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What inspires 2 NUS researchers to develop an engaging game to raise public awareness about Covid?

Ever thought that you might handle the COVID-19 pandemic better than the governments around the world? A unique card game - Lockdown! - designed by two NUS researchers allows you to do exactly that – to take on the role of governments and implement public health measures to save citizens from COVID-19.


Q: Please start by providing a short introduction about yourselves, the game Lockdown! and what the game is about.

Hi, I am Dr Anna Szücs, a Swiss-Hungarian Medical Doctor, and a writer and illustrator on the side. I am currently working as a Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, where I mainly do research on mental health in primary care. Collaborating with Associate Professor Yann Boucher from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health on the design and realisation of Lockdown! constituted a great opportunity for me to pursue several of my interests within one project.


We wanted to create a family-friendly card game, which had the potential to bring people together around a shared activity during the pandemic, and which would help them start conversations about their experience of these challenging times.


In Lockdown!, the players take up the role of governments whose duty is to heal as many citizens as possible, while using various public health measures to keep the infections at bay. We believe that this shift in perspective can help people process and talk about the frustration they had been experiencing while complying with the pandemic-related restrictions imposed in every country. I think that these discussions remain important for families and especially children even today, as the world slowly opens up again, but in-person contacts remain scarcer than before the pandemic.


Q: What inspires the ideas behind the game? What made you decide to publish it?

Professor Yann Boucher got the idea of the game while trying to find things to play with his young daughter during the Circuit Breaker in Singapore. For the initial game dynamics, Yann drew inspiration from an old French card game called Mille Bornes, he had enjoyed playing as a child. We then adapted the rules further to fit Lockdown!’'s theme and create a quicker, more dynamic game.


Source: The Straits Times


Q: It can be difficult to make “dull” concepts like pandemic management into an entertaining yet accurate experience. What tips do you have for integrating real-life concepts into the game mechanics?

I believe that any topic can be made interesting and relatable by presenting it in a fun way. The main challenge lies in finding a set of rules that not only make the game entertaining but also work for the topic conceptually and reflect key aspects of the real-life phenomenon presented by the game. In the case of Lockdown!, we opted for a game design encompassing several layers of complexity: the game in itself is very simple, and one could have fun playing it without understanding the underlying public health concepts; however, it can also be educational when players pay attention to the labels on the cards, and how the cards relate to one another.


This was important to us as we wanted to make sure that Lockdown! would be entertaining for both children and adults and could constitute both a relaxing party game and a starting point for more serious discussions. As the illustrator of the game, another important advice I can give to other game creators is to make sure the game’s design reflects the game’s general ambiance. A game’s illustrations and overall presentation is as important as its dynamics. In the case of Lockdown!, we opted for somewhat gloomy but still comical illustrations to make the topic accessible while still acknowledging its seriousness. This was also reflected in the cards’ colour palette using pastel tones.


Q: Are there any challenges encountered that you wished you knew before you started?

The real challenge was probably the amount of work. Lockdown! being my very first game-designing experience, I had underestimated how long each step would take us; including the illustrations, the refinement of the rules, the many rounds of playtesting, and the creation of the box and rule book. Albeit lengthy, all these steps were a lot of fun and I would certainly love to create other games in the future.


Q: What are you most satisfied about the game? How about least satisfied?

Anna: I am very satisfied with the end product we managed to deliver. In hindsight, I wish we had had the opportunity to gather feedback from families and other players upon the game’s launch, to have a more objective measure of the design elements that worked best and of those that worked the least well for the general public.


Yann: I am very happy about the artwork and simple game mechanics. I wish it could be distributed more widely across the world, as I think there would be a lot of interest.


Q: We understand that part of the proceeds from the sales of the game goes into a charitable organization, The Red Pencil. Why did you decide to collaborate with The Red Pencil? What are its missions and values?

Anna: The Red Pencil Singapore shares our belief that the emotions generated by stressful events, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, need to be expressed and shared with others. During the Circuit Breaker, they conducted amazing outreach activities to help Singaporeans express their feelings and thoughts through art and went out of their way to make these activities accessible to everyone, e.g., by using everyday materials like coffee instead of real paint in some of their workshops. As many social interactions remain digital in this post-pandemic area, their work of helping people share their emotions and connect remains all the more important. We are pleased to be able to support them with the sale proceeds of Lockdown!, which we created with a similar goal in mind.


Yann: We wanted to use a local charity related to the pandemic, which is the theme of the game. We didn’t want to give to a large charity where our contribution is a tiny fraction of what they do, but one for which it would make a difference. Lots of government money has flowed into medical treatment and mitigating the economic impact of the pandemic. But Red pencil helped with something that has been overlooked, that is the psychological effects of the pandemic, which is very real for most people, especially vulnerable children, which is the people they target. Their use of art in helping children process this trauma is especially relevant, as after all this game is an artwork from Dr Szucs.


Q: What are some your favourite tabletop games and which ones do you think are underrated?

Anna: This is a difficult question as I have many games I like. With respect to card games, some of my favourites include Race for the Galaxy, Schotten-Totten, Magic the Gathering, or Cards against humanity, but I also love playing games with standard 52-card decks, such as bridge or rummy. With respect to boardgames, some of my favourites include Bruxelles, Dixit, Pix, Code Names, 7-Wonders, Battlestar Galactica, Terraforming Mars, Ticket to Ride, or Risk.


Yann: Mille Bornes was one of my favorite games as a child, in which you race a car against your opponent, trying to complete a trip despite obstacles coming your way. I got inspiration from it in creating the Lockdown! Concept.


Q: Where can your game be found?


You can find Lockdown! on Singapore Boardgame Design on Shopee if ordering from Singapore, or on Capital Gains Studio’s dedicated webpage, if you wish to order it internationally.

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