Megagame Design The Easy Way (3)

In this part I look at a real example of converting board games mechanisms to a megagame.

Pirates of Yendor

Turning ‘Trireme’ into a megagame.

There is a much loved tactical wargame written by Ed Smith called ‘Trireme’1 (originally pic1604161published in the UK as ‘Greek Naval Warfare’). This is a tactical wargame where each player takes control of a small number of ancient Greek warships and aims to outmanoeuvre her opponent and ram and sink the enemy fleet. The game is built around a set of wargame rule that take account of differing sizes of Greek warship, the presence or marines and archers and the effects of ramming from different directions hitting more vulnerable parts of enemy vessels.

Movement and action is simultaneous, each side writing orders for their ships using a simple letter code (P = port, S = starboard and so on). Interception was handled by an ingenious ‘phased movement’ system which allowed ships to do a series of partial moves depending on speed until the point a collision or ram occurrs.

It is an elegant system and fairly easy to learn and play.

The origins of the megagame Pirates of Yendor came about because I wanted to do a naval themed game based in my long-standing fantasy universe built around the City of Yendor. The political structures, back story and environment already existed, so the main requirement was some sort of sea-based action. Having loved Trireme for many years I started to look at how this might be adapted to the megagame.

The basic story of the megagame was that the City of Yendor, being a major port, was vulnerable to attack by sea raiders and corsairs. The megagame was to be about a campaign of a series of seaborne attacks aimed at controlling the sea approaches to the city. In every Yendor-based game there is an element of internal rivalry and posturing within and between various factions within the city, each of which would be buying, equipping, and dispatching ships to fight the Corsairs.

It would have been possible to play a straightforward wargame on this theme, on a game board and with many ships. However that would not have had the command and control and political, elements that made this a megagame.

So the main changes that were implemented were:

  • Moving from one player handling several ships, to several players handling one ship. This meant having some role differentiation within the ship-team. Since there would be many ship crew teams in a hall, the ship models needed to be large and colourful so as to be easily identified from a distance.


  • Instead of written orders the player used large flash cards each turn displayed for the Control team to see. Control then moved ships in accordance with the orders displayed.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • The ships’ status was shown on the ship models rather than recorded on a separate sheet held by the player. This meant that the ship models had to be large and their status clear. Crew on the ships were represented by actual toy soldiers and things like oars (which could be damaged) shown by removable cards.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


There are, broadly speaking, two sides to the game – the Yendorians and the Corsairs.

However, within each side there were factions each with their own agendas, so the way the sea battles played turned out to be more than a straightforward tactical battle.

In a two player ship the roles were:

  • Captain – Responsible for decision making and signalling.

  • Ship’s Master – responsible for issuing the ships’ movement orders, rolling dice etc.

The larger ships, with 3 or more crew had their own separate briefing on how they operated – some had additional weapons to contend with.

The players could not come onto the playing area or move the ship models and the game controllers moved the ships in accordance with the players’ wishes.

There was the all-important time factor.

Players did not have unlimited time in which to carefully work out the optimal manoeuvre for their vessel. We started off by giving everyone a few minutes to prepare their orders, but as the day went on, and the players got more used to the system, we shortened the time available to prepare orders for each game period.

As is normal in megagames, the game did not wait until all the players were ready – once Game Control announced that it was time to display orders anyone who was not ready lost the opportunity to issue orders. Ships with no orders continued on their last heading at their last speed.

In addition, communications were limited. Nobody in this world had a radio. Communication between ships was by shouting or by flags. A ship had to be within 2 squares for shouting to be effective.To make this a bigger challenge, ship teams from each side were interspersed, alternating round the room as Yendorian and Corsair

Flags could be seen at any distance and we gave players coloured paper flags and signal books to help this. Systems of flag signals were specific to each side and there was scope for additional signals to be developed by players.  Other than flags and close-range shouting, players were not allowed to discuss their forthcoming orders with other ship’s crews. To discourage conferring we alternated the seating arrangements so that crews on the same side were not necessarily sitting next to each other.

On the day the megagame was divided into three linked scenarios – each scenario taking about one and a half to two hours, with a break in between. The outcome of each scenario determining the start set up for the next.  

As a megagame this worked pretty well, though it helped that the player interaction part was separated from the tactical element – and the tactical game was fast-moving enough that players did not experience down-time while adjudication took place.  This was helped by simplifying the actual combat rules themselves, and giving the control team several practic session so that they were able to resolve combats with ease and confidence without needing to spend time looking up rules or checking too many rule tables. However the physical representation was important – there needed to be a lot of room to lay out the game so that everyone had a clear and uninterrupted view and that individual crew’s ship’s position on the playing area was clearly visible to the crew at all times.  The physical preparation for a game like this is non-trivial!


In Part 4 : Another worked example … the origins of Sengoku!




Megagame Design The Easy Way (2)

In the last part I discussed some of the pros and cons of designing a megagame based on an existing game type, be it board game, wargame, role playing game or LARP.

In this part I introduce a worked example… so I give you …

MEGACHESS : The Chess Megagame!

An outrageous example of applying megagame structures to a board game.

In this section I want to look at the conversion process a little – how one might look at a well known two player board game and turn it into a megagame.

To really highlight the process I have deliberately chosen one of the simplest two player board games, chess. The basic structure of a game of chess is used and my megagame map is the familiar 8 by 8 grid, the pieces move in the way they move in chess. But in order to adapt the game to a megagame-like format there are important changes made to the rules and procedures of chess.

In this megagame there are two sides, Black Kingdom and White Kingdom. Or the ‘Kingdom of the Black Forest’ and the ‘Kingdom of the White Mountains’ if you want to add spurious ‘fluff’.

Each Kingdom has an army which is organised in a hierarchy, with the King at the top.

There are 16 player roles per side (including the King), one for each chess piece.

Game Layout

MegaChess is a double-blind closed game. The King and his council does not see the main map – but has a smaller map to update the situation based on reports from the front line players who are positioned at the main map.

The main maps do not show all the positions of all the enemy pieces, only pieces adjacent to a friendly piece are shown. The Control team observe both maps and keep them updated, but do not update the King’s council maps.

Megachess Game Layout

megachess layout

Game Play

Each game turn takes 10 minutes.

Action is SIMULTANEOUS. Only one piece can be moved each turn.

The game is a double blind game – with a limited visibility range allocated to each piece.  perhaps Rooks can ‘see’ further’ than pawns?

Interactions between pieces are ruled on by Control. So it is possible for a piece to be attacked and for it to move out of the way. Players issue ‘orders’ for their piece based on instructions from the King’s Council as players receive written orders from their King each ‘Move’.

These cannot be in the form of ‘Pawn to B4’ but must be ‘Pawn No.6 Advance’ or ‘Pawn No.6 capture enemy Knight’. So there is some room for error in interpretation.

The front line players in control of pieces issue instructions to move their piece as ordered on the ‘map’ (game board). This might be actually moved by control based on a written instruction or a flash card. The players then and report back to the King. Some will be reporting newly ‘sighted’ enemy pieces, some will report on their actions.

Turn lengths are rigidly timed to 10 minutes, so it is possible for the King one side not to have given orders for a move in a given turn if they take too long to decide what to do. However, front line players might still issue instructions to their piece to move in the absence of King’s orders thus representing the degree of local initiative or disobedience.

Internal Politics Element. All orders must be agreed upon by the Privy Council composed of the King, Queen, Knights and Bishops, who attend the meeting. There is a status ranking system in the Court, with victory points or status gained if your suggestions are adopted. The attendees are also front line players, so have to rush back to the main map room if they want to move their piece.

Religious Conflict Element. The two Bishops represent different and opposed sects (the White Diagonalist Sect and the Black Diagonalist Sect), and have secret objectives (and a secret communication route with their co-religionists on the other side). They will be seeking to influence strategy and diminish the influence of the rival sect.

Revolutionary Element: Some of the Pawns are Republicans are are trying to convince the other Pawns to overthrow the oppressive Monarchists, depose the King and end this pointless war. They have private line of communication with Revolutionary Red Pawns on the other side. They can also try to convince higher value pieces to join the revolution. They might choose to change sides or disobey orders.

Imagine converting Black and White Pawns into Red Pawns on the board when the revolution starts!

Captured or ‘Dead’? – captured pieces’ players are physically moved to the enemy kingdom’s dungeon room (or area in the hall). They have their own Control who gets them to play a ‘escape from prison’ sub-game loosely based on the ‘Escape From Colditz’ board game so that they might escape and return to the main game They can also be ransomed or a prisoner swap negotiated between White and Black. And of course pawns reaching the other side of the board can perform rescues. Rescued or escaped prisoners are restarted in their traditional start position on the board.

Question – is this a megagame at all?

It has some features or a megagame – size (32 players), hierarchies, time pressure. The rules are very simple. It has some politics and role playing.  It meets many people’s definition of a megagame – in theory.


Most of the players have little to do. They are likely to be spending much of their time waiting for orders from above. You can see how the game design has had to create some opportunities for the 10 or so players who are likely to be inactive on each side to do something meaningful that contributes to the gameplay. This is, of course limited:

  • The pawn conspiracy might generate some discussion, but until they rebel they are just talking.

  • The Privy council sub-game will be entertaining for the six members of each council, but will it dominate to the extent that the chess battle is ignored or marginalised?

  • Is turning up to a megagame, getting captured on turn 2 and spending the day playing ‘Escape from Chessdiz‘ with 2 or 3 other people really an inspiring megagame experience?

Is there enough player interaction apart from the privy council, the revolutionaries and the religious rivalries? To take an example – imagine you are one of the rook players? What would you be doing all day? This is a key question in megagame design – always ask “what will this player actually do?”

The base rules of chess have been altered to allow simultaneous action. Will this break the basic structure and make the chess-like game not work at all? Are there other modifications to the chess structure that might help add depth to the megagame? For example allowing more than one piece to move each turn. Or adding a random element where one rolls dice to determine whether a piece is captured. Or make the capture process a direct stone-paper-scissors type combat between the players on each side.

What this example seeks to illustrate is how, superficially, a board game might look like if it is translated into a megagame, but also how this process of conversion throws up some design issues that must be addressed to ensure that it is a genuine megagame experience.And how the megagame-ising of a baord game can change its character altogether.  This is important if you wanted to replicate the experience of your favourite board game as a megagame.  Will those changes destroy the bits you loved?

No matter what your favourite board game, or wargame or role playing game might be, translating them to the megagame format is never a trivial process. In fact often it can often be both quicker and easier to construct an original game around the theme than to modify or adjust an existing game that was never intended to be a megagame.

In Part 3: Another examples of a board game conversion – how the Pirates of Yendor came into being….


Megagame Design The Easy Way (1)

Many megagame designers have used existing board game or computer games as an inspiration or framework or basis for a megagame idea. This can be an extremely good way of getting into designing your own games.


There are some advantages and also some pitfalls for the the unwary new megagame designers.  It is important to remember that a megagame is superficially like many types of games but its characteristics mean that its design is not like designing a role-playing game, a board game, a LARP or a wargame.

At this stage lets look at the similarities and differences in game types.

Board games :

  • are designed to be played in a few hours and their mechanisms are optimised for that. Some very complex board games such as Europa Universalis and their ilk require very long playing times closer to 10 hours, but these are generally an exception.

  • They can have simple or complex rules and processes. In general board games that aim to simulate something (in the same way megagames contain a simulation) have reasonably complex rules and procedures which might take some time to learn and a while to work through.

  • The vast majority or board games operate on an ‘I Go, You Go’ (IGYG) principle. This is a major distinction with megagames which simply cannot operate in that way because of the constraints of time, space and numbers of participants means that action has to be simultaneous. It would be unacceptable for 40 players to be waiting around while one team of players have their ‘go’.

at the map 2

Mainstream wargame rules

  • Wargames often aspire to be a simulation of real historical military operations and as such are designed to contain complex simulations requiring rules for different circumstances, weapons, abilities and so on.

  • Complex rules and procedures mean that wargames can often take many hours to play just a few game turns.

  • Like the board game, many of the current generation of mainstream wargames operate on the IGYG principle, creating a lot of player inactivity. Older wargames, utilising order-writing and simultaneous movement and action are closer to the needs of megagames.

Role Playing Games

  • Often characterised by in-depth character development and statistics for each individual player. In megagames there might be elements of character development, but there are generally simpler because of the need to apply time pressure. In some cases character development is not relevant, for example where someone is role playing as real historical role (King of France, or some such).

  • They need careful adjudication by a skilled Game Master (GM) who manages the narrative and injects situational updates to challenge or assist the players. This has a lot in common with the way the Control Team operate in megagames – though in a megagame there is a need for the emerging narrative to work within an overarching theme and structure, and for it to maximise player interaction.

  • The RPG often has a wealth of tactical detail about individual player actions. This often requires a considerable expenditure of time and attention.


  • LARP place a heavy emphasis on role immersion and role playing on a personal level. In the most developed form it requires what is, in effect, improvisational acting skills. In fact it is these improvisation skills which form the core of the experience. Megagames contain elements of this, but more ofte20170513_105340n players are role playing a role rather than a character – they are themselves being a Prime Minister, not role playing an actual prime minister.

  • There is usually an absolute requirement for dressing up in role. Whilst in megagames there is some fun to be had with a bit of dressing up, it has never been a requirement, as megagames attract gamers from a wider field of interests, not all of whom are comfortable with dressing up and it is not necessary because megagames are not LARPS.

  • In some games there are physical interaction rules – rules for hitting one another with rubber swords etc. The physical and environmental aspects for a LARP are important even if there is no combat.

  • Many LARP games often have a highly structured narrative which has a clear denouement, which many be scripted or at least ‘nudged’ to create an exciting end-game. This is very distinct from a megagame which is fundamentally open-ended – the principle of following the emerging game-play makes it impossible (and undesirable) to have a constructed dramatic ending.

What becomes clear that merely ‘porting’ an existing game from an existing genre, adding more players and calling it a megagame does not easily work very well. And this has been my experience.


However, that does not mean that concepts and some of the mechanisms from other game genres might not be usefully used in the megagame context, obviously with some important adjustments. This is an especially attractive route, particularly where the designer is new to megagame design and maybe does not have to confidence or experience to develop all the systems and mechanisms needed for a game from scratch.

That said, even the most experienced designers will draw on their own personal ‘toolbox’ of systems, structures and procedures that they have developed in earlier games or borrowed from other designer’s games.

Many of our most successful games started with inspiration from another game.  BUT when drawing on another game design remember to allow for the unique dynamics of the megagame.

Here are my golden rules for designing megagame rules and processes:

  • Game processes must be FAST. Minutes not hours. Every minute spent adjudicating rules is dead time so far as the player experience goes, and megagames are fundamentally about player experience. This is especially important when taken together with the standard requirement for there to be time pressure on the players within the megagame. A megagame design that involves people sitting around doing nothing for any length of time is highly undesirable.

  • There must be a meaningful purpose to player interactions. Including roles in a team, or even including whole teams just because it seems cool, but without a real game role or function is not just bad design, it is irresponsible. (for a contra-example see Part 2). Every role in your game must pass the ‘So What Test’. I will say more about this later.

  • No Kitchen Sinks. In designing a megagame it is easy to get carried away with great ideas for cool things you can get the players to do. Stop. Concentrate on the aspects of the game that they must have to do first and foremost. If you want to add gloss wait until you have a solid, working system. Too many moving parts will either slow the game down or they will be ignored or mishandled in the chaos and rush of actualy game play. This has the attendant risk of in-game unfortunate consequences that the game designer is not able to foresee, playtest for or control during the day.


In Part 2 : an Outrageous example of applying megagame structures to a very famous board game….


There Is No ‘Me’ in ‘Team’? …

Team of Teams

Megagames are team games.  That sounds like something one shouldn’t need to state.  But as the genre has grown I think detect that this has been lost sight of a little in some places.  I have probably said before that a megagame looks like a board game, but it isn’t a board game, it looks like a wargame but it isn’t a wargame and it looks like a role playing game but is isn’t a role playing game.

20180225_153308And the main reason a megagame doesn’t fit neatly into these categories is generally to do with the presence of teams (and often those teams are in a hierarchy of teams).

What I’ve observed is that for many new players (and some grognards) team play does not seem come naturally.  This is especially so with board gamers and wargamers.  Now, before you get annoyed or defensive let me explain.  Most (and naturally not all) board games and wargames are predicated on a number of principles:

  • There will be one winner.
  • Individual player agency is paramount.
  • Player to player interactions must always be adversarial.  (Note: Yes, I know there are increasingly cooperative games of some brilliant out there, but I am talking about the generality).

This can, I feel, inculcate a mindset that places a premium on the player’s individual experience.  It is so common that I suspect some people are not even aware of how deep these assumptions run in their approach to games.  I would summarise them as:

  • What I personally do always matters.
  • Victory or defeat is entirely my personal responsibility – I am the hero of my own game narrative.
  • Other players are there to get in the way.
  • It doesn’t matter how I win, so long as I win.

This works well in a 4 player board game or a 2-player face-to-face wargame.  But I suggest that in a game where players are part of, say, a 4 player team, this cannot work well.  A team leader with these attitudes will cut the team out of decision making (“Victory or defeat is entirely my personal responsibility”), marginalise them and not consult because the game is all about him (“I am the hero of my own game narrative”).  The other members of the team feel left out, useless and without any meaningful agency in the game (“Other players are there to get in the way.”).

In a megagame, where (usually) the background, structure, content and mechanisms all require intense engagement from the players, a team working together as a team is not something that is nice to have, it is essential.  It is also essential to success in achieving the team’s game objectives.  One player cannot do it all – or if she can then perhaps there is a design issue – more on this in a moment.


Now, please don’t get me wrong, I am not having a go at players who do not naturally and seamlessly form into well-oiled and effective teams.  Team formation, especially with a group of people who only know each other slightly, is a non-trivial problem – especially if the megagamers concerned have no previous experience (either in the game world or the ‘real’ world) of teamwork.

However, there are some real consequences in terms of player experience when a team is accidentally dysfunctional – none of which are good for the megagame or the megagamers.

  • Players feel disconnected from the game – while their team leader seems to get to play ‘all the best bits’.
  • The Team Leader misses out on the advice, thoughts and support of the team – in extreme cases the team may try to marginalise the leader by holding back information, misinforming or taking independent action (or worse, might even try to ‘assassinate’ them in-game).
  • A megagame is also a social event – nobody wants to see people come away feeling they have wasted their day and not interacted positively with the rest of the team.

So What?

Is this a widespread problem?  I have no idea, but it does exist.  What should megagame designers do about it?  Here are some thoughts:

DEFINE. Ensure that game roles are clearly defined.  This includes being explicit about what a team leader does (and does not) do.  SOTBO – make Statements Of The Bleeding Obvious.  Repeatedly.

EXPLAIN.  Explain how you want people to play.  Do not assume they will ‘get’ teamwork right off the bat.  They might – many megagamers are skilled team players – but you cannot assume that.

AGENCY.  Ensure that all roles in the team are in fact meaningful and have proper game agency.  Never add a role just because it seems cool &/or in the hope that players will ‘fill it out’ with imaginative gameplay.  They might, (depending on the player) but more often they do not.  It’s a big risk.  When creating roles always critically ask yourself “But what will this player actually Do for 6 hours?”.

CASTING.  Careful casting (where you know the players) is a powerful tool for designers.  Mix experience and inexperienced teams if you can – especially mix known good team players with newcomers – this sets the tone.  BUT also avoid casting the ‘usual suspects’ in key leadership roles.  There is little more dispiriting and discouraging for newcomers than seeing the same faces in important roles game after game.  And be aware that someone who might be good at min-maxing game mechanisms or navigating the game structure might not automatically be good at team play or leadership.


What Can Players Do?

The players are at the mercy of the game structure and the designer’s whim a lot of the time, but there is much that can be done by players who are struggling to learn good teamwork and managing poor teamwork in-game.

TELL.  If you find your team isn’t working – either you are a marginalised team member, or a struggling team leader – TELL CONTROL.  Control are there to make the game work and that includes helping teams work.  A good control team will have enough understanding and experience to offer useful advice, or even step in and re-organise roles if that is what is needed.  Seek their help and listen to them.

LEADING ISN’T DOING.  If you are the team leader your game role is to lead the team.  In a well designed game, this is about communicating, maintaining awareness of the big picture, being honest with the team, building relationships within the team and outside it, and, sometimes (only sometimes)  make decisions.  If you are doing all the game things you are not leading.

THIS IS A GAME.  You might be role playing a ruthless autocratic leader,  but you are really just playing a game with friends.  So collective decision making is sensible, even if you are supreme leader.  The leader also takes responsibility for ensuring the team members have a good game.

YOU DON’T KNOW IT ALL.  And even if you do, it is rude to play other people’s game for them.  Don’t be that rude person.  This can be a difficulty for an experienced player, especially if she has played the game before, who really wants to say “Oh I know how this works, just do this…” and proceed to remove all agency from the team.  If your team is less experienced than you allow them to enjoy learning the game – you are always there to mitigate total disaster (hopefully), but remember that game narratives can often be more enjoyable for what went wrong than from hearing about brilliance.


Go Team!

For me, teamwork is the best thing about megagames.

I love the co-creation of the game narrative, the camaraderie, the laughs.  Perhaps I’m odd, but I’ve always preferrred cooperative games, and in my games, watching the teams working together is a joy.

And the better the teamwork the better the megagame!



See also :

A Century of Megagames

“Time is an illusion…megagame time, doubly so”  (apols to Douglas Adams)

It was 1987 and the UK was going through seismic changes.  Thatcher was in power and unreasonably popular (50% approval rating), golliwogs had been banned from Enid Blyton books, my neighbour Cynthia Payne had been acquitted of running a brothel, British Rail (yes, we had our own railway back then) abolished Second Class and replaced it with Standard Class and the Channel Tunnel plan was given a green light.

It is true that the past is another country.

It was into that maestrom of change and upheaval that a 32 year old civil servant joined the ranks of a mysterious cult known as ‘megagame designers’.  He was not the first, of course – he had been recruited and encouraged by the founder of recreational megagames, Paddy Griffith  (who had run the first megagame of that ilk in 1983 named, with chracterisic iconoclasm ‘Memphis Manger IV’ ) and inspired by games by Andy Grainger (who wrote the very successful megagames Kirovograd and Clouds In the West in the mid-1980s).  This young enthusiast’s first attempt at a megagame was ‘Blood & Thunder’ involving a load of  plastic sailing ships and toy soldiers, cardboard houses , rum, a pig roast and 126 participants.  Briefings produced lovingly using 9-pin dot matrix printer and a ‘powerful’ PCW8256 word processor.


I’m not entirely sure what ever happened to that fresh-faced keen young 32 year old megagamer.  But in the intervening 31 years he seems to have run 100 of his own megagames as of last Saturday.

There never was a plan to do quite so many games – and surpringly (to me at least) that those 100 games represent 61 different game designs.  Interestingly, when I coulnted just now, exactly 50% have been on historical or contemporary themes and 50% on fantasy or science fiction, showing a remarkable lack of focus or consistency…

The most run game, is, of course Watch The Skies (9).

Looking back over the list it is interesting to note the ‘lost megagames’ – games that were run or twice once then consigned to the scrapheap of megagaming history either because they failed so abysmaly that they need to be expunged, or because the basic idea really didn’t make a good megagame.  Notable (notorious) examples were :

‘Fire & Steel’ (1993) – an attempt to run a tactical tank battle megagame, using model tanks and players directing their movements over a huge floor model of some terrain.  Inspired by the way the ship-handling systems worked in ‘Final Frontier’ or ‘Blood & Thunder’.  It didn’t work.  Slow and hence dull and not enough player interaction.

‘Outer Worlds’ (1993) – an attempt to run interstellar politics an economics on the strategic scale.  Teams had to bring a computer (in 1993!) and issued their orders on supercalc spreadsheets passed on floppy disk.  Er.  It was a nightmare.

‘First Contact’ (1993) – Actually some of this worked quite well.  It was the attempt to implement a strategic movement and detection system using a computer that failed utterly.  Attempting to find a bug in a program while the game waits was not a great experience.

‘Cruel Void’ (1996) – tactical space dogfighting campaign game – a sort of ‘Battle of Britain in Space’ game.  One player per ship, vector movement with a promotions / campaigning element.  Game systems worked ok, but the player progression and campaign aspects never really took off because the tactical game dominated, and despite an attempted re-run the following year it never re-appeared after that.

Then there are the games that have never seen the light of day at all, such as ‘Valiant Musketeers’, ‘Bosnian Crisis’, ‘Warriors for the Working Day’ (how Fire & Steel should have been), ‘Escalation’, ‘Supers’, ‘Monster Movie Madness’, ‘The Blitz’, ‘The Day After’ to name but a few.

I guess 61 isn’t an upper limit – who knows what will come next?










A Very British Megagame

Late last year I was approached by Richard BarbrookA_Very_British_Coup_(first_edition) to design a political megagame, potentially for UK Labour Party activists to practice negotiation skills and practice balancing ideology and pragmatism.  The inspiration for the game was to come from Chris Mullin’s political thriller ‘A Very British Coup’ published in 1982 and depicting a fantastical scenario of a principled and popular left-wing labour leader (Harry Perkins) sweeping to power in an unexpected election victory as a discredited and failing Tory government collapsed under a plethora of scandals.

The action of the story was all about the how ‘The Establishment’ – the bête noire of the Left – comprising, press barons, the old boy network, the security services and the military, egged on by Foreign Influences (a Republican-led USA) would conspire to bring down a popular socialist government by foul means and fake news.  The book was dramatised by Channel 4 in 1988, and I well remember enjoying it immensely at the time.

Clearly such a fantasic scenario could never be enacted in real life.

Designing a purely political game has a number of issues that affect the megagame design.  The first step, of course, was to build the game environment and Richard and others helpfully created a list of Labour ‘Factions’ of the 1980s who would represent01 AVBC AYE & NO cards the majority of the player teams.  Of course only having Labour Factions as teams would miss the important element in any game of an active adversary – and the scenario described in the book has some very clear adversaries.  So it was obvious from the outset that the primary dynamic of the game would be a larger number of Labour party factions negotating and interacting, with a smaller group of ‘Establishment’ player teams providing challenges and attempting to exacerbate the infighting and bring influence to bear to de-rail the left-wing legislative programme.

But what would the Factions be negotiating about?  What would be the role of the Cabinet?  How would players interact with each other?  Key megagame design questions.

And this is pretty much where any megagame design has to part company with the narrative of a novel, play or film.  Megagames have to be open-ended rather thpolicy card 4an scripted, and the participants must be given real agency in the game.  So whilst the game is inspired by the novel it cannot (and should not) attempt to become a re-enactment of it.  A coup might or might not happen based entirely on the player activities and interactions.  This is an important aspect of game design – works of fiction are not (or at least rarely) amenable to good gamification straight out of the pages.  It is important to remember this.  Just because characters exist in the fiction does not necessarily mean they would have agency in the game context.

As part of my research I re-read the 1983 Labour Manifesto, and the description of the real aspirations of a fairly leftish party of the time (or ‘far left’ by comparison to the Blair years).  This was the context of Mullin’s original story, where it was the Perkins’ Government’s programme of ‘dangerious left-wing dogma’ that the Establishment was trying to counter.  So it seemed obvious to me that a key focus would be on implementing the manifesto.  Party Faction teams would therefore be arguing and manoevering to have their favoured policies enacted as early as possible in the life of the government.

It also quickly became obvious that the Cabinet would not be played by players because this would erode the role of the faction teams as the main drivers of the game (remember the game aim of maximising the opportunity for practicing negotiation skills).  So the game would have the various factions seeking to influence and ‘control’ cabinet members, and use that as leverage in the important game process of setting the legislative agenda.

The game, for the Labour Factions is therefore on four levels and members of the teams must manage their time to work on multiple levels simultaneously:

  1.  Influencing Cabinet – and the (non-played) Cabinet members whose influence weighs in significantly in the game on behalf of the faction.01 AVBC influence cards
  2. Influencing the order that policies are enacted in parliament.  The game timescale covers several years, because although a week is a long time in politics, legislation grinds slowly.  And the measures that get passed have Impact (for good).
  3. Influencing the vote in parliament, both directly and indirectly.  The weakened Tory Opposition is still present (and played) in parliament so there are opportunities for cross-party agreements.
  4. And at the same time agreeing compromises and deals with the other factions to get things done.

Obviously, the Government as a whole will get little or nothing done, unless it can manage its infighting and cut deals – ‘log rolling’ if you will – the game allows players to have a lot of fun with doctrinal and principles arguments and infighting – certainly this has come to the fore in playtests.  And it is entertaining.  However, unless they find ways of pulling together, the party’s impact will be small, and consequently its public support dwindle under the constant assault of a hostile press.  Too many individual victories can lead to group defeat, and an early General Election (= A Bad Thing).

The Establishment Adversaries also influence Cabinet members (through blackmail or other dirty tricks) and can influence the Impact of legislation and the popularity of the government through the power of the Press Barons.  I won’t go into detail here about exactly all the things the Establishment can do (spoilers).

One of my main changes over the original story is in how the Establishment works – so rather than a monolithic extra-democratic power bloc, as described in the novel, in this game they also have their own internal pressures, objectives and concerns, and organising a coup has to be the culmination of resolving their own internal factional issues.  In short, the more chaotic the Labour Government, the harder it is to organise a coup – but the better the Government does in furthering its objectives the easier the Establishment finds it to pull together for their version of ‘The Greater Good’.  This balancing is a core structure in the game.avbc player guide cover

So, in this megagame, A Very British Coup, the player interaction does not require much in the way of game mechanisms – such mechanisms as there are – are all simple and pretty self-evident – players can turn up and understand the way the game works very quickly.  And then get on with the negotiating and haggling and interacting.  The game is heavy on talking and interacting and light on mechanism.

Personally, I’m pretty excited by this game – its a new subject area for me, and political games are always extremely entertaining – and I’m really looking forward to seeing the game system play out in its full form.

If this seems interesting then there is a chance to see how this all works, by coming and playing in the first run of the game in Cambridge on Saturday 4 August 2018.





Roleplaying, Negotiation, Death and Nukes

It is a common enough trope in megagames that if nukes are available then someone will either want to get their hands on one, or fire one off. In games where assassination is possible someone always wants to do an assassination. Even when assassination isn’t possible, practical or realistic, someone always wants to conduct an assassination.

And, of course, this is entirely reasonable in many ways. Megagames are games. In being games they naturally encourage playfulness. A game designer offers players a sandbox in which they can act out all sorts of extreme options that perhaps wouldn’t happen in real life, and with no real life consequences – nobody actually dies. Playing in the purest sense.

Those who view the megagame as essentially a realistic simulation of ‘real life’ (or at least containing some semblance of what we think of as real life) sometimes find extreme player behaviours frustrating, annoying even, as they are not ‘playing the game properly’. That is, not constraining their actions to those seen to be within the ‘arc of believability’ around the game.

This is an entirely reasonable expectation. If one were running a megagame set in a historical period, say Napoleon’s campaigns in Germany in 1813, you would expect players to act within the doctrine, attitudes and belief systems of the time. Anachronistic behaviours on the player’s part would spoil what we call the ‘duty to history’ and result in a game that felt nothing like the period piece it was intended to be. But the line is thin. Back in the ’90s, Brian Cameron and I ran a game on this subject and in that game the Austrian Emperor made a separate peace with Napoleon halfway through the game. This was playfulness, because as Emperor he could choose to do pretty much what he liked. Foolish, but not historically unprecedented. But this was a disaster for the other Allies, and for the game, because without a united alliance facing them Napoleon’s armies were unbeatable. The game stopped at 2pm.

Lesson learnt – that not all playfulness can be allowed in a megagame. Players are encouraged to have a free hand, but Control must say ‘no’ not only to the outrageous and the impossible but also to actions destructive to the game and that might reduce or diminish the experience of all the other players.

So this brings me on to the allowability of death and assassination.

From time to time players come to me at games and say “…he is being really annoying and so how can I assassinate him?”.

There are different answers, depending on the game and situation. It might be simple “Just roll a six” or “Do you have an assassination card?”. It might be more complex but still possible, in game – perhaps the player coming up with a complex deployment of special forces, or an elaborate poisoning plan.

Or, the answer might be a flat “you can’t”.

The important point here is not the methods or possibility of assassination but the motivation behind the question. Why is player behaviour – “..being really annoying…” such that the only solution is to assassinate the player character? And this influences whether control should encourage or discourage assassination as an aspect of emerging gameplay.

What is really going on here? I see a number of possibilities. It might be that the player in question is being obnoxious in character, and the assassination is entirely game-relevant (or even part of the game design). In this case, events simply take their course.

It might be that the player in question is being personally obnoxious. This is an issue for game control. Assassination isn’t the answer because the issue is about out of character behaviour. Game Control needs to intervene to explain acceptable standards to the player who is being obnoxious. Dealing with the obnoxious is an entirely separate (and complex) subject.

However, in my experience it is most often the case that the player in question is blocking some action that the would-be assassin wants to happen. This is important because the issue here is about how players negotiate and engage with the game. And many players, particularly those inexperienced in both megagames and negotiation see a ‘kinetic negotiation’ as the simplest way forward. This might not be an assassination. It might be launching nukes, or starting a war.

This is understandable, but in resorting to simplistic violent actions the players are missing out on a very rich and satisfying seam of megagame gameplay, namely, successful negotiation.

So what can a player do when another player is standing in their way and refusing to cooperate?

Here are some hints:

  • Never take refusal at face value. They may only be refusing as a starting position.

  • Find out what they do want. Most players or teams have their own objectives. In a well designed megagame these will be multi-layered. You might be able to get them to to do some of what you want in return for your support with something else. Rarely are megagame objectives binary or zero-sum. There is nearly always some lever, and the competent player will seek to understand what these are and use them.

  • Bring pressure to bear via other teams. They might block you alone, but if more players or teams keep pushing they may have to change their position. Forming temporary coalitions to achieve something. Or another team might have what they want, and you can work through a third party.

  • Be prepared to give something without return. Be prepared to be generous. Sometimes other teams intransigence is a mirror of your own intransigence. It is surprising how making the first step creates a more open atmosphere in negotiations. If you block and ‘play hard-ball’ do not be surprised to find everyone else treats you the same way. Just saying ‘give me what I want’ repeatedly is not a negotiation tactic.

  • Be nice. Yes, really. Smile, make a joke, be cheerful. I know it sounds cheesy but this is a tried and tested way of getting people on your side, even if they don’t agree or can’t (or won’t) help you. And this is just a game – belittling people or being an arse isn’t fun.

  • Openness and honesty works too. There is a school of thought that says you should always keep all your cards close to your chest, reveal nothing about your objectives or intentions. And there is some wisdom in that. But there are times when at least some openness really helps in finding where two sides can arrive at a win-win position. And win-win is mostly what megagames are about.

Or, of course, you can skip all of that an just assassinate the other team’s Prime Minister.

Washington Conference

Except that, of course, in a megagame it nearly always achieves nothing. Except possibly causing out of character bad feeling and resentment. Your negotiation position hasn’t been improved. The other team are less inclined to help you and nothing has been unblocked.

The same goes with arresting, kidnapping or abducting inconvenient players. It might seem like a good idea to remove an obstacle, but generally it merely backfires and in doing so removes an entire layer of fruitful negotiation and gameplay.

And what does death even mean in a megagame?

I get the distinct impression that some players seem to think that the player they have assassinated is going to just disappear from the game, perhaps hoping that Control will send them home or lock them in a cupboard or something.

A megagame player is a paying guest in a social event. They will always be re-inserted into the game in one form or another. Usually back on the same team they came from (perhaps in a different role, but usually in the same team because people like to take part in games as part of a group of friends).

In some cases ‘dead’ players are re-roled into spare roles that the game designer has set aside for just such an eventuality. So, in game terms, it is often the case that in-game assassination achieves little or nothing. Much the same can be said of the real world – few assassinations in history have made much difference (apart from perhaps uniquely the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914).

On the same tack I also have players asking to kidnap, imprison or abduct other players. A moments thought would tell them that the megagame organisers are not going to accept the idea that a player is left for hours twiddling their thumbs in a corner as a ‘prisoner’ – especially if the primary the motivation for the arrest is to remove that player’s ability to take part in the game. Arresting / kidnapping someone is not a solution to your negotiation / roleplaying challenges.

Everybody Dies

If you find yourself considering arrest / abduction / assassination as serious in-game options (especially when this is not an explicit part of the game system) then consider also whether you are missing something important. If this is all you can think of because its become a bit difficult then you probably have missed something. Some lever, some avenue of influence, some aspect of their objectives or aims that you’ve not yet found out about. Think about this – it will really make a difference to your megagame experience.