What is a megagame? This one crops up on the Megagame Makers Facebook group every so often, and elsewhere. So I’ve talked about the elements of a megagame before now – particularly in this post.
I have described a megagame in other ways in the past too. “It’s like a board game, but not a board game. Its like a wargame, but not a wargame. It’s like a role-playing game, but not a role playing game”. Recently, someone said to me … “Ok, but what does that mean?”. Fair point. Here goes.
A megagame is like a board game because it often has a playing area (a map or game board), its has game components such as counters, cards, and tokens. And it has rules of the game that the players follow. It is not like a board game in that the rules of the megagame game are not immutable – the Control team can, and will , modify the game as it goes along to enhance player experience or respond to the emerging narrative. Megagames are also not like board games in that they rarely have fixed victory conditions that must be achieved to ‘win’. In fact ‘winning’ in the trivial sense is something that megagames cannot include by virtue of their size, scope, complexity and social nature. You cannot ‘win’ a megagame any more than you can ‘win’ going to a movie or ‘win’ attending a dinner party.
A megagame is like a wargame because it often has adversarial situations, and fighting or some sort of conflict represented. And by the formal definition of a wargame, most megagames are wargames. A megagame is not like a recreational wargame in that it will usually be much more fast-moving (certainly than most recreational wargames) and the rules and procedures much more broad-brush – effectively a synthesis of the main features of the tactical or strategic situation.
This means that the megagame contains a lot less technical detail – something anathema to the traditionally detail-hungry historical wargamer. Megagames tend also not to be merely two-sided, or zero-sum games.
A megagame is like a role playing game in that the players in it take on roles, often with specific characteristics and their game experience feels in many ways similar to a role playing game where they are playing a President or a General or an Alien Invader. A megagame usually differs from the more usual role playing game in that, like the wargame, there is a lot less character specific gamification (character statistics, experience points, skills development etc). This is usually because in the time available it is hard to make those aspects of the role playing game meaningful in the game situation. Players in a megagame often have less freedom around the scope of their role than in a normal role-playing game. So in a megagame, the players are given a situation briefing which tells them what their objectives are (though obviously exactly not what they should do to achieve them). This contrasts with conventional role playing games where the players are in a more flexible situation and can pretty nearly freely choose how to develop their character , attitudes and objectives within their game theme.
A megagame is like a LARP (very like a LARP) in the same way it is like a role playing game above. In megagames there is also the opportunity, that some take, to dress up for the part. It is with some reluctance that I generalise about LARPs but the main difference, it seems to me is that LARPs require dressing up and total immersion in a way that megagames do not and that the LARP follows a more pre-determined narrative structure, often with a clear ending or denouement. The creation of clear ending / grand finale aspect is quite literally impossible for the megagame – which is all about emerging gameplay – in a megagame the ending that emerges might be a single dramatic and memorable event, or it might be a collection of small events that contribute to the overall narrative.
Naturally, it is easier to say what a megagame isn’t. But sometimes that helps us when describing what it is.
The key thing for me is related to expectation management. Those who have not yet been exposed to a megagame can find themselves in difficulty because they join the game with the expectation that a megagame is, for example, merely board game with a few more people in the room. My experience over the years is that this isn’t the case – for me there is definitely something different that happens when a large bunch people get into a room and start playing a megagame.