Tragedy of the commons

 The Fishbank Game is a Serious Game or a Management Simulation Exercise that has been developed by Dennis Meadows in 2001. Here I present a modified version, developed for the course Practical modelling: The use of Serious Gaming in regional planning and regional development, IAMZ-CIHEAM in Zaragoza 2017.   

The rules of the game are simple enough: each team plays the role of a fishing company. You are competing with the other teams. Your goal is to maximise your profits, and have to largest value of assets at the end of the game. Your actions: buying, selling and demolishing ships. Your costs: investment and operational costs of the fleet. Your profits: revenues from selling catch.

Each round is one year. Each year you have to make your investment and operational decisions. Each year, a small simulation model calculates the effects and impacts. Simple enough.

The strategy for the game is not that simple. In a world of competing stakes, how can we maximise our profits? How can we stay ahead of our competitors and not loose market share? How can we maintain our fleet, keep it profitable and at the same time avoid a total collapse of the fish resources.

During the game, students adapt to completely opposite strategies.

“Keep on purchasing boats until fish productivity starts to decline.”

“Buy boats early in the game and then sell them toward the end. Catch as many fish as possible at the beginning of the period.”

“Make sure you have always the largest fleet. Maximising your market share and thus make the most profit”

"We want to keep our fleet at this constant level so as not to deplete fish resources." 

The game is still easy enough. That is, as long as there is only one team. But once we add teams the game gets more complex. You have to compete against the other team. Two teams, three teams, more teams. Once the players understand the nature of the game, they aggressively try to get their equal share of the potential catch. Or they go for a more conservative strategy. Trying to save some of the resource. To see that this gives other groups a free ride.


Various game settings can be played. With total knowledge to all. Or with limited knowledge. With total coordination and good responsible stewardship. Or with complete lack of knowledge and a “every-fisherman-for-himself” mentality.

It really is a simple game. But it reveals much about the complexities of natural resources management. About the benefits gained by the individuals, and the costs borne by the group. Similar stories can be developed for overgrazing of common grounds, overexploitation of groundwater and polluting the water to maximise private profits. Stories that are all too often true stories.

Willem van Deursen, Carthago Consultancy,

Rotterdam, The Netherlands