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Graduate Education


We’re not playing around: Board games medical and morbid

by Manny I. Fox Morone
May 7, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 19


A cartoon of a doctor playing the board game Operation on a hospital bed while a frustrated patient waits impatiently on the bed.
Credit: Manny Morone/C&EN
Practice makes perfect: Preferably, med students would play GridlockED before starting work in the ED.

Ask your doctor before playing

Going to med school can be tough; so can teaching it. Triaging resources in the emergency department (ED) isn’t something that can be taught solely in a lecture, nor is it something residents should be learning once they’re in an ED overflowing with patients.

“You can’t do everything yourself. You have to use the rest of your team so that you can do what’s best for the patient,” says Teresa Chan, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at McMaster University. Every two years, she organizes a mass-casualty drill, and although it’s helpful to illustrate a real-life scenario, “it requires like six months of preparation and 50 people at least to run the whole day,” she says.

So in 2016, Chan and three medical students started working on a teaching aid that would allow students to practice the logic and communication needed to run an ED. In March of 2018, after working with about a dozen McMaster students as well as professors Alim Pardhan and Mathew Mercuri, Chan announced that GridlockED, a collaborative board game simulating an ED, is available for purchase.

The game starts with each player getting a role, such as doctor, resident, nurse, or radiologist, each of whom can perform certain tasks. Tasks are listed on patient cards based on real aggregate hospital data that reflect what kinds of patients come through the ED: how many people come in with certain conditions a day and how urgently those patients usually need to receive certain types of care. The key is to divide players’ resources and place and stabilize patients without getting “gridlocked”—a term for lacking space to put patients who need ED-level care—or failing to stabilize a patient. Each round takes about 90 minutes to play.

Proceeds from the game will go to a fund for educational innovation and research at McMaster. Chan is also considering making a free, pared-down version for health providers in developing countries.

The game board from the board game GridlockED that shows a patient profile and what treatment the patient needs to receive.
Credit: GridlockED
Treat me right: The GridlockED game board features five differently colored spaces that dictate the level of treatment that patients (represented by cards) can receive in the room. The wheel in the middle tracks the eight rounds of each game, corresponding to an eight-hour shift in the ED.

But don’t buy this one for family game night just yet. Because of the serious and sometimes graphic subject matter of the game, the suggested age to play is 18 and up.


An alleged avian assassin

A lego man dressed in black lies on the floor in agonizing pain, and a yellow game piece from the game Clue stands over him next to a candlestick figurine from the game Clue.
Credit: Bethany Halford/C&EN
Murder in the aviary: Colonel Mustard flew the coop.

Murder is no laughing matter. Yet a paper that investigates the death of Mr. Boddy—the moneyed murderee from the board game Clue—was recently submitted as an April Fools’ Day joke (arXiv 2018, arXiv: 1803.11559).

“Technically, all the science is accurate,” says Eve Armstrong, a physics postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the paper “Colonel Mustard in the Aviary with the Candlestick: A Limit Cycle Attractor Transitions to a Stable Focus via Supercritical Andronov-Hopf Bifurcation.” The work invokes techniques from the fields of stability analysis and dimensionality identification as well as circumstantial evidence to finger the perp: a cowbird named Colonel Mustard who just happened to reside in the aviary at the time of the murder.


In reality, this foray into fictitious forensics isn’t too far flung from the main focus of Armstrong’s research. She’s currently exploring whether she can model how communities of birds generate intelligible song, which they use to pair, mate, and thrive. Applying the techniques in the paper to real video and audio data from an aviary, she thinks, might be helpful in identifying underlying factors in song evolution.

The paper lays the foundation for what solving such a crime might look like given a dynamical model of the birds’ behavior, which currently doesn’t exist. But finding a suitable model is essential for the sake of the oft-offed Mr. Boddy: “We note long-term plans to construct an underlying dynamical model … in the event that Mr. Boddy is ever murdered again,” the paper states.

Manny I. Fox Morone wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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