like a map of the world, with lines connecting major cities. Colored cubes, representing infection, are placed on a city when the city's card is turned over. A fourth cube on a city initiates an outbreak and the disease spreads to all connecting cities. A maximum of four players take on roles like a researcher or a medic, and together, either all win or all lose.

Credit Seré Williams / KUNC
The Pandemic board. Each person plays a role (bottom) with certain specialties. Diseases infect cities with colored cubes iniatiated by the turn of a green card (upper right). A cure for the disease is discovered when a player collects five blue cards (bottom right) of the same disease.

But this is not a case of art imitating what we are seeing in real life.

"I wish I could say that we did a lot of extensive background research and had peer reviewed things but at the heart we're game designers and storytellers. So, we said, 'What feels fun here?'" said Rob Daviau, the co-creator of a Pandemic spin-off game called Pandemic Legacy.

The game doesn't, for example, explain the biology of the diseases or consider geo-political relationships. Leacock said it does show how quickly a disease can get out of hand and how working together is the only way to combat it.

Leacock created a framework for players to make decisions to fight the spread. Epidemiologists are essentially doing the same with COVID-19, but COVID-19 didn't come with a manual; it came with a high infection rate and variable symptoms.

"Back in March, I think the reality was that if we didn't take measures, there would have been a peak that would have exceeded our healthcare capacity. I feel confident in that," said Dr. Jonathan Samet, an epidemiologist and dean of the Colorado School of Public Health.

Credit Mathematical modelling of infectious disease / Wikipedia
Three equations make up the Susceptible (S), Infected (I), Recovered (R) model; one equation for each health status.

Samet and other scientists don't think of this decision-making process as a game. They call it "modeling." They write detailed equations — and they look at lots and lots of data, tweak some of the parameters, and see if the outcome matches their projections.

Samet describes making a model like going to the airport.

"Where you have an intrinsic idea of, you know a base idea of how long it takes to get to the airport and then you start making adjustments. It's 4 o'clock or it's, you know, it's 10 a.m.. It's a snowy day. It's not a snowy day," he said.

Credit Phrontis / CC BY-SA 3.0
CC BY-SA 3.0
A graph of the SIR model shows how the number of susceptible people (blue) decreases as the number of infected people (orange) increases. The number of recovered people (green) lags behind the number of infected people (green), showing the time it takes for an average infected individual to recover.

The more complex the scenario, the more complicated the model needs to be to get it right. Samet gave his wife directions to the airport one day, but she didn't make the flight.

"I said turn right, get on the 10 freeway and you can't miss the airport. It's gonna take you a half hour. About 10 minutes later she's calling me, extraordinarily disturbed. Traffic is not moving, nothing is happening. A tanker truck full of molasses had overturned on the 10 freeway," he said. Their model didn't include a molasses jam.

Some decisions can be challenging, like cancelling a trip you've been planning for years or choosing the right cancer treatment. Renee Wanger, a game enthusiast who works at the Haunted Game Café in Fort Collins, said that games help her practice handling these kinds of decisions.

"They can let you work through something, like big issues, in ways that you wouldn't otherwise think about them. That can then give you a different perspective on how things are happening in real life," Wanger said.

She said that playing Pandemic helped her understand how a disease could spread and what we can do to stop it. "When social distancing got put into place, I definitely was thinking about, 'Oh this makes sense because you want to limit movement and your number of infected people'," said Wanger.

Game designer Matt Leacock hopes his game can give people some empowerment over an event so challenging.

"As humans, we cooperate so much more than we compete. I mean, the competitions make the headlines but day to day… humans, we cooperate a lot," said Leacock.

While Pandemic, the game, may not have modeled the real-life pandemic we're experiencing right now, it provides a way for us to try our hand at making difficult decisions that will affect the outcome for everyone.

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