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.
And 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.
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.
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!