“Time is an illusion…megagame time, doubly so” (apols to Douglas Adams)
It was 1987 and the UK was going through seismic changes. Thatcher was in power and unreasonably popular (50% approval rating), golliwogs had been banned from Enid Blyton books, my neighbour Cynthia Payne had been acquitted of running a brothel, British Rail (yes, we had our own railway back then) abolished Second Class and replaced it with Standard Class and the Channel Tunnel plan was given a green light.
It is true that the past is another country.
It was into that maestrom of change and upheaval that a 32 year old civil servant joined the ranks of a mysterious cult known as ‘megagame designers’. He was not the first, of course – he had been recruited and encouraged by the founder of recreational megagames, Paddy Griffith (who had run the first megagame of that ilk in 1983 named, with chracterisic iconoclasm ‘Memphis Manger IV’ ) and inspired by games by Andy Grainger (who wrote the very successful megagames Kirovograd and Clouds In the West in the mid-1980s). This young enthusiast’s first attempt at a megagame was ‘Blood & Thunder’ involving a load of plastic sailing ships and toy soldiers, cardboard houses , rum, a pig roast and 126 participants. Briefings produced lovingly using 9-pin dot matrix printer and a ‘powerful’ PCW8256 word processor.
I’m not entirely sure what ever happened to that fresh-faced keen young 32 year old megagamer. But in the intervening 31 years he seems to have run 100 of his own megagames as of last Saturday.
There never was a plan to do quite so many games – and surpringly (to me at least) that those 100 games represent 61 different game designs. Interestingly, when I coulnted just now, exactly 50% have been on historical or contemporary themes and 50% on fantasy or science fiction, showing a remarkable lack of focus or consistency…
The most run game, is, of course Watch The Skies (9).
Looking back over the list it is interesting to note the ‘lost megagames’ – games that were run or twice once then consigned to the scrapheap of megagaming history either because they failed so abysmaly that they need to be expunged, or because the basic idea really didn’t make a good megagame. Notable (notorious) examples were :
‘Fire & Steel’ (1993) – an attempt to run a tactical tank battle megagame, using model tanks and players directing their movements over a huge floor model of some terrain. Inspired by the way the ship-handling systems worked in ‘Final Frontier’ or ‘Blood & Thunder’. It didn’t work. Slow and hence dull and not enough player interaction.
‘Outer Worlds’ (1993) – an attempt to run interstellar politics an economics on the strategic scale. Teams had to bring a computer (in 1993!) and issued their orders on supercalc spreadsheets passed on floppy disk. Er. It was a nightmare.
‘First Contact’ (1993) – Actually some of this worked quite well. It was the attempt to implement a strategic movement and detection system using a computer that failed utterly. Attempting to find a bug in a program while the game waits was not a great experience.
‘Cruel Void’ (1996) – tactical space dogfighting campaign game – a sort of ‘Battle of Britain in Space’ game. One player per ship, vector movement with a promotions / campaigning element. Game systems worked ok, but the player progression and campaign aspects never really took off because the tactical game dominated, and despite an attempted re-run the following year it never re-appeared after that.
Then there are the games that have never seen the light of day at all, such as ‘Valiant Musketeers’, ‘Bosnian Crisis’, ‘Warriors for the Working Day’ (how Fire & Steel should have been), ‘Escalation’, ‘Supers’, ‘Monster Movie Madness’, ‘The Blitz’, ‘The Day After’ to name but a few.
I guess 61 isn’t an upper limit – who knows what will come next?
Late last year I was approached by Richard Barbrook to design a political megagame, potentially for UK Labour Party activists to practice negotiation skills and practice balancing ideology and pragmatism. The inspiration for the game was to come from Chris Mullin’s political thriller ‘A Very British Coup’ published in 1982 and depicting a fantastical scenario of a principled and popular left-wing labour leader (Harry Perkins) sweeping to power in an unexpected election victory as a discredited and failing Tory government collapsed under a plethora of scandals.
The action of the story was all about the how ‘The Establishment’ – the bête noire of the Left – comprising, press barons, the old boy network, the security services and the military, egged on by Foreign Influences (a Republican-led USA) would conspire to bring down a popular socialist government by foul means and fake news. The book was dramatised by Channel 4 in 1988, and I well remember enjoying it immensely at the time.
Clearly such a fantasic scenario could never be enacted in real life.
Designing a purely political game has a number of issues that affect the megagame design. The first step, of course, was to build the game environment and Richard and others helpfully created a list of Labour ‘Factions’ of the 1980s who would represent the majority of the player teams. Of course only having Labour Factions as teams would miss the important element in any game of an active adversary – and the scenario described in the book has some very clear adversaries. So it was obvious from the outset that the primary dynamic of the game would be a larger number of Labour party factions negotating and interacting, with a smaller group of ‘Establishment’ player teams providing challenges and attempting to exacerbate the infighting and bring influence to bear to de-rail the left-wing legislative programme.
But what would the Factions be negotiating about? What would be the role of the Cabinet? How would players interact with each other? Key megagame design questions.
And this is pretty much where any megagame design has to part company with the narrative of a novel, play or film. Megagames have to be open-ended rather than scripted, and the participants must be given real agency in the game. So whilst the game is inspired by the novel it cannot (and should not) attempt to become a re-enactment of it. A coup might or might not happen based entirely on the player activities and interactions. This is an important aspect of game design – works of fiction are not (or at least rarely) amenable to good gamification straight out of the pages. It is important to remember this. Just because characters exist in the fiction does not necessarily mean they would have agency in the game context.
As part of my research I re-read the 1983 Labour Manifesto, and the description of the real aspirations of a fairly leftish party of the time (or ‘far left’ by comparison to the Blair years). This was the context of Mullin’s original story, where it was the Perkins’ Government’s programme of ‘dangerious left-wing dogma’ that the Establishment was trying to counter. So it seemed obvious to me that a key focus would be on implementing the manifesto. Party Faction teams would therefore be arguing and manoevering to have their favoured policies enacted as early as possible in the life of the government.
It also quickly became obvious that the Cabinet would not be played by players because this would erode the role of the faction teams as the main drivers of the game (remember the game aim of maximising the opportunity for practicing negotiation skills). So the game would have the various factions seeking to influence and ‘control’ cabinet members, and use that as leverage in the important game process of setting the legislative agenda.
The game, for the Labour Factions is therefore on four levels and members of the teams must manage their time to work on multiple levels simultaneously:
Influencing Cabinet – and the (non-played) Cabinet members whose influence weighs in significantly in the game on behalf of the faction.
Influencing the order that policies are enacted in parliament. The game timescale covers several years, because although a week is a long time in politics, legislation grinds slowly. And the measures that get passed have Impact (for good).
Influencing the vote in parliament, both directly and indirectly. The weakened Tory Opposition is still present (and played) in parliament so there are opportunities for cross-party agreements.
And at the same time agreeing compromises and deals with the other factions to get things done.
Obviously, the Government as a whole will get little or nothing done, unless it can manage its infighting and cut deals – ‘log rolling’ if you will – the game allows players to have a lot of fun with doctrinal and principles arguments and infighting – certainly this has come to the fore in playtests. And it is entertaining. However, unless they find ways of pulling together, the party’s impact will be small, and consequently its public support dwindle under the constant assault of a hostile press. Too many individual victories can lead to group defeat, and an early General Election (= A Bad Thing).
The Establishment Adversaries also influence Cabinet members (through blackmail or other dirty tricks) and can influence the Impact of legislation and the popularity of the government through the power of the Press Barons. I won’t go into detail here about exactly all the things the Establishment can do (spoilers).
One of my main changes over the original story is in how the Establishment works – so rather than a monolithic extra-democratic power bloc, as described in the novel, in this game they also have their own internal pressures, objectives and concerns, and organising a coup has to be the culmination of resolving their own internal factional issues. In short, the more chaotic the Labour Government, the harder it is to organise a coup – but the better the Government does in furthering its objectives the easier the Establishment finds it to pull together for their version of ‘The Greater Good’. This balancing is a core structure in the game.
So, in this megagame, A Very British Coup, the player interaction does not require much in the way of game mechanisms – such mechanisms as there are – are all simple and pretty self-evident – players can turn up and understand the way the game works very quickly. And then get on with the negotiating and haggling and interacting. The game is heavy on talking and interacting and light on mechanism.
Personally, I’m pretty excited by this game – its a new subject area for me, and political games are always extremely entertaining – and I’m really looking forward to seeing the game system play out in its full form.
It is a common enough trope in megagames that if nukes are available then someone will either want to get their hands on one, or fire one off. In games where assassination is possible someone always wants to do an assassination. Even when assassination isn’t possible, practical or realistic, someone always wants to conduct an assassination.
And, of course, this is entirely reasonable in many ways. Megagames are games. In being games they naturally encourage playfulness. A game designer offers players a sandbox in which they can act out all sorts of extreme options that perhaps wouldn’t happen in real life, and with no real life consequences – nobody actually dies. Playing in the purest sense.
Those who view the megagame as essentially a realistic simulation of ‘real life’ (or at least containing some semblance of what we think of as real life) sometimes find extreme player behaviours frustrating, annoying even, as they are not ‘playing the game properly’. That is, not constraining their actions to those seen to be within the ‘arc of believability’ around the game.
This is an entirely reasonable expectation. If one were running a megagame set in a historical period, say Napoleon’s campaigns in Germany in 1813, you would expect players to act within the doctrine, attitudes and belief systems of the time. Anachronistic behaviours on the player’s part would spoil what we call the ‘duty to history’ and result in a game that felt nothing like the period piece it was intended to be. But the line is thin. Back in the ’90s, Brian Cameron and I ran a game on this subject and in that game the Austrian Emperor made a separate peace with Napoleon halfway through the game. This was playfulness, because as Emperor he could choose to do pretty much what he liked. Foolish, but not historically unprecedented. But this was a disaster for the other Allies, and for the game, because without a united alliance facing them Napoleon’s armies were unbeatable. The game stopped at 2pm.
Lesson learnt – that not all playfulness can be allowed in a megagame. Players are encouraged to have a free hand, but Control must say ‘no’ not only to the outrageous and the impossible but also to actions destructive to the game and that might reduce or diminish the experience of all the other players.
So this brings me on to the allowability of death and assassination.
From time to time players come to me at games and say “…he is being really annoying and so how can I assassinate him?”.
There are different answers, depending on the game and situation. It might be simple “Just roll a six” or “Do you have an assassination card?”. It might be more complex but still possible, in game – perhaps the player coming up with a complex deployment of special forces, or an elaborate poisoning plan.
Or, the answer might be a flat “you can’t”.
The important point here is not the methods or possibility of assassination but the motivation behind the question. Why is player behaviour – “..being really annoying…” such that the only solution is to assassinate the player character? And this influences whether control should encourage or discourage assassination as an aspect of emerging gameplay.
What is really going on here? I see a number of possibilities. It might be that the player in question is being obnoxious in character, and the assassination is entirely game-relevant (or even part of the game design). In this case, events simply take their course.
It might be that the player in question is being personally obnoxious. This is an issue for game control. Assassination isn’t the answer because the issue is about out of character behaviour. Game Control needs to intervene to explain acceptable standards to the player who is being obnoxious. Dealing with the obnoxious is an entirely separate (and complex) subject.
However, in my experience it is most often the case that the player in question is blocking some action that the would-be assassin wants to happen. This is important because the issue here is about how players negotiate and engage with the game. And many players, particularly those inexperienced in both megagames and negotiation see a ‘kinetic negotiation’ as the simplest way forward. This might not be an assassination. It might be launching nukes, or starting a war.
This is understandable, but in resorting to simplistic violent actions the players are missing out on a very rich and satisfying seam of megagame gameplay, namely, successful negotiation.
So what can a player do when another player is standing in their way and refusing to cooperate?
Here are some hints:
Never take refusal at face value. They may only be refusing as a starting position.
Find out what they do want. Most players or teams have their own objectives. In a well designed megagame these will be multi-layered. You might be able to get them to to do some of what you want in return for your support with something else. Rarely are megagame objectives binary or zero-sum. There is nearly always some lever, and the competent player will seek to understand what these are and use them.
Bring pressure to bear via other teams. They might block you alone, but if more players or teams keep pushing they may have to change their position. Forming temporary coalitions to achieve something. Or another team might have what they want, and you can work through a third party.
Be prepared to give something without return. Be prepared to be generous. Sometimes other teams intransigence is a mirror of your own intransigence. It is surprising how making the first step creates a more open atmosphere in negotiations. If you block and ‘play hard-ball’ do not be surprised to find everyone else treats you the same way. Just saying ‘give me what I want’ repeatedly is not a negotiation tactic.
Be nice. Yes, really. Smile, make a joke, be cheerful. I know it sounds cheesy but this is a tried and tested way of getting people on your side, even if they don’t agree or can’t (or won’t) help you. And this is just a game – belittling people or being an arse isn’t fun.
Openness and honesty works too. There is a school of thought that says you should always keep all your cards close to your chest, reveal nothing about your objectives or intentions. And there is some wisdom in that. But there are times when at least some openness really helps in finding where two sides can arrive at a win-win position. And win-win is mostly what megagames are about.
Or, of course, you can skip all of that an just assassinate the other team’s Prime Minister.
Except that, of course, in a megagame it nearly always achieves nothing. Except possibly causing out of character bad feeling and resentment. Your negotiation position hasn’t been improved. The other team are less inclined to help you and nothing has been unblocked.
The same goes with arresting, kidnapping or abducting inconvenient players. It might seem like a good idea to remove an obstacle, but generally it merely backfires and in doing so removes an entire layer of fruitful negotiation and gameplay.
And what does death even mean in a megagame?
I get the distinct impression that some players seem to think that the player they have assassinated is going to just disappear from the game, perhaps hoping that Control will send them home or lock them in a cupboard or something.
A megagame player is a paying guest in a social event. They will always be re-inserted into the game in one form or another. Usually back on the same team they came from (perhaps in a different role, but usually in the same team because people like to take part in games as part of a group of friends).
In some cases ‘dead’ players are re-roled into spare roles that the game designer has set aside for just such an eventuality. So, in game terms, it is often the case that in-game assassination achieves little or nothing. Much the same can be said of the real world – few assassinations in history have made much difference (apart from perhaps uniquely the assassination in Sarajevo in 1914).
On the same tack I also have players asking to kidnap, imprison or abduct other players. A moments thought would tell them that the megagame organisers are not going to accept the idea that a player is left for hours twiddling their thumbs in a corner as a ‘prisoner’ – especially if the primary the motivation for the arrest is to remove that player’s ability to take part in the game. Arresting / kidnapping someone is not a solution to your negotiation / roleplaying challenges.
If you find yourself considering arrest / abduction / assassination as serious in-game options (especially when this is not an explicit part of the game system) then consider also whether you are missing something important. If this is all you can think of because its become a bit difficult then you probably have missed something. Some lever, some avenue of influence, some aspect of their objectives or aims that you’ve not yet found out about. Think about this – it will really make a difference to your megagame experience.
Every game designer brings all sorts of experiences into their game designs, subject matter and the philosophy of their games, One of my earliest influences was being in the privileged position of having free access to the Ministry of Defence Whitehall Library during the later 1970s and early 80s. This library contained a huge collection of books on all manner of military subjects, many obscure and therefore deeply interesting (to me at least). Much of its collection was, sadly, sold off – the Admiralty Library part of the collection has moved to Portsmouth- and the remaining books are now part of the Defence Academy Library now I believe.
In among this were copies of RAND Papers on wargaming, political-military game and related subjects. Naturally, in those pre-internet days this was a gold mine of amazing material, not available to the general public, let alone to hobby gamers. As we would say nowadays “It quite literally blew my mind!”
Nowadays pretty much all of this is freely available on-line with only minimal searching – which is a brilliant opportunity for the new generation of game designers.
Access to this library, in conjunction with a group of enthusiastic fellow gamers, enabled me to experiment with ideas from the USA in ways not available to mainstream gamers then. I was particularly lucky in having a group of wargamers that formed the core of Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group to try out these ideas and approaches. And although at that time megagames had not yet become a thing – much of the thinking about multi-player, wargames or political / military games had its inception for myself and my circle of friends around that time.
Out of this came many game ideas – some examples of games arising directly out of the use of the MOD Whitehall Library being:
A multiplayer double-blind map wargame for a 12 players or so on the battle for Kharkov played around 1980. By modern definitions, pretty much a proto-megagame. (I think I still have the typewritten materials somewhere – briefings duplicated by using carbon paper!).
My WW2 brigade-level map based wargame rules STONK,
A map-based political / military game, using an obscure book called ‘Nightmare In Detroit’ describing the race riot in Detroit in 1967, that was first run for students at the Army Staff College Camberley at some point in the early 1980s. The ideas behind this game subsequently evolved over the following decades into the core of the megagame ‘Urban Nightmare’. (note: Thanks to the internet I now have my own copy!)
My attempts at gaming revolutionary warfare as a play-by-mail game – the ‘Vietasia game’ I run with Paddy Griffith and others as players – of which nothing now survives as far as I know.
My Civil Disorder Wargame, about rioting in city streets (the first version written about the time of the Brixton Riots in 1979).
The big ideas in all of these that were startling for me as a young (and opinionated) wargamer were:
Wargames do not have to be about toe-to-toe kinetic warfare between historical armies.
Toy soldiers are fun, but ultimately they are only representational markers. The toys, counters, models you use are only useful to the extent that they are fit for the purpose of playing the game. Interestingly, this led to many mainstream wargamers insisting that I was ‘anti-toy soldiers’ as if that was a thing! 🙂
It is possible to design a wargame about anything involving an adversarial situation. It might not necessarily be a war, or a battle, or involve armies.
Maps are great!
So for me libraries have been an important formative experience influencing my creativity and an opportunity to seize ideas. Of course now, I have access to pretty much any book, ever, via the internet. But – there is something about wandering around vast rows of shelves containing tens of thousands of print books and having one’s eye caught by a surprising book title – or be drawn out of curiosity by a dusty ancient volume languishing on a top shelf. Ideas that would never have come to you otherwise. Sometimes it is nothing – but the impact of serendipity on my game designs has been significant.
So if you get the chance of visiting a major library – any library – then do so – before they all vanish into the mists of the internet!