You’re free to pass go and collect $200, but be aware that just around the corner a raging swarm of disease-carrying insects could be poised to destroy your community. Purchase a house on classy Park Place, but understand that at any moment, wild-eyed extremists could burn it to a heap of ashes with firebombs crudely constructed in an anonymous hotel room. By all means, invest with friends in the Marvin Gardens Beach Resort, but assume that terrifying, biblical floods could sweep away the guests when you least expect it.

That’s the kind of cheery optimism you’ll find packed into a board game that undoubtedly will fill the guests of your family’s next dinner party with endless dread and anxiety. Called simply “Disaster Game,” its creators are pitching it as a valuable tool to help organizations prepare for catastrophes and build “business continuity readiness,” as they put it in the wonkiest of terms.

Disaster Game challenges you to consider various devastating events, from hurricanes to nuclear fallout. A set of playing cards lists every conceivable nightmare scenario you can imagine and plenty more you likely never considered.

So how does it work?

First step is to decide what type of disaster exercise you want to explore. For example, will you be initially responding to a terrible tragedy involving a crazed gunman or recovering long-term from punishing weather conditions? Next, roll the dice to determine the date and time of this awful episode – it could be any unknown combination just like real life.

Third, pick a card from one of two decks. It says a utility substation has caught fire and the power is gone. Restoration could take several days. Not too awful, relatively speaking. But now roll the dice again and select cards from a second deck of variables based on the numeral that comes up. The variables can be anything that makes the situation worse.

Perhaps an ill-equipped command center has little more than an erasure board “with one partially dried out purple marker.” Or the center’s only available phone line was accidentally released to the media and now authorities are being inundated with calls leading to a deeper sense of pandemonium.

That’s really it for the Disaster Game, according to power point directions online. There are no clear winners in which a seemingly outgunned Bruce Willis defeats the hostage taker or firefighters against impossible odds free everyone from a screaming inferno at the very last moment. According to the company behind it, Disaster Game is a thinking tool used to brace organizations for the worst and to encourage the development of effective responses. From the game’s website:

With it, you create unique and highly detailed disaster event scenarios that engage and challenge exercise participants. These scenarios can be used to test your organization’s business continuity plans or help build awareness about business continuity and the need for emergency preparedness. … The purpose of an exercise is NOT to pass. The purpose is to identify weaknesses or gaps in your plans that can be corrected and to engage and educate the participants so that they are prepared when a real event happens.

While Disaster Game appears to have originally been developed for enhancing security at major public and private institutions, there’s also an edition for families that comes complete with a 16-page guide instructing you and the kids on how to be ready. Promotional materials for the corporate version picture a furious tornado reaching down from a darkened sky, surely creating havoc for some distant town of hapless farmers.

The family version, on the other hand, features a smiling mother with arms crossed and dad behind her tossing their child playfully into the air. This could all end tomorrow, it seems to suggest.

That may be overstating the intent a bit, and to be fair, the game’s backers (who are preparedness professionals) certainly didn’t set out to startle anyone. They’re only trying to ensure folks know what to do if things go terribly wrong, and things can go terribly wrong. Just ask the people of Louisiana who have seen history-making cataclysm twice now in half a decade.

No doubt we pay lip service to civil preparedness but continue to treat it as unessential in practice, learning again and again after the fact that reliable plans make for good policy. Disaster Game is entrepreneurship in the public interest. Its website also doesn’t misleadingly portray the game as some sort of reasonable substitute for Monopoly:

Although designed in game form and based on a standard deck of cards, it is not for casual play. It deals with serious (and sometimes deadly) crises that could impact you and your family, and the subject matter is mature in nature. Each card presents detailed and realistic events for use in discussion and preparation for the unexpected.

Despite the purest of intentions, however, it’s easy to explain why Wal-Mart locations likely won’t be carrying Disaster Game on store shelves nationwide. It takes enough to withstand the everyday worlds we each inhabit. Who wants to give over a Friday night to box wine and pretending that deadly gas billowing from the scene of a industrial accident is robbing the air of precious oxygen?

A survey done of Washington, D.C. residents provides valuable insight. Officials there spent $4.6 million in federal homeland security grants during 2005 on a major media campaign that included television, print and radio ads, plus one million “personal preparedness planners.” They hoped at least half of the nation’s capital region would better prepare for calamity after becoming inspired, but later interviews showed the number rose by only a few percentage points.

According to a report published last year that cites the outreach effort, focus-group research showed most people did “not want to spend time thinking about terrorism or the potential effects of a terrorist act.” It goes on: “The bottom line is that citizens are doubtful there is really any way to prepare for an unknown type of attack, in an unknown place, at an unknown time.” A secondary online initiative,, sought to help families create emergency plans, but hardly anyone had used it, the report states.

FEMA, too, offers a readiness board game called Disaster Discovery. But it’s not nearly as brutal as Disaster Game. Thank you for trying, though, FEMA. Elevated Risk will be sure to break it out next time we’re on a double date.

Flickr image courtesy [ henning ]

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.