Month: November 2016

5 Tips on Repeating Your Megagame

There is always a range of responses from megagame designers after their game is over.
Generally, there is an initial feeling of anticlimax – not surprisingly really, as there is a lot of work in the build up to the game, much to think about, prepare and plan for.

Then there are the anxieties before the day of the game, and the pressure to ensure it goes as well as possible on the day.
It comes as no surprise that the day after can often feel a little ‘flat’.

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Then there is the response to the analysis of the critique questionnaires and post-game feedback. Generally speaking it is a good idea to give the critique sheets handed in to a friend to analyse – it can be traumatic reading through all the comments the day after. Of course, if the game is universally hailed as the best game ever, then reading the feedback will be great! But there is a tendency to concentrate on the negative and critical for some designers. This is normal, but criticism, constructive or otherwise, has to be looked in context.

Often designers experiencing the post-game come-down, especially first time designers, wonder why they went to all that trouble, work, anxiety and heartache for just one day’s gaming.
Obviously, the answer will vary from designer to designer – one or two will stop there and never do it again. Most get ‘bitten’ and do end up doing another game at some point. The most enthusiastic will be planning their second game even before the first is completed.

So, lets imagine that you do want to run your megagame again. It might be several months or even years later – what needs to be considered?

Here are some tips that might be helpful.

Tip 1: Its Not As Easy As You Might Think

Never, ever, assume that repeating a game will be necessarily easier than the first time. I realise that is counter-intuitive – but it is so often true. It is true that you don’t necessarily have to repeat the game design research. And you don’t have to come up with new game mechanisms and basic structure. But, especially if it has been a long time between games, its a good idea to check whether there is any new research on the game subject area. And you will almost certainly have aspects of the game that you want to improve on, or modify in response to he feedback.
And, of course, all the administration, preparation, production of game materials and so on still have to be done. The very well organised designer might have constructed very durable game components for the game so that it can be played ‘out of the box’ – but this isn’t always possible, practical or economic.

Tip 2 : Allow Time

Give yourself plenty of time. Administration and production will take time. And it is easy to become over-relaxed for the second run of a game – it seems as though you have plenty of time, and suddenly…you don’t!

Tip 3 : Use the Feedback

Read through the comments and criticisms (and plaudits ) of the first game as they appear in the critique sheets. Megagames are notoriously difficult to test (we’ve discussed this in the design chapters earlier). In many ways, the first run of the game is the first full-scale game test. So try to make sure you benefit fully, use the feedback to improve the game. Players who are coming back to the second run of the game who took part in the first run will be looking to see if you’ve fixed the obvious ‘bugs’, and will be appreciative of improvements you have made. It is also important to understand what went well for players, and try to understand why it worked if you can.

Tip 4 : Make Sure You Want To

There is often pressure from players for you to repeat a successful game design. This is both gratifying and flattering. But. As with any run of a megagame you need to be fully behind running the game. If you have any doubts about your enthusiasm for running the game again, no matter how simple it might be to run a repeat, think hard. Low levels of enthusiasm will make the project much harder and your un-enthusiam will leak out into the game itself – players will sense it and it does have an impact much greater than you might think.
So if your heart is not fully into running a repeat then don’t. It might be that your enthusiasm for another megagame is better engaged by that new game project you were talking about in the pub last night. Always follow the enthusiasm!

Tip 5 : Tweaking – We All Do It

Related to Tip 1 above. It might be that you have a lot of tweaks, adjustments and new ideas you want to try out in your re-run of the game. This is great, it is showing you are activity developing your game design and improving and developing. There are down sides that are not always obvious.
You might be fixing something that isn’t broken. Usually you get feedback on what has not worked. A system, mechanism or part of your structure that is actually working well will rarely get any comment. You might have thought of a better way of doing it, and that is good, but I would always advise caution over making too many changes.
You might be unnecessarily adding complication. We talk earlier about how megagames really need simple, elegant and fast moving game mechanisms and systems. Resist the urge to add things because you can – it can have unintended consequences and, worse, slow down the game.
Your mates will always have suggestions along the lines of “…you could add in a thing for [insert cool thing here]…”. Sometimes that is brilliant, but most of the time, unless they have been closely involved in the game design and really understand how it all fits together, it is not necessarily a good thing for the game. We all like to be nice to our friends, but do not be pressured into adding a second dragon.

 

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There is a lot to be said in favour of repeating successful games. Players who come again get a chance to experience different roles and re-connect with those they met in the previous game. New strategies and tactics can be explored, new deals made and the game will always go in a different direction. By repeating a game you can really see how megagames encourage emerging game play – no two runs of a megagame are (or can be) the same.

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Megagame Design – Using Inspiration

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 at this stage 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 Twilight Imperium, 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. It would be unacceptable for 40 players to be waiting around while one team of players have their ‘go’.pic00022

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.imgp0609

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.
The RPG has a wealth of tactical detail about individual player actions. This often requires a considerable expenditure of time and attention.dscf1497

Live Action Role Playing (LARP)

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 often 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 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 with a much wider field of interest, 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 dramatic ending.dscf2098

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

Describing Typical Megagames (2)

In addition to the inter-communication problems and the hierarchical nature of the player team structure, in many games there is a representation of the situation using what is known as the closed ‘double blind’ system. Players only have the information that would realistically be known to them about the location of their enemies (or even of their own troops). The Control team (of which much more later) keeps a master map updated, and this master map is hidden from the players. Team Control report back each turn of how their orders have turned out and collect orders for the next turn. This method is very common in both operational megagames and political/military megagames.

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Here we see a simple example of a military operational megagame which shows how the simplest of hierarchies are represented in a megagame format. And this doesn’t have to be historical – one could just as easily use command hierarchies to represent Steampunk armies, or fantasy armies or space fleets and star empires.

Hierarchies can be represented in other ways, for example there might be a political game in which the teams represent different parts of a government – with a Cabinet Team and teams representing government departments. Or you might have teams representing samurai clans who owe allegiance to their overlord. There are many ways this playing into game structures.

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Some megagames have political as well as operational elements – some are wholly political, some have very key elements of role playing. In the more political and role playing games, hierarchies might not be so important. A game like Washington Conference by Dave Boundy has no hierarchies of teams, each team being a national delegation in an arms control conference. However in these cases the key element is team intra- and inter-communication. A megagame like this, one of pure negotiation, has the important elements of requiring complex player to player communication. The dynamic created by a megagame with virtually a 1 to 1 representation of key historical roles is where megagames are at their most LARP-like.

It is the combination of all of these elements that make each megagame slightly different to every other megagame.
Each megagame is unique in its own way – depending on the size, structure and theme – there is no ‘official’ set of ‘Rules of Megagame’ as a whole because each game must be designed to suit the theme and the interactions required (though some games might share some elements with other games – simple things like combat resolution methods are often re-used or adapted). In fact the creation of a set of standard rules would be antithetical to the whole megagame approach.

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Intercommunication, interaction, teams and hierarchies – with the additional challenge of `player management’ makes the megagame unique as a gaming experience. It is this aspect that regular mega gamers tell me, time and time again, is the element that brings them back to play again.

I have often remarked that all that is really necessary is to put 40 regular megagamers into a hall with some paper, pens, tables and chairs and maybe a die or two, and a game would emerge of its own accord. Well, perhaps I exaggerate to make a point – but it is true that megagamers carry away anecdotal stories of their activities and interaction in a way that does not happen nearly so frequently in other areas of gaming.

On the subject of game size – there is a distinction between the megagame and merely a game with a lot of players. Big open miniature games, whilst providing an impressive visual spectacle are rarely structured into a hierarchy of teams, but more often as a two rows of players facing each other in a ‘multiple two player game’. Such a game would not, in our terms, be a megagame because it would lack, teams, sufficient hierarchy and meaningful interaction.  There is a big difference between a “100 player game” and 50 x 2-player games.

Describing Typical Megagames (1)

Whilst there are exceptions, the typical megagame lasts a day – maybe around 6 hours of playing time. We have found that because the best megagame experiences tend to be challenging, immersive and pressured, players (and the control team running the game) get very tired. First-timers have reported feeling drained and exhausted after the first game – though in a good way, of course!

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A megagame has a high degree of social interaction – and because intercommunication is a key requirement of every megagame, as is the interplay within and between player teams. Social networking happens in every megagame – people make new friends and find themselves being able to practice social skills within the context of a game. This isn’t new – board gaming is increasingly a social activity, online MMORPGs have long generated their own communities – but we have feedback that a megagame has been beneficial for those with social anxiety or finding interactions stressful or challenging.

It is also important not to underestimate the social aspects of these games. There are interesting political or military situations being simulated, and this can be a worthwhile intellectual challenge – it could be argued the participants get more from merely spending a day with a group of like-minded gamers.

The concept of a game that lasts a day, involves lots of people interacting is, of course, not unique to megagames. The LARP community has been doing this sort of thing for decades, as have the Free-Form Role-playing games groups. Megagames have much in common with both these formats. The distinctions are mainly around the structures that underpin megagames – of which more later.

Part of that difference is traced back to the origins of megagames. The roots of the concept arise from the work and early megagames of late Paddy Griffith who came from a military history background. It was then developed by military historians and wargamers such as Andy Grainger who applied sound military history background to creating realistic megagames on operational military subjects. Early megagames therefore drew heavily on that historical wargaming perspective – itself influenced by board wargames and miniatures wargames.

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A megagame has a narrative to it that might very well be historical, or containing some recognisable internally consistent narrative. That narrative framework has encompassed heroic fantasy, science fiction as well as a very wide range of historical subjects. The consistent elements have been the existence of interacting teams and hierarchies and intercommunication between players. In fact megagames do not seem to be limited in themes that can be covered. The main limitation on the megagame is structural – the answer to the question “does this subject/theme involve meaningful intercommunication and interaction between multiple teams”. Not every theme or subject areas is amenable to the megagame treatment – I will discuss this further in later posts.
The actual mechanics of the game are relatively unimportant compared to the need for a rich mix of communications.

What is often a major feature of many megagames – particularly those with an operational element to them is the way it models some sort of hierarchy. Modelling hierarchies is a rich seam of gaming experience.

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To look at the way hierarchies might work in a megagame, lets look at an operational megagame set in World War Two for example. In this example the corps commander will have a small team of players to act as her staff officers, and might then have her three divisions run by small teams each consisting of a divisional commander and staff, all represented by actual players – all of whom would therefore present the full range of human responses to her orders i.e. they might argue or put forward alternative plans, fail to carry out ‘orders’ properly or even carry them out in some subtly different way.

It is virtually impossible to fully and credibly duplicate, in smaller games, the reactions of subordinates merely by using using rule mechanisms. Therein lies the great strength and appeal of the operational megagame. The command player in such a game must react differently to the more common decisions she might have in a conventional game; the question she asks herself is not just “how do I best manoeuvre my units”, but more realistically “how do I issue clear instructions and motivate the commanders under my control – and ensure that they carry out their orders effectively”.

A good deal more difficult, but also more entertaining.

Of course, at the bottom of this pyramid of command there are still players (or, more likely, teams of players) as the lowest commanders, playing what is, to all intents and purposes, a more recognisable map or board wargame of whatever type. But there remains this important qualitative difference. In the case of the low-level commander there is an active superior, to whom they must account for their actions and to whom they must pass information on the progress of their part of the game. And they have other played commanders on their flanks whom they will (presumably) not wish to let down and may need to communicate and liaise with. They cannot, therefore, make entirely independent decisions, and they will often be pestered by their superior to move faster, or slower – and most importantly – to report what they are doing quickly and accurately. This aspect of ‘reporting up’ is very important in megagames. In fact the whole concept of a command hierarchy is often quite alien to the mainstream of wargaming where players are used to absolute control of their armies, limited perhaps in a small way by simplistic abstract mechanisms such as ‘command points’.

As a result first exposure to command structures can be difficult as players are expected to cooperate with others and, worse for some, actually be expected to carry out instructions from their ‘superior’ in the hierarchy. It is still surprising how hard even some experienced and knowledgeable gamers find this!

(Part 2 next week where I’ll be looking at heirarchies a bit more).