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The Economics of the Madhouse…

Are we running megagames for fun or profit?

It has been a while since my last blog post (life getting in the way of blogging) and following a recent conversation with a friend, I thought it time to write something about the economics of running megagames… at least from my perspective of being involved in designing and running games in the UK.

There are a number of key costs involved in designing and putting on a megagame.

Venue

This is often the big one. When we run a megagame there are a lot of factors in choosing a venue above its suitability for the game itself, including availability, location, access to public transport, accessibility, parking, comfort, catering space, facilities and the helpfulness of the facilities staff.

All of these have an impact on the price.

A basic hall with minimum facilities in a suburb with limited access to transport links might be as little as £500 for a day, a run-down church hall miles from anywhere, £50. A venue with catering, full accessibility and in the centre of a city will cost anything from £2,000 upwards (I was quoted £8,000 for a central London venue a little while ago).

The other critical factor with venues is the up-front cost. The organiser (whether the designer herself, or the supporting group organising the game) will have put a substantial deposit up for a venue, especially the expensive ones, often long before any revenue from player fees has come in.

This is a big financial risk.

Administration

Running a megagame is more than just rocking up on the day with a box of components and running a game.

Someone needs to:

  • design the game.

  • produce, gather and collate the components, including printing of maps.

  • print off and /or email background and briefing notes.

  • buy tea, coffee, milk, sugar, other refeshment ….

  • promote the event.

  • to recruit and manage participant enrolments.

  • manage refunds, cancellations and role casting.

  • check and book the venue.

Using booking systems such as Eventbrite may save time but these have a fee charging regime. And someone needs to make sure Eventbrite has the correct information.

Most of us take payment via PayPal, which also charges for the service (2.9% at time of writing).

This all takes time and effort.

Administration is a non-trivial task.

People’s time is a cost whether they are being paid in money or not. Even if they are doing it themselves (or have a willing friend or friends), the organiser is using enthusiasm and energy and, in the case of their friend or friends, the goodwill of others.

Personally, I think the person doing this should be acknowledged and recompensed in some way for their time, even if this is just a token sum.

Time

For most designers the megagame is not their day job, and they don’t expect to be paid for the time spent on the labour of love that is a megagame. However, it is worthwhile considering the time cost of the design effort. Based on some timekeeping I did a little while ago, I find that a new megagame might take a minimum of between 150 and 250 hours of designer time, not counting playtesting and administration. Many designers I know take a lot longer.

And to understand the value of this time is important – game designing is not just a simple manual task, but challenging creative work. Consider what you would be paying for, say an artist or a writer for that sort of effort. Even at minimum wage (currently a derisory £8.72 in the UK) the 150 – 200 designer hours comes to over £2000 worth of effort. And this is generally for a one-off game; repeats are relatively few.

Materials

We all love beautiful game components, whether they are paper, card, plastic or wood. Creating and printing components is a significant cost. Ink is expensive – a colour printer ink cartridges costing £12 a shot and soon mounts up when printing large full-colour maps. Even outsourcing map printing is not necessarily cheap. AND once again its the many hours of printing, assembling, cutting, laminating etc. This all mounts up.

Recently we costed the production of ‘Watch The Skies’ in terms of time and effort. It takes around 40-50 hours of effort and around £250 in materials.

The Game Fee

So how does the costs of a stereotypical 40-player megagame break down compared to what is typically charged for a megagame (as at 2020 anyway):

What megagamers often think the costs are

What it costs if we were being realistic.

Venue Hire

£500.00

£500.00

Materials cost

Nil

(“you only have to print up some stuff, right?”)

£250.00

Production time (40 hours)

Nil (its just a hobby after all)

£350.00

Designer time

Nil

(“Yeah, but you love doing it – so why pay you?”)

£2,000.00

(at minimum wage rate)

Administration (including PayPal fees)

£40.00

(“PayPal / Eventbrite does all the work”)

£100.00

Total

£540.00

£3,200.00

Cost per player

£13.50

£80.00

Normal Game Fee

£30.00

£30.00

Player’s reaction?

These megagames are too expensive!

Oh my, what a bargain

And if you substitute a more expensive venue in the table above, it shows that even in the first column the game fee is barely covering the cost of the venue alone.

It quickly becomes obvious that running megagames isn’t something that easily generates massive profit, which probably explains why many megagames are being designed and developed by hobbyists in their free/spare time. Repeat games make the whole thing more financially bearable, but it is still a very fine line between turning an actual profit and subsidising the game. Even very popular games can need subsidy due to unforeseen circumstances, especially when there are significant numbers of no-shows or drop-outs at the last minute – the margins can be tight, especially for smaller games. And where the venue is an expensive one the decision to press on might mean that even if there is a financial loss, it is less than the loss involved in cancellation.

Risks of Cancellation

When the designer or organiser decide to cancel and return the game fees, once again, the administration costs are all lost. PayPal for example no longer waive the fees on refunds, so designers are in the invidious position of either not refunding the whole amount, or taking on the chin the lost fees. A cancellation will also mean losing a deposit on the venue.

How to run a ‘profitable’ megagame:

There is a way to run a megagame that doesn’t make a loss, and that is to run it multiple times. Some of the costs remain, but they can be minimised as well as spread across multiple games, for example more durable and therefore reusable game components.

Of course, no megagame designers I know design and run megagames primarily for profit – they do it for the laughs, for the joy of seeing their creation in action, for the kudos of having put together something as magnificent and exciting as a megagame.

Megagame Design The Easy Way (4)

Turning ‘Shogun’ into a megagame.

Sengoku the megagame of classical Japan.

Japanese history has been a long term interest of mine, and when I first played the board game ‘Shogun’ I was very impressed at the way it captured the flavour of the age of civil wars, the Sengoku-jidai. It looked like this would be an excellent way of introducing the subject via a megagame. pic761201

The original board game has a lovely simplified map of provinces, and hundreds of plastic toy soldiers with which to represent armies as well as tiny model castles, swords, game money and so on. The components themselves were inspirational.

Of course, I would be turning a 5 player game into a 40 or 50 player game and so some changes would be necessary. It turned out that a lot of change was necessary – so much so that now nothing of the original game’s structure or mechanisms remains in the current iteration of the Sengoku megagame.

The first thing was to identify the player teams and this was the first major change. I wanted to set the game in a specific time and chose 1551 as a good starting point. It became clear who were the leading clans of this time, and I was able to create teams of players based on the historical diamyo and their families, and create briefings of ‘recent’ historical events based on the real world of the period. In doing this it became clear that the economic values allocated to the provinces in Shogun were not quite right, so I reset that data using actual rice taxation levels from 1551. This made quite a difference and whilst it would have created an unbalanced board game, it was a distinct benefit in a megagame which thrive on unbalanced scenarios and it made this historical feel a good deal better – once the wealth of provinces was taken into account it was pretty clear why certain clans came to the fore (and why some clans were never deafeated).

To further the sense of historical feel, the teams needed much more than just decisions about raising armies and marching them about to conquer areas on the map to properly reflect life int he period.

Drawing on my experience developing role playing games set in the period it was obvious to me that the core of the game would be the dynamic within the clan as much as it would be about rivalry and conflict between clans. Japanese samurai society contains a wealth of inter-related individuals, complex clan and obligation networks and this would form a basis for the team sub-game. I also wanted to introduce a high degree of Japanese culture of the time including the formal nature of relations, the rituals, and something of the mood and attitude of the time.

sengoku saito mapTo achieve this I developed individual briefings for each player in the game explaining their relationship to others and their individual objectives. Watching over each clan team would be a Team Control who would be acting as GM for the team and allocating awards in the form of ‘culture points’ for good role playing and acting in accordance with some basic rules of etiquette selected for the game. This was entirely new and not part of the board game.

The board game had a neat and simple system of die rolling for battles, and in the early versions of the megagame I used something based on this. But it became clear that this took far too long, and by the second iteration I had a much more streamlined system that could be resolved quickly enough that it did not hold up the rest of the game. Of course, fromt he very start the megagame also had moved away from the IGYG game turns of the original and introduced simultaneous actions, based on written instructions where it was important.

It was also important to add in institutions like the main warrior monk temples (major political actors in the period) and the role of the Imperial Court and Nobility as well as the Bakufu (the shogun’s civil service).

By the time all the various teams, structures, streamlined systems and detailed briefings had been added the resulting game bore no resemblance to the board game that inspired it except for having a similar-looking game map of Japan. And there are only so many ways you can draw a province map of Japan so even that changed.

In retrospect the game could probably have been developed from scratch more easily, and  with much the same end result (or even better).   What is important here is that the prototype board game was a template to start the design process going. Even if you end up discarding absolutely everything of the original game (and be prepared to do this) having something to start with really helps, especially with your first megagame designs.

In Conclusion

There have been many cases over the years where a board game or even computer game have provided the baseline on which to develop.

The ultimate example of this would be the influence of the computer game UFO: Enemy Unknown (also know as XCOM and its successors) on the inception of the successful Watch The Skies series – whihc was inspired by the ideas of the much loved original computer game, but has ended up in a very different place.

DSCF3739

The important part about converting a game into a megagame is be prepared to throw out anything that doesn’t work in the megagame context.  Much loved mechanisms, structures, map, components – anything – if it doesn’t serve your megagame discard it.  A megagame is a thing on its own, inspired by other games, or fiction or history or life, it still has to work as an experience for the players as well.

 

Megagame Design The Easy Way (3)

In this part I look at a real example of converting board games mechanisms to a megagame.

Pirates of Yendor

Turning ‘Trireme’ into a megagame.

There is a much loved tactical wargame written by Ed Smith called ‘Trireme’1 (originally pic1604161published in the UK as ‘Greek Naval Warfare’). This is a tactical wargame where each player takes control of a small number of ancient Greek warships and aims to outmanoeuvre her opponent and ram and sink the enemy fleet. The game is built around a set of wargame rule that take account of differing sizes of Greek warship, the presence or marines and archers and the effects of ramming from different directions hitting more vulnerable parts of enemy vessels.

Movement and action is simultaneous, each side writing orders for their ships using a simple letter code (P = port, S = starboard and so on). Interception was handled by an ingenious ‘phased movement’ system which allowed ships to do a series of partial moves depending on speed until the point a collision or ram occurrs.

It is an elegant system and fairly easy to learn and play.

The origins of the megagame Pirates of Yendor came about because I wanted to do a naval themed game based in my long-standing fantasy universe built around the City of Yendor. The political structures, back story and environment already existed, so the main requirement was some sort of sea-based action. Having loved Trireme for many years I started to look at how this might be adapted to the megagame.

The basic story of the megagame was that the City of Yendor, being a major port, was vulnerable to attack by sea raiders and corsairs. The megagame was to be about a campaign of a series of seaborne attacks aimed at controlling the sea approaches to the city. In every Yendor-based game there is an element of internal rivalry and posturing within and between various factions within the city, each of which would be buying, equipping, and dispatching ships to fight the Corsairs.

It would have been possible to play a straightforward wargame on this theme, on a game board and with many ships. However that would not have had the command and control and political, elements that made this a megagame.

So the main changes that were implemented were:

  • Moving from one player handling several ships, to several players handling one ship. This meant having some role differentiation within the ship-team. Since there would be many ship crew teams in a hall, the ship models needed to be large and colourful so as to be easily identified from a distance.

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  • Instead of written orders the player used large flash cards each turn displayed for the Control team to see. Control then moved ships in accordance with the orders displayed.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • The ships’ status was shown on the ship models rather than recorded on a separate sheet held by the player. This meant that the ship models had to be large and their status clear. Crew on the ships were represented by actual toy soldiers and things like oars (which could be damaged) shown by removable cards.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Crews

There are, broadly speaking, two sides to the game – the Yendorians and the Corsairs.

However, within each side there were factions each with their own agendas, so the way the sea battles played turned out to be more than a straightforward tactical battle.

In a two player ship the roles were:

  • Captain – Responsible for decision making and signalling.

  • Ship’s Master – responsible for issuing the ships’ movement orders, rolling dice etc.

The larger ships, with 3 or more crew had their own separate briefing on how they operated – some had additional weapons to contend with.

The players could not come onto the playing area or move the ship models and the game controllers moved the ships in accordance with the players’ wishes.

There was the all-important time factor.

Players did not have unlimited time in which to carefully work out the optimal manoeuvre for their vessel. We started off by giving everyone a few minutes to prepare their orders, but as the day went on, and the players got more used to the system, we shortened the time available to prepare orders for each game period.

As is normal in megagames, the game did not wait until all the players were ready – once Game Control announced that it was time to display orders anyone who was not ready lost the opportunity to issue orders. Ships with no orders continued on their last heading at their last speed.

In addition, communications were limited. Nobody in this world had a radio. Communication between ships was by shouting or by flags. A ship had to be within 2 squares for shouting to be effective.To make this a bigger challenge, ship teams from each side were interspersed, alternating round the room as Yendorian and Corsair

Flags could be seen at any distance and we gave players coloured paper flags and signal books to help this. Systems of flag signals were specific to each side and there was scope for additional signals to be developed by players.  Other than flags and close-range shouting, players were not allowed to discuss their forthcoming orders with other ship’s crews. To discourage conferring we alternated the seating arrangements so that crews on the same side were not necessarily sitting next to each other.

On the day the megagame was divided into three linked scenarios – each scenario taking about one and a half to two hours, with a break in between. The outcome of each scenario determining the start set up for the next.  

As a megagame this worked pretty well, though it helped that the player interaction part was separated from the tactical element – and the tactical game was fast-moving enough that players did not experience down-time while adjudication took place.  This was helped by simplifying the actual combat rules themselves, and giving the control team several practic session so that they were able to resolve combats with ease and confidence without needing to spend time looking up rules or checking too many rule tables. However the physical representation was important – there needed to be a lot of room to lay out the game so that everyone had a clear and uninterrupted view and that individual crew’s ship’s position on the playing area was clearly visible to the crew at all times.  The physical preparation for a game like this is non-trivial!

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In Part 4 : Another worked example … the origins of Sengoku!

1https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/1709/trireme

 

Megagame Design The Easy Way (2)

In the last part I discussed some of the pros and cons of designing a megagame based on an existing game type, be it board game, wargame, role playing game or LARP.

In this part I introduce a worked example… so I give you …

MEGACHESS : The Chess Megagame!

An outrageous example of applying megagame structures to a board game.

In this section I want to look at the conversion process a little – how one might look at a well known two player board game and turn it into a megagame.

To really highlight the process I have deliberately chosen one of the simplest two player board games, chess. The basic structure of a game of chess is used and my megagame map is the familiar 8 by 8 grid, the pieces move in the way they move in chess. But in order to adapt the game to a megagame-like format there are important changes made to the rules and procedures of chess.

In this megagame there are two sides, Black Kingdom and White Kingdom. Or the ‘Kingdom of the Black Forest’ and the ‘Kingdom of the White Mountains’ if you want to add spurious ‘fluff’.

Each Kingdom has an army which is organised in a hierarchy, with the King at the top.

There are 16 player roles per side (including the King), one for each chess piece.

Game Layout

MegaChess is a double-blind closed game. The King and his council does not see the main map – but has a smaller map to update the situation based on reports from the front line players who are positioned at the main map.

The main maps do not show all the positions of all the enemy pieces, only pieces adjacent to a friendly piece are shown. The Control team observe both maps and keep them updated, but do not update the King’s council maps.

Megachess Game Layout

megachess layout

Game Play

Each game turn takes 10 minutes.

Action is SIMULTANEOUS. Only one piece can be moved each turn.

The game is a double blind game – with a limited visibility range allocated to each piece.  perhaps Rooks can ‘see’ further’ than pawns?

Interactions between pieces are ruled on by Control. So it is possible for a piece to be attacked and for it to move out of the way. Players issue ‘orders’ for their piece based on instructions from the King’s Council as players receive written orders from their King each ‘Move’.

These cannot be in the form of ‘Pawn to B4’ but must be ‘Pawn No.6 Advance’ or ‘Pawn No.6 capture enemy Knight’. So there is some room for error in interpretation.

The front line players in control of pieces issue instructions to move their piece as ordered on the ‘map’ (game board). This might be actually moved by control based on a written instruction or a flash card. The players then and report back to the King. Some will be reporting newly ‘sighted’ enemy pieces, some will report on their actions.

Turn lengths are rigidly timed to 10 minutes, so it is possible for the King one side not to have given orders for a move in a given turn if they take too long to decide what to do. However, front line players might still issue instructions to their piece to move in the absence of King’s orders thus representing the degree of local initiative or disobedience.

Internal Politics Element. All orders must be agreed upon by the Privy Council composed of the King, Queen, Knights and Bishops, who attend the meeting. There is a status ranking system in the Court, with victory points or status gained if your suggestions are adopted. The attendees are also front line players, so have to rush back to the main map room if they want to move their piece.

Religious Conflict Element. The two Bishops represent different and opposed sects (the White Diagonalist Sect and the Black Diagonalist Sect), and have secret objectives (and a secret communication route with their co-religionists on the other side). They will be seeking to influence strategy and diminish the influence of the rival sect.

Revolutionary Element: Some of the Pawns are Republicans are are trying to convince the other Pawns to overthrow the oppressive Monarchists, depose the King and end this pointless war. They have private line of communication with Revolutionary Red Pawns on the other side. They can also try to convince higher value pieces to join the revolution. They might choose to change sides or disobey orders.

Imagine converting Black and White Pawns into Red Pawns on the board when the revolution starts!

Captured or ‘Dead’? – captured pieces’ players are physically moved to the enemy kingdom’s dungeon room (or area in the hall). They have their own Control who gets them to play a ‘escape from prison’ sub-game loosely based on the ‘Escape From Colditz’ board game so that they might escape and return to the main game They can also be ransomed or a prisoner swap negotiated between White and Black. And of course pawns reaching the other side of the board can perform rescues. Rescued or escaped prisoners are restarted in their traditional start position on the board.

Question – is this a megagame at all?

It has some features or a megagame – size (32 players), hierarchies, time pressure. The rules are very simple. It has some politics and role playing.  It meets many people’s definition of a megagame – in theory.

But.

Most of the players have little to do. They are likely to be spending much of their time waiting for orders from above. You can see how the game design has had to create some opportunities for the 10 or so players who are likely to be inactive on each side to do something meaningful that contributes to the gameplay. This is, of course limited:

  • The pawn conspiracy might generate some discussion, but until they rebel they are just talking.

  • The Privy council sub-game will be entertaining for the six members of each council, but will it dominate to the extent that the chess battle is ignored or marginalised?

  • Is turning up to a megagame, getting captured on turn 2 and spending the day playing ‘Escape from Chessdiz‘ with 2 or 3 other people really an inspiring megagame experience?

Is there enough player interaction apart from the privy council, the revolutionaries and the religious rivalries? To take an example – imagine you are one of the rook players? What would you be doing all day? This is a key question in megagame design – always ask “what will this player actually do?”

The base rules of chess have been altered to allow simultaneous action. Will this break the basic structure and make the chess-like game not work at all? Are there other modifications to the chess structure that might help add depth to the megagame? For example allowing more than one piece to move each turn. Or adding a random element where one rolls dice to determine whether a piece is captured. Or make the capture process a direct stone-paper-scissors type combat between the players on each side.

What this example seeks to illustrate is how, superficially, a board game might look like if it is translated into a megagame, but also how this process of conversion throws up some design issues that must be addressed to ensure that it is a genuine megagame experience.And how the megagame-ising of a baord game can change its character altogether.  This is important if you wanted to replicate the experience of your favourite board game as a megagame.  Will those changes destroy the bits you loved?

No matter what your favourite board game, or wargame or role playing game might be, translating them to the megagame format is never a trivial process. In fact often it can often be both quicker and easier to construct an original game around the theme than to modify or adjust an existing game that was never intended to be a megagame.

In Part 3: Another examples of a board game conversion – how the Pirates of Yendor came into being….