ICS: The World’s Biggest Board Game (or, The Godzilla Contingency)

The only thing missing from an emergency management Full Scale Exercise is a 20-sided die. (Graphic courtesy of U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jesse Justice, Instructor, Defense Information School)

The only thing missing from an emergency management Full Scale Exercise is a 20-sided die. (Graphic courtesy of U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jesse Justice, Instructor, Defense Information School)

Game study is the study of games: the act of playing them, and the players and cultures surrounding them. It deals with all types of games throughout history and utilizes the tactics of anthropology, sociology and psychology while examining the design aspects of the game, the players in the game, and finally the role the game plays in its society or culture. Dungeons & Dragons, for example, departs from traditional gaming in that it assigns each player a specific character or identity instead of a military formation, such as chess. The characters embark upon imaginary adventures within a fantasy setting under the guidance of a Dungeon Master, who serves as referee and storyteller while maintaining the setting in which the adventures occur. The characters, meanwhile, form a party that interacts with the setting’s inhabitants and each other. Together they solve dilemmas, engage in battles and gather treasure and knowledge. In the process they earn experience points that allow them to become increasingly powerful over a series of sessions.

One evening in September of 2015 I was sitting in Knight Moves, a board game cafe in Boston, drinking black coffee and waiting for the blood moon to rise. The place was dead, so the barista had time to talk.

He seemed like a good kid, just doing his thing and working part-time to pay the bills. In the course of our conversation he asked me why I was in town and what I did for a living.

“You like games, right?” He nodded, looking around him at the walls of the renovated house, lined with neat stacks of rules and roles. “Okay. You’re gonna love this.” I uncapped my pen and began sketching out a diagram in my notebook.

“The Incident Command System is a standardized structure developed to handle most any major human-caused or natural disaster. It’s essentially a plug-and-play framework that prevents federal, state and local emergency responders from having to reinvent the wheel when that wheel has clearly come off the car. You can put one together in a matter of hours, keep it running for months and scale it down as needed.”


“Now, this block at the top represents the Command Staff. They come up with a plan and agree on the objectives needed to carry out that plan. The number of people in this block fluctuates according to the size of the response but it’s typically composed of one state and one federal representative and an industry partner acting as the RP, or responsible party. If an Incident Command Post is stood up to handle an oil or hazardous chemical spill, for example, the RP is the high-ranking person from that company authorized to act, spend money and make decisions on its behalf. You’ve also got a Safety Officer to oversee the physical well-being of the responders, a Liaison Officer to help make important connections in the local community, and a Public Information Officer to talk to the media and manage the public’s perceptions of the response.”

“How many people can play this game?”

“Hundreds, and all at once.”

“Oh, so it’s online?”

“To the contrary. Every month, somewhere in this country, thousands of qualified strangers are gathering in hotels, convention centers and off-season cruise ship terminals to fake a disaster and play this very realistic ‘game,’ in order to better prepare themselves and their community for an actual emergency. Think of it as the world’s biggest board game – except there’s no dice,” I said.

“Now in these four blocks down here, you’ve got a Finance Section that tracks the response budget and oversees the procurement of goods and services. This block is the Logistics Section. They get the things people need to do their jobs. This block is the Operations Section, the doers. If the plan calls for a helicopter or a bulldozer, a specific someone in this chain will oversee the flight schedule or supervise the work crews. Lastly, there’s a Planning Section to guide the action, keep things on schedule and moderate the meetings. You can build tails of cells under any of these top blocks to deal with whatever unique thing comes up because this whole structure,” I said, waving my hand around the page, “is scalable. You can break off old legs and grow new ones as needed, and each of these blocks typically represents one person.”

“And you do this for a living?” he asked.

“I teach the model, coach the exercises, and when the real thing happens, I work here,” I replied, drawing a perpendicular dotted line out from the Public Information Officer and drawing five new blocks arranged in much the same way as the first. “This is the Joint Information Center. It’s where we communicate updates to the media and the public during the response. It’s called joint because you’re supposed to have representatives from this block working in it,” I said, tapping the Command Staff block. “But that isn’t always the case. Of these four blocks, this one gathers information about the response and this one turns it into releasable products so the public knows what’s happening. Because if you keep an audience informed about a bad thing, they’re less likely to be angry than if you keep them in the dark or lie to them. This block coordinates the media interaction for interviews.”

“So what drives the game?”

“Well, during an exercise there’s a closed room off to one side where the ‘Dungeon Master’ hides – sort of. Months before the exercise, someone will draft a script of injects directed at the entire structure. There’ll be 10 or more people in here coordinating a minute-by-minute simulation that drives the people out there. Think of it as a bank of ‘prank callers.’ They’ll pick up the phone, pretend to be someone, deliver a node of information to a player, get confirmation of receipt, hang up, wait a few minutes and call another player. Some of the scenarios would boggle your mind. I’ve done oil spills, downed planes, ice rescues, terrorist attacks, kidnappings and Weapons of Mass Destruction. I keep expecting Godzilla to show up one day.”

“Wow. Do you get to pick an avatar?”

The incident management organization conducts an operations meeting at the command post for the crude oil train derailment. Photo courtesy of Thomas McKenzie.

An incident management organization conducts an operations meeting for the crude oil train derailment. Photo courtesy of Thomas McKenzie.

“Actually you get a vest. Everyone wears a colored vest according to his or her specific job. If you work in the JIC, it’s white. The JIC design is so elegantly simple that you could run it from a large tent in a field with just the model, a laptop, a printer, a work table, some basic portable supplies, a power source, four of your closest friends and two bars on your cell phone. I’ve actually done the tent scenario at least twice. My first time, it was set up on the safe side of a firing range – with local law enforcement qualifying in small arms on the other side – and the tent was crawling with insects. I’ve also run one from an idling tour bus in a blizzard, an empty bank in Anchorage, Alaska, an off-season convention center in rural Kentucky, an empty office building in St. Louis and a four-star hotel on an island at the end of the world.”

He laughed. “That’s crazy!”

“Crazy is the stack of rule books, models, job aids and meeting schedules required to keep everything running smoothly. Every boat, helicopter and billable asset brought into play is tracked by a T-card with basic information about it. Every component has to be checked in or out of play to keep the cost down. Strangely, the only thing this game doesn’t have is dice.”

“How do you level up?”

“Each of the roles is assigned by experience. You can take ICS courses online from the FEMA institute to improve your understanding, but you have to be an appointed representative of an agency to play. Look into it if you’re interested.”

Patrons began filling in so I left him to his job. Twenty minutes later, I was watching the moon turn red from a quiet side street with minimal light pollution. Wherever he is now, the barista of a board game cafe in Boston is now aware that every city in the country relies on pre-existing, large-scale area contingency response plans to handle human-caused and natural disasters of most any shape and size – and that game study is alive and well in ways he’d never expected.

One thought on “ICS: The World’s Biggest Board Game (or, The Godzilla Contingency)

  1. What caught my eye on this was the white vest. Our PIO/JIC wear black. SEOC commander, white; PIO/JIC/Liaison Officer black; planning, green; operations, blue; logistics, gold; and finance/admin, red. Is there any standard guidance for colors nationally, or is it like ESFs, each man for himself, so to speak?


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