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).

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