A team of hackers in a rogue nation launch a surprise strike on America’s power grid. One by one, the USA’s cities go dark, while across the Pacific, a series of massive cyber attacks on Asian banks threaten to plunge the global economy into chaos. As panic spreads, six of the world’s top cybersecurity experts gather at a secret location. They must work together and use all their collective knowledge to defeat the attacks.
Sounds like the plot of a bestseller or summer blockbuster, right? Actually, it’s the premise of Cyberstrike, a new board game developed by Rutgers Prep students. It is designed to teach players about cybercrime and how it can be countered.
A team of Upper School students began designing the game last April in response to a proposal from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The project attracted a group of about 20 student volunteers, guided by Mythili Lahiri, Associate Director of the Innovation Center.
Students spent several weeks studying cybersecurity issues and learning from experts in the field. They then applied their knowledge to the game’s design, working in small groups and appraising each other’s ideas. They wrote the rules and created cards, playing pieces, and a mapboard. A grant from the UN allowed Cyberstrike to be professionally printed and packaged by a game development company.
Cyberstrike is a collaborative game, in which players work as a group. It consists of ten rounds, during which various kinds of attacks and security breaches take place. Attacks come randomly, and can take the form of “Energy Hacks,” “Identity Theft,” “Government Info Leaks,” or even “Fake News.” The game board is a map of the world, with each of the four to six players representing one continent. If the players can prevent any continent from being attacked more than eight times, everyone wins. However, if too many attacks occur, or a player runs out of money, then everyone goes down together – a dynamic that reflects the necessity for cooperation in promoting global security. Players can help each other by lending money, sharing information, and brainstorming winning strategies.
The students found the designing process challenging. They needed to create a game that was realistic and educational, but also fun to play. Setting the victory conditions was especially tricky, says junior Krish Kohli: “What surprised me was how finely tuned it had to be, so that it wouldn’t be too easy to win or lose. We had to walk a fine line.” It took some players a while to get used to the cooperative dynamic: “No matter how many times we told them that either everyone wins or everyone loses,” says Lahiri, “the seventh grade playtesters kept asking, ‘Can’t I attack somebody?’” But the process was ultimately a rewarding one. “Seeing all the individual parts come together has been exciting,” remarks junior Uma Balasubramanian.
Once the rules and components were ready, Lahiri took Cyberstrike to the Westhill Institute in Mexico City, an international school headed by John Miller ’86, Rutgers Prep alum and former Middle School Principal. The Westhill students spent several days in January trying out the game.
Back home, the student designers are now revising the rules based on the Westhill students’ feedback, and will then send the finished game to the UNODC. In June, it will be featured at the Games for Change Festival in New York City. Copies of Cyberstrike will also be available on campus, and some teachers are already planning to include it in their classes.
Sophomore David Merges reflects on the ten months he’s spent creating the game: “It’s different from anything I’ve ever done – and it’s different from playing any other game, because you know how it was made and how much went into it.” Once Cyberstrike is released, the whole school will get a chance to share his enjoyment.