The Megagame Control Team (Part 2)

Map Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Political Control

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

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

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

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

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

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Non-Played Elements

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

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

Specialised Control

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

Game Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Game Designer and Control

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

This is both a blessing and a curse for Control.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That way lies madness.

 NEXT WEEK : Reviewing and assessing how it went

 

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4 thoughts on “The Megagame Control Team (Part 2)

  1. Hey Jim, great read. Thank you for sharing. I especially learned from the hierarchy of control you described here. I have a question about how you think of Control’s role in the game. The more megagames I run the less I tend to think of them as referees and the more I tend to think of them as players, perhaps because the tension in the game is between the players trying to take advantage of each other as well as control, who can also improve the game by doing a fair amount of role-playing themselves. I wonder if you think or treat their role in the game this way or not. I also wonder if my approach is different due to the fact that my control players are often as new to the game as the players themselves. Is it helpful to encourage the control to think of themselves as players, or is this detrimental to their ability to fairly adjudicate the game? I also wonder if I am taking this approach to the role of control players out of a desire to compensate for the fact that adjudicating the game might be less fun than playing the game, like a necessary sacrifice for the greater good of the whole. But I also wonder if this thinking is wrong too because my control players are often glad to volunteer and they often describe their experience just as positively as the players do. What do you think?

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  2. Hey Jim, great read. Thank you for sharing. I especially learned from the hierarchy of control you described here. I have a question about how you think of Control’s role in the game. The more megagames I run the less I tend to think of them as referees and the more I tend to think of them as players, perhaps because the tension in the game is between the players trying to take advantage of each other as well as control, who can also improve the game by doing a fair amount of role-playing themselves. I wonder if you think or treat their role in the game this way or not. I also wonder if my approach is different due to the fact that my control players are often as new to the game as the players themselves. Is it helpful to encourage the control to think of themselves as players, or is this detrimental to their ability to fairly adjudicate the game? I also wonder if I am taking this approach to the role of control players out of a desire to compensate for the fact that adjudicating the game might be less fun than playing the game, like a necessary sacrifice for the greater good of the whole. But I also wonder if this thinking is wrong too because my control players are often glad to volunteer and they often describe their experience just as positively as the players do. What do you think?

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  3. Our experience is that Control cannot be players. We’ve tried it and for us it never ended well – it is an unreasonable expectation to ask someone to be unbiased and facilitative and at the same time be trying to achieve their game objectives as a player. There may be some exceptional individuals out there who could manage that degree of compartmentalisation, but I can’t say I’ve ever met many. And this does not mean Control do not do role playing – in the same way that the GM in a role playing game role-plays the NPCs. But to be a player implies game objectives, aims and a game purpose that is specific to them and that means they cannot, by definition, be thinking about how to best facilitate and guide the emerging game-play for the players. If your ‘control’ are players – who is performing the control function? Control are not just referees (otherwise we’d call them referees or umpires) their role is generally wider than that, as I’ve tried to express in the blog. Our Control team members definitely have fun, and all our regular control team often volunteer for control because they prefer it, and it sounds like that has been your experience too. So may advice, for what its worth, if avoid confusing control and player roles if you possibly can.

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  4. Late to this Jim. I have not seen “Non-Played Elements” used to describe any control before. I must point out that NPE in general gaming means “Negative Play Experience”. While I am not a fan of interacting with minor power control I would generally not go that far.

    Negative Play Experience means more than just not fun, it implies some sort of structural frustrating element, usually to do with a removal of agency. A megagame example might be Control continually thwarting you or a scripted change in the game state that invalidates your plans.

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