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February 8, 2010 | last updated December 1, 2011 4:18 am

Gamesmanship | An Auburn entrepreneur makes a game out of preparedness

Photo/Tim Greenway
Photo/Tim Greenway
Bill Ashland, CEO of Disaster Game LLC, a board game that teaches businesses emergency preparedness

Every manager has been in tight spots.

But what if a gale wind blew down power poles near your office and you were without electricity for three days? What if a virus knocked out your company's command center and all you had for back up was a conference room with a single phone line, two data ports and a white board with a partially dried out purple marker? How would you handle a flu epidemic that wiped out your entire customer service staff?

If you didn't rattle off your answers, Bill Ashland has just the thing. Founder and CEO of Disaster Game LLC, Ashland invented a board game that simulates thousands of potential disasters that could befall a company and their solutions. Starbucks, Xerox, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and the U.S. Treasury have all shelled out $299.99 for the game, says Ashland, to help them prepare for whatever emergencies lie ahead. An online version of the game — a "flight simulator for disasters" is how Ashland describes it — should roll out in 2011.

"The scope of the web edition takes the concept to a whole new level," Ashland says from his Auburn home. "The idea is to create a realistic virtual environment that fully immerses participants in the heart of the action."

Ashland has had plenty of experience at the heart of the action. From 2001 to 2007, he led a division of the business preparedness program at TD Banknorth.

"In working with the various business lines at TD Banknorth on the creation, maintenance and testing of their (disaster) plans, I spent many a night thinking about the ways to make the testing portion more engaging than simply saying, 'Something happened to your building, what do you do'," he says.

Raised by a family of card sharks, Ashland says he's always played games and it occurred to him that the four plans in a typical business preparedness program — response, relocation, resumption and recovery — parallel the four suits in a deck of cards. In designing the board game, he added cards for events, cards for variables and dice for time, day and weather.

"Suddenly, I had a way to build thousands of scenarios," he says.

In 2007, he took his prototype to the Strohl System International User Group Conference, annual conference that examines security and business preparedness products.

"The reaction was so viral," he says. "It was standing room only in the room, and the comment cards were overwhelmingly positive, comments like 'You should sell this.'"

So he has, netting about $60,000 in revenue so far, he says, with about 40% of his customer base in the banking and financial services industry. Now Ashland and his wife, Bev, and their 12-year-old daughter, Jordan, plan to kick off a 28-day, national tour later this month to demonstrate the game at conferences across the country. He anticipates the tour will generate over $500,000 in sales for the company this year, and set the stage for the launch of the online version in 2011, which will include live voice chat between participants via a headset and microphone. The hosted solution will be sold on a subscription basis to Fortune 500-level companies, with price points and feature sets for smaller organizations as well, he says.

The company will also release a family version of the board game that will sell for $49.95.

Ashland says part of the appeal in designing a game to engage people in emergency preparedness was simply the fun of creating the scenarios. Disaster Game has exit routes, alternative exit routes, wrong turns, rescues and yes, you can be killed.

"Because they don't know what lies around the next corner, it keeps them on their toes," Ashland says.

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