Influence, Creativity and Books

Every game designer brings all sorts of experiences into their game designs, subject matter and the philosophy of their games,  One of my earliest influences was being in the privileged position of having free access to the Ministry of Defence Whitehall Library during the later 1970s and early 80s.  This library contained a huge collection of books on all manner of military subjects, many obscure and therefore deeply interesting (to me at least).  Much of its collection was, sadly, sold off – the Admiralty Library part of the collection has moved to Portsmouth-  and the remaining books are now part of the Defence Academy Library now I believe.

In among this were copies of RAND Papers on wargaming, political-military game and related subjects.  Naturally, in those pre-internet days this was a gold mine of amazing material, not available to the general public, let alone to hobby gamers.  As we would say nowadays “It quite literally blew my mind!” 

Nowadays pretty much all of this is freely available on-line with only minimal searching – which is a brilliant opportunity for the new generation of game designers.

Access to this library, in conjunction with a group of enthusiastic fellow gamers, enabled me to experiment with ideas from the USA in ways not available to mainstream gamers then.  I was particularly lucky in having a group of wargamers that formed the core of Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group to try out these ideas and approaches.  And although at that time megagames had not yet become a thing – much of the thinking about multi-player, wargames or political / military games had its inception for myself and my circle of friends around that time.

Out of this came many game ideas – some examples of games arising directly out of the use of the MOD Whitehall Library being:

  • A multiplayer double-blind map wargame for a 12 players or so on the battle for Kharkov played around 1980.  By modern definitions, pretty much a proto-megagame.  (I think I still have the typewritten materials somewhere – briefings duplicated by using carbon paper!).
  • My WW2 brigade-level map based wargame rules STONK,
  • A map-based political / military game, using an obscure book called ‘Nightmare In Detroit’ describing the race riot in Detroit in 1967, that was first run for students at the Army Staff College Camberley at some point in the early 1980s.  The ideas behind this game subsequently evolved over the following decades into the core of the megagame ‘Urban Nightmare’. (note: Thanks to the internet I now have my own copy!)
  • My first serious operational megagame Operation Market Garden,
  • My attempts at gaming revolutionary warfare as a play-by-mail game – the ‘Vietasia game’ I run with Paddy Griffith and others as players – of which nothing now survives as far as I know.
  • My Civil Disorder Wargame, about rioting in city streets (the first version written about the time of the Brixton Riots in 1979).

The big ideas in all of these that were startling for me as a young (and opinionated) wargamer were:

  • Wargames do not have to be about toe-to-toe kinetic warfare between historical armies.
  • Toy soldiers are fun, but ultimately they are only representational markers.  The toys, counters, models you use are only useful to the extent that they are fit for the purpose of playing the game.  Interestingly, this led to many mainstream wargamers insisting that I was ‘anti-toy soldiers’ as if that was a thing! 🙂
  • It is possible to design a wargame about anything involving an adversarial situation.  It might not necessarily be a war, or a battle, or involve armies.
  • Maps are great!

So for me libraries have been an important formative experience influencing my creativity and an opportunity to seize ideas.  Of course now, I have access to pretty much any book, ever, via the internet.  But – there is something about wandering around vast rows of shelves containing tens of thousands of print books and having one’s eye caught by a surprising book title – or be drawn out of curiosity by a dusty ancient volume languishing on a top shelf.  Ideas that would never have come to you otherwise.  Sometimes it is nothing – but the impact of serendipity on my game designs has been significant.

So if you get the chance of visiting a major library – any library – then do so – before they all vanish into the mists of the internet!

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s Not A Megagame, its a…

What is a megagame?  This one crops up on the Megagame Makers Facebook group every so often, and elsewhere.  So I’ve talked about the elements of a megagame before now – particularly in this post.

I have described a megagame in other ways in the past too.  “It’s like a board game, but not a board game. Its like a wargame, but not a wargame.  It’s like a role-playing game, but not a role playing game”.  Recently, someone said to me … “Ok, but what does that mean?”.  Fair point.  Here goes.

A megagame is like a board game because it often has a playing area (a map or game board), its has game components such as counters, cards, and tokens.  And it has rules of the game that the players follow.  It is not like a board game in that the rules of the megagame game are not immutable – the Control team can, and will , modify the game as it goes along to enhance player experience or respond to the emerging narrative.  Megagames are also not like board games in that they rarely have fixed victory conditions that must be achieved to ‘win’.  In fact ‘winning’ in the trivial sense is something that megagames cannot include by virtue of their size, scope, complexity and social nature.  You cannot ‘win’ a megagame any more than you can ‘win’ going to a movie or ‘win’ attending a dinner party.

A megagame is like a wargame because it often has adversarial situations, and fighting or some sort of conflict represented.  And by the formal definition of a wargame, most megagames are wargames.  A megagame is not like a recreational wargame in that it will usually be much more fast-moving (certainly than most recreational wargames) and the rules and procedures much more broad-brush – effectively a synthesis of the main features of the tactical or strategic situation.

This means that the megagame contains a lot less technical detail – something anathema to the traditionally detail-hungry historical wargamer.  Megagames tend also not to be merely two-sided, or zero-sum games.

A megagame is like a role playing game in that the players in it take on roles, often with specific characteristics and their game experience feels in many ways similar to a role playing game where they are playing a President or a General or an Alien Invader.  A megagame usually differs from the more usual role playing game in that, like the wargame, there is a lot less character specific gamification (character statistics, experience points, skills development etc).  This is usually because in the time available it is hard to make those aspects of the role playing game meaningful in the game situation.  Players in a megagame often have less freedom around the scope of their role than in a normal role-playing game.  So in a megagame, the players are given a situation briefing which tells them what their objectives are (though obviously exactly not what they should do to achieve them).  This contrasts with conventional role playing games where the players are in a more flexible situation and can pretty nearly freely choose how to develop their character , attitudes and objectives within their game theme.

A megagame is like a LARP (very like a LARP) in the same way it is like a role playing game above.  In megagames there is also the opportunity, that some take, to dress up for the part.  It is with some reluctance that I generalise about LARPs but the main difference, it seems to me is that LARPs require dressing up and total immersion in a way that megagames do not and that the LARP follows a more pre-determined narrative structure, often with a clear ending or denouement.  The creation of clear ending / grand finale aspect is quite literally impossible for the megagame – which is all about emerging gameplay – in a megagame the ending that emerges might be a single dramatic and memorable event, or it might be a collection of small events that contribute to the overall narrative.

Naturally, it is easier to say what a megagame isn’t.  But sometimes that helps us when describing what it is.

The key thing for me is related to expectation management.  Those who have not yet been exposed to a megagame can find themselves in difficulty because they join the game with the expectation that a megagame is, for example, merely board game with a few more people in the room.  My experience over the years is that this isn’t the case – for me there is definitely something different that happens when a large bunch people get into a room and start playing a megagame.

 

 

Prevarication is Under-rated….

So one of the things that when game design is in its most intense phases, is the urge to do something unrelated.  This week I have been working a lot on two major projects – a serious game on Housing Policy for the University of Stirling, and the  ‘A Very British Coup’ Megagame.

So naturally I have had to take breaks from the creative process.  The first was to play with the idea of Stone Paper Scissors… (inspired by a cartoon I saw a few years back)…

..and then, a day later I couldn’t resisit taking the joke a step further…

I’m not going to complete the set with ‘paper:paper:paper’ – someone else can take a stab at that!

Today, the very silly idea of Megagame Top Trumps came to me for no good reason.  So I designed the first 9 cards of the deck.

The idea will remain in this state I think, unless or until:

a.  I get the inspiration and energy to make the rest of the pack – there would be about 100 cards in it I would guess – though I don’t have data on every megagame I know about so some of the stats would be … gasp … made up!

b.  Some card-making genie would take the idea and create a whole bunch of better looking cards –  (cough)TomMouat(cough).

There is a serious point here as well.  The creative parts of game design cannot be forced.  When they are, the end product is at risk of just not working – so my practice is to work in spurts of creating new things, interspersed with boring admin and making things (like lunch).

And recharging the creative energies by doing something pretty much unrelated – sort of.

Once More into the Breach…

Its been a while since my last post, last Summer, so this is a sort of catchup to bring things up to date.

Last August I was talking about the 2018 Programme for Megagame Makers.  And this is now well underway, with a full programme of games for the coming year.  And much to my delight I’ll be running the fourth iteration of my pirate-themed megagame Blood & Thunder (more on this later).

In September last year, Rex Brynen and I ran our new ‘Dire Straits’ megagame – themed on multiple, multidimensional crises in East Asia, and developed specifically as an icebreaker for the annual professional wargaming conference CONNECTIONS UK.  It was especially interesting in that this was the first time we had a megagame that was subject to close scrutiny and analysis by professional defence analysts.  And not just one group, but three different and independent teams of analysts studied the game and wrote reports on it.  A truly terrifying experience.

Rex reported at length on his PaxSims site.

From the point of view of megagame design it had some interesting challenges:

  • it was designed for over 100 participants, only a handful of which knew what a megagame was,
  • there could be no pre-briefings,
  • team allocation would happen on the fly on the day,
  • The control team had to be small.

It all worked on the day, though interestingly the ‘professional wargamer’ audience had relatively little actually face to face game experience, and the environment made them, I think, a good deal more timid in their game play than recreational gamers tend to be.

We were able to put this to the test by re-running the game in a more recreational environment, at McGill just a couple of weekends ago. The participants were a mix of McGill students, local recreational gamers, and a smattering of ‘professionals’ from the Canadian military and DRDC.

The action was a good deal more dynamic with a greater inclination to take risks, and even an attempt to re-unify China by force!  The game design contained the usual elements of master map and military resources and capabilities, with the addition of two sub-games on internal politics, one for the USA and one for North Korea, simulating (perhaps controversially for some) the effects world leaders have to take into account an internal political narrative that is not always transparent to the rest of the world.

Autumn Wars

October I had a brief outing to run a small megagame based on the battle for Arnhem (using the OpCom core system).

Then a trip to Cambridge to run Exterminator War, a science fiction political-military megagame based on a long-running role playing game I have been involved in.  This was an interesting experience of translating a rich fictional universe into a game that would accessible to players without them having to read lengthy background briefings.  It worked passably well, but a lot of lessons were learnt (or re-learnt) – mainly:

  • A megagame looks like a role playing game but it isn’t a role playing game.  You cannot build in the narrative subtleties in the time available.
  • Putting communications delays into a game (there was a one-turn delay in comms between different quadrants) is very challenging for players.  Though I would do it again!
  • An implacable robotic enemy has feeling too – especially if they are players and not being managed by the GM.

I had a bit of a peak megagame experience when I went to the CONNECTIONS NL conference in Rotterdam.  My presentation on megagames gave me the opportunity to run an ad-hoc megagame for 50 conference attendees lasting about 90 minutes, which was improvised on the spot.  All that was required was

  • a couple of skilled facilitators
  • the willing participation of the players
  • setting it in a well understood and well know scenario and region.

The idea was to illustrate multiple interactions and how a narrative emerges from this.  I think everyone got something from the experience as well as had an entertaining break from ‘death by powerpoint’.

It was all over by Christmas

The last part of 2017 had little in the way of new megagaming action for me, as I was absorbed in some professional wargaming with the Royal Air Force on Exercise Eagle Warrior.  As this wasn’t a megagame, I’ll say no more here.

No More Games

… for 2017 anyway.

20160525_131535.jpgI have no more megagames coming up on the Megagame Makers Schedule for the rest of 2017, though I do have three megagames on the go over the next few months, one for Connections UK in September, one for Crisis Megagames in Cambridge (Exterminator War) and one for a private group.

But we are fast-approaching the time when the Megagame Makers designers get together and decide on their programme for 2018.  So I’ve been thinking about what I want to do in 2018, if anything, and turning to my list of ‘back burner’ projects, which I thought I’d share (for no good reason really).  At the moment I’m considering doing no more that one megagame in London next year (to make room for all the other keen designers with games in their knapsacks).

I’ve broken my list up by the level of development –

  • ‘Cooked’ is a game I’ve done before and want to return to or a game I’ve not yet done but is nearly completed.
  • ‘Half-baked’ – a game that I’ve messed about with but still needs lots of development.
  • ‘Unbaked’ – just a twinkle in my eye at this stage (but with an idea of how to do it).

COOKED

War In Binni – the game of chaos and civil war in a disfunctional dictatorship.

Dungeons of Yendor – Army-level dungeon crawl.

New World Order 2035 – global international politics, technology and power plays in the near future.

HALF-BAKED

Blood & Thunder 4 – A role-playing megagame of high adventure and shipboard shenanigans.

Adlerangriff – A real-time Battle of Britain 1940 air defence megagame.

The Next Musketeer – daring deeds, bravado and flashing swords in the 17th century.

Warriors for the Working Day – Rapid-play tactical campaigning in WW2

Watch The Spies – the megagame of International Espionage

Rokuwara Valley – power struggles, rebellion and honour during the sengoku-jidai.

Nightmare in Detroit – Historical megagame of crisis, riot and insurrection in a US city 1967.

UNBAKED

The Haunted Forest – myth, magic and Samurai

Catching The Bear – 21st Century international crisis megagame set in eastern europe.

Congress of Yendor – political megagame about resolving unresolvable inter-species enmity.

Great Minds – megagame of ‘evil’ genius and consipiracy building.

Invasion of Hell – er … well the title says it all really…

Who knows? These might all see the light of day eventually.

Lucifer

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

IMGP3202

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.

10402657_10152883427469097_1330507611575915924_n
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?