Urban Nightmare : Megagame of Chaos

DSCF7352.JPGThe zombie apocalypse trope is well established in literature, movies, computer and board games. And in megagames too, with the first series of Urban Nightmare megagames played in 2012.

As a megagame, the Urban Nightmare games explore the higher level decision making during a major, potentially existential, crisis. In the movies and other games the zombie trope generally focusses on the individual or on small groups of survivors, but rarely explores how the world gets to that state. It all just happened and got out of control.

In a megagame we can really look at how things get that far out of control. Or not. In the emerging gameplay of a megagame the outcome is entirely open to the consequences of player decisions and their interactions.

In the previous version of the game, the focus was on just one city – Romero City – a place beset with many mundane problems of its own even without the outbreak of a terrifying pandemic. In the recent megagame Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos (Played on 1 July 2017), we extended the perspective to explore what is happening across the whole state. Five cities (of which Romero City was the largest) are therefore being played out – struggling with their own troubles and turning to the State Governor and the National Guard for help.

Key to the unfolding gameplay is the question – will state-based resources be enough? or will the state Governer have to sacrifice valuable political capital to declare a State of Emergency and go, cap in hand, to the Federal authorities and the President for Federal help.

So far so good.  But int his game I also wanted to use it as a test bed for an idea that had been mulling around for a while.  Connecting up multiple megagames in multiple locations simultaneously – into a so-called ‘Wide Area Megagame’ or WAM.

So – of course – there is more than just one state in America. What if the crisis being played out in the megagame is cropping up in more than one state? This seemed an ideal starting point for the WAM Eperiment.  Together with partners all over the world we were able to organise multiple megagames, each megagame representing a different state of a fictionalised America and each containing different cities.

DSCF7503The individual megagames both stood alone as individual megagames yet were in touch with each other, and are played in exactly the same time frame on the same day.

So, for example, Governors of neighbouring states were potentially able to confer with their counterparts – pass on what they had learned about the crisis, or warn of cross-border threats.

And to cap it all there there were a set of overall Federal teams (The White House, The Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security  – effectively a small megagame in its own right) who were in touch with all the games and able to allocate important resources such as military, FBI, aid etc, in real time, to where they are most needed.

This was a massive experiment in intercommunication between games.  Huge amounts happened – far too much for me to recount.  Fortunately I don’t have to because those stalwarts at Last Turn Madness not only reviewed the game and interviewed some of the organisers of the other games, but also interviewed me and give me a chance to mull over (at length) how it went.

A lot easier than typing it all up, so the links are here!

Episode 7 : Review and interviews of other UNSOC organisers.

Episode 8: Interview with the game designer.

Thanks To

Given the Epic Scale of the WAM, I must thank those without whom the project could not have happened… in no particular order…

John ‘columbo’ Mizon (owner of the famous ‘Mizon Tower’) – (Southwest Megagames) for organising the Bristol game of the State of Ouisconsin [Wisconsin]

Zane Gunton – (Diversionary Games) for organising the Southampton game of the State of Ilinewek (that’s ILL-Y-KNEE-WEK, Zane) [Illinois]

Pieter Chielens and Hans De Ceuster (Megagame Makers Belgium) for organising the Brussels game of the State of Adirondack. {New York State]

Marc Seutter and Jurrien DeJong (Megagame Makers Netherlands) for organising the Nijmegen game of the State of Susquenhannock. [Pennsylvania]

Darren Green and Bob Faulkner (Crisis Megagames) for organising the Cambridge game of the State of Wabash. [Indiana]

Tim Campbell (Pennine Megagames) for organising the Leeds game of the State of Ahao. [Ohio]

Paul Howorth (Pennine Megagames) for organising the Birmingham game of the State of Shawnee. [Kentucky]

Rex Brynen and Tommy ‘Danger’ Fisher (McGill) for organising the Montreal game, representing Northland. [Canada].

Brian Stacy and Stefan Salva (Ironmark Games) for organising the New York game of the State of Kanawha. [West Virginia].

DSCF7392.JPGJeff Quick (Megagame Texas) for organising the Austin Texas game of the State of Powhatan. [Virginia].

Brian Cameron (Megagame Makers) for running the London game of the State of Mishgamaa [Michigan] – the largest of the state games.

And, of course, to Becky Ladley (Pennine Megagames), the Media Queen for her massive effort to create and to keep the Badger News network running accross all games in circumstances that can best be described as ‘challenging’.

And to all of those who helped in Control roles all over the world, and especially those who gave me a constant flow of suggestions and support during the development.

And finally, my home team at Past Perspectives – Viji Szepel-Golek who managed her own personal WAM keeping all the organisers in touch and fielding the admin in the six-month run up to the game and Angela Schütz who built the vast majority of the game components we needed.

Conclusion

Urban Nightmare:State of Chaos was a massive, spawling exercise in confusion and intercommunication.

I’m pretty convinced that the concept works, and would recommend groups currently designing and running megagames seriously consider ways they can link up with other megagamers (at least in their time-zone) – though would caution against trying an 11-game WAM for their first go.

Not for the first time, I have rightly been accused of being over-ambitious!

 

PS: AARs

There have been loads of After Action Reports – here are a few:

The Megagame Report

Becky Ladley’s Blog

EvoNews

Player AAR – NECROTECH

Confessions of a Megagame Control

PaxSims review

Pete Ess’s megagame blog

If you have any AAR links I’ve missed, just post them into the comments section.

 

 

Press in Megagames – No news isn’t good news

A critical part of many megagames is a Press or Media role

It seemed to me worthwhile to say a little about what being the press in a megegame entails and why it is probably the most involving and coolest roles of all (after being on the Control Team, that is).

First a bit on the game function of Press in games. The press are there to create an atmosphere of challenge for players – especially thDSCF3761ose playing political roles. It is easy for players to stand up and announce how well they are doing or make some entirely self-serving announcement – but as in real life, if their spin or dissembling is too far from the truth it must be challenged, otherwise game communications and public statements become meaningless nonsense pretty quickly – and therefore detract from the gameplay experience for everyone else as the other participants are having to listen to players who merely like the sound of their own voices. It is a waste of the limited time we have in a day of gaming.
So a key aspect of the press/media team is to challenge these statements. They do this best by producing a new-sheet or a blog post or twitter headlines (or whatever technology is being used for the game) which asks questions and expects the political players to justify, and provide evidence for, their pronouncements.

Some have suggested that this could be a Control role, and indeed it can, but Control are not at all well placed to perform the press function because:

a. they know too much about ‘reality as it is’ and are often sorely tempted to use that information – thus creating unintentional leaks and spoilers – and potentially harming the players’ experience of emerging gameplay.

b. players are often suspcious of Control-run press because of fears of being railroaded. There is a very real risk of players seeing control-generated press as ‘instructions’ of what they must do in the game.

c. Control cannot ‘go for the throat’ and publish a political hatchet-job on a player or team where they have messed up being caught out lying (or whatever). Control will feel they have to be impartial and ‘fair’ in a way a player-run team does not. This dangerously dilutes the impact of the press.

d. Control has no game objectives (other than to ensure the smooth running of the game) whereas players can be given their own agenda, and they can fully and wholeheartedly engage in wheeling and dealing with political players. And can be influenced in a way that Control never can be.

So, the flow of news about what is going on the game world being represented has tremendous influence.

In many games, positive or negative reporting in the game-media has direct game effects as part of the game system, or perhaps reporting has direct feedback into individual player objectives. Where the press are at their best is where everyone really needs to ensure their image in the media is sound.

Press Teams in Action

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Typically we organise the press into teams (we have had amazingly capable individuals play the roles, but like so much in megagames – the team is the thing).
Functionally, they are at their best when they are able to divide up tasks and work properly as a team – with some team members perhaps writing the next articles on a laptop whicle others are out and about around the game news-gathering, interviewing or evesdropping on conversations to get a story. They also get ‘leaks’ from Control from time to time.
We have found that the press teams that get out and about have the most fun and the most impact. Player teams are always trying to get their carefully prepared press releases published verbatim in the game newsheets – and the best press teams generally ignore them (other than to perhaps pull something quoteworthy out of the release) because otherwise their entire game is just typing in press releases – something neither useful in the game or interesting.

Being active and asking awkward questions is really what it is all about.

Reporting Style

It is fairly easy to run the press corps using tabloid-style ‘shock-horror’ reporting. And whilst this might seem hilarious and is very easy, it isn’t necessarily the best way of reporting.

The role of world media in public opinion forming runs well beyond this, and we always encourgae the press players to report more in the style of the BBC’s Newsnight programme or a serious newspaper rather than the tabloids.

The reason for this is simple. The more outrageous the reporting style, the more the players can just laugh and dismiss it. And to be a role worth playing the press need to be taken seriously as opinion formers and reflecting the view of the (non-playeed) general public.

Serious reporting cannot be so easily dismissed, and will have an effect (via Game Control or game systems) on informed popular opinion – which in turn will impact on some players’ objectives

Serious reporting also gives the press players more influence as reporters when speaking to the players – it really matters to the other players what is said and reported.

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Typical megagame newsheet

Why Be On the Press Team?
The press role might seem like its a lot of hard work.
There may be something in thus but nothing is hard work if it is fun, and being on the press team is a lot of fun.

Not only is there the opportunity to be a key influener on game outcomes, but the press team get to see more of the game than any other role (including Control).

They gain a better sense of the emerging narrative and all the weird and wonderful events that crop up during a day of intense megagaming.
True there is some pressure in producing multiple news-sheets or blog posts during the day- but there is pressure on all teams in a megagame – this is not unique to the press role.

And the sense of satisfaction (and appreciation from your fellow megagamers) at the end of the day is palpable – and I say that as someone who has played press roles myself and thoroughly enjoyed them every time.
Writing the news give you a chance to be witty, to make a point, to point out injustice and deceit and to have a laugh at the discomfort of pompous politicians.

What’s not to love about that?

 

IN THE BEGINNING – ORIGINS AND INFLUENCES

Origins of Megagames

The early prototypes of what were to become megagames started with Paddy Griffith in the later 1970s and early 1980s. As a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Paddy ran large multiplayer wargames for the students and my early involvement with Paddy and large, multiplayer multi-team games was being invited to take part as a member of the control teams.
The first game actually called a megagame was Paddy’s ‘Memphis Mangler‘ Vietnam wargame played in April 1982 with about 30 players, though both Paddy and others (such as the Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group in South London) had been running games that would by our modern definition qualify as a megagame these days. It was Andy Callan who coined the name, saying something like “this isn’t just a wargame, it is some sort of … MEGA-game”

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Megagame Control Team – Army Staff College, Montgomery Wing in the early 1990s

From the outset, for recreational wargamers, the whole idea of these large multi-player games was both startling and very exciting. At that time There was nothing else like it outside the military training environment (and even in the military training environment they were a lot less open to emerging game-play), and those early games by Paddy and, later, Andy Grainger were exceptionally inspirational and really started the development of megagames as we now understand them.
There has, of course been mainstream hobby wargames involving lots of people – but these generally lacked the hierarchies and the team interaction that characterises megagames. Wargames with large numbers of toy soldiers with two sides playing a simple game on the table top (or floor) facing each other would not generally qualify as a megagame.

Through my contact with Paddy I was able to not only see his idea of large wargames put into practice, but also I was invited to help him run operational wargames for cadets at the Sandhurst Academy, and to help Paddy set up and run a wargame for Southern TV’s series Invasion Road in 1979, where we ran a fictitious Warsaw Pact / NATO wargame using the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall as a venue and memorably with the late Brigadier Peter Young as the NATO supreme commander!

The early 1980s saw a series of imaginative, sometimes quirky, sometimes astonishing megagames run by Paddy, with the help of others. I thoroughly recommend Paddy’s book, Sprawling Wargames for an insight into his philosophy of larger wargames with multiple players. Paddy’s games covered a wide range of historical subjects the French Revolution (in a game called ‘Sans Culottes‘). the 1918 Kaiserschlact Offensive, the Peninsular War (in a game called ‘Tajo‘), the convoy war in the Atlantic (‘Western Approaches’), the Franco-Austrian war (‘Novi‘ in conjunction with myself), and the opening moves of WW1 (‘Guns of August‘). Paddy brought a professional historian’s attention to detail and a truly creative instinct for games to his megagames.

These early games inspired Andy Grainger to turn his own highly respected and thorough research skills to the genre, and he produced a very successful series of well-written and structured world war two historical megagames, based around the Battle of Kirovograd.

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Megagaming at the Army Staff College, Montgomery Wing, in the early 1990s

Andy’s example proved the final inspiration for me to start running my own games on the same scale and my first megagame “Blood & Thunder” – a huge 60 player piratical naval /role playing game – in 1987. This was historical, and loosely based on Morgan’s fleet raids on the Spanish Main. It had perhaps a higher degree of role playing and plot than previous megagames, and was built around the team concept, with each team representing a ship’s crew. The main action was using model ships on a huge floor model in the Woolwich Hall in Sandhurst.

This kicked off a long run of games that continues to this day.

The early 1990s saw the first properly collaborative game design, with a megagame called Springtime for Hitler, and the creation of the loose association of megagame designers, now known as Megagame Makers. Springtime was 180 player game about the campaign in France and the Low Countries in 1940. Graham Attfield, Brian Cameron, Andy Grainger, Steve Hale, Terry Martin, and myself put together a large and complex military / political game, and set the scene for future collaborations in megagame design.
We established that it didn’t necessarily need a single talented and enthusiastic individual to produce a successful game, and that notion probably encouraged many of today’s designers to take the plunge, at first, in collaboration with others.

Other Influences

Of course, in the professional wargaming field (in government and defence circles) the multi-player political / operational game has been in existence for decades or longer . There were (and are) many elaborate wargames played by the US military and the RAND Corporation during the late 1950s to the 1980s, and these were (and still are) used to inform policy within government.
I was fortunate, in the 1980s, to be able to access quite a lot of the literature of those games through the Ministry of Defence library.
In addition there have been political and crisis games run in many University politics departments, and these routinely form part of the study programmes.
Many of our megagamers (and some designers) have had experience of these and bring that experience to their game designs.

In the UK hobby wargames world, the megagame concept came about about as a cross-over from Dr Paddy Griffith and some members of the group he founded in 1980, “Wargame Developments”.
The initial idea was to use the techniques of the military command post exercise (CPX) in playing hobby wargames. Paddy experimented successfully with the multi-room wargames using closed game systems, and ran a number of games for non-military audiences – most notably his game of ‘Sealion‘ and his NATO / Warsaw Pact game for the 1979 TV series ‘Invasion Road‘ for Southern Television.

Although the detail and the way these were put into practice has altered over the years – the basic tenets form the key central characteristics in many of the modern megagames.

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Operation Market Garden WW2 Megagame in 1988

Board game designs have been influential too – particularly where political and economic factors are in play. The growth of the commercial board games over the last decade has been meteoric – particularly the popularity of euro games. And this, coupled with the expansion of social board gaming has created a demographic of ‘game literati’ who form a large proportion of the present population of megagamers.

Also Kriegspiel has been important Bill Leeson’s involvement in bringing the modern Kriegspiel back into the light, and the natural similarities between the Kriegspiel and the operational megagame.
The original Reiswitz Kriegspiel has much in common with the modern operational megagame – they both involve maps gaming, and the movement of units over time, hidden movement and command and control structures. Players of kriegspiel often migrate easily to operational megagames because the feel is very similar.
Computer games and especially Real Time Strategy (RTS) games have been influential for a number of games. The computer game has massively altered from its early pixillated simplicity on the BBC, Commodore 64 or Spectrum. Even then, the classic game ‘Arnhem’ game by SSI for the Spectrum was the initial inspiration of the early operational world war 2 megagame ‘Operation Market Garden‘.
Modern computer games have many of the features that can be found in the megagame – once you get behind the photo-realistic graphics. Games which encourage multiplayer interaction in particular team play – for example famous MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft – have encouraged team-based play and even hierarchies of command and control have evolved, though this is not a central tenet of the game design.
Familiarity with cooperative play is growing, and the best example of this is Artemis, the starship bridge crew simulator. This creates, over a computer network, an excellent real-time simulation of a starship bridge with players operating key control stations and who must communicate and cooperate to run their ship. The system even allows up to six ships to cooperate, necessitating a hierarchy and an admiral and/or squadron commanders.

And, of course, most recently, the well-known Watch the Skies series of megagames was inspired by the 1994 classic game UFO Enemy Unknown developed by Mythos Games and MicroProse.

Game Theory has had its place too. As the megagame idea developed, so designers started to draw in ideas from game theory – not just the mathematical aspects, but more qualitative ideas concerned with the psychology and sociology of game play.
This has been supplemented by ideas drawn from more recent literature on game design that has arisen from the growth of game design as a subject taught at university (on the back of the explosion in the computer games industry). Academic professors of Game Design are, as professors do, writing about their subject in extremely interesting, and entertaining, ways and the literature is growing daily.  I particularly like Rules of Play  by Katie Salen   and Eric Zimmerman.. Also recommended are The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses and A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

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‘Final Frontier’ SF Megagame – 1989

Management theory has also been an influence. There are vast mountains of books on management theory, and life would be far too short to have read them all, let alone apply them to megagame design. However, a number of ideas have been influential – in particular the very effective communications theories of MIT Professor Fred Kofman in his book ‘Conscious Business‘.  Don’t be put off by the ‘business’ look of the book, it is, for me, one of the best books on interpersonal communication out there.  And megagames are all about interpersonal communication.

Some basic ideas on the operation of hierarchies, team formation and even Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have been applied in the design of megagames.

Leadership and communications theory has been influential too. Megagames are about leadership. It will come as no surprise that theories of leadership have been influential in developing and designing game briefings and setting the challenges for players leading teams (even though they might not be aware that in playing what appears to be a fairly simple game role is in fact giving them access to valuable practice for leadership.)

 

Is it a megagame?

Just a short post this week.

I came across this chart I designed a few years ago now.
The final complete analytical flow chart will be more complex, of course – but as a starting point this was an interesting exercise.
I’m working on an updated version, so it would be very interesting to hear comments on how it might be improved or adjusted.

Anyone have any thoughts?

is-it-a-megagame

wargames
Is this a megagame? – discuss.
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Or Is THIS a megagame?
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What about this?  Megagame or not?

Next Week : The Origins of Megagames

Reviewing and assessing how it went

Debriefing

One of the most important traditions in megagaming is the post-game debriefing. It is really important that everyone gets together at the end for a short review of the game and to give and hear some feedback.
The format and timing of the post-game session will depend on the time available in the venue and the numbers of players and team.
Typically we allow about half an hour for the plenary debrief at the end, though it can be longer.
Ideally someone from each of the main player teams should be invited to give a short account of what their team anticipated for the day, their plan, and how it turned out. Encourage them to give one or two key points and to keep it short. Emphasise short, at the end of the game many players really want to give a blow-by-blow account of the day – avoid that if possible. And occasionally one gets players who just like the sound of their own voice!
We also ask some of the control team for their feedback – for example in a game with a main map, the Map Control might give an overview of events.
Also useful in closed games is to leave the master map open for a little while before clearing up so that players can take a look at what was really happening in their game.
The aim of the debrief at the end of the day is mainly to allow players to get a sense of some of the unfolding narrative that they would never know about otherwise.
We also encourage participants to write post-game After Action Reports (AAR) on the Megagame Makers Facebook group or on blogs. The post-game feedback from these sources is often really useful and it has the added benefit that megagamers who were not there get the chance to get a flavour of what they missed.

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The Critique Sheet

The second main feedback tool we use is our Megagame Critique feedback form, This is a single sided questionnaire. We have used this fairly standard critique sheet for many years now, which has been very helpful in allowing us to compare subsequent runs of a game, or similar games.

The sheets are handed out at the end of the game, during the de-briefing session. We do this because we want the players to reflect a little on their day before filling it in. We also make a point of collecting the forms there and then. Experience has taught us that we lose a lot of feedback by waiting for someone to return a form later or respond on line. Also we want to be able to compare immediate responses to the game. If some respondents are giving the immediate reaction and some are reacting days or even weeks later they will have a different perspective.

Most of the key scores on the form are based on a 1 to 5 scale, and they are very helpful is getting an overall sense of how the game went.

In many cases, designers already know if a game went generally well or generally badly. What is harder to determine in a game involving many players interacting in widely different ways, if how everybody experienced the game. It is quite possible for a game to have gone generally well, and at the same time for a particular team to have had a miserable day. Psychologically, they will be disinclined to say this, especially if everyone else is chatting afterwards about how well the day went. The critique sheets not only provide a numerical measure, but also space for written comments and thoughts on the game. It is from these that we get a sense of where the ‘enjoyment black holes’ might be.
Sometimes this will be a result of game structure problems – a team might not have enough game interactions with other teams – sometime it can be as a result of the team’s own behaviours – i.e. they pissed off their other team members and nobody would talk to them thereafter. Or some combination of the two even.
It is important to hear these criticisms in a positive light – even if they are writing things like “…this was the worst game I ever played…”. Do not get defensive, read on – they might have some constructive suggestions that will make the game better – and as designers this is what we are always trying to achieve.
In our critique questionnaire we ask a number of key questions. There is nothing special about them, they just reflect what we’d like to know.
Of course, once you run a few megagames, the results have a value for rough comparison – though I would never go so far as to use the term ‘league table’ in polite company – it is something of an incentive to try to get an improving ‘Enjoyment ‘ score for your megagames.

The questions we ask are:

Part 1 : Numerically scored questions (participants score 1 to 5)

Game Briefing Materials: How well did the briefing material supplied enable you to play the game properly?
Rate of Play: To what extent were you under time pressure whilst playing? 5= too fast, and 1 = too slow
Personal Involvement: How much were you involved in the game action, or interactions with other players?
Personal Enjoyment: How much fun was it for you?
Game Difficulty: How hard you found the problems posed by the game and the situation you found yourself in?
Historical Feel: To what extent did the course of the game match up to what you would expect might happen historically?
Quality of the Control Team: The Control Team make the game run, how well or smoothly do you think they did this (so far as you could tell)?
Quality of Other Players: How well did you feel other players coped with the problems posed?
Admin Charge: To what extent do you feel you got value for money today?

Part 2 : Other questions, not numerically scored

Other Information

To help us to gauge what sort of background knowledge players come to the game with, answer the following by ticking the ONE box that most closely matches your background knowledge on the period in question:
[] Read only the game briefing material
[] Had a quick look at a book
[] Only one book on the subject
[] Several books on the subject
[] Studied the period/subject extensively

The Future

To gauge the likely take-up for future games (or re-runs of this game) please indicate below:
If this game were run again within 12 months, would you play again? YES/NO
If a game similar to this one were being organised, would you want to play? YES/NO

At the end of the form is space for the participant to offer suggestions, either on improvements to the game they have just played, or suggestions for future games.

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Interpretation

There are some things we have noticed having review many of these feedback exercises.
Responses to game briefing materials seem to be independent of the actual quality or writing or production values We think this is usually related to how well the materials related to the player’s game role and ability to engage with the game.
Player involvement and player enjoyment are often linked.
The value for money question (Admin Charge) is also scored low when enjoyment is low.

The Real Debriefing

There is a third type of debriefing which I regard as essential after any megagame and that is the post-game social. What this is will depend on venue and timing – it can be as simple as naming your favourite local pub and everyone descends on that (remember to warm the pub first if its likely to be a lot of people), or you might be able to arrange something in the venue itself, or book a room at a restaurant. It all depends.
But whatever you choose it is important to have some sort of post-game event because this is where players really get to expand on their megagame war stories about who did what to whom and how often – and how they were shafted by their allies, or how they outwitted their enemies.

Megagames are primarily about a narrative arising from emerging gameplay and the post-game social session is, above all, the place where megagamers get to tell each other about that narrative.

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NEXT WEEK : Is it a megagame?

The Megagame Control Team (Part 2)

Map Control

Last time we looked at the work of the Team Controls in an operational megagame (or the operational part of a political/military megagame) and this is usually coordinated by one of more Map Controls. This is largely a management role. The key things Map Control usually takes on are:

Timing. As you have seen, Team Control has a full range of things to do, and whilst all Team Controls keep one eye on the clock it can be very easy to lose track of time, especially if you have a particularly confusing or knotty situation to resolve with other Team Control on the Master Map. Map Control will gently remind the Team Controls that they only have a few minutes to complete their updates. Map Control often holds the vital responsibility for overall game timing and ensuring things do not slip. In general this works, and the unbroken pace of time passing is one of the features of a well run megagame that distinguishes it from many other types of game.

Consistency – I have mentioned elsewhere the need for a common understanding of the principles and philosophy of the base game systems. Map Control is there to help the Team Controls with interpretations, or areas where they are not sure how to apply the base system. It is also important to make sure that any new rule interpretations are shared across the map with all the Team Controls, to ensure consistency.

Supporting Team Control – Sometimes, exceptionally, where Team Controls have a lot of actions to adjudicate, Map Control might step in and assist with the actual adjudication process – though this isn’t the norm. If Map Control is doing this then they are obviously not doing the rest of their task.

Troubleshooting – sometimes things get fraught or the Control Team come under time pressure themselves. This is less than ideal – the aim of megagame designs is that the time pressure should apply to the players, not Control. So Map Control – possibly in concert with the Game Designer, if present, takes on the authority to make greater changes – maybe dispensing with rule mechanisms that are slowing things down, or even, in extremis, leading a ‘free kriegsspiel’ of the map situation to unblock delays and sticking points. The most important thing here is that “the game must go on” and as far as possible appear seamless to the players. What goes on at the Master Map, stays at the Master Map so long as the output does not challenge the players’ willing suspension of disbelief.

Generally the Map Control will tend to be a more experienced member of the Control Team, with a good knowledge of the historical period, the game rules and good interpersonal skills. They need to be able to get the Team Controls moving constructively and show some gentle authority at the Master Map table.

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Political Control

In some games we have a role for Political Control, which is there to facilitate useful conversations between political teams / players in a political or political / military megagame.

Generally a Political Control has a good knowledge of the politics of the period in play, and can extemporise on a theme of what might be possible or what the consequence of a particular political action might be. This is a lot more open ended than the Team Control role in an operational megagame, and requires consistent judgement and imagination to tell the story. This might be giving a player team the likely reaction ‘back home’ of a particular negotiation position or treaty, or it might be handling some sort of political skulduggery in historical periods where assassination or kidnapping was the norm.

The base rules generally provide guidelines on political actions, and might provide mechanisms for things like popularity, status or the chances of a successful assassination – but inevitably, players will come up with things outside these base rules or guidelines.
Political Control will often be keeping track of several political storylines simultaneously, as the results of player actions and decision work through into the political consequences (both intended and unintended).

In our megagames we tend to use only the most experienced Control team members for Political Control, mainly because they can always add depth to the basic game structure and are used to managing political wizard wheezes constructively and without unbalancing the overall game narrative.

Another important aspect of the Political Control role is representing higher authorities. In one run of our game about the 1940 Campaign in France and the Low Countries, the player playing Winston Churchill confessed after the game that we was genuinely nervous when the Political Control announced that the King wished to interview him about the (not very successful) course of the war so far, and then made him role-play the ‘awkward interview’ with the Political Control playing the King. This is a vital bit of colour – because it is very unusual for the top level commands to be entirely independent of their political masters. A ‘visit from Hitler’ in an East Front game will always concentrate high command players’ minds.

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Non-Played Elements

In games with a wide range of actors that are not represented by player teams we generally have a Non-Played Elements (NPE) Control to manage this aspect of the game. The non-played elements might be minor countries in a political game that are too small to warrant an active player team, but which nevertheless have something to say in events. Famously one NPE Control managed to have an argument with himself while representing two minor countries, and went to war with himself over it! The key here is to add depth to the game and make those elements of the game not under player control have some life and be able to respond, as distinct from being merely blank areas on a map to occupy with no consequence. This creates a real sense of game depth that impacts on players’ decision making and their all-important sense of the game narrative.

NPE Control might also be role-playing certain personalities, and will often have a collection of these to do – maybe a Pope here or a minor Duke there. There will usually be base game rules to determine much of this – in the case of NPE that are countries the game might have rules determining their reactions to their neighbours or to being invaded – but ultimately players will value having someone to talk to face to face – even if all the minor rulers do look uncannily similar.

Specialised Control

Some games require different types of Specialised Control. These might be adjudicating logistics or strategic air power or religion or magic or births, ‘marriages and deaths’. These will vary very much from game to game and we often find that these will be built around some specific game mechanism. However they are usually far from mechanistic Control roles. Like Team Control and NPE Control players will always look for things outside the base game systems, and a Specialised Control has be able to take this and run with it – this is, one again, part of creating the impression of an ‘open world’ of the megagame – that anything could be done in real life can be done in the game.
For example a Logistics Control might be reporting back to logistics players information that is actually operational – say if the enemy have just appeared in the rear areas.
Or one division might be surreptitiously stealing fuel from another division’s dump.
Or in a fantasy game, the Mages decide they want to use their magic in a perfectly reasonable way that has not be allowed for in the rules – Magic Control has to come up with either a perfectly good reason why they cannot or, and better to my mind, quickly give them some possible outcomes (as well as costs and benefits).

Game Control

In overall charge of the game is Game Control. This can be either very easy or very difficult and it is always hard to know which in advance.
Game control has the following main areas of responsibility:

Game Flow. This is more a sense of the ‘feeling’ of the game than any structural or definable thing. If you stand and watch and listen in a megagame, you will be aware of the game ‘buzz’. This is a combination of the body language, the conversations, the movement around the room of a large number of gamers who are engaged with a game and enjoying themselves. The buzz varies with the mood of the players, the excitement of the game and the general energy in the room. If this starts to flag this is a clue that the game might not be holding everyone’s attention fully. This might be fine – it might be that last half-hour turn of the day and everyone is winding down. If it feels ‘flat’ during in the early afternoon then this is a clear indicator of game flow issues. There might be things that can be done at this stage – what, exactly, will depend on the game. If the game designer is present then they might have suggestions. It could be as simple as injecting additional resources for some teams (reinforcements, money, magic items). Or major like re-arranging the teams, or setting fresh objectives.

Timekeeping – as you have seen, Map Control keeps the Master Map to time (if there is one). Game Control has the wider responsibility for keeping the whole game moving, and this will often involve simple things like announcing turn changes. However there is more to it than that – where there are consistent delays – maybe a player team is consistently late getting their orders ready, or the Team Controls are too slow in getting back to the players, then it is Game Control’s to track down what is going wrong and fix it.

Looking after the players – this might be as simple as circulating and checking that everyone is have a good time (see below). Some players struggle, especially at first, and Game Control is, ideally, free to spend time chatting to them and helping them.

Supporting the Control Team – this is important when there are less experienced members of the Control team who might need reassurance or advice on how they are getting on. It might also be necessary to step in and relieve a member of the Control Team who has to drop out at the last minute or as a result of some crisis or other. Or better yet – reorganise the Control Team to cover problems, workloads etc.

Final Arbiter. The Game Control will be the last port of call for game problems. However, I always advise everyone in Control to watch out for players ‘shopping’ – that is, going to a series of members of the Control Team with the same question hoping to get the answer they want (I.e. the one that most benefits them) from one of them. In these cases I always ask “have you asked your Team Control?” first.

Anything not covered above. Stuff happens. Game control sorts it out. Game Control usually suits people who like to problem solve under pressure, and have good interpersonal skills.

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The Game Designer and Control

In a slight majority of megagames the game designer is present.

This is both a blessing and a curse for Control.

The blessing is that the game designer is there and can help brief control on the game design philosophy, and even take part as a member of the Control Team (usually as Game Control, but not always). The game designer is also a very useful source of assistance where there are problems with the game mechanisms as they will, of course, be the ultimate authority on how the game should work – in theory at least.

There is an issue where there are patches or workarounds developed during gameplay – usually involving the Game Designer. It is very important that those patches are communicated to not only the Control Team but also the players (assuming it affects them).

Where the game designer can be a curse is where they feel the need to interfere when things are actually working well enough. This can be very disruptive for Control, especially if they have got into the flow of the game and feel they know what they are doing. Even if, or especially if, this might not be exactly what the game designer wrote, to the letter.

I’ve been guilty of this more than a few times myself as a game designer. Looking around the game I’ve been seized by a sudden panic that something isn’t working properly and have the uncontrollable urge to wade in a ‘fix it’. Only to be met by the Control Team who say “Jim … shut up … its all fine”. It is important that the game designer understand that with a good Control Team, they will come to you if there is a problem – you don’t need to interfere. In some cases where Control have made a workaround for something that didn’t quite work as well as hoped, you can usefully take notes for next time the game is run.

There can be an even bigger problem if the game designer actually plays in their own game. In my view, this is never a good idea, unless the game designer can be absolutely clear that they hold no responsibility for the game while its in play, and fully delegate responsibility to the Control Team.

Nobody on the Control Team wants to be ‘outranked’ by the game designer over some adjudication decision they have made that the game designer doesn’t like or on how the game ‘should’ be going.

That way lies madness.

 NEXT WEEK : Reviewing and assessing how it went

 

The Megagame Control Team (Part 1)

The key part of any megagame is the group of people that facilitate the whole thing.

In some games this role is called ‘umpire’ or ‘GM’ but we tend to use the term ‘Control’.
We call them ‘Control’ because the term ‘Umpire’ tends to give the impression that they are impartial arbiters of a set of generally agreed-on rules as might be a tennis umpire or a football referee.
This might be a part of Control’s role, but the facilitation aspect of the Control function means they have a role to play in addition to this. It is especially important in megagames where often they are closed games, both in terms of ‘fog of war’ but also in that the game rules themselves are not available in their entirety to the players.

The term ‘Control’ implies some responsibility for the progress of the game – acting like a ‘control rod’ in an nuclear reactor – which moves to speed up or slow down the fission reaction. Similarly Control might make injects into the game to influence or moderate game flow.

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A megagame is not a passive process, like a board game, which would typically be set up and run to a conclusion with all the player interactions being clearly defined and regulated by a set of (usually) immutable written rules.   A megagame is a more dynamic process of multi-player interaction, that might (and often does) involve the use of fixed rules to moderate some aspects of the activity – but also re-quires facilitation and interactive moderation to ensure that the maximum gain to the largest number of players. A good control team will manage this facilitation process invisibly, ensuring that they do not damage the key narratives of the game by appearing to be arbitrary.

So in a very real sense the Control team controls the game on many levels.

As a result, individual members of the Control team have a degree of leeway to develop the game themselves in their particular area. This can, and does, require some quick thinking, imagination and excellent communication skills. In some games we can even see Control developing ad-hoc rules to cover some creative idea brought up by players. This works very successfully where players come up with a wizard wheeze that is perfectly reasonable but falls outside whatever base game system the megagame is operating on. There have even been experiments with dispensing with a base game systems and mechanisms altogether and rely on Control to manage all game interactions and adjudicate results based on their judgement alone. Such ‘free kriegsspiel’ methods are risky and require a high standard of consistency between the various members of the control team, and it utterly depends on a tight, experienced, team all having very similar views on what constitutes reasonable outcomes for the narrative. Generally we have found it more reliable to have a mixed economy of a base game system with can be embellished by the Control Team as necessary – effectively like improvisation within a theme.

Team Control

It is in the operational games that Team Control – the member of the control team that interfaces between the Master Map and one particular player team – a sort of liaison role – where some of the most interesting facilitation occurs.
In games using the Player Team ↔ Team Control ↔ Master Map approach, Team Control has a great deal of responsibility for the quality of the experience of the game that their players have. It is very like the responsibility a dungeonmaster has with their group of players in a conventional role playing game.

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Team Control is often also the person calculating combat results and updating the position on the main map. This is sometimes tricky, especially for those new to it because it can feel like playing a board game – in fact we identified early on the problem of Team Controls ‘going native’ and playing as if they were a partisan member of their player team. To a degree this is reasonable and to be expected, in that we expect Team Controls to be advocates for the orders the players have written – but they are neutral advocates rather than players. At the map table, the Team Control also generally takes low level decisions on behalf of the team on issues that cannot be covered in the written (or verbal) orders given by the players – this is to simulate the initiative taken by junior commanders who we imagine would be in charge of the units the players are ordering about. These low level decisions will aim to reflect their understanding of the players’ intentions (and because the Team Control spends the day communicating with the player team they generally get a good idea of what the players really want, even if they didn’t write it down with military precision (or even if they did!). This is a key example of how Team Control injects that all-important ‘colour’ to the game experience. Players are encouraged to develop their sense of the story unfolding by this sort of independent action. Their subordinate units are no longer merely counters to be pushed around a board, but begin to feel as though they are ‘real’ (or a bit more real, at least).

All this adjudication at the Master Map is usually done in conversation with the other Team Controls who might be handling ‘opposing’ units, and the discussion there will reflect an informed consensus of what is ‘really going on’ at that stage of the battle. The Control team gathered round the master map create the overall narrative of what has happened in a game turn, greatly influenced by the base rules or mechanisms but also by their own knowledge of the historical period and the boundaries of possibility.

I think it is important, however, to make sure that there is a common understanding of the philosophy underpinning the base mechanisms because this provides a sound foundation for any extemporising or judgement calls the Team Controls might need to make. Wherever possible we try to explain the thinking in separate briefings for Control – but it often helps to have a brief face-to-face session with all of the Control Team in the first half-hour of so of the game, while the players are sorting themselves out in preparation for the first game turn.
Where a situation arises that isn’t covered by a specific rule or mechanism it is easy, with experience, to quickly reach a consensus as to what had ‘really happened’.

So, Team Controls establish a rapport with their team early on – and aim tell the story of the division or corps or whatever it is the team is commanding. It is this storytelling aspect which is very important and wherever possible a report back on the outcome of the orders each turn is in the form of a ‘report from junior officers’. So a Team Control might say something like “The commander of 4th Brigade reports that his attack on the town of Kempshott went in as planned, except that the hoped-for air support from the Air Force unfortunately didn’t arrive due to a communications foul-up. The Germans put up a stiffer resistance than we expected and losses were heavy. Fortunately he was able to flank them with some of his tanks2 and eventually the enemy retreated to the east towards Tankerville. The brigade commander says his troops are very tired and worn down and probably only have enough energy for one more attack like that”. This would be in contrast to what might have actually happened at the master map, where under the game mechanisms the air support didn’t arrive because the air force player team forgot to issue an order for it that turn and the attacking brigade had a marginal victory on the combat results table and lost 3 strength points out of 8 and smaller German unit lost 1 strength point and had a forced retreat. Control will avoid using any terminology that is ‘gamey’ or abstract because we believe this detracts from the flavour of the experience and the narrative. It can be entertaining too as unusual events do crop up and can be turned into anecdotes, and control can impart some character into the non-played subordinate units if necessary. For example in this case Team Control might well role play the junior brigade commander offering his (player) commander a few choice words as to his opinion of the (absent) Air Force.

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In one example the player team had a very successful operation and had captured many prisoners from a low-quality enemy unit. They asked if they could interrogate prisoners, and Team Control went into a long and boring feedback from disgruntled enemy soldiers complaining about their own high command, the poor quality of the food, how their feet hurt, how they’d had no sleep and so on. This was more colourful that “…you have captured many men from a low quality unit”. And the players didn’t spend too long asking detailed military questions of the prisoners because they (rightly) deduced that these prisoners really had nothing useful to impart.

All of this said, speed is also very important. Megagames operate to strict timetables, and all members of the Control Team have a responsibility to ensure that the game keeps up its required pace. So sometimes the time pressure means reporting back might not be the full dramatic discourse one would like. But the principles remain.

However much we try to avoid it, it is inevitable that a mistake or two will be made on the map at some point, there can sometimes be a lot to work out and the interplay of different units and orders sometimes complex – but we will not normally go back and undo results once adjudicated. To do so would undermine the narrative flow. We might explain to players if a gross error has occurred but otherwise mistakes tend to stay in the Black Box of the master map and can usually be rationalised as fog of war or the friction of command, or simply a subordinate commander making a mistake.

In general I would always recommend to Team Controls that they are honest about major errors and try to agree with the players on a post-hoc rationalisation if possible. However it can be tough on players who have actually being doing well to have their successes ruined by a Control error. With experience and practice, fortunately, this sort of error is rare.

[Next Week – Megagame Control Team (Part 2) : Game, Map, Political, Non-played Controls, plus the relationship between the Designer and the control team.]