Tag: megagame

Describing Typical Megagames (2)

In addition to the inter-communication problems and the hierarchical nature of the player team structure, in many games there is a representation of the situation using what is known as the closed ‘double blind’ system. Players only have the information that would realistically be known to them about the location of their enemies (or even of their own troops). The Control team (of which much more later) keeps a master map updated, and this master map is hidden from the players. Team Control report back each turn of how their orders have turned out and collect orders for the next turn. This method is very common in both operational megagames and political/military megagames.

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Here we see a simple example of a military operational megagame which shows how the simplest of hierarchies are represented in a megagame format. And this doesn’t have to be historical – one could just as easily use command hierarchies to represent Steampunk armies, or fantasy armies or space fleets and star empires.

Hierarchies can be represented in other ways, for example there might be a political game in which the teams represent different parts of a government – with a Cabinet Team and teams representing government departments. Or you might have teams representing samurai clans who owe allegiance to their overlord. There are many ways this playing into game structures.

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Some megagames have political as well as operational elements – some are wholly political, some have very key elements of role playing. In the more political and role playing games, hierarchies might not be so important. A game like Washington Conference by Dave Boundy has no hierarchies of teams, each team being a national delegation in an arms control conference. However in these cases the key element is team intra- and inter-communication. A megagame like this, one of pure negotiation, has the important elements of requiring complex player to player communication. The dynamic created by a megagame with virtually a 1 to 1 representation of key historical roles is where megagames are at their most LARP-like.

It is the combination of all of these elements that make each megagame slightly different to every other megagame.
Each megagame is unique in its own way – depending on the size, structure and theme – there is no ‘official’ set of ‘Rules of Megagame’ as a whole because each game must be designed to suit the theme and the interactions required (though some games might share some elements with other games – simple things like combat resolution methods are often re-used or adapted). In fact the creation of a set of standard rules would be antithetical to the whole megagame approach.

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Intercommunication, interaction, teams and hierarchies – with the additional challenge of `player management’ makes the megagame unique as a gaming experience. It is this aspect that regular mega gamers tell me, time and time again, is the element that brings them back to play again.

I have often remarked that all that is really necessary is to put 40 regular megagamers into a hall with some paper, pens, tables and chairs and maybe a die or two, and a game would emerge of its own accord. Well, perhaps I exaggerate to make a point – but it is true that megagamers carry away anecdotal stories of their activities and interaction in a way that does not happen nearly so frequently in other areas of gaming.

On the subject of game size – there is a distinction between the megagame and merely a game with a lot of players. Big open miniature games, whilst providing an impressive visual spectacle are rarely structured into a hierarchy of teams, but more often as a two rows of players facing each other in a ‘multiple two player game’. Such a game would not, in our terms, be a megagame because it would lack, teams, sufficient hierarchy and meaningful interaction.  There is a big difference between a “100 player game” and 50 x 2-player games.

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Describing Typical Megagames (1)

Whilst there are exceptions, the typical megagame lasts a day – maybe around 6 hours of playing time. We have found that because the best megagame experiences tend to be challenging, immersive and pressured, players (and the control team running the game) get very tired. First-timers have reported feeling drained and exhausted after the first game – though in a good way, of course!

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A megagame has a high degree of social interaction – and because intercommunication is a key requirement of every megagame, as is the interplay within and between player teams. Social networking happens in every megagame – people make new friends and find themselves being able to practice social skills within the context of a game. This isn’t new – board gaming is increasingly a social activity, online MMORPGs have long generated their own communities – but we have feedback that a megagame has been beneficial for those with social anxiety or finding interactions stressful or challenging.

It is also important not to underestimate the social aspects of these games. There are interesting political or military situations being simulated, and this can be a worthwhile intellectual challenge – it could be argued the participants get more from merely spending a day with a group of like-minded gamers.

The concept of a game that lasts a day, involves lots of people interacting is, of course, not unique to megagames. The LARP community has been doing this sort of thing for decades, as have the Free-Form Role-playing games groups. Megagames have much in common with both these formats. The distinctions are mainly around the structures that underpin megagames – of which more later.

Part of that difference is traced back to the origins of megagames. The roots of the concept arise from the work and early megagames of late Paddy Griffith who came from a military history background. It was then developed by military historians and wargamers such as Andy Grainger who applied sound military history background to creating realistic megagames on operational military subjects. Early megagames therefore drew heavily on that historical wargaming perspective – itself influenced by board wargames and miniatures wargames.

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A megagame has a narrative to it that might very well be historical, or containing some recognisable internally consistent narrative. That narrative framework has encompassed heroic fantasy, science fiction as well as a very wide range of historical subjects. The consistent elements have been the existence of interacting teams and hierarchies and intercommunication between players. In fact megagames do not seem to be limited in themes that can be covered. The main limitation on the megagame is structural – the answer to the question “does this subject/theme involve meaningful intercommunication and interaction between multiple teams”. Not every theme or subject areas is amenable to the megagame treatment – I will discuss this further in later posts.
The actual mechanics of the game are relatively unimportant compared to the need for a rich mix of communications.

What is often a major feature of many megagames – particularly those with an operational element to them is the way it models some sort of hierarchy. Modelling hierarchies is a rich seam of gaming experience.

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To look at the way hierarchies might work in a megagame, lets look at an operational megagame set in World War Two for example. In this example the corps commander will have a small team of players to act as her staff officers, and might then have her three divisions run by small teams each consisting of a divisional commander and staff, all represented by actual players – all of whom would therefore present the full range of human responses to her orders i.e. they might argue or put forward alternative plans, fail to carry out ‘orders’ properly or even carry them out in some subtly different way.

It is virtually impossible to fully and credibly duplicate, in smaller games, the reactions of subordinates merely by using using rule mechanisms. Therein lies the great strength and appeal of the operational megagame. The command player in such a game must react differently to the more common decisions she might have in a conventional game; the question she asks herself is not just “how do I best manoeuvre my units”, but more realistically “how do I issue clear instructions and motivate the commanders under my control – and ensure that they carry out their orders effectively”.

A good deal more difficult, but also more entertaining.

Of course, at the bottom of this pyramid of command there are still players (or, more likely, teams of players) as the lowest commanders, playing what is, to all intents and purposes, a more recognisable map or board wargame of whatever type. But there remains this important qualitative difference. In the case of the low-level commander there is an active superior, to whom they must account for their actions and to whom they must pass information on the progress of their part of the game. And they have other played commanders on their flanks whom they will (presumably) not wish to let down and may need to communicate and liaise with. They cannot, therefore, make entirely independent decisions, and they will often be pestered by their superior to move faster, or slower – and most importantly – to report what they are doing quickly and accurately. This aspect of ‘reporting up’ is very important in megagames. In fact the whole concept of a command hierarchy is often quite alien to the mainstream of wargaming where players are used to absolute control of their armies, limited perhaps in a small way by simplistic abstract mechanisms such as ‘command points’.

As a result first exposure to command structures can be difficult as players are expected to cooperate with others and, worse for some, actually be expected to carry out instructions from their ‘superior’ in the hierarchy. It is still surprising how hard even some experienced and knowledgeable gamers find this!

(Part 2 next week where I’ll be looking at heirarchies a bit more).

Defining Megagames

Defining a megagame too rigorously can be a tricky business, because the genre covers such a wide range of potential subjects and game structures. There are games that involve a lot of players but they are not megagames, and games with only a few players that are megagames. Over the years I have often described a megagames like a boardgame, but not a boardgame, like a role playing game, but not a role playing game, and like a wargame, but not a wargame. Most megagames combine aspects of all of these, but also involve lots of people usually in the same location interacting in a structured way and following a common emerging narrative around a theme.

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There are some key features that appear in most megagames although I would suggest than none of these features, alone, define the megagame but that if a game has many of these features then it is probably a megagame. If it has none of these features than it definitely isn’t a megagame.

  • Teams. There are teams of players

  • Hierarchy. The teams of players exist in some sort of hierarchy

  • Conflict. There is some sort of conflict, rivalry or adversarial situation

  • Open Possibilities. The game is open-ended and allows a wide range of possibilities through emerging gameplay and player-determined narrative. We often say that the game should accommodate anything that could be done in real life.

  • Meaningfulness. There are relevant and meaningful interactions both within teams and between teams.

  • Urgency. There is time pressure and a sense of urgency. Players cannot have unlimited time to make decisions and the game moves at a pace that is not determined by the players.

These large structural features are distinct from mechanisms and game procedures.

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Superficially many megagames might resemble a board game or a kriegspiel1 expanded to accommodate many more players. In terms of mechanism and game systems this might be true (though we will discuss later the essential differences in the requirements of megagame mechanisms and how they differ, fundamentally, from board games).

Something happens when a game concept is expanded beyond the familiar 2-8 players you might typically find in a role playing game, wargame or board game.

What changes is the how the the experience of participating in a megagame is determined by players’ interaction and communication with other players.

Face to face social interaction is at the core of the megagame experience – a megagame cannot be satisfactorily played in an on-line virtual world (at least not with technologies currently available) or using on line tools because the social interaction in these environments is currently too limited and cannot replicate the actual experience of talking to real people, or groups of people, face to face.

If we take a real world analogy – when world leaders want to discuss or negotiate something important they travel somewhere and meet face to face – because it is worth the time an effort, even for Presidents and Prime Ministers to do this. Skype or Google Hangouts is not the place to have any sort of in depth or subtle negotiation in the real world.

Megagames are usually trying to simulate the real world and this is why getting everyone in the room for a megagame is an essential part of the dynamic and is one of the reasons megagames are popular and very engaging for the participants.

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1 A kriegspiel, or literally ‘wargame’ is a term borrowed from 19th century military wargames, characterised by armies represented by blocks moved around on maps and the results of the campaigns and battles being determined by written rules. There would typically be a map per side, and a master map, so that the opposing sides would be unable to see enemy movements that they would not be able to see in real life. This term is used in the modern sense to distinguish games like this from the more mainstream ‘open’ wargames using miniatures and no hidden movement or fog of war.