Tuesday, 24 October 2017

New Players in Megagames

My intention is to write up my experiences in playing with new players in megagames.

New players are a great asset to megagames. Without them the genre would stagnate. They bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm that has driven the recent global expansion of megagames.

But I do worry that new players have a lot to learn in what is often a very confusing and fast moving event. Experienced gamers are aware of this and we do try to take the time to assist. But... it is a fast moving and confusing event

Red Dawn

The Blue Interventionists-without-intervening team.
In the recent game I played in - Red Dawn - I was on a team that consisted of four players playing their first ever game, one player on their second game, three players who have played at least five megagames and two players who have played in too many games to mention in polite company, one of them being myself. The umpire was the most experienced of all of us.

Game Play and the inexperienced.

In Red Dawn - I was in a team of two, the Japanese Interventionists, attempting to defeat the Bolshevik menace and cooperate with my fellow Allies, the British, French and USA teams. 

In my team was Bob [not his real name] who was a new player to megagames. Bob made an excellent start. He had read the rules, and was able to find relevant passages on his tablet. We checked our understanding of the game aims and how we might achieve them. After that we quickly settled down into our roles, he as the operational player and I as the diplomatic player.  

During the game I mostly let Bob get on with his game. I noticed that after the initial chat he needed no guidance from me. For example: he quickly understood that though the diplomacy phase might take longer than it should, he should go to the map and get on with the next operational move when the phase had started.

There were a couple of issues I want to illustrate and discuss; issues that relate to Bob's inexperience with megagames.

1. Drag your feet

The arrival of the Japanese army units came at an opportune point for the Japanese. We were the last fresh and substantial force to be deployed. The theatre for our deployment was Siberia. There was no dispute or debate that the Japanese should be deployed to Siberia. All the other Allies had to support the move even though they knew the Japanese had their imperialist eyes on that part of the world. My comrade Allies made it plain that they expected the Japanese to clear all Reds from Siberia. So I agreed to this caveat to their support and ensured that Bob heard this too as I passed him his shiny new units.

Later on the next turn, I visited the Siberian map and checked in with Bob. He happily showed me his units had disembarked in Vladivostock and were moving to the front.  I told him we wanted to hang on to Vladivostock and its hinterland. So I wanted him to move only half his force to the hand-over point with the French Theatre Commander, and I wanted them to move slowly, not at best speed, to find reasons for being delayed, lack of trains, lack of railway staff, lack of food etc. I told him that I didn't want the Japanese to die for the Allied cause. I told him to drag his feet.

Up until then, I think Bob, had been happily playing his game, maximising his troops deployments, making his logistics work efficiently and generally being a good operational commander. And there was I telling him to go slowly, only commit half his forces and not be an effective commander. In other words, think of his side's real aims and ambitions. And remember the dictum: War is the continuation of politics by other means. This is why I like megagames so much. Players new to megagames might have heard of this dictum, but they'd never really understood it. Not until they played a megagame. I remember learning it myself in my early megagames. I hope new players learn this lesson too.

2. How're you doin'?

About two turns later I visited the map again, and this time had a chat with the Whites, the Cossacks and the Reds - yes I know, I talked to the enemy! I kept the chat straightforward and jolly, a bit of banter really, "how's it going", "your forces look a but done in", "now's the chance to swap sides" etc. But of course, I was really gathering Intelligence.

The small corner of Siberia that would
keep the Red Flag flying here
The Reds told me that they were relieved to still be on the map and that their game aim was to keep the red flag flying in the last corner of Siberia. They sounded confident. I also noted they did not refer to the next map and how they might be receiving reinforcements. My chat with the Whites involved references to alcohol, loot and their confidence in reaching Moscow. In other words the usual White bluster and lack of real direction. In my chat with the Siberian Cossacks, I was told that they were going to win, but it would take a few more turns, and they were confident this. As I was leaving they mentioned that they could do with some more food and ammo, just to be sure they would win! I said I would see what I could do.

I checked the next map, which was Russia west of the Urals, and noticed stacks and stacks of Red armies recruiting, reorganising and no doubt being fed into other Theatres, including Siberia.

My assessment was that even if I committed the Japanese forces whole-heartedly we were just going to get chewed up. The Red menace had been contained at best but looked united and centralised as opposed to the disparate groupings of Whites, Greens, and Blues fighting them. The fighting should be left to the locals with logistical support from us. Any further involvement of my forces might mean I would not get to seize Siberia and Vladivostock in any strength.

I checked with Bob about his view of the map and he didn't really seem to have a picture like I had. He told me about the deployment of our units and what he had seen of the fighting, but not what was in the minds of the commanders. I told him what I had found out from chatting to the players and asked if he could afford to spare some supplies for the Cossacks. We had earlier promoted their self-rule and got it recognised by the Allies. I had judged them too difficult to fight and they would form a useful pool of mercenaries and guard dogs for later Japanese Imperial expansion in the area. Getting them on-side, supplying them, whilst getting them to do the dying, meant they would owe me a favour and weaken themselves too.

The lesson here is to talk to the players. New players might be nervous talking to new players, they might be unsure of the etiquette, and not sure of the game mechanic. I was confident that in an open map game with turns a season long, my character would be able to receive and digest a lot of intelligence reports and attend a lot of cocktail parties that would give them a good picture of what was on the ground and in the mind of the opposition. The game would've been designed differently if this was not possible. 

Megagames are mostly conversational games with a few mechanics that pin down some of the game facts. 

Learning to talk to other players is an essential part of playing megagames, even for operational / map based players, though to a lesser extent than the politicos.


My conclusion is that megagames have been for me a great learning experience. I have learnt lessons about the complex nature of operational warfare, the never absent influence of politics and how to work and cope with a stressful human activity that involves more than a half-dozen people. 

Some would suggest that megagames only teach you how to play megagames; and they have a point. Games are not simulations or models, they are games. But I like to think my megagaming experience has enhanced my understanding of history and my experience of working in a team.

Perhaps this goes someway to tackle the allegation that some players make that megagames should have more structure, less ambiguity, more precision in handling rules interpretations and Control adjudications. My suggestion is that megagames are not about giving you a structured gaming experience; sometimes you will experience inconsistencies. This might spoil your game if your world-view is that games should not do this. The golden circle of the gaming experience can be a place to experience consistency and adherence to rules. Which is all the more apparent because the world is not like this.

And this is my point. I hope that players new to megagames gain a playing experience that enhances their appreciation of the real world of politics and warfare, in the contemporary world and in history. And have some fun along the way.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Post play-test blues

There must be a word for post play-test blues.
After all the effort I put in to my game design, especially over the last few days, all the final printing, cutting and ordering of paper and bits. Then all the little failures of my design during the play test. Not really balanced with the smaller joys of players actually engaging with the game - little breadcrumbs that are easily swept away. Followed by a long evening and night of going over the improvements, or half writing the After Action Report (AAR) in your head, waking at 3:30 and thinking NO NO did I get that wrong... Should I change this.
And then the next day you wake up and think. To hell with it. I'll put it all back in the folder.
I think I have always gone through this personal post-game blue-debrief.
And you know what. The solution is simple. Write about it. Write your AAR as soon as possible. Use it as therapy to get it all out of the system. Use it to wrap up those wallowing thoughts of nagging failure and go through to the uplands of the NEXT TIME.
Creativity is difficult. And very rewarding.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Military Mindset of Medieval Man

I have become a little tired with the prevailing "real politik" culture that pervades a lot of gamers.

Here is a quote from Reappraising Late Medieval Strategy: The Example of the 1415 Agincourt Campaign by Jan Willem Honig. War In History April 2012 vol. 19 no. 2 pp.123-151

“The tendency to apply a binary concept of 'battle-seeking' or 'battle-avoiding' strategy – or of battle vs attrition, genius v incompetence, and chivalry v pragmatism – is problematic. The emphasis in modern strategic theory on the uncompromising physical destruction of the enemy's means of resistance, either through battle or attrition, does not fit well with the strategic praxis exhibited by the French and the English in 1415. To see the campaign [Agincourt] as an aberration in which norms of restraint, or inefficiencies in means, momentarily triumphed over the pragmatic, objective demands of military necessity also fails to convince, as do oscillating attributions of genius and foolhardy recklessness to Henry's generalship. A different explanation and approach to understanding strategy has been proposed here which has attempted to integrate norms into strategy-making.”

I don't just play games to win. Don't get me wrong, winning is nice. I play wargames and megagames to experience the fun of being in a game - I am mostly a social gamer and I accept the magic circle of gamers to be a place I can explore ideas as well as compete and have fun. I like megagames because I attempt to occupy the mindset of a historical character. Call it role-playing; call it historical reenactment.

I think I can learn something in attempting to recreate the culture, the thinking of historical characters. And perhaps this is why I am getting a little tired of the prevailing "real politik" I meet in wargames.

Part of the problem is the modern theory of strategy likes to consider itself true and universal. Perhaps I exaggerate, but some modern military historian use contemporary military thinking to comment on a medieval commander's choices. Warfare is as much a social and cultural expression of its time as say feasting, marriage and gambling. There are cultural norms that inform our actions, above and beyond the rational dictates of rational theory.

I was pondering this and wondering how to design a game that actually rewarded the players for adopting the mindset of the time.

I read an article many years ago about the Medieval attitude to warfare that had always made a great impression on me. The Battle of Verneuil (17 August 1424): Towards a History of Courage by Michael K. Jones. War in History November 2002, vol.9 no.4, pp.375-411

The Battle of Verneuil, 1424, was a closely fought battle. It ended in the complete rout of the combined French and Scottish forces. Jones takes issue with the standard narrative of the battle, influenced by Alfred Burne's analytical methodology using "Inherent Military Probability" (IMF) to determine what had really happened. Burne seemed not to trust the primary sources, often dismissing them. IMF was based on Burne's twentieth century military training. He interpreted terrain, and tactics using IMF as a universal concept that should have been available to the right thinking commanders in the past.

IMF leads to the sort of military history that too many wargamers sign up to. It is the sort of military history that looks at weapon systems, terrain, and tactics; and not much else. This sort of approach that sees debates about the incompetence of the French in 1871, in not using the Mitrailleuse properly!

 "...one is tempted to speculate what might have happened if the Mitrailleuses had been fielded in addition to the 4-pounder field-guns and not as a substitute. The war and its issue might have then worn an altogether different complexion…"

Jones uses Verbruggen's ideas to attempt a new understanding of the battle. Verbruggen says, in his "The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages":

"the essential element of each battle lies in the attitude of the soldiers during the fighting. The way they handle their weapons , the manner in which they react in the face of danger and behave in a battle for life – that is what counts.”

Michael K Jones uses Verbruggen's model as a starting place to critique Burne's IMF. Jones reads the contemporary accounts and does not dismiss them as the inventions of heralds and scribes. He attempts to interpret them with the mindset of chivalry, with its concepts of honour, and oath-keeping, with rules.

"Nevertheless, willingness to take risks for a right cause was the hallmark of real honour, or 'worship'. As the chivalric aphorism put it: 'do the right thing, come what may' ".

In Jones' re-telling the battle, the Duke of Bedford builds an argument that he will prevail and win based on morality. The fact that the French failed to turn up to an arranged battle a journée and had broken their oath. That was wrong and God will punish this. Bedford swore an oath to St George that he would pursue and attack the French. Jones, also illustrates Bedford's speech to his arrayed army and the clothes he chooses to wear. He likens it to a pageant, but a pageant to demonstrate his authority, his righteousness and his legitimacy. All these lead to a courage and resolve that led to the English army to fight and overcome a battle against a much larger army and after their line had been pierced by Lombardian armoured cavalry.

There must be a game in this.

The eternal question is of course, how to design this into a game?


And there has been a similar sort of game from Brian Cameron, called Agincourt. 

It is a neat game in that the players are the French nobles a few weeks before the battle of Agincourt, 1415. All the players know we are going to most likely fail. Our briefings outline our thinking, our rivalries and the internal political game. Some of the players hate other players. Some of us want revenge. Others want to gain honour by being the most aggressive. It is a fun game and usually results in the French breaking themselves against a very familiar British position.
Brian's game is probably a better way to understand that warfare is a social expression as opposed to to an iteration of the principles of Burne's Inherent Military Probabilities (IMF). No doubt if Burne had been there in 1415, he would have ensured a French victory using his IMP principles. No doubt a modern wargamer thinks that too. 

The challenge for a modern wargamer is to design a game that takes as its starting point their concept of the universality of how weapons and tactics are used. The wargamers IMF. They have to assign bonuses and minuses to weapons and units so that the game has the correct output - an almost certain English victory.

And this is my point. Most wargamers design and play games that embody our modern ethos, the Inherent Military Probability. They emphasise tactics, terrain and weapons like Burne. If you want to understand how the English succeeded against the French in 1415, you need to understand how warfare is always an expression of the society and the culture. And if you want to game this then you need to design a game that emphasises politics, social perception, inter personal relationships etc.

What I think I am suggesting is the game design methodology is appropriate to the period. A World War 2 game can use IMF style wargame rules as that is how the participants knew battle. A Medieval battle game should emphasise other aspects.

It is a difficult challenge.

I have yet to design my game for the Battle of Verneuil.

Each time I attempt it, I find myself going down the rabbit hole of pluses and minuses for this action etc. It is a radical concept. I hope to persevere and get closer to my dream.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Confessions of a MegaGame Control - Knowing when to say no

This is part of a series of reflective posts I am writing about my experience as a Game Control in a Megagame*.

Knowing when to say no

This incident demonstrates the problems that can arise when a Game Control is making ad-hoc decisions and loses sight of the the larger picture. 

It is also an illustration of how Game Control will err on the side of caution especially when a player's actions will kill, kidnap or disable another player's character directly. Unless of course it is all part of the plan. I know this because I was once subjected to an attempted poisoning and then later successfully assassinated in a megagame, and this was well within the game designer's expectations.

Survivalists and the Feds

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Three of the Survivalist Militia Players.
They don't get on very well. A bunch a freedom or death, gun totting, whiskey swigging backwoods country hicks don't like the Feds. They are to blame for most of the things wrong in the world today and they have a very long proclomation on the web that says so and lists all their grievances.

I had become the de facto control for the survivalist team who were very adept at creating schemes outside the usual game processes.

The plan

Juan, was the leader of the Well Ordered Militia (WOM). He told me that he had been in email and phone conversation with the player playing the Secretary of State. These conversations had been initiated after Juan had managed to attract his attention after he had released his Wanna B3 ransomware virus that nearly took down the nation's banks.

Juan's plan was to get the Secretary of State into a room with one of his men and explode a suicide bomb.

So several alarm bells should be ringing for any experienced Controls.
  1. A player attempting to kill another player - and not really part of the overall story arc of the game designer.
  2. A member of the Well Ordered Militia was willing - according to Juan - to be a suicide bomber.
  3. It would mean organising the movement of two players across many maps to actually meet.
  4. There would be a stand-off which are generally very hard to control and adjudicate.
  5. If successful his little group would probably be squished by the Feds. Thus diverting their resources from the main game effort, counter to the game story arc.
  6. Did his group have the knowledge to setup a suicide vest.

How to deal with difficult, game changing actions

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Madame President and her Cabinet
My attitude is never to say "no, it's impossible". And also rarely say "yes, that's easy, just do it." As Control I want the players to have a good gaming experience. In fact that is the most important reason we work as Control: our priority is the gaming experience of the players. 

My first reaction was to ask why he was going to do this. Juan pointed to his brief which did actually say he was to do all things he could to attack or disrupt the Feds. So it was part of the main story arc.

I then asked how he knew he had a "volunteer" to do the suicide mission. He admitted he had no card or reason, just a hunch one would volunteer. I would not accept this. One real world thing I notice is that right-wing militias seldom select suicide as an operational tactic. I wanted a special event card to allow this - a game rule - to prove he had a volunteer. Juan didn't so he went away for a bit to think about this.

His next plan was that he was going to do it himself. OK! I am not worried about a player exercising agency over their characters. Though I was worried by this radical exercise of player agency.

So then I started pick at the details of making the vest, organising the meeting etc. And eventually I think Juan realised that the suicide thing was not going to work. The Feds would have too much security, his skill base was not sufficient to hack together a suicide vest etc. So Juan then moved to kidnapping instead, a more likely proposition, though still a very difficult one. Juan hammered out his plan. 

At this point I decided I needed to talk to more people.

Talking to others about wizard wheezes is a good thing.

No automatic alt text available.A big part of megagames is ensuring there is good information flow. This is not just the players. In fact the players information flow and blockages are usually well chartered by the designer and mechanisms are in place to enable or disable the flow of game information. The problem is that Control has to flow crucial information between Control. Sometimes this fails - see my post on my failure as a logistics control in a megagame. Controls have to think carefully about ad-hoc decisions. They sometimes affect other parts of the game remote from themselves and sometimes they need to let other Control know something out of the ordinary is going to happen. The Press and Media players often assist this game flow, but they cannot be relied on and of course Control actually knows what really happened. 

So the first person I wanted to talk to was the player playing the Secretary of Defence. It just wanted to confirm he knew about this militia leader and if he knew of a proposed meeting. I spoke to him and checked this.

I couldn't find the Federal Team Control, so I went back to Juan. Luckily I noticed Jim walking past. So I asked if he could hear out this scheme. At this point, I would have probably asked any other Political Control, or Game Control nearby to hear out this plan. I was worried about.

Jim heard out the plan and quickly stopped it. Jim said no it would be unfair for any State based player in the London game to physically meet up with a Federal player. The Federal team players were kept in a separate room in London and were only supposed to interact via email or phone with the 12 other megagames around the world. Just because Juan was in London would be unjust to the other remote games and their players.

At this point I realised I had forgotten about the wider picture. I had gotten so much into the details of the plan that I lost track of the primary concern of the overall game. 

You learn from your mistakes

I put this example up here as a lesson. If in doubt, prioritise the requirements of the larger game over the concerns of one player. Do it tactfully, but do it and be prepared to explain why.

In my defence I think I was distracted by the many difficult things in this plan. I was very sure it was going to fail, and only clever thinking and a big dollop of luck would successfully implment the plan. So I got involved in the detail in an attempt to dissuade the player. Maybe I should have said "it's not very likely to succeed for these reasons" earlier.


*Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos 

I recently was a Control in a Wide Area Megagame. I would suggest that those who do not know what a Megagame is visit this site - What is a Megagame?

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Confessions of a MegaGame Control

My intention in writing this is to explain and explore how an Umpire in a large multiplayer game makes decisions and rulings where there are no rules or mechanics to guide them.

There has recently been a lengthy discussion on Facebook and in the CLWG about the difference that rules can make to the outcome of Megagames. Some want accurate rules that reward informed and intelligent decision making and others prefer to see a narrative structure building ontop of very simple rule set.

I want to add my perspective to the above, as an Umpire (known as Controls in Megagames) who frequently has to operate where there are few rules.

Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos 

I recently was a Control in a Wide Area Megagame. I would suggest that those who do not know what a Megagame is visit this site - What is a Megagame?

No automatic alt text available.
The City Map of Urban Nightmare
What follows is my view on how I worked as an Umpire (the game calls us Control) working in a game that is deliberately light on mechanisms to encourage emergent gameplay.

Two types of Control

There are two types of Control is most Megagames. In my estimation.

The first are the process focused Control. These are usually those who control maps or areas. They ensure all actions are taken in the correct sequence, they ensure that the rules and the mechanics are observed and they maintain the relentless pace of the game. I do not work well as a Map Control. I get overwhelmed.

The other sort of Control are those that manage the interactions of people. They prod and remind players, they drop hints to players, they make decisions outside the basic rules and mechanics of the games. They are often political umpires, small team umpires etc. I am generally this sort of Control. I like to say its because I am a people sort of person. The less charitable say I am just a snowflake Control and cannot take the heat of real Control at the map face.

My role in the game

I was the Federal Players Control. I was lucky in that I had three experienced and strong players who I could trust to pick up their role and go with it requiring minimal intervention from myself as their Control. Their role was to contact the Federal Team who were in another room and tell them what was happening in their State, Mishigamaa. There was one player for the Pentagon, one for Homeland Security and one representing the Whitehouse. They had a few assets like action cards and a few deployable assets like medicines, and, as I surmised, a small team of assistants, bodyguards and drivers.

I knew from the outset of the game that I was not going to be heavily committed in processing mechanisms like the Map Controls would be. My job as Control was to ensure my three players knew what their role was, to enable them to play their game by providing advice, prompts as necessary and smoothing over rules interpretations. Some less charitable Controls told me that my role was merely to hand out counters that the Federal Players had been assigned by the Federal Team after confirming this order with another Control.

But what this role did was to free me to assist where necessary. So as a good, experienced Control I liaised with all the other Controls at the start of the game. It is a great idea to do this as you need to know who to hand over certain game issues to and who to seek advice from. A central tenet of good Control is ensuring there is good information flow between those who need to know. I also discussed how I might be additionally tasked, as I guessed I was not going to be over burdened.

Actual role in game

In the game I still had to look after my Federal Team. But as the game progressed I was increasingly employed as a Control for the Survivalists. This was a very loose "team" of four players who played armed militias usually with some radical ideology. This job was given to me by the Game Control who noticed that these players were attempting to work with the Map Controls but because of their particular needs and style of play they required more attention from a Control than the very busy Map Controls could give them.

Thus I was controlling two very different teams.

I also noticed that one of my comrade Controls was suffering rather from over work, this was Bruce, who was the political control for the State Team. He had three sub teams of about 5 players, the State Governor, the State Police and The National Guard. I did not take any decisions from him but often was able to advise the player on who to talk to and what had happened in some incident I had controlled. 

Making decisions with no rules - or just making it up as you go along

The only defence of such ad-hoc Control work is that Megagames are designed to be like this. They are not boardgames with precise games, precisely delineated playing areas and player roles. Megagames don't have even have winning conditions or victory points.

Perhaps an example is the best way to illustrate this. (Note I have forgotten some of the names of places and organisations and have had to make them up. My apologies to those who were there, only you can know what it was like to really be there.)

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A Player updating the Federal Sitrep Map
Early on in the game I was approached by the Game Control, Brian, to assist with running an attempt by a Survivalist to attack a Federal jail in his State. The Game Control gave me his estimation of the real world situation. A Federal Jail would hold a couple of thousand prisoners, would be heavily guarded and the State Police would be liaise with them. Brian thought the Survivalists had a cat in hell's chance. Be gentle with them. The main reason he was doing this was that he had ruled that the Federal Prison, at Fireton, would not be on one of the City Maps. He did this to prevent it overwhelming the Map Controls and because Federal Prisons are usually in the countryside away from cities.

So in terms of the game mechanics I only had a State Map with some rules about how units could move with a hastily drawn on Fireton State Penitentiary.

So Brian left me with Juan - a Survivalist, Freedom From Federal F***ers (FFFF) and I asked him what his plan was. Juan told me he had a insider in the Penitentiary who was also a member of the National Guard who was going to assist his break out plan. And he also told me that he wanted to do this break out because some of his FFFF members were inside, one of whom was a very valuable asset, a hacker.

I was surprised. Juan spoke to me, I think on Turn 1 or 2. He had a plan, all sketched out in his head. This was not in his brief, nor on his action cards. And there is one thing Control like to reward in Megagames, and it is player initiative and player narratives, so long as they are grounded on real world thinking.

So I asked to speak to the National Guard player. Juan came back with a National Guard player, Joe (sorry name not remembered) who confirmed he was sympathetic to the FFFF and wanted to do right by him. I ruled that it was likely that one of the National Guard players would be a guard in the Penitentiary, so I rolled an effect dice, that was two 6 sided dice (2 d6) - the lower the number the less effective their support would be. I told the players that if I got a 4 or lower they would not be able to go ahead with the plan. What I did not say was that the higher the number rolled would give a better chance for the break out to succeed.

Did you see what I did there?

I made up a rule on the spot.

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A Press Player - Too much fake news.
I have no idea if there is a National Guard rule that you can or cannot recruit prison guards to their ranks. But I thought that the chance of a Prison Guard being in the National Guard was a relatively likely thing. If they like hanging out in uniform with guns and all sorts of kit, they would like hanging out with the National Guard with even more shiny, lethal kit.

So in game terms I made a ruling based on my assessment of the real world and a dice roll to determine the effectiveness of a players guess of what would be a reasonable thing. And I used an effect dice. I also told the players what the chances were of not having sufficient inside support - just a mouthy National Guard guy who thought bigger than he could act. And I also had a rough idea of how the dice roll would add to the next decision I would take. I call this an effect dice. The answer is not a binary yes or no, but a shade of yes but with a +1, or yes with -1 etc.

I could go on about the detail of this incident. But this is essentially what my role demands of me in a Megagame. It is more akin to running a Role Playing Game. So in terms of any discussion about should the game have better rules that reward intelligent decision making, it is irrelevant. There is no way you can make rules for the imagination of the players who like to play in this sort of game.

But what about the larger game?

I'm glad you asked that. This is indeed the tricky element to making these ad-hoc rulings.

Ad-hoc cannot be replicated

I am unlikely to remember the exact ruling I used to determine a special case. So later on when I about to rule on another special I might be inconsistent. Some players might feel such rulings are unjust, and I have sympathy for this position. My defence is that events are rarely so similar as to require adherence to a strict mechanism.

How does this change the larger game.

This is by far the most serious issue with such ad-hoc rulings. An umpire could make a decision that had larger consequences for the game. In UNSOC I did make one of those decisions. I later on ruled that Juan had managed to bluff his way into a bank and get his hacker to spread a Ransomware virus taking down some local, then State and then National banks. I used similar mechanisms to adjudicate the effectiveness of this intervention: an effect dice for each element of the plan, and an explanation of the risks to the players and the odds as I assessed them.

The problem is that now the larger game is effected in a way that the designer never envisaged and the whole game system has to cope with a Governor, the FBI and eventually the President taking time to devote time and resources to resolving a financial crisis, with no rules for doing this in the game. I must admit, I had not really thought this through. I did make the chances of it happening difficult and I had told the player that his hacker had failed in doing a brute force hack of the banking system and they had to resort to using violence to get the password of the bank manager. I thought this was a good hint that his hacker was again not that good.

My plan was for the virus to be rapidly counteracted within the city the hack had taken place. I had hinted that the FFFF hacker was not that good, more of a Script Kiddie. And that the hack would not go much further than the State it started in.

However I had not counted on Juan, who briefed the Press about what he had done, got me as Control to confirm the "there has been a hack on the banking" story to the press player. I did not realise it would go "viral" and get other Control involved. In the end Game Control ruled that the virus had been rapidly countered and the banking crisis averted, probably after extracting some cash or resources from a senior political player.

Let's put it down to Emergent Gameplay!

This is the rare beauty of Megagames

This is why some players love Megagames. And perhaps why some players dislike Megagames.

There are some situations that call for ad-hoc, decisions taken by Controls like myself. From the first group of Map Control you usually get tactics and optimal strategies emerging within the confines of the rules. With the second type of decisions Control take you get Emergent Gameplay.

Earlier I said that there are two types of Control. Now I think about it, there are probably two ideal types of gamers: those who like imaginative, narrative based, emergent play and those who revel in details, procedure and optimal playing strategies. Obviously there are rarely extreme examples of either type, usually we are a blend of both ideal types. I would suggest that LARPers are on one extreme and Chess and Bridge players are on the other extreme.

Future examples

When I get the chance I will go through in more detail one the decisions I took in this game. I still have my notes from one of the wizard wheezes I ruled on. 

I hope that in sharing such examples I will illustrate what it is to be this type of Control in Megagames. And that my example will enable me to receive critical assessment of how a Control should or should not make rulings. I might find that other Controls or Game Designers would prefer it if I didn't do such ad-hoc decision making. I might find that some players would never want to be involved in such make believe events, and can hardly bare to call the games. 

Whatever, I hope the above helps others get a better idea of what Control sometimes does in Megagames.

Friday, 10 June 2016

The Quiet Bolognese

An offside report of Jaap Boender’s Megagame “Guelphs and Ghibellines”

This was a quiet megagame for me: if you discount surviving a coup, reforming the City of Bologna, going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, being captured and ransomed, having a religious revelation, seeing the siege and battle of Acre and writing a book of my adventures and being quoted by the Pope.

My game was about negotiating, talking, compromising, suggesting and keeping accurate minutes; all done whilst I sat around and drank tea. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Guelphs and Ghibellines is a megagame about the power politics between Italian City States, the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor (HRE) in the mid 13th century. My role in the game was to be the head of one the leading families in Bologna supporting the Pope (the Guelph’s policy) against the evil domination of Emperor (the Ghibelline’s policy). Bologna was officially a Guelph city.

My objectives were

  1. See that the Guelph faction prospered in Italy and Bologna
  2. See the Bologna prospered
  3. To become the preeminent Bolognese citizen

I was in a city “team” of eight players, comprising two merchants, who had no political influence but had pots of money; the Bishop of Bologna, a natural Guelph, with lots of influence in the lower house of the Bologna council; three nobles, who were Ghibelline supporters, and myself and another noble who supported the Guelph faction.

From the start I realised all the nobles were short of money, but big on prestige and political power  and we would have to cut a deal with the merchants. And I also realised fairly quickly that I was going to be on a team of one as my co-Guelph was fire eating, glory seeking, military sort of chap who, from the start, was off seeking promotion to Podesta (a sort of military / political leader for another City State).

So I sat there in the beautiful city of Bologna and talked, and suggested, and proposed and tried to be a good Bolognese citizen. We got a deal with the merchants, the Ghibellines giving up as much political power as the Guelphs. We negotiated a loan at a much better rate than the Venetians and Genoans offered. We appointed our Podestas through mutual assent and agreed on policy. We updated the laws of the city. And I was appointed the official secretary of the City - keeping notes and writing up the new laws.

Occasionally my armoured Guelph colleague would come back and tell all what a great man he was and how he was kicking Imperial Butt. He seemed annoyed at our lack of drive in our policy. But then he left each year to go and kick butt and generally giving the HRE hell which was good. I was happy negotiating with the Ghibellines and the Merchants, getting the changes we needed to Bologna’s laws. Each year our Podesta was given luke-warm instructions to do something that would annoy the Imperial armies, but to keep our Militia intact.

And so it went for a few turns. And then I noticed my esteemed Ghibelline colleagues in a huddle with the Merchants, exchanging money and making furtive gestures and saying damning things like: “not this turn, next turn?”. I knew they were going to have a coup. It was so damned obvious. They forgot one of the first rules of megagames, plots and conspiracies are best hatched in the canteen, you have an excuse for being in a huddle there.

So I sat there and considered my options. My fire-eating Guelph colleague was involved in yet another massive battle with the Imperial Armies. Yet again he was going to save us from the Imperial hegemonic heel. So he was rather busy. Our Podesta, a Guelph sympathiser, was off supporting him with the entire Bolognese Militia. And he only had a few troops and I had seen my Ghibellines giving him cash. So not much support from those guys.

There was a moment when all the Bolognese Ghibellines and merchants were off table conspiring in a huddle. I had some funds with which I could hire some armed muscle. I could have easily taken over the city, arrested the families of the Ghibellines, confiscated their property, and found evidence they were conspiring with the HRE and then... They would all come back and kick my butt. Instead I fortified my tower, hired some bodyguards and hunkered down. When the Ghibellines came back I smiled and asked them why they had so many bodyguards, wasn’t it a bit destabilising? They actually looked a bit sheepish, and one looked worried. Then they just went for it, after spending even more money on hiring some mercenaries, and they had their coup. I put up no opposition. I just talking to them and asking them if they wanted the City records so they could change them.

As a result of the coup our new city masters changed a few laws, reallocating a few things and their major triumph was to take Bologna out of the pro-Guelph Treaty with the other city states. They did this just as the HRE had been defeated and had sued for peace. So I sat there and thought that was one big waste of money. But I didn’t say that. I just smiled and made a few suggestions about which of the laws they should update to make their changes.

(I did one naughty thing. I vandalised the honour role of Bologna's Podestas, writing the new Podesta's name as "Traitorous Ghibelline Bastard". But that was the limit of my "resistance".)

Back came my glory seeking Guelph colleague, spouting on about death; death and glory; death, death, spam and glory; and his part in all of our victory over the evil HRE. He had done very well. Later it turned out he had taken out the main HRE army and was the final war-hammer blow that broke the Emperor’s resolve. But he was not happy in Bologna. Immediately he kicked off riots and arson attacks on the merchants and Ghibellines. This was not good. It was not going to change the ruling faction and it was impoverishing our fair city. I did not support him and condemned the rioters as un-Bolognese. He demanded we give him money and troops so he could go off on Crusade - yep, he found another war. Money and promises of troops were soon found and off he went, leaving piles of burnt spice sacks, slashed rolls of silk, stove in wine butts and mobs with hangovers.

After I noticed the new leaders seemed to be running out of ideas and were wondering why the city was not doing as well as it had I made a few suggestions. How about the State subsidising some of the merchants’ ventures? Now that the HRE and the Pope are at peace, why not have a big party, a paleo, and call it the end of the Guelph and Ghibellines, we are only and all Bolognese now? And they accepted my ideas. So after a couple of turns spent funding this and building that Bologna looked like it was going to rise again and be a big noise in the North. Though it was slow work, as my colleague had nearly destroyed all of our merchants’ stocks and they had spent a lot funding the spectacular “coup”.

So that was the first of my two objectives settled. Next was to become the big man in Bologna. I knew my voice was being listened to in Council but I was not getting the same attention as the stealthy, vote stealing, tax evaders' facilitator of a Bishop; or the current Podesta, who was reversing all the unpopular policies of his previous coup-leading colleague, and getting the kudos for this (yes, we even rejoined the old Treaty of Italian States!!).

And then I heard the news of the Crusades. And that sounded very exciting and very likely to fail, heroically. So I looked at the weather, thought that the drought of March had been pierced to the root by the sweet showers of April and decided to wend my way on Pilgrimage.

And for the next three years I had adventures in and around Jerusalem. I was captured as I left the besieged city of Acre, pure bad timing. I was imprisoned in the dungeons of Jerusalem, where I found renewed faith in my Redeemer and spoke to my “hosts” about the people of the book. And then I arranged for my ransom to be paid so I could leave and watch the Crusading army get defeated at the battle of Acre, and subsequent massacre of the Martyrs of Venice.

And then I went home, wearing only a hair shirt, carrying my staff and a small pouch and many memories.

Upon my return I found that the good citizens of Bologna had not forgotten me. I was fetted and fawned over. I was celebrated as the Bolognese who had been to Jerusalem, survived and returned. I took it all very quietly. It was merely God’s will; I am his instrument. My pious hope was that more could make the pilgrimage; and to assist this I wrote a travel book about my adventures. You should read it. It is selling off the copyists’ desks literally by the dozen! The Pope even quoted a passage from it about how I witnessed the Papal Legate being saved by an unseen force (did I hear the flutter of angelic wings) when he was being chased by the evil Mameluke hordes. It’s all in there.

And so I ended the game, the most prominent Bolognese citizen, tying only with the duplicitous Bishop, popular for giving clerical tax status to shopkeepers, who will come unstuck when I find his name in the Panama Parchments. We still have to dedicate the new college extension of the university, perhaps after a pious pilgrim of the city? I notice that the merchants are now living in much bigger houses than the nobles, perhaps we should have a sumptuary tax, I've still got my hair shirt handy.

And so the politics go on, and on...


For more information about the game: http://www.megagame-makers.org.uk/megagame-gag.htm

Monday, 20 July 2015

Maps and games

I read this in an article about the Soviet maps made during the Cold War .

"Worse, the maps for the masses were deliberately distorted with a special projection that introduced random variations. “The main goal was to crush the contents of maps so it would be impossible to recreate the real geography of a place from the map,” Postnikov tells me. Well-known landmarks like rivers and towns were depicted, but the coordinates, directions, and distances were all off, making them useless for navigation or military planning, should they fall into enemy hands. The cartographer who devised this devious scheme was awarded the State Prize by Stalin."

And I thought, there must be a game in this.

Inside the Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers